The Media Today

Bernie Sanders’s media criticism

August 16, 2019

There’s nothing unusual about politicians complaining of unfair coverage. Recently, however, a number of Democratic presidential candidates have ventured beyond garden-variety gripes to make broader critiques of the political press. After a gunman citing a “Hispanic invasion” murdered 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, a reporter asked Beto O’Rourke if President Trump could do anything to “make this better”; O’Rourke replied with exasperation. “He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals,” he said. “I don’t know, like, members of the press, what the fuck?! It’s these questions that you know the answers to.” Last weekend, also responding to a question about Trump’s racism, Julián Castro said, “American journalists are so steeped in a ‘both sides’ dynamic… That presents a problem when things are generally right and wrong.” Days later, Symone Sanders, an adviser to Joe Biden’s campaign, took aim at CNN for its trivial focus on Biden’s “gaffes.” (He had just confused the Parkland and Sandy Hook school shootings, amid other missteps.) “This is a press narrative, not a voter narrative,” Sanders said.

This week, it was Bernie Sanders’s turn to target the media. On Monday, at a campaign event in New Hampshire, Sanders complained that Amazon paid no federal income tax last year. “I talk about that all of the time, and then I wonder why The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me,” Sanders said. The Post responded tersely. In a statement to CNN, Martin Baron, its editor, called Sanders’s characterization a “conspiracy theory”; Brian Fung and Cecilia Kang, both of whom used to cover tech for the paper, insisted on Twitter that Bezos does not influence coverage. On Tuesday, Sanders clarified his position. “I think my criticism of the corporate media is not… that they wake up, you know, in the morning and say, ‘What could we do to hurt Bernie Sanders?’” he told CNN. Instead, he says, “There is a framework of what we can discuss and what we cannot discuss, and that’s a serious problem.”

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This view is rooted, at least in part, in personal grievance—Sanders and many of his supporters say the mainstream press has consistently downplayed the success of his candidacy. Also, the complaint is not new: it echoes a line refined in 2016, during Sanders’s first presidential bid. But his media criticism still stands out from that of his rivals because it is structural: Sanders argues that media ownership is too concentrated in the hands of a small group of corporations whose interests shape coverage, as do those of advertisers. And the competitive, horse-racey nature of political reporting, they say, favors scoops over stories on persistent problems such as entrenched inequality. (This is a valid point, though it should be noted that Sanders’s claim that “not one reporter” has ever asked him about his plans to fix “grotesque” inequality is untrue.)

In recent months, to circumvent mainstream coverage, Sanders’s campaign has developed its own sophisticated media apparatus—molded in part by veterans of progressive news outlets. The campaign has a web show, called The 99, and a podcast, Hear the Bern, hosted by Briahna Joy Gray, who worked as an editor at Current Affairs and The Intercept before she became Sanders’s national press secretary. Yesterday, the campaign launched a newsletter, Bern Notice. Criticism of the media is a recurring theme across Sanders campaign communications, though in an ironic twist, Bern Notice has promised “scoops.” The first edition, by David Sirota, a senior adviser to the campaign who was previously a left-wing journalist and commentator, refers to “billionaire media tycoons” and the Post’s “ideological crusade” against Sanders. (No scoop there.)

The reaction to team Sanders’s view of the press has been high-pitched, and polarized. CNN’s Chris Cillizza chided Sanders for what he called a non-apology over the Bezos remarks; Nate Silver, editor of FiveThirtyEight, a data-driven news site, attacked Sanders’s “sense of entitlement… he feels as though that by virtue of having been the runner-up last time, he’s entitled to the nomination this time, and if he doesn’t win it, it’s only because ‘the media’/’the establishment’ took it away from him.” Sirota wrote in Bern Notice of “a full freak out by—shocker!—the Washington pundits who are paid by the corporations and billionaires who own the media.”

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There’s so much at stake in the 2020 campaigns that, at the whiff of a false equivalency, the press takes a hammering. It’s understandable that large media companies would receive criticism, and that reporters who work hard to expose inequality would resent that treatment. But not all politicians’ criticism of the media is equal, and while journalists should ignore cries of “fake news,” they would be wise to listen when someone’s making a valid point.

