Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shot back at The Associated Press on Monday after the outlet's incoming CEO accused his press secretary of harassing one of its reporters, saying the AP received deserved pushback for a partisan "smear" that could cost lives.
In a letter to Daisy Veerasingham, DeSantis blasted the AP for its "temerity" to complain about criticism a reporter received last week over his story that suggested a link between the governor's touting of a COVID antibody drug from Regeneron and a political donor's investment in the company.
Last week, Veerasingham wrote his office to accuse DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw of "harassing behavior" and activating an "online mob" against AP reporter Brendan Farrington over the widely panned story headlined, "DeSantis top donor invests in COVID drug governor promotes."
DeSantis didn't hold back in a remarkable open letter from a politician to a news organization.
"I assumed your letter was to notify me that you were issuing a retraction of the partisan smear piece you published last week," DeSantis wrote. "Instead, you had the temerity to complain about the deserved blowback that your botched and discredited attempt to concoct a political narrative has received. The ploy will not work to divert attention from the fact that the Associated Press published a false narrative that will lead some to decline effective treatment for COVID infections."
The controversial AP story seemed to imply DeSantis was promoting Regeneron's COVID antibody treatment because a Chicago-based hedge fund that donated to a pro-DeSantis political committee also owns shares of the company.
However, the AP also acknowledged the drug is highly effective and has been touted by the Biden administration as well. The story also noted the DeSantis donor's hedge fund, Citadel, had a smaller share in Regeneron than BlackRock, which has donated more to Democrats, and that Citadel's investment in Regeneron "is a tiny fraction of its overall $39 billion in investments."
The AP also acknowledged it's "not unusual for hedge funds to have a wide range of investments" but published the story with the damaging framework anyway.
DeSantis wrote the AP produced "zero evidence" that Florida's efforts were being undertaken for any reason other than to help citizens suffering from the disease.
"While the public's trust in corporate outlets like the AP is at historic lows, there is no doubt that some will decline to seek life-saving treatment as a result of the AP's inflammatory headline," he wrote.
The AP story was panned by Pushaw, conservatives, and even some liberals who disagreed with its framing. Many critics labeled another botched hit piece and one Florida newspaper editor even tweeted that he was a strong critic of DeSantis – a possible 2024 GOP White House contender – but called the story weak.
The AP stood by its story despite widespread criticism and accused Pushaw of inciting an online mob. The letter recapped her tweets ripping the story that used terms like "Drag Them" and "put you on blast," with the AP characterizing them as a direct threat to Farrington.
"While we can disagree about stories, it is unacceptable and dangerous for a public official to encourage the systemic bullying of journalists," Veerasingham wrote.
DeSantis said the AP should have expected "vigorous pushback" to the story, and he stood by his staffers who pushed back publicly against the piece.
"You cannot recklessly smear your political opponents and then expect to be immune from criticism," he wrote, adding its credibility had been diminished. "The corporate media's ‘clicks-first, facts-later’ approach to journalism is harming our country. You succeeded in publishing a misleading, clickbait headline about one of your political opponents, but at the expense of deterring individuals infected with COVID from seeking life-saving treatment, which will cost lives. Was it worth it?"
Pushaw also said last week that DeSantis' office didn't condone threats against the AP reporter. She deleted the tweet that said "Drag Them" after Farrington told her he had begun receiving threats.
"No one from our office ever threatened him," Pushaw told Fox News. "His story drew harsh criticism because it was false."
On Friday evening, Pushaw's Twitter account was hit with a 12-hour suspension for allegedly violating its policies. Pushaw told Fox News Twitter never pointed out the specific tweets that got her in trouble.
"You will ban the press secretary of a democratically elected official while allowing the Taliban to live-tweet their conquest of Afghanistan?" Pushaw reacted in a statement to Fox News. "This proves Governor DeSantis right - again. Those who challenge false narratives are often too silenced by corporate media and Big Tech collusion."
A Twitter spokesperson confirmed Pushaw's suspension. When asked by Fox News which tweets violated Twitter policy, the spokesperson replied, "We've nothing to share beyond the statement, thank you."
Pushaw’s account was back up as of Monday morning.
The AP continued to push back against DeSantis following the governor’s response.
"The Associated Press does not have political opponents. We do accountability reporting about those in power, regardless of political affiliation," an Associated Press spokesperson told Fox News.
"The issue here is not pushback. It’s harassment. A public servant whose job it is to work with the press encouraged a harassment campaign against our journalist, and that is unacceptable," the spokesperson continued.