The Guys Behind The Pro-DeSantis Media Circuit In Florida Have Far-Right Resumes
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) likes to make a big show of his hostility towards the mainstream press. He most recently made that clear at a February roundtable when, between a panel of libel lawyers and critics, he complained about journalists advancing “narratives” designed to “attack” him and denounced the landmark 1964 Supreme Court decision New York Times v. Sullivan for enabling the media to “find a way to smear you.” A month later, the Republican-led state legislature introduced a bill seeking to roll back press freedoms seemingly based on his complaints.
DeSantis has spent much of his time since he took office as governor in 2019 claiming that the mainstream media treats him unfairly—not unlike former president Donald Trump’s constant cries of “fake news.” At the same time, a coterie of local right-leaning outlets have sprung up around Florida, reporting on state politics from a DeSantis-friendly perspective. And the governor appears to have harnessed their congeniality to produce favorable coverage for his administration.
The men behind these outlets have deep right-wing bonafides. Here are the guys behind Florida’s growing pro-DeSantis media circuit:
The youngest of the right-wing media entrepreneurs is 26-year-old Will Witt, who launched The Florida Standard last summer after relocating from California. Before then, he worked as a social media personality for the right-wing propaganda outfit PragerU, where he made a name for himself doing the kind of confrontational interviews that have become a signature style of far-right online punditry.
A deep dive by the watchdog Media Matters For America found that he has a rather far-right digital footprint, mostly comprised of right-wing troll content: He spent much of his PragerU tenure accosting college students while dressing up in stereotypical costumes of different ethnic groups, and several of his social media posts feature well-established dog whistles for the alt-right.
“White lives matter and it’s ok to be white,” said a post he retweeted from his girlfriend, Dutch right-wing commentator Eva Vlaardingerbroek. In another, he posted a photo of Black History Month greeting cards with the caption “Will you make these cards for white people too? @Hallmark.”
His work at The Florida Standard shows that his views haven’t shifted much since then. He’s published op-eds on the site declaring Hollywood has “no integrity” for casting Black actors in the Tolkien-based TV show Rings of Power and that mainstream conservatism is America’s “biggest enemy.” He’s also published vaccine-skeptical articles in the Standard, as well as self-promotional content touting debunked conspiracy theories about the “sexualization of children in public schools,” a nod at DeSantis’s ongoing, manufactured war against “woke” educational material.
Though he’s newer to the landscape than the others behind the new right-wing outlets, Witt has quickly notched some major scoops for the Standard, like obtaining an exclusive copy of the syllabus for an AP African American Studies class the governor loudly rejected earlier this year. He even got a one-on-one with the governor himself, who’d, at the time, just turned down an interview with The View.
Witt has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Brendon Leslie – who runs the pro-DeSantis publication Florida’s Voice and who was in D.C. on Jan. 6 – has had a bit of a winding path into the right-wing media-sphere. He started off as a reporter for the local TV station WINK News, but left after a year when the relationship soured, he told TPM.
“WINK was very frustrating to work at,” he told TPM over email. “They only cared about manufacturered (sic) controversies that made Republicans look bad. They never cared about the good news.”
WINK declined to comment when reached by TPM.
So, he left to “amplify the conservative sides of things,” which included launching a media platform called Florida’s Voice (née Florida’s Conservative Voice).
He’s since established a substantial presence in Florida’s right-wing ecosystem. As an independent journalist, he struck up a friendship with local supermarket magnate and conservative activist Alfie Oakes. “He let me build a name for myself by starting a live audience show at his establishment, Seed to Table in Naples, called the ‘Patriot Talk Show,’” Leslie said. “I owe the world to him for that.”
Oakes has done more to help Leslie’s right-wing media aspirations since: Dubbed the “MAGA grocery king of Southwest Florida,” Oakes also helped Leslie establish Florida’s Voice, though the extent to which he contributed is unclear. While Leslie told TPM that Oakes simply let the outlet “use his establishments,” Mother Jones and Semafor reported that the supermarket magnate financially backs the site as well. Oakes himself did not respond to requests for comment.
Oakes also paid for a group of people to take a bus to Washington, D.C. on January 6 – a trip that Leslie helped organize. That day, Leslie ended up breaching the Capitol complex, an incident that he pressed was accidental.
“We took a bunch of our viewers to see Trump speak,” he told TPM. “Unfortunately, the riot broke out, so I split from the group to go report on it.”
He told TPM that he recorded the riot with Capitol Police’s permission. “That’s all,” he said. “I’m a reporter, when things happen, we whip out our camera and record.”
Leslie said that his reporting philosophy doesn’t play favorites: “verify all the facts and be honest,” he said. Florida’s Voice, however, couches its reports in rhetoric aligned with much of DeSantis’s agenda, such as publishing largely uncritical posts about “pornographic” books found in schools and the state’s “defunding” Planned Parenthood.
Javier Manjarres, who runs The Floridian and Texas Politics, is more of an industry veteran compared to the other fledgling right-wing media entrepreneurs. He launched the Florida politics website in 2018, but he’d been a recognizable name in Florida far before that point thanks to The Shark Tank, a conservative blog he ran for over a decade.
Manjarres also ran to represent Florida’s 22nd Congressional District in a primary challenge against two other Republicans in 2018, but lost the race.
While the website’s reporting hews closer to mainstream reporting standards than Florida’s Voice or The Standard tend to, its conservative lens is still recognizable in its headlines: A recent post accused Biden of dodging questions on the origin of COVID-19, for example, a theory that’s still being debated in the intelligence community. Another recent post even explored the governing potential of a “President Ron DeSantis,” though he hasn’t announced his campaign yet.
The Floridian has become so established in the pro-DeSantis media circuit that he even got into an online spat with Leslie last September over journalistic integrity.
Manjarres is also, unsurprisingly, well-sourced in the governor’s office: He’s managed to snag exclusive access to the governor, which he credits to a friendly rapport they’ve developed while he ran Shark Tank.
“We deal with the governor’s office just like everyone else does,” Manjarres told TPM. “I think he gives preferential treatment to anyone he believes is respectful to him, you know?”
He said that The Floridian aims to produce “middle-of-the-road” reporting; Republicans just make more news.
“DeSantis is always saying something that makes the news,” he said. “You put out 10 stories a day on DeSantis and it gets kind of boring, but it’s news.”
Manjarres also has his own theory about DeSantis’s hostility toward the mainstream media.
“I don’t think he’s against the media,” he told TPM. The governor has had issues with the Florida press corps, Manjarres explained, but he’s still answered questions from reporters at mainstream outlets like Politico. “I think he’s against certain personalities and ulterior motives in the media that people hold,” Manjarres said.
But in all, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Manjarres’ views seem to align with the governor’s.