Below, more on Bernie Sanders:

  • Corn Dog Democrats: Sanders’s comments on Bezos followed coverage of his campaign trip to Iowa, where many outlets gave Sanders a poor review. Tara Golshan disagreed; for Vox, she explains how coverage missed the mark.
  • Labor relations: Last month, the Post reported that some of Sanders’s campaign staff were earning less than $15 an hour, a rate that Sanders has said should be the federally guaranteed minimum. After the story broke, Sanders complained to the Des Moines Register that staffers had aired their gripes in the media. “That is really not acceptable,” he said. “It is really not what labor negotiations are about, and it’s improper.”
  • It’s not just Bernie: David Uberti reports for Vice that Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, is funding “news outlets” in swing states that will publish stories favorable to Democrats. “This should be covered by local news, but local news is dying,” a spokesperson told Uberti.

Other notable stories:

  • The government of Israel moved to bar Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, Democratic members of Congress, from making a political visit to the country. Israel cited Omar and Tlaib’s support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign, but pressure applied by Trump reportedly was decisive. (Tlaib will be allowed to visit her grandmother, who lives in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on humanitarian grounds.) Politicians and pundits across the political divide criticized Israel’s decision, though some focused more on the bad “optics” than the principles. According to Amir Tibon, Washington correspondent for Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, Israel wanted to keep the media’s attention on 41 other Democratic lawmakers who just visited the country, but Trump “wants the media to focus entirely on Omar and Tlaib, because it’s good for him politically.”
  • Yesterday, the Post published a story by Carol D. Leonnig and Aaron C. Davis under the headline “Autopsy finds broken bones in Jeffrey Epstein’s neck, deepening questions around his death.” People familiar with the process told the paper that Epstein’s hyoid bone was among those to have been broken. “Such breaks can occur in those who hang themselves, particularly if they are older,” the story explains, “but they are more common in victims of homicide by strangulation.” The report stoked predictable conspiracy theories. But four experts told CNN’s Oliver Darcy that the evidence the Post presented—in particular, the fact that multiple bones were broken—seems highly consistent with suicide by hanging. (For more on Epstein, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with James B. Stewart, a Times columnist who visited Epstein’s mansion last year, on our podcast, The Kicker.)
  • Politico’s Michael Calderone tracks the feud between Nate Silver and reporters at the Times, where Silver used to work. Silver’s frequent criticism of the paper’s political coverage strikes some Times staffers “as less about methodology and more about personal grievances,” Calderone reports. And Slate’s Ashley Feinberg got the transcript of a meeting, on Monday, at which Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, addressed staffers’ concerns about the paper’s recent coverage of race and racism.
  • Emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show a cozy relationship between Trump’s Treasury Department and conservative outlets including Fox News, Breitbart, and The Daily Caller. Per The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr, David Asman, a Fox Business host, advised Tony Sayegh, a former Fox contributor who served as Treasury’s spokesperson, on tax policy, then contacted Sayegh to flag favorable coverage.
  • The Wall Street Journal’s Suzanne Vranica reports that advertisers are increasingly banning news websites from running their ads opposite stories that contain politically sensitive keywords, such as “Trump,” “Mueller,” and “shooting.” This “blacklisting,” Vranica writes, “threatens to hit publications’ revenue and is creating incentives to produce more lifestyle-oriented coverage that is less controversial than hard news.”
  • For CJR, Ryan Bell profiles Stuart Palley, a photographer whose long-term project, Terra Flamma, aims to counteract the media’s “rote and repetitive” coverage of wildfires and spotlight the role climate change plays in intensifying them. “I wanted to make pictures with more depth and nuance to help people understand the impact of wildfire instead of just getting into the horserace of breaking news,” Palley says.
  • For the Times, Charlie Warzel, Brianna Wu, Joan Donovan, and Sarah Jeong contributed to a package assessing Gamergate’s impact on internet culture five years after it started. “The lesson of Gamergate—the one we feel reverberating throughout our politics every day in 2019—is that there’s a sinister power afforded to those brazen enough to construct their own false realities and foist them on others,” Warzel writes.
  • On Monday, staff at The Ringer, a sports and culture website, announced the formation of a union with the Writers Guild of America, East. Three days later, management voluntarily recognized the effort.
  • And The Laundromat, a movie based on ICIJ’s Panama Papers investigation, will have its premiere at the Venice Biennale next month. Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas, and Gary Oldman are among the cast.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.