Kevin McVicker
Kevin P. McVicker

Recently, Axios fired Ben Montgomery, a Florida-based journalist. His offense? He responded to an emailed press release from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Department of Education Press Office touting an event titled Exposing Diversity Education Scam in Higher Education with an email saying, “This is propaganda, not a press release.”

DeSantis’s communications director tweeted a screenshot of the email.

Montgomery essentially called DeSantis a liar. Propaganda is, perhaps, the most loaded term to describe the dissemination of government information. Over the centuries “propaganda” has meant information that has strong emotional appeals to action with little supporting evidence. Mr. Montgomery’s characterization was flip and unnecessary.

Critical Race Theory is one of the most controversial issues in the country. Any journalist who felt the governor’s office was trafficking in propaganda could have covered the event and asked questions.

The New York Post reported that Montgomery said that the email “wasted his time” and “lacked context.” He also said his “daughters told him they were proud of him and that’s all he needs.”

This incident raises an issue that is becoming more common, of which there is little public discussion. Public relations professionals, especially those who advocate for conservative causes, receive reflexively dismissive messages, and occasionally profane responses.

Unfortunately, this behavior has become more common and even tolerated. Axios made the right call terminating Montgomery.

When journalists react with this sort of snap judgment regarding political pitches, it sends a signal that that outlet will not even pretend to give public relations professionals’ issue fair coverage. If one journalist expresses this opinion publicly, do other reporters? Do their editors?

Publicists have long known that journalists engage in newsroom chatter about pitches they receive. However, it used to stay in the newsroom.

If Mr. Montgomery, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, felt the information “wasted his time,” he had several options. He could have replied that he was unable to cover the event. Or he could have simply deleted the email.

His belief that the email “lacked context” is a cop-out. The media advisory promoted a roundtable with Gov. DeSantis on Critical Race Theory. Its goal was to get media to attend the event without giving the most newsworthy information. That would be released at the event.

The fact that his daughter approved is a self-serving justification. We all want our children to be proud of our professional actions, however, that hardly justifies reversing the time-honored norm of the exchange of information between publicists that results in news for an informed public.

The journalism website had a different take. Their story on the controversy suggests that only a minimum punishment was appropriate. The story also contends that media outlets should stand up for their journalists.

In this case, the journalist damaged his credibility and that of his employer. Communications professionals seek to build relationships with media outlets. When they are confronted with hostility and disdain, their ability to gain news coverage is hampered.

When the public learns of these exchanges, it confirms what many people believe is outright hostility toward conservative leaders and their issues. In addition, many journalists have become bolder about sharing their views on social media.

Poynter tried to give cover to Montgomery by saying “What’s disturbing, in part, is that DeSantis has waged a battle against the media in Florida and as soon as one of its reporters gets into a mild dustup with the governor’s office, Axios fires him?”

The writer tries to implicate Gov. DeSantis because he dares to spar with the press. It is a fact of history that no politician is ever completely satisfied with the news coverage he or she receives. They think they should receive more credit for their good deed and less blame for their missteps.

In fact there is an often necessary tension between officeholders and the press. However, it does not need to devolve into insults and jeering taunts. Journalists need to keep their personal views from sullying their credibility. Public relations professionals need to make certain their pitches meet standards of relevance and newsworthiness. And they must be prepared to call attention to abusive practices by the media.


Kevin P. McVicker is a partner in the public relations firm, Shirley & McVicker Public Affairs