Ron DeSantis in front of 'don't say gay bill' headlines

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EXCLUSIVE: Inside the right-wing press factory that pumped Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

The rollout appeared to be effective.

 

Claire Goforth

Tech

Posted on Oct 11, 2022   Updated on Oct 17, 2022, 3:32 pm CDT

The news cycle was packed on the last Monday in March. Reporters from coast to coast spent the day feverishly working on stories about the Oscars slap heard ‘round the world, President Joe Biden calling for regime change in Russia, Republican politicians dabbling in cocaine and group sex, and the confirmation process for the first Black female United States Supreme Court Justice.

Things hummed in similar fashion at right-wing outlets, which added their takes to the online cacophony. But at the end of the day, one story assignment popped into the inboxes of a large, yet highly select set of conservative media: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signing the Parental Rights in Education Act.

DeSantis and his friends in conservative media claim the law, which critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, is a measure to protect kids from being groomed and prematurely introduced to sexual subject matter at school. It was passed in response to growing outrage, particularly online, a moral panic over teachers supposedly sexualizing their classrooms. 

Although educators, LGBTQ people, and their allies have fiercely resisted the law, it’s been widely touted in right-wing circles, part of an effective media campaign by the administration to shunt criticism and tout its importance.

Emails obtained by the Daily Dot reveal the DeSantis administration’s talking points on the Don’t Say Gay bill, a blend of fact and fiction sent to a slew of reporters, producers, editors, and far-right influencers, who in turn covered it in lockstep with the governor’s views

This report is based on nearly 900 pages of documents received from a public records request and dozens of articles and tweets by the more than 50 members of the media who received the same email from DeSantis’ press secretary the day he signed the Don’t Say Gay bill. These documents, articles, and tweets further underscore how the prominent homophobic and transphobic Twitter account Libs of TikTok factored in as Florida proposed, then passed, the controversial Don’t Say Gay law.

The Daily Dot received these records from a request for emails and correspondence from or by DeSantis, his press office, and then-Press Secretary Christina Pushaw that mentioned Libs of TikTok or its account holder Chaya Raichik.

Chaya Raichik of Libs of TikTok has been described as “an anti-LGBTQ+ hate machine” whose posts incite attacks on teachers, children’s hospitals, and Pride events. (Raichik insists she merely amplifies content and is blameless for the bomb and death threats, violence, and trolling.)

Her account exploded after she created it in late 2020; by the following October, she had 370,000 Twitter followers. But few outside the right-wing Twitter bubble had heard of Libs of TikTok.

One influential and active Twitter user was very familiar with Raichik: DeSantis’ Press Secretary, Christina Pushaw. (Pushaw is now the director of rapid response for his reelection campaign.) In April, Media Matters reported that Pushaw and Raichik had interacted on Twitter over 100 times since June 2021. The previous month, Pushaw said Libs of TikTok “truly opened my eyes” on LGBTQ curriculum in schools.

Records the Daily Dot received show that Raichik communicated with DeSantis’ team.

On Oct. 28, 2021, Raichik DMed to confirm that DeSantis had banned mask mandates in schools. “Have a recording from OCPS board meeting where a board member asks for a 6 week mask mandate for k-12,” she wrote.

Although the account on the other end is not identified, it appears to be Pushaw. It replied in the affirmative and added that the state was withholding funds from schools, including the district Raichik referenced, for disobeying DeSantis’ anti-mask decree.

“We have a legislative session in a couple of weeks to make new laws that strengthen protections for the parents of public school kids, so we can better enforce this law,” she added.

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The Don’t Say Gay bill was also introduced that session.

The correspondence between Raichik and DeSantis’ team picked back up months later, per records the Daily Dot obtained.

Neither DeSantis’ office nor his campaign, where Pushaw now works, responded to an emailed request for comment on Tuesday.

On March 8, the day the Florida legislature passed the Don’t Say Gay bill, Raichik attempted to tell on KinderCare, a privately-held, national provider of childcare and education, for supposedly offering “LGBTQ curriculum.”

“This is illegal in Florida,” she wrote.

The account replied that the governor hadn’t signed the bill yet, hence the “LGBTQ curriculum”—where kids were asked to switch the caps of markers—wasn’t illegal yet.

However, it reassured Raichik that she’d sent her concerns to the deputy chief of staff in charge of education. “I think if anyone can think of a way to put a stop to this it’s him,” the account wrote. “And he always talks to the gov.”

