The Washington Post recently did a hit job, masquerading as a news story, on Sarasota, Florida and the divisiveness it claims is being driven by some right-wing radicals. It is perhaps the perfect lesson in how today’s media reports a story from the position of a narrative pre-fed by leftist activists and how, by the time the story is published, it is so riddled with errors and disinformation as to appear to be coming from an alternative dimension.
Having lived in Sarasota for 30 years, 20 of which I have spent working in mainstream newspapers, I am familiar with how this works. Many of us knew the Post was working on an attack piece on conservatives Christian and Bridget Ziegler, and we understood they were working directly with the leftist activists, who are quoted extensively. Virtually everything that came out in the Post’s story is wrong or misleading—in a word, propaganda—but that organ’s readers likely will never know it.
So let’s dive right into the propagandistic narrative.
The first seven words set the tone: “This sleepy county on Florida’s west coast . . .” Obviously, the author did not visit Sarasota, or simply lied. There is nothing remotely sleepy about Sarasota. It has a reputation for being a big small city, possessing one of the most vibrant midsize downtowns in the nation. I-75 is an eight-lane interstate. There is a thriving biotech sector. It has not been “sleepy” since the 1970s, maybe the ’80s.
But this is an important mischaracterization because the goal of this narrative is to suggest that this supposedly quiet little ideal paradise is being ruined by some right-wing, Trumpian zealots, dragging the county ever more radically rightward and the poor folks in Sarasota are just caught in the middle of it.
The next paragraph says: “But at a school board meeting last month, it took only a few minutes for raw bitterness to erupt.” Our school board has been sadly dysfunctional for years, from superintendent controversies to board member controversies, mostly driven by radical leftists in a red county. In fact, a Google search will return several national stories over the last few years.
This also is important to the propaganda narrative. Florida school boards are technically nonpartisan races—although in reality, they are not. No party identification appears on the ballot. Further, during the Trump years, two Republicans, in this case definitely RINOS in that they would have been Democrats in most other communities, switched parties after being elected to the board.
OK, so a sleepy, idealistic paradise community of retirees having been hijacked by right-wingers is the underlying theme of this narrative. And naturally, the authors must pull in Governor Ron DeSantis.
“During the three-hour meeting, a conservative school board member insulted the board’s attorney for second-guessing Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). A teacher made an emotional plea for help, saying that false accusations of wrongdoing were crippling her and other educators’ ability to teach. At one point, four police officers had to usher a parent from the meeting after being accused of derogatory behavior.”
The gaslighting here is impressive. A teacher who wants to talk to 6-year-olds about highly sexualized topics and now cannot because of a new state law is being “crippled” in her ability to teach. We are to be sympathetic to her plight. But a mother who objected to teaching her little ones about gay sex, gender fluidity, and the rest is the bad gal and had to be ushered out because the school board chairwoman thought she was “about to” criticize a board member.
The chairwoman is Jane Goodwin, one of the former Republicans, now a Democrat, who openly despises parents’ input from the dais. The Post quotes her without any context or noting her political affiliation: “‘Our state is really in turmoil,’ said Jane Goodwin, chairwoman of the Sarasota School Board, who worries that her county offers a preview of the toxic politics sweeping through Florida. ‘I see it as darker place, as a different, more difficult place.’”
Nowhere would you guess, because it would not fit the narrative, that Goodwin is the real radical, anti-parent, anti-free speech crusader. She was recently caught on a Zoom call coaching other school boards to do what she has done, which is to create “guidelines” on unpopular subjects that noncompliant parents balk at, because, unlike most policies and rules, such guidelines can be written outside Florida’s “sunshine laws.” Ah, to remember when the media thought the sunshine laws were important to hold the powerful to account! Good memories.
More fact-free narrative: The fight, according to the Post, centers around whether this traditional Republican county will remain moderate or embrace the brash brand of politics championed by DeSantis as he considers a possible presidential campaign. And it has increasingly pitted a group of left-leaning residents against Republican officials who have offered outspoken support for many of DeSantis’ most aggressive policies, including empowering parents to challenge school textbooks and banning teachers from discussing sexual orientation in elementary school.
“Aggressive” policies? Actually, popular policies. Sarasota County hasn’t been “moderate” in my 30 years here. But that’s why the Post needed to cast us as a “sleepy” community suddenly in danger of being taken over by the New Right.
The left-leaning activists are particularly focused on Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler—the vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida who is also a specialist in targeting political messages to specific demographic groups—and his wife, Sarasota School Board Member Bridget Ziegler, who helped found Moms for Liberty, a controversial conservative group advocating for more parental control in schools.” (Disclosure, both Zieglers have been clients of mine in the past, but are not now.)
‘There is a culture that the Zieglers have fostered that puts party over country, party over community and is all just about winning and they don’t care how they win,’ said Cathy Antunes, 58, a Sarasota activist. ‘This has become the hatching place for a lot of Republican strategy and the alt-right, and if you don’t squash it at the local level, if you don’t call these people out where they live, it just spreads.’
The Post “reporter” somehow fails to mention that Antunes is a hard-core leftist activist and, although she officially lacks a party affiliation, the Democratic Party hosts her all the time and she works hand in hand with them. But mentioning that would undermine the narrative.
But there’s more:
In 2008, President Barack Obama lost Sarasota County by just 211 votes. Today, Democrats continue to perform relatively well in neighborhoods near the city of Sarasota, which has a thriving restaurant scene and a historic opera house. But many suburban and rural parts of the county are drifting right. President Donald Trump carried the county by nearly 10 points in 2020.
Look how quickly Sarasota County has been radicalized to the Left! Except, of course, that isn’t true.
A deceitful way to shape a narrative is to cherry-pick the data’s starting point. This is as old as data itself. Here, the “reporter” chose Obama in 2008 because of the election’s relative recency and also to suggest a giant shift in voting. But Obama’s performance in Sarasota was an aberration. Four years earlier, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 16,000 votes in Sarasota County, or more than eight points, which of course means Trump’s 10-point win was pretty much in line. Even in the razor-close 2000 Florida election, Bush beat Al Gore by more than six points.
Perhaps the biggest doozie of them all is this paragraph:
After a conservative school board member was defeated in 2020, a 3-2 majority of moderate and left-leaning board members initially maintained a mask mandate for students, even after DeSantis and GOP legislators barred school districts from implementing one.
“Moderate and left-leaning.” Like the entire piece, this is just fiction. As a news story, it is an F. As propaganda made to look like a news story, however, it gets a B+. Alas, this is the universal nature of corporate media stories today, leaving their consumers deeply misinformed.