By Thomas Kennedy
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is the first influencer to hold statewide public office. Attention-hungry and slow on his feet, the far-right Republican has spent the past four years engaged in a one-way conversation with his base, admitting only friendly conservative and acquiescent reporters to his publicly funded press events.
While using Floridians’ tax dollars to fly around in the state plane, DeSantis resembles the boy in the bubble, unable to operate outside of the safe spaces in which any sort of opposition or criticism is not tolerated nor accepted. DeSantis regularly bans journalists that he doesn’t like from press events, and in some cases, has them tracked like a modern J. Edgar Hoover.
It’s as creepy as it sounds: I have been banned from any DeSantis event and barred from subscribing to the Governor’s press release email list. Public records have even revealed that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement kept an 89 page dossier on me in which they labeled me a “known agitator” while tracking my political activities and social media posts.
The executive editor of Occupy Democrats Grant Stern suffered painful injuries, including a left knee injury requiring 26 doctor appointments over a six-month period, when he was physically thrown out of a press conference in Miami that featured both DeSantis and Kevin McCarthy. He was at least able to ask a question before getting the boot, though McCarthy refused to answer why he did not support the formation of the Jan. 6th commission.
Most recently, Stern and I were tossed out from a DeSantis press conference at Miami Dade College before the event even got underway. Unfortunately, my luck rubbed off on Grant, as we weren’t able to get a question in before being tossed.
The list of other journalists that have been attacked, banned, and/or harassed by DeSantis and his office is disgracefully long, and I’ve included a number of disturbing examples near the end of this story. The pattern is clear: If journalists, advocates, or constituents pose any critical questions to DeSantis, he will retaliate forcefully and thoroughly.
Not everyone experiences such abuse at DeSantis press events. Public records reveal that DeSantis’s press team has a list of “journalists” who they refer to as “friendlies.” That list includes Brendon Leslie, a hack who runs a pay-to-play right-wing blog and attended during the January 6th riots.
Leslie was part of a group of more than 100 Trump supporters who drove from Southwest Florida to protest the peaceful transition of power after the 2020 election. He admits to being part of the group that swarmed and forced the lockdown at the Capitol, but conveniently claims he only went inside to document the chaos. His claims are belied by the fact that before the incident, Leslie recorded himself saying that he wanted to storm the Capitol building with his fellow Trump supporters.
“I kind of wish we could just storm in there, get on that floor with them and be like, ‘Hey, this is what we want,’ not just wait outside in the cold and hope for the best,” Leslie says in the video, .
Leslie attends DeSantis events on behalf of a right-wing blog that’s funded by Alfie Oakes, a Florida farm and grocery store manager who is literally an insane man. Oakes, in his own words, “firmly believes in the Big Lie and that Covid is part of a globalist conspiracy to enrich corporate overlords, destroy small businesses, and enable a new world order.”
Oakes posted an unhinged Facebook rant following the 2022 midterm elections in which he claimed that the left was “stealing every necessary seat in front of our eyes, worse than 2020” and likened conservatives allowing this to happen to “WW2 Jews waiting around, hoping things get better.” He also used extremely incendiary language that explicitly endorsed right-wing terrorism, calling the midterms the “final straw” and declaring that Republicans should “take whatever measures necessary.”
Ron DeSantis will not speak to the national media, but continues to give preferential treatment and access to violent insurrectionists. He can’t pretend to be ignorant of their ties, either. After Hurricane Ian devastated Southwest Florida, Leslie was given an exclusive interview with Ron Desantis while wearing the insignia of the Three Percenters, a far-right militia.
All this would be bad enough, but Brandon Leslie is also a pay-for-play con artist. Between January and March of 2021, the Republican Party of Florida investigated a complaint accusing State Senator and Florida Republican Party Chair Joe Gruters of sexually harassing a male aide. In April 2021, Gruters’ political committee paid a business set up by Brendon Leslie (BL Friends LLLP) $5,000 for “consulting.”
On July 21, 2021, after Florida media outlets reported the existence of the complaint and investigation, Leslie’s blog published a story defending Gruters and attacking other journalists for reporting the story.
The connection is clear: Brendon used his “news” blog to degend Gruters against accusations of sexual harassment after being paid.
This is hardly the only instance of obvious grift by Leslie. In late 2022. he used his blog to endorse a candidate who paid him $500 for advertisement. The endorsement was later cited by the candidate in a campaign email.
As the crypto currency market was heating up and scams were proliferating, Leslie could not resist jumping into that grift as well. He repeatedly promoted a crypto coin called “Let’s Go Brandon” that paid him for advertising – and then was sued in federal court for participating in a pump-and-dump fraud scheme
Any objective person can see that Brendon Leslie is not a journalist. The issue is not that he takes partisan positions or participates in advocacy for a political party. It’s that he routinely lies to his audience and accepts money to write stories without properly disclosing this to his readers. By his own words, he doesn’t even understand how journalism works.
He once claimed that, when he was a television reporter at Wink News, that “every time I handed in a story it would come back to me exaggerated.” First, that’s now how editing works. No real reporter turns in a story and then allows editors to do whatever they want to do it without any further input. And second, If that IS how editing worked with Brendon Leslie, it only shows that he was one the most incompetent and illiterate television journalist who ever lived.
Brendon Leslie is a pay for play grifter and a serial liar. When he was questioned by the FBI after his participation during the January 6th riots, he groveled for sympathy.
“[Leslie] says the riots have opened his eyes and he believes its time for unity in the United States. ‘I can see what kind of mission I have moving forward. Is to really focus more on unifying because obviously that is what this country needs right now.”
He lied. He has spent his time since then by fostering hatred, division, lying to his audience and doing whatever he is told to do as long as a few dollars are attached to the request.
More on the real journalists that DeSantis has banished and harassed:
A member of the National Association of Black Journalists named Ben Frazier was arrested at one of DeSantis’ publicly funded press events in Jacksonville, though that description does not do the incident justice. The governor’s staff spotted Frazier before the press conference got underway and asked him to leave, an unprovoked request of a reporter that had not caused any disruption of any kind. When Frazier declined to leave, he was promptly forced out of his wheelchair and placed in handcuffs.
CNN correspondent Rosa Flores was subjected to DeSantis’ anger when attempting to ask questions about Florida’s disastrous statewide vaccine registration rollout. Inquiring about counties that were ill-equipped for the traffic they received on the websites and phone lines, Flores was aggressively interrupted by DeSantis before she could finish her question and repeatedly berated in front of her colleagues.
In another instance, a Florida-based reporter Brendan Farrington was targeted by DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw. After a bombshell story by the Associated Press that detailed how one of DeSantis’ multimillion-dollar donors invests in a company making the COVID-19 treatment drug Regeneron that was promoted heavily in Florida, Pushaw encouraged her thousands of Twitter followers to target Farrington by tweeting his article and writing “drag them” in a now-deleted post.
She also wrote in other tweets that if Farrington didn’t change his story, she would “put you on blast” and retweeted a message that said “Light. Them. Up.” in reference to the Associated Press, leading to the news wire publicly urging the DeSantis administration to stop the harassment of their staff.
Thomas Kennedy is an elected Democratic National Committee member from Florida. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @tomaskenn