Web Only / Features » June 14, 2016
Did the Mainstream Media Take Down Bernie Sanders?
The rebellious nature of the Vermont senator’s presidential bid didn’t fit the mainstream press’s predetermined scenario.
The media have a script for elections, and in that script the presumed losers are always marginalized and even dismissed.
This piece first appeared at BillMoyers.com.
Earlier this week, even before Hillary Clinton’s primary victory in California assured her the Democratic presidential nomination, the Associated Press had already declared her the presumptive nominee. Bernie Sanders and his supporters were sore, and they had a right to be.
Although the AP defended its decision, saying that Clinton’s crossing the delegate threshold was news and they had an obligation to report it when they did (the day before the clinching primaries) the timing and the circumstances were suspicious. It appears that AP had been hounding superdelegates to reveal their preferences, and blasting that headline just before those primaries threatened either to depress Sanders’ vote or Hillary’s or both because the contest was now for all intents and purposes over.
Sanders has never been much of a media fan. Last October, Mother Jones reported that way back in 1979, he wrote in Vermont’s Vanguard Press, an alternative newspaper, that “with considerable forethought [TV capitalists] are attempting to create a nation of morons who will faithfully go out and buy this or that product, vote for this or that candidate and faithfully work for their employers for as low a wage as possible.” He said TV was America’s “drug.” On another occasion, he took a 60 Minutes crew to the AP office in Burlington and, in a bit of turnabout, began interrogating their reporters. So perhaps the AP’s announcement this week was a bit of long-simmering retribution.
Payback or not, Sanders and his supporters are justified in saying the mainstream media have not been entirely fair to him. But that isn’t because Sanders was anti-establishment or because he has attacked the media’s monopolistic practices or because he claimed to be leading a revolution or even because he was impatient with reporters who asked idiotic questions—though he had done all of those things.
Sanders was the victim of something else: the script. The media have a script for elections, and in that script the presumed losers are always marginalized and even dismissed. The script, then, dictated that Sanders wasn’t going to get favorable coverage. Or, put more starkly, the MSM pick the losers and then vindicate that judgment.
From the moment he announced his candidacy in April 2015, the media treated Sanders as if he were unlikely to win. In The New York Times, that announcement was printed on page A-21, calling him a “long shot” but saying that his candidacy could force Hillary Clinton to address his issues “more deeply.” The article ended with a quote from Sanders: “I think people should be a little bit careful underestimating me,” which is exactly what The Times seemed to be doing.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s announcement two-and-a-half weeks earlier got prime real estate in The Times and the judgment that the “announcement effectively began what could be one of the least contested races, without an incumbent, for the Democratic presidential nomination in recent history.” So already the roles had been cast—though, of course, the perception that Sanders wasn’t likely to beat Clinton was all but a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In his essential book, Out of Order—still, 23 years after publication, the best analysis of election coverage—Harvard political scientist Thomas Patterson said there are only four press narratives in an election campaign: “a candidate is leading, or trailing, or gaining ground or losing ground.” And: “The press dumps on losers and those who are losing support, criticizes front-runners and praises those who catch fire—at least as long as the bandwagon lasts.”
As the presumed loser from the outset, Sanders didn’t get negative coverage so much as he got negligible coverage. An analysis by the TV News Archive of cable television coverage since January 2015 provides graphs of Clinton’s and Sanders’ mentions that look alike, save for one thing: Clinton was getting vastly more coverage than Sanders. How much more? On CNN, Clinton got more than 70,000 of the Democratic-candidate mentions, while Sanders got just under 42,000. On MSNBC, Clinton got more than 93,000 mentions to Sanders’ roughly 51,000. On Fox News, she got more than 71,000 mentions to his more than 28,000. The numbers are similar on the Lexis-Nexis database of newspapers. In the past 30 days, Clinton received 2,591 mentions, Sanders only 922. By comparison, Trump got 5,568.
The numbers, of course, are constantly being updated. But the ratios remain more or less constant.
I suppose journalists would argue that time and space are inelastic; choices have to be made as to who receives coverage. If we give it to Bernie Sanders, they might say, why not Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb or even Lincoln Chafee? Putting aside whether there really is too little time (on cable where the same stories are repeated endlessly?), the decision over whom to cover and whom not to cover is determinative. By placing bets on one candidate over another, the media virtually prevent that disfavored candidate from gaining ground.
But in spite of the dearth of MSM coverage, Sanders did gain ground. That may have been due to his very active social media presence, which assured that the Sanders name and message were being promulgated via the ether if not on the page or on the air. Though Trump clearly mastered how to turn social media into MSM coverage by tweeting absurdities the press couldn’t resist, Sanders used social media to mobilize support, so that he was able to rustle up a crowd for a rally at a moment’s notice, and a whole lot of money.
This may be the first time that social media compelled the MSM to change its narrative—from losing candidate to gaining candidate, or what Patterson calls the “bandwagon effect.” In turn, Sanders’ crowds were huge. His fundraising was large and notable for the number of small donations. And most of all, his poll numbers began rising.