While Raichik would send tweets to inform on teachers, the account sent Pushaw’s tweets to Libs of TikTok to be amplified. 

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DeSantis’ press office’s communications about the Don’t Say Gay bill and the ensuing coverage of it in right-wing media provide a vivid illustration of just how effective the Florida governor’s efforts to control the press on the topic were.

On March 28, the day DeSantis signed the bill, his office posted a public release describing the legislation as a “historic” effort to “protect parental rights in education.” 

Behind the scenes, his press team worked 50 people in the conservative press. An email from Pushaw went to reporters, producers, and editors at a broad spectrum of outlets ranging from the biggest names in right-wing and social media to obscure blogs and local publications. More than a dozen Fox News employees were on the list, as were people at intensely partisan outlets like the Epoch Times, Post Millennial, and Breitbart News; right-wing political figure Dan Bongino; and influencers Ian Miles Cheong and Brandon Straka.

By analyzing online archives and social media records, the Daily Dot found that each of the two dozen outlets Pushaw contacted covered Don’t Say Gay bill’s signing: Fox News, Epoch Times, Daily Wire, Rebel News, Breitbart News, the Federalist, Daily Caller, Florida’s Conservative Voice, two ABC affiliates, the Capitolist, Washington Examiner, National Review, the Blaze, Telemundo, the Post Millennial, One America News Network (OAN), PJ Media, the Free Press, Newsmax, Newsweek, Town Hall, Alachua Chronicle, and El American.

Many outlets that didn’t receive this email also covered DeSantis signing the bill, and the ones she emailed may have already planned to do so. Some on her list also appear to have attended the bill’s signing.

After publication, a reporter for the Capitolist who wrote about DeSantis’ press conference contacted the Daily Dot to say that while they were on the receiving end of Pushaw’s email, they received it after they’d published their article, and it did not affect their coverage.

The content of Pushaw’s email is reflected in the tone and tenor of the recipients’ coverage of the Don’t Say Gay bill.

Articles by outlets on Pushaw’s list accused Democrats of “misleadingly attack[ing] … ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill” (Fox News), called it the “parental notification bill” (Daily Wire), and praised the governor for “prevent[ing] the sexualization of children” (El American) by signing the “anti-grooming bill” (the Post Millennial and Rebel News).

Pushaw’s email includes a “myth vs fact” attachment that “debunks common false narratives.”

In its first fact, it says the bill doesn’t ban the word “gay.”

The media echoed this point. “The bill does not ban the word ‘gay’ in school settings,” Fox News wrote.

The document also claims that the bill is about parental rights and implies that schools give kids prescription medication without parental consent. “Schools should never give students medical treatments (for example, cross sex hormones for students who identify as transgender) behind their parents’ backs,” it states.

The Epoch Times noted the bill “reinforces the fundamental rights of parents to make decisions” and ensures parents will be notified and allowed to opt out of any medical care schools might provide their children.

As PolitiFact reported in 2011, Florida already requires schools to obtain written consent before providing any medication, even over-the-counter medications like aspirin. There are no documented cases of Florida schools giving children hormone replacement therapy or puberty blockers, which require a prescription.

While the right-wing press regurgitated the governor’s claim that the law is necessary to stop schools from sexualizing kids, the email Pushaw sent acknowledged that Florida’s educational standards don’t actually include “inappropriate sexual content or gender ideology.”

Not many of the ideologically affiliated outlets noted the bill was passed to prevent something that Florida was openly admitting wasn’t happening. That’s perhaps because Pushaw insisted schools were teaching those matters nevertheless.

Yet, nearly all her examples of supposed inappropriate instruction kids receive in school occurred outside Florida.

Pushaw also found a way to work Libs of TikTok into her section on what wouldn’t be allowed under Florida’s bill, highlighting a video from the account that happened in Illinois.

The bill also shared a number of examples from other conservative channels like the Post Millennial and the Federalist, the same ones receiving the release Pushaw sent to hype the bill, part of a recursive right-wing loop that’s helped stoke this current panic. 

Right-wing coverage of the bill was in lockstep.

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Some outlets—particularly the larger, national ones—did address criticisms of the bill and analyze it to varying degrees.

