Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gained national attention for radically going against the grain in how he’s handled the pandemic in his state. His most supportive fans call him a savior, his most ardent critics a murderer. And there are countless perceptions in between.
But this week’s column is not an opinion on DeSantis’ pandemic policies, and so the word that concerns me is neither ‘savior’ nor ‘murderer’; it’s ‘bully’.
Specifically, DeSantis bashers are jumping on the bandwagon, accusing him of bullying teenagers into taking off their masks.
I provide examples of the media’s routine malpracticing efforts to denounce DeSantis – along with their motives – followed by the real story.
DeSantis recently appeared at the University of South Florida (USF) to discuss cybersecurity education, and was accompanied at the podium by local high school students. As the Associated Press reported the story, DeSantis “admonished a group of high school students for wearing face masks.” Its headline stated that he “berated” them. Of course, multitudes of other media outlets picked up the story and republished it verbatim.
NBC News also reported that DeSantis “admonished” the students, and the Washington Post wrote that he “mocked” them. Inevitably, the misinformation went viral.
Here’s what really happened: DeSantis said to the students at the podium: “You don’t have to wear those masks,” which drew immediate laughter from some of them. “I mean, please take them off,” he continued. “Honestly, it’s not doing anything, and we’ve got to stop with this COVID theater.” DeSantis then added “So, if you want to wear it, fine.” At that point, a few masks came off. “But this, this is ridiculous,” the governor concluded.
Notice the timing: only after DeSantis reassured the students they could keep the mask on if they so chose, did most of them remove it.
Did DeSantis ‘bully’ those students into unmasking? Before you answer, consider this: a few years ago I walked into a restaurant where I was a regular. The owner and most of the waitstaff knew me well. Nonetheless, a waitress who saw me enter greeted me with “I’m sorry, we’re closing” because she obviously had worked a long day and there was only one other table seated, so she wanted to close and get out of there. I said “that’s fine” and turned around to leave, at which point I heard the owner yell loudly to me: “Dino, you go sit right down there and order a meal!!” I said “it’s ok, it’s not a problem.” But the owner was adamant: “I don’t want to hear it! Sit down, order whatever you like, and stay as long as you want!” I complied. Was I bullied into sitting down and ordering a meal? No, I was defended.
The owner wasn’t angry with me, he was upset with the waitress who discouraged me from staying because apparently she was tired. Though he spoke angrily in my direction, the anger wasn’t directed at me.
Similarly, all the evidence of the students’ laughter and mannerisms indicate that they didn’t feel pressured into removing their masks, they felt relieved.
Remember, this is Florida, not Manhattan. If you see students wearing masks, it’s probably not because they want to, it’s because they’ve been told they have to.
In 2020, I visited numerous Florida establishments where employees told me they “only wear this stupid thing because my boss says I have to” (private businesses have the right to impose mask mandates on their employees).
Every now and again, I take Ubers instead of driving, and over the past year, my Uber drivers also appeared masked, and told me it’s company policy, but that it made absolutely no difference to them if I wore one. “I had COVID anyway,” I told one driver. “So did I,” he replied.
Again, the purpose of this week’s column is not to debate the efficacy of masks, but rather to point out how the media weaves tall tales around small kernels of truth.
Make no mistake, their primary motive is ratings, but ideology is a strong second. Outlandish stories sell, and if in the process they serve to discourage voters from supporting the person clearly favored to be the 2024 Republican nominee if Donald Trump doesn’t run, it’s what they consider icing on the cake.
Could DeSantis have been a bit smoother in his delivery, so as to better convey that his anger was directed not at the students, but at the mask-wearing policy? Sure. But even the unflappable ‘Great Communicator’ Ronald Reagan, on the eve of his 1980 election win, succumbed to a heckler’s pestering and barked out “aw, shut up!” DeSantis puts in long hours running the third-most populous state in the country; cut him some slack if he’s not always cheery.
For argument’s sake, though, let’s suppose that DeSantis’ words did amount to bullying. The unmitigated gall and utter cluelessness of these critics is astounding. For the past two years, they strongarmed everyone to conform to their narrowly tailored worldview – whether about masks, vaccinations, Trump, plastic straws, or binary pronouns – and ostracized anyone who dared convey a different opinion, and yet suddenly they’re concerned about bullying.
DeSantis is a cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, so it’s hard for the left to pin the ‘dumb’ label on him, as they tend to do to a lot of Republican politicians. As a Naval officer who was awarded numerous medals, they can’t call him a ‘chickenhawk’ either – another of their favorite epithets.
So, it looks like for the time being, they’ve settled on ‘bully’. Because they need a label, after all. Otherwise, they’d have to beat DeSantis by having…gasp…better ideas.