CNN’s Coverage of Sanders Was 3X More Negative Than Biden Following Their Big Primary Wins

A tale of two media narratives.

Juan Caicedo and Sarah Lazare

Members of the media watch the CNN Democratic Presidential Debate on January 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Joe Biden’s ascent into fron­trun­ner sta­tus is often por­trayed as an organ­ic con­se­quence of big-time endorse­ments and an untapped desire for a more cen­trist” and elec­table” can­di­date. But a sur­vey by In These Times finds that CNN has por­trayed Bernie Sanders more neg­a­tive­ly than Biden, sug­gest­ing that media slant itself may play a role in Biden’s rise.

It’s worth noting Linda Chavez saying Sanders’ win plays into Putin’s hands is far worse than Rosen insisting Biden could afford to be a bit more “inspirational.”

In the 24 hours fol­low­ing his mas­sive win in Neva­da, Sanders received 3.26 times the pro­por­tion of neg­a­tive CNN cov­er­age than Biden did fol­low­ing the latter’s South Car­oli­na win — despite the two wins being by sim­i­lar mar­gins. Sanders received more cov­er­age after his win than Biden did after his: 419 men­tions to Biden’s 249. But a larg­er share of Sanders’ men­tions were neg­a­tive, and few­er pos­i­tive, than Biden’s. The above 3.26 fig­ure was arrived at by com­par­ing neg­a­tive cov­er­age as a pro­por­tion of total cov­er­age for both candidates.

CNN is one of the most wide­ly watched cable news net­works on tele­vi­sion, aver­ag­ing about a mil­lion view­ers dur­ing prime time. Giv­en its down-the-mid­dle rep­u­ta­tion, CNN can be a use­ful proxy for broad­er media cov­er­age. The 24-hour win­dow fol­low­ing a pri­ma­ry is a crit­i­cal time for set­ting a pub­lic nar­ra­tive about which can­di­dates are viable, have momen­tum,” and seem pres­i­den­tial. Media cov­er­age that dri­ves up the neg­a­tives of a can­di­date can have a hand in harm­ing their campaigns.

Sanders won a blowout vic­to­ry in Neva­da, gar­ner­ing 46.8% of the vote in a mul­ti-can­di­date field — putting him well ahead of Biden’s 20.2% sup­port. Yet in the 24-hour peri­od fol­low­ing his win, start­ing at mid­night, CNN’s cov­er­age of Sanders was slight­ly more neg­a­tive than pos­i­tive: He received 32 pos­i­tive men­tions, 33 neg­a­tive men­tions, and 354 neu­tral men­tions from CNN guests or hosts. (For the pur­pos­es of this study, a men­tion” refers to each time a can­di­date is dis­cussed — but not to each time his or her name is men­tioned. In These Times tend­ed towards con­ser­vatism and only logged a men­tion as pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive if it was clear­ly either.)

In con­trast, dur­ing the 24 hours fol­low­ing Biden’s blowout win in South Car­oli­na, bring­ing in 48.4% com­pared to Sanders’ 19.9% — rough­ly the same result — the for­mer vice pres­i­dent received much more fawn­ing cov­er­age from CNN: 19 pos­i­tive men­sions, only 6 neg­a­tive men­tions, and 224 neu­tral mentions.

Sanders’ neg­a­tives and pos­i­tives were rough­ly equal (33 vs. 32) to each oth­er, while Biden received more than three times more pos­i­tive than neg­a­tive mentions.

This tal­ly is like­ly an under­count of over­all pro-Biden slant in the cur­rent media land­scape, as it does not include the avalanche of pos­i­tive cov­er­age Biden received for the endorse­ments from Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke that came the fol­low­ing day. CNN’s 5:00 a.m. News­room and its 11:00 a.m. episode of Con­nect the World were exclud­ed from the count, as tran­scripts for these episodes the day after the South Car­oli­na pri­ma­ry were miss­ing from CNN’s website.

Twelve of the neg­a­tive men­tions Sanders received fol­low­ing his win in Neva­da either accused the Ver­mont sen­a­tor of being too far left to win, or denounced him as a social­ist. On the Feb­ru­ary 23 episode of News­room, James Clyburn, the Democ­rats’ House Major­i­ty Whip, said, On Super Tues­day, peo­ple are con­cerned about this whole self-pro­claimed Demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist. Social­ism since I was a stu­dent in grade school was some­thing that engen­dered a kind of vocif­er­ous reac­tion among peo­ple of a neg­a­tive nature, and social­ism is always kind of interesting.”

Such crit­i­cisms are repeat­ed­ly levied via major media out­lets with no evi­dence, despite polling that shows Sanders could beat Trump in a gen­er­al elec­tion and is trust­ed on issues deemed impor­tant to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic base.

