Want More Proof of Corporate Media’s Anti-Bernie Bias? Look at MSNBC’s Democratic Debate.

During the debate and in the spin room, Sanders was treated more like an outsider than a front runner. It’s part of a broader anti-Bernie slant in the “liberal” network’s coverage.

Branko Marcetic November 21, 2019

MSNBC’s anti-Bernie Sanders bias was on full display in Wednesday’s Democratic debate. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Wednes­day night’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial debate was host­ed by MSNBC, and the result could have been expect­ed for any­one who read In These Times’ recent two-month study of the network’s cov­er­age of the three nation­al­ly lead­ing candidates.

In that sto­ry (which I authored), In These Times found that the net­work con­sis­tent­ly cov­ers Bernie Sanders the least of the top three can­di­dates, as well as most neg­a­tive­ly; that it cov­ers Eliz­a­beth War­ren most pos­i­tive­ly; and that both are dwarfed by the network’s over­whelm­ing focus on Joe Biden, who was often por­trayed as the safest” choice of the field. The network’s polit­i­cal cov­er­age also revolved almost exclu­sive­ly around fluc­tu­at­ing poll num­bers and elec­tabil­i­ty” — as defined by its hosts and guests.

These fea­tures found their way into Wednesday’s debate, which was pre­ced­ed by a pan­el dis­cus­sion devot­ed, as so much of the network’s 2020 cov­er­age has been, to nar­row­ing the imag­i­na­tions of its large­ly old­er, Demo­c­ra­t­ic-vot­ing view­er­ship. In the wake of two weeks of impeach­ment hear­ings, the pan­elists attempt­ed to frame the debate as a ref­er­en­dum on Trump, with for­mer cen­trist Mis­souri Sen. Claire McCaskill, oust­ed in 2018 and crit­i­cized by local African-Amer­i­can lead­ers for not doing enough to excite black vot­ers in the state, pre­dict­ing that Trump will be front and cen­ter in the debate tonight.”

The par­ty is get­ting the rap, deserved­ly so, for becom­ing this trav­el­ing puri­ty test,” said anchor Bri­an Williams. Will a day like today force a stage like this one to coa­lesce around a mes­sage of we’ve got­ta beat this guy?’”

Chris Matthews, who togeth­er with Williams made up MSNBC’s most anti-Sanders con­tin­gent of anchors, went on to out­line the way the net­work has allowed its own com­mer­cial inter­ests to help shape its news content.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty right now I believe is an anti-Trump par­ty,” he said. I can tell from the rat­ings peo­ple would much rather watch the decline and fall of Don­ald Trump than watch the bat­tle among these peo­ple. … Which tells me, they real­ly, real­ly have one pas­sion going into next year’s elec­tion: Beat Trump. I think that’s dri­ving everything.”

It was up to Steve Schmidt — long­time Repub­li­can, chief strate­gist for John McCain’s 2008 cam­paign, and fresh off of advis­ing Star­bucks bil­lion­aire Howard Schultz’s abort­ed anti-pro­gres­sive run — to deliv­er the left-punch­ing bro­mides usu­al­ly tak­en up by McCaskill.

Warn­ing there was a dan­ger with some of the ide­ol­o­gy that we’ve seen front and cen­ter in this field,” Schmidt assert­ed that a sociopath will beat a social­ist, I think, sev­en days a week and twice on Sun­day,” as the cam­era cut to Sanders get­ting ready on stage. Schmidt appeared to for­get that his own can­di­date in 2008 had lost hand­i­ly after try­ing to label his Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nent a social­ist.” McCaskill, mean­while, not­ed that black women are over­rep­re­sent­ed” in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry con­test and that can­di­dates should keep in mind that gen­er­al elec­tion audi­ence in November.”

The dynam­ics of the debate itself also mir­rored In These Times’ recent find­ings, albeit in sub­tler ways. Though in the final New York Times tal­ly, Sanders land­ed fourth in terms of speak­ing time, he was about a minute behind Joe Biden who sat in third place, and Sanders’ time was in the same vicin­i­ty as low­er-tier can­di­dates like Cory Book­er (bare­ly reg­is­ter­ing in both ear­ly states and nation­al­ly), Kamala Har­ris (polling at sin­gle dig­its), and Amy Klobuchar, anoth­er cen­trist can­di­date whose elec­tabil­i­ty” has been talked up by pun­dits even as she floun­ders with lit­tle sup­port among voters.

Despite the final result, at 40 min­utes into the debate, the New York Times clocked Sanders at fourth from the bot­tom in terms of speak­ing time, with Book­er, Har­ris, Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg far ahead of him. Thir­teen min­utes lat­er, he had moved up slight­ly in the shuf­fle, with Klobuchar now at the very top. Nine min­utes after that, he was again fourth from the bot­tom, with Klobuchar sit­ting at third. The mod­er­a­tors threw it to Klobuchar after an answer from bil­lion­aire Tom Stey­er about spe­cial inter­est mon­ey and term lim­its that name-checked Sanders but didn’t men­tion her — break­ing one of the express rules of the debate format.

Sanders was also notably skipped over on the top­ics of unaf­ford­able hous­ing (though Tom Stey­er, who has no hous­ing plan, spoke on the issue), vot­ing rights (though he made a point about it dur­ing an unre­lat­ed exchange between Tul­si Gab­bard and Buttigieg), and white suprema­cist ter­ror­ism, despite being the only Jew­ish can­di­date on stage and hav­ing pub­lish­ing an op-ed about com­bat­ing anti­semitism ear­li­er this month. Sanders was also left out of the dis­cus­sion about racial jus­tice that fol­lowed, which War­ren was asked to weigh in on.

