Rebekah Jones, the former dashboard manager for the Florida Department of Health website, became a celebrated mainstream media hero after alleging that the state had undercounted COVID-19 deaths. In January, police raided her home and charged her with computer crimes relating to her efforts to publicize this wrongdoing. She later turned herself in, and reportedly contracted COVID-19 while in custody.
But it turns out that the vast conspiracy Jones has alleged—including that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was trying to silence her—does not exist.
That's according to National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke, who writes at length about the wide gap between Jones' claims and actual reality:
Specifically, Jones claims that, while she was working at the FDOH last year, she was instructed by her superiors to alter the "raw" data so that Florida's COVID response would look better, and that, having refused, she was fired. Were this charge true, it would reflect one of the most breathtaking political scandals in all of American history.
But it's not true. Indeed, it's nonsense from start to finish. Jones isn't a martyr; she's a myth-peddler. She isn't a scientist; she's a fabulist. She's not a whistleblower; she's a good old-fashioned confidence trickster. And, like any confidence trickster, she understands her marks better than they understand themselves.
Cooke disproves many of her claims, which have evolved substantially over time: Jones lacked the power to alter the "raw" numbers and was never asked to do so; indeed, by her own admission, the data she cites on her separate dashboard are identical to the government's. Initially, Jones had "not alleged any tampering with data on deaths, hospital symptom surveillance, hospitalizations for COVID-19, numbers of new confirmed cases, or overall testing rates—core elements of any assessment of the outbreak and of federal criteria for reopening," according to the Associated Press. "And Jones acknowledges Florida has been relatively transparent—for which she herself claims some credit—and relatively successful in controlling the pandemic." But over time, her story became dramatic and elaborate: She accused Shamarial Roberson, Florida's deputy secretary for health, of being a "liar, fraud, and murderer."
"There is an extremely good reason that nobody in the Florida Department of Health has sided with Jones," writes Cooke. "It's the same reason that there has been no devastating New York Times exposé about Florida's 'real' numbers. That reason? There is simply no story here." Cooke continues:
By all accounts, Rebekah Jones is a talented developer of GIS dashboards. But that's all she is. She's not a data scientist. She's not an epidemiologist. She's not a doctor. She didn't "build" the "data system," as she now claims, nor is she a "data manager." Her role at the FDOH was to serve as one of the people who export other people's work—from sets over which she had no control—and to present it nicely on the state's dashboard. To understand just how far removed Jones really is from the actual data, consider that even now—even as she rakes in cash from the gullible to support her own independent dashboard—she is using precisely the same FDOH data used by everyone else in the world.
It's important to note that Jones is not just some crazy person whose ideas were never taken seriously: The media fawned over her. MSNBC's Joy Reid interviewed her repeatedly. She was the subject of a glowing profile in Cosmopolitan: "Rebekah Jones Tried To Warn Us About COVID-19. Now Her Freedom Is on the Line." We know why this is the case: Mainstream journalists have been eager to portray DeSantis' Florida as a unique COVID-19 failure, contrasting with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's supposedly steady leadership. What has resulted are numerous, flawed stories that try—and largely fail—to find something dramatically wrong with Florida, even as the narrative about Cuomo's sterling reputation falls apart.
In the race to mint new pandemic heroes, media partisans keep looking in all the wrong places.