In that same 24-hour peri­od, six neg­a­tive men­tions den­i­grat­ed Sanders’ can­di­da­cy by tying him to Rus­sia, or sug­gest­ing that the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment prefers him as a can­di­date (one of those crit­i­cal men­tions over­lapped with the too far left” crit­i­cisms). On the Feb­ru­ary 23 episode of State of the Union, for­mer Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion offi­cial Lin­da Chavez said, But the prob­lem is, the real win­ner last night I believe was Putin. I mean, we are going to have the most divi­sive elec­tion if Bernie is the nom­i­nee, we are going to see two very, very angry peo­ple rep­re­sent­ing two very dif­fer­ent extremes of their par­ties, and I think that helps make Amer­i­ca more chaot­ic, it makes us more divi­sive and, I think, the one that gets advan­taged by that is Russia.”

Four­teen crit­i­cisms fell under the umbrel­la of neb­u­lous elec­tabil­i­ty” knocks. One of those argu­ments was deliv­ered by Biden him­self, who was briefly fea­tured on the 3:00 p.m. episode of News­room. The network’s White House cor­re­spon­dent Jeff Zele­ny asked Biden, Sen­a­tor Sanders as the nom­i­nee be a McGov­ern-like mis­take for this par­ty?” Biden replied, Well, that’s for the vot­ers to know. Now, look, I think it’s going to go down between Sen­a­tor Sanders and me for the nom­i­na­tion. As I said all along, it’s not just, can you beat Don­ald Trump, can you bring along — can you keep a Demo­c­ra­t­ic House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the Unit­ed States Con­gress? And can you bring along a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­ate? Can you help peo­ple up and down the line? And I think I’m bet­ter pre­pared to do than Sen­a­tor Sanders.”

Notably, Sanders was not inter­viewed by CNN in the after­math of his Neva­da win, nor was he invit­ed to com­ment on Biden’s win in South Carolina.

In con­trast to Sanders, crit­i­cisms of Biden fol­low­ing his South Car­oli­na win were far more tem­per­ate — and less seath­ing and drawn-out — with all of them focus­ing on inad­e­qua­cies or chal­lenges in the cam­paign, com­pe­ti­tion from oth­er mod­er­ates,” and the need for him to be more inspi­ra­tional. Some of the crit­i­cisms also con­tained encour­age­ment. For exam­ple, on the 2:00 p.m., March 1 episode of News­room, CNN polit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent Arlette Saenz said, Clyburn is speak­ing out more about his endorse­ment of Joe Biden. He says Biden was — has his work cut out for him, and it may start with retool­ing his cam­paign, I’m quot­ing him on say­ing that.”

And on News­rooms 3:00 p.m. episode lat­er that day, CNN polit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent Hilary Rosen said, But I also think that Vice Pres­i­dent Biden has to get a lit­tle more inspi­ra­tional. I think telling peo­ple they should­n’t have dreams is not going to be a good long term mes­sage. Cut­ting down some­one else’s dreams is not a good long term message.”

For the pur­pos­es of count­ing neg­a­tive men­tions, In These Times did not make qual­i­ta­tive dis­tinc­tions. But it’s worth not­ing Lin­da Chavez say­ing Sanders’ win plays into Putin’s hands is far worse than Rosen insist­ing Biden could afford to be a bit more inspi­ra­tional.”

The morn­ing show State of the Union also set aside at least nine min­utes to an inter­view with Joe Biden by Jake Tap­per, which aired at 9:00 a.m. the morn­ing after the South Car­oli­na pri­ma­ry. Between dis­cus­sion of the U.S. deal with the Tal­iban and the Trump administration’s response to coro­n­avirus, Biden hit out at Sanders on three occa­sions, argu­ing that he has greater cred­i­bil­i­ty, crit­i­ciz­ing Sanders’ track record in Con­gress, and knock­ing Sanders’ posi­tion that the win­ner of the plu­ral­i­ty of del­e­gates should be the DNC’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee. They are not look­ing for rev­o­lu­tion, they [want] results. They want a return to decen­cy. They want to be able to get things done,” Biden said. And I have a record that is far supe­ri­or on those two issues than Bernie’s.”

No cor­re­spond­ing inter­view with Sanders was aired in the 24 hours fol­low­ing his vic­to­ry in Nevada.

This aligns with the ana­lyt­ics of tele­vi­sion mar­ket­ing mon­i­tors with no vest­ed inter­est cry­ing foul. Cit­ing a sur­vey from Crit­i­cal Men­tion, a real-time media mon­i­tor­ing plat­form,” adver­tis­ing con­sul­tant Kevin Cate not­ed on Twit­ter that between South Car­oli­na polls clos­ing Sat­ur­day & 7 PM ET on Super Tues­day, @JoeBiden earned $71,992,629 worth of almost entire­ly pos­i­tive nation­al media. Add local media in those mar­kets and it eas­i­ly tops $100 mil­lion worth of earned media in 72 hours.” Media mon­i­tors in jour­nal­ism have anoth­er name for earned media”: It’s called puffery,” and its exis­tence is not evi­dence of skill on the part of the Biden cam­paign, but rather a sys­temic fail­ure on the part of media out­lets, that should not be anoint­ing a pres­i­den­tial fron­trun­ner as inevitable.”

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