War­ren wound up marked­ly ahead of all oth­er can­di­dates in speak­ing time. This result was sim­i­lar to the near­ly six-minute advan­tage she held over her clos­est rival in October’s debate (in which she had a near­ly 10-minute lead on Sanders), and her sec­ond-place fin­ish in September’s debate, where she held more than a two-minute advan­tage over Sanders.

This tracks with In These Times’ find­ings of MSNBC’s cov­er­age over August and Sep­tem­ber. War­ren was not only the most pos­i­tive­ly cov­ered can­di­date across the network’s pro­grams — even on shows typ­i­cal­ly unfriend­ly to pro­gres­sivism, such as Matthews’ Hard­ball—but there was a tan­gi­ble shift in the way the net­work cov­ered her can­di­da­cy, increas­ing­ly ele­vat­ing War­ren explic­it­ly at Sanders’ expense in Sep­tem­ber, and hyp­ing that month’s debate as a show­down between War­ren and Biden, even as Sanders main­tained a sol­id stand­ing in the top three. September’s debate also saw Sanders passed over for a reply to an answer in which he was name-checked, in this case after Klobuchar had explic­it­ly men­tioned Sanders in her attack on the Medicare for All bill he authored. The mod­er­a­tor instead chose to seek a reply from Warren.

Though In These Times didn’t ana­lyze cov­er­age of Buttigieg for those months, his can­di­da­cy was the wild­card in this debate. Buttigieg’s rise in the polls in Iowa and New Hamp­shire — and only those states, giv­en that the South Bend may­or is enjoy­ing 0% black sup­port in one poll and is a dis­tant fourth nation­al­ly — has been a major cam­paign nar­ra­tive this month, par­tic­u­lar­ly as enthu­si­asm for Biden has some­what dimmed. Buttigieg end­ed up with the sec­ond-most speak­ing time last night, around the same amount as Biden.

In terms of pol­i­cy issues, the debate mod­er­a­tors gave short shrift to a num­ber of issues that might have inter­est­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers. Cli­mate change was dis­cussed, but not in-depth. The coup in Bolivia was ignored. Warren’s new tran­si­tion plan for Medicare for All — which would delay pass­ing uni­ver­sal health­care until year three of her pres­i­den­cy, and has been inter­pret­ed by Wall Street, the co-founder of cen­trist Wall Street-fund­ed think tank Third Way, and sev­er­al media com­men­ta­tors as a sign she’s back­ing away from Sanders’ pol­i­cy — went com­plete­ly unmen­tioned, even as Matthews had char­ac­ter­ized her as pulling back on Medicare for All” before the debate.

A string of recent con­tro­ver­sies around Buttigieg, such as the mea­ger amount of con­tracts giv­en to minor­i­ty-owned busi­ness­es by his South Bend may­oral office, his claim­ing of African-Amer­i­can endorsers who had nev­er actu­al­ly endorsed him, and his campaign’s cast­ing of homo­pho­bia as the rea­son for his non-exis­tent black sup­port, like­wise went unmen­tioned. (The mod­er­a­tors did, how­ev­er, ask Sanders if he agreed with his sup­port­ers chant­i­ng lock him up” at his rallies).

MSNBC’s post-debate dis­cus­sion returned to busi­ness as usu­al, with com­men­ta­tors once again cov­er­ing for anoth­er poor Biden per­for­mance that saw the for­mer vice pres­i­dent claim he had been picked as Obama’s run­ning mate because I come out of the black com­mu­ni­ty, in terms of my sup­port,” and that he had the endorse­ment of the only” black woman sen­a­tor in his­to­ry, to which Kamala Har­ris laughed. (“I thought he did pret­ty well,” said pan­elist and Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Eugene Robinson).

Matthews joined Klobuchar in decry­ing the pol­i­cy of free every­thing” (“I know these things sound good on a bumper stick­er, and maybe they want to throw in a free car…”). Matthews also cas­ti­gat­ed Sanders for say­ing that our sys­tem is cor­rupt,” warn­ing him to be care­ful about that lan­guage” because that’s too strong.” Williams cast the con­test as between the side of puri­ty-test­ing” and mid­dle-of-the-road elec­tabil­i­ty.” Schmidt declared that May­or Pete had an excep­tion­al night” with a pret­ty flaw­less” per­for­mance and attacked Gab­bard, who had crit­i­cized Buttigieg, as just awful,” spec­tac­u­lar­ly bad,” and dis­hon­est.” (Biden, mean­while, had prob­a­bly his strongest debate per­for­mance,” accord­ing to Schmidt).

Still, there were some signs things may be chang­ing at the net­work. Among the guests asked by Williams to weigh in was Michael Moore, who made a forth­right and rare (for the net­work) case for Sanders’ can­di­da­cy. Anchor Lawrence O’Donnell, while gen­er­al­ly prais­ing Biden’s per­for­mance, harsh­ly crit­i­cized the front runner’s onstage era­sure of Har­ris, call­ing it as bad a moment as he could have had.”

Per­haps the net­work is real­iz­ing that there’s a lim­it to the extent it can shape polit­i­cal real­i­ty. Or, per­haps, real­i­ty is start­ing to push back.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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