It is now a truism of election coverage that since the coverage often contorts itself to justify them, you follow the polls. Poll numbers are everything. As Sanders’ numbers climbed, and especially after he trounced Clinton in New Hampshire, the story was suddenly that Sanders was leading a movement of young people dissatisfied with the old politics represented by Clinton, and angry with the system.
Of course, even as the MSM called Sanders “aspirational” and “inspirational” and “idealistic” compared to Clinton, the praise was then undercut when pundits compared him to another tribune of the disaffected, Donald Trump. “[Sanders] and Trump are peas in a pod,” wrote The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, as late as last April.
None of this reluctant praise was because the press particularly liked Sanders. I think they still thought of themselves as realists while Sanders was something of a political Don Quixote—an old crank. But the media are in the drama business, and the story of Sanders’ energized youth army taking on Clinton’s tired apparatchiks was a compelling one, and a whole lot better than Clinton marching over Sanders like Sherman through Georgia. Indeed, nothing stirs the media like a good fight. The amount of Sanders’ coverage appreciably rose.
The problem was, to use the buzzword of this election, the math. No matter how much money Sanders raised, how many caucuses and primaries he won or how much enthusiasm he stirred, he couldn’t beat the delegate math—which is to say, he was a loser. To the media, his rise was a plot twist before the narrative wound its way to the inevitable conclusion. And, as Patterson wrote of the media, “What is said of the candidate must fit the plot.” Here the plot was that Sanders was not going to win because he was not good enough to win.
Sanders’ coverage in The New York Times is a case in point, and an important one because The Times drives so much of the MSM’s coverage. It is hardly a secret that The Times has had a jones for Hillary Clinton, but that doesn’t excuse its coverage of Sanders, which even included an article criticizing him for not doing more of the baby-kissing and hand-shaking that candidates usually do.
Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote a scathing takedown of The Times’ most egregious offense: a March article by Jennifer Steinhauer on how Sanders functioned as a legislator. Headlined “Bernie Sanders Scored Victories for Years Via Legislative Side Doors,” as originally published, the article recounted how effective Sanders was at attaching amendments to pieces of legislation, both Republican and Democratic, and forging coalitions to achieve his ends. The piece was bandwagon stuff.
But then something happened. The original article, already published, underwent a transformation in which Sanders suddenly wasn’t so effective a legislator. Even the headline was changed to “Via Legislative Side Doors, Bernie Sanders Won Modest Victories.” And this paragraph was added: “But in his presidential campaign Mr. Sanders is trying to scale up those kinds of proposals as a national agenda, and there is little to draw from his small-ball legislative approach to suggest that he could succeed.”
Responding to angry Sanders supporters, The Times’ own public editor, Margaret Sullivan, asked why the changes were made and wrote, “Matt Purdy, a deputy executive editor, said that when senior editors read the piece after it was published online, they thought it needed more perspective about whether Mr. Sanders would be able to carry out his campaign agenda if he was elected president.” Yeah, right.
You might note how short a step it is from losing to deserving to lose. The media always seem willing to take that step, not only when it comes to Sanders but to any presumed loser. It may also explain why the media were so hard on Sanders’ policies, ridiculing them as pie-in-the-sky. On the other hand, Times columnist Paul Krugman, once a liberal hero, took a lot of flak from Sanders supporters for criticizing several of the senator’s proposals and favoring Clinton’s. Sandernistas couldn’t accept the possibility that Krugman, whose liberal bona fides are pretty sound, was backing Clinton because he thought Sanders’ proposals didn’t add up—and not that he thought they didn’t add up because he was backing Clinton. Even if Sanders was treated unfairly, he didn’t deserve to escape scrutiny just because he was a maverick.
By the same token, the press’s presumption that Sanders was a loser wasn’t wrong either. Sanders’ claim that the system was somehow rigged against him because of superdelegates proved not to be true. Sanders received far fewer votes than Clinton, 3.7 million less, and he would have lost the nomination even if there had been no superdelegates, not to mention that he lost the basic Democratic constituencies to her. What we will never know is if the race might have been different had the coverage been different—that is, if Sanders hadn’t been considered some outlier and preordained loser from the very beginning.
Another thing we will never know is how the coverage would have differed if it hadn’t been so poll- or delegate-driven. Candidates won’t arrive at the finish line at the same time, but the media should at least let them begin at the starting line together. And the voters should be the ones to winnow the field, not the press.
Now that Sanders has played his part juicing up the nominating drama, the media seem as eager to dispose of him as the Democratic establishment does. They’re ready to relegate him to his next role: confirmed sore loser. A front-page story in Thursday’s edition of The New York Times griped, “Hillary Clinton Made History, but Bernie Sanders Stubbornly Ignored it,” opening with the line, “Revolutions rarely give way to gracious expressions of defeat.”
No, they don’t, and I don’t think it is the business of the press to tell candidates when to or how to concede, much less complain about it. The article went on to call Sanders’ address after Tuesday night’s primaries “a speech of striking stubbornness,” as if The Times and its barely pent-up exasperation with Sanders finally broke the dam.
But again, this isn’t just what the MSM think of Bernie Sanders. It is what the media think of losers. They don’t like them very much, and they seem determined to make sure that you don’t like them either—unless they beat the press’s own odds and become winners.
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Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.
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