First Person

The one way Sanders is the new Trump

February 27, 2020
Photo: Gage Skidmore

The Wednesday morning after the 2016 presidential election, I wrote a piece for CJR criticizing the American press for its coverage of the rise of Trump, which I argued would “stand among journalism’s great failures.”

In the second paragraph, I wrote:

Reporters’ eagerness first to ridicule Trump and his supporters, then dismiss them, and finally to actively lobby and argue for their defeat have led us to a moment when the entire journalistic enterprise needs to be rethought and rebuilt. In terms of bellwether moments, this is our anti-Watergate.

Thought exercise: substitute “Sanders” for “Trump” in that first sentence. Here’s another paragraph:

Too often, the views of Trump’s followers … were dismissed entirely by an establishment media whose worldview is so different, and so counter, to theirs that it became chic to belittle them and wave them off. Reporters’ personal views got in the way of their ability to hear what was happening around them.

It is now obvious that we as an industry have learned nothing from the fundamental failures that led to the election of 2016. It is so apparent in the coverage of Trump, and has been from the beginning of his presidency, that it almost needn’t be said again: The hyper-partisanship, especially on cable news. The lack of follow-through from one outrage to the next. The willingness to let Trump, and his surrogates, set the news agenda again and again. The lack of creativity in covering a president who brings a destructive new imagination to the running of the country.

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I am resigned to these shortcomings when it comes to Trump. A journalistic reckoning I hoped would materialize never did; Twitter, outrage, and a million arbitrarily urgent news cycles got in the way. My hope, more recently, has been that the 2020 Democratic primaries could help atone for journalism’s political sins.

It is not going well, as the recent coverage of Bernie Sanders shows.

Despite Sanders’ electoral wins – including a gargantuan victory in Nevada – the political press, the establishment press, is determined to dismiss his standing as the front-runner. It is embarrassing itself in the process.

Once again, the echo chamber of the political reporting class is forcing it to miss a story as it materializes around them. So embedded are they in the status quo, and so determined to defend it, that they are treating the rise of Sanders as a personal affront. And indeed it is. Theirs is precisely the worldview Sanders is raging against. It is the same sneering, dismissive approach to coverage that we saw applied to Trump in 2016.

This should not be read as a warning shot against Sanders: We’re missing the rise of another Trump, and do so at a peril we’ve spent the last four years witnessing. That is not remotely what I believe. Sanders is not Trump. He’s multitudes more honest, compassionate, and thoughtful, and would be an enormously better president. As would everyone else now running.

My colleague Jon Allsop, whose terrific daily newsletter for CJR has chronicled the phenomenon, notes that the anti-Sanders panic reached a particular frenzy this week on MSNBC, with Nicolle Wallace fretting about too much attention being paid to a “squeaky, angry minority,” while Chris Matthews was forced to walk back his efforts to link the Nevada outcome to the fall of France in 1940. MSNBC’s management responded by vowing to bring in more Sanders-friendly talking heads.

But Margaret Sullivan, in The Washington Post, notes that the Sanders denial extends well beyond the hysterics on MSNBC. “The media keep falling in love,” headlines a recent Sullivan column,” with anybody but Bernie Sanders.” In that piece, Sullivan pinpoints the problem: “The subtext behind much of the disdain is partly a deep-seated sentiment that Sanders, if nominated, has little chance of winning the general election,” she wrote. “But it’s also partly — and more insidiously — that many journalists don’t identify easily with Sanders in the same way they do with, say, Warren or O’Rourke or Buttigieg.”

There’s the problem. Our job is not to frame coverage based on who we think will win in November. We don’t know. But that mindset also puts journalism on what I see as a dangerous path, one that will exacerbate the trust gap that has produced a crisis for our industry: that we’re seen as less than fair, that we have our minds made up, that our allegiances are with the party or politics rather than our readers or, dare I say, aspiring to tell the truth.

We are, in other words, precisely where we were at this point in the last election cycle. The fact that we have spent the last four years running in place is maddening.

When people go to the polls and vote, decisively, for one candidate over the others, the job of the press is not to dismiss those people or speculate about their candidate’s electability. Their job, our job, is to treat those facts seriously and to probe, through reporting, what they mean for the country and for our politics. How do we understand Sanders’ rise? What does that tell us about voters’ fears and frustrations? What does the emergence of yet another unorthodox populist tell us about where conventional politics, and conventional media, is getting it wrong?

I have my own theories. Primarily that this is a delayed reaction to the financial crash of 2007, which showed so many Americans that the system was rigged against them. When nobody in power paid a price, they lost faith. The election of 2016, and now 2020, is the outraged response, a decade in the making.

But that’s just my theory. I’d love some reporting to back that up or to tell me it’s wrong. I’d love to hear less screaming and less opining and more work understanding why Sanders is leading the pack.

I’d love, in other words, some journalism.

Kyle Pope was the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He is now executive director of strategic initiatives at Covering Climate Now.