Most on Pushaw’s list glossed over or entirely omitted the fact that Don’t Say Gay regulates classroom discussion in all the grades, focusing instead on its prohibition of instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. Even the stories that do quote the bill’s language include lines like this one in the National Review, “Rather than a bigoted effort to ostracize LGBTQ students and faculty, the bill is explicit that it is designed to keep curriculum about sexuality out of kindergarten through third-grade classrooms.”

One of Pushaw’s key points, which proponents often repeat, is that the bill doesn’t ban the word “gay” in schools.

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“Throughout the bill’s travels through committees as well as the state House and Senate, it has been criticized by some as being anti-LGBTQ and dubbed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, although the word ‘gay’ doesn’t appear in the verbiage of the legislation,” the Epoch Times noted.

The bill may not include the word “gay,” but it does say “sexual orientation”—twice. Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow further pointed out that, while it may not include that specific word, all the content and conduct its supporters claim violates the law concerns LGBTQ people and issues.

“We know that this isn’t going to cause school districts to stop having students read Shakespeare, for example, Romeo & Juliet,” Warbelow said.

The document also claims that it’s a “myth” that the bill requires schools to out LGBTQ kids to their parents, which can be harmful and dangerous—even deadly. Warbelow, an attorney, says this is an inaccurate interpretation, as the law requires schools to get parental consent before providing students with mental health counseling.

The Washington Examiner wrote, “Provisions in the new law bar school officials from ‘[discouraging] or [prohibiting] parental notification of and involvement in critical decisions affecting a student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.’”

The outlet did not note that this could require schools to effectively reveal their child’s sexual orientation to a parent or guardian.

“Not only is that the only logical way to read that provision, based on leaked documents within numerous counties within Florida, that is how their general counsels are interpreting that provision,” Warbelow told the Daily Dot in a phone conversation on Thursday.

Many of its critics point out that Don’t Say Gay is aimed at the LGBTQ community broadly, but most especially at transgender and nonbinary people. Each of the four things Pushaw points to as an example of unacceptable, i.e. illegal, things “found in Florida” schools deal with gender identity. Those items include one children’s and one young adult book apiece that feature transgender protagonists, and two graphics designed to help younger children understand the concept of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Told of how DeSantis’ team influenced coverage, Eli Erlick, who founded the Trans Student Educational Resources, opined that they’re polluting the information ecosystem to obscure the bill’s true meaning.

“By withholding these statements from less biased news sources and news sources that will propagate their agenda, they’re creating this circle of discourse about what the Don’t Say Gay bill really is.”

DeSantis can be downright hostile when the media asks him hard questions or refutes his assertions. Pushaw, his former press secretary and current director of rapid response for his campaign, embodies the same mannerisms. She doesn’t hesitate to attack reporters whose coverage or questions rub her the wrong way.

In August 2021, Twitter temporarily suspended Pushaw for directing her followers to “drag” the Associated Press and its reporter over a story that one of DeSantis’ donors was linked to a hedge fund that invested in Regeneron, the COVID-19 treatment DeSantis was bellowing about all over the media.

Yet she can be helpful when the press is on her side. When a college student contacted her for help writing a response to their school newspaper’s article criticizing Don’t Say Gay last April, Pushaw responded just 30 minutes later. Her lengthy email included all the talking points she’d sent right-wing media the day DeSantis signed the bill and some additional thoughts of her own about the “baseless partisan smear” the school newspaper published.

“Please let me know if you have any questions! Kind regards,” Pushaw wrote in closing.

She took a similarly friendly tone when outlets contacted her for comment about the Washington Post’s plans to reveal Chaya Raichik was behind Libs of TikTok that month.

Pushaw provided these outlets with her entire correspondence with the Post reporter, including several of Raichik’s tweets. “She does a great job exposing degeneracy by showcasing liberals in their own words. It’s a shame that any journalist would want to ruin her life,” she wrote.

“This is why you’re the best in the biz,” a Daily Caller reporter responded to Pushaw.

Politicians commonly curate lists of friendly media and tailor their communications accordingly. 

“It’s not unusual for government offices or elected officials to send press releases to media outlets they believe will give them favorable coverage. But professional journalists should verify information and challenge any statements that are misleading or raise other concerns,” Rod Hicks, ethics and diversity director of the Society of Professional Journalists told the Daily Dot in an emailed statement that did not address the specifics of DeSantis’ office’s communications with the press.

“One of the most important roles of a journalist is to serve as a watchdog over government affairs for the public.”

This post has been updated.

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*First Published: Oct 11, 2022, 12:26 pm CDT