The Media Today

Coverage of Bernie Sanders suffers from a lack of imagination

February 11, 2020

Bernie Sanders is on a roll. Following his strong showing in Iowa—where he won the most votes and the second most delegates (pending the mess there ever being cleared up)—he’s the favorite to win today’s primary in New Hampshire, which would establish him, surely, as the Democratic frontrunner. Yesterday, a new poll from Quinnipiac showed Sanders leading the field nationally, eight points ahead of Joe Biden, who led the last national poll that Quinnipiac released. The data site FiveThirtyEight currently has Sanders as a 2 in 5 bet to win the nomination outright. Second favorite, at 3 in 10, is No One.

The usual caveats about polls, probabilities, and predictions apply here, of course. Still, in light of longerterm trends, the Sanders surge shouldn’t come as a surprise. In the latter months of last year—as Sanders climbed in Iowa and New Hampshire, in particular—his campaign and its supporters complained repeatedly that mainstream news-media coverage was understating his rise, and ignoring other indicators of his strength, including fundraising. In November, David Sirota, a former journalist who works for Sanders’s campaign, listed examples of the trend in Bern Notice, his email newsletter; they included a New York Times push notification comparing the polling positions of Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, but omitting Sanders, even though he came second in the poll in question, and a CNN chyron to similar effect. To hammer his point home, Sirota quoted a headline from The Onion: “MSNBC Poll Finds Support For Bernie Sanders has plummeted two points up.”

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It’s not just polling stories. Supporters of Sanders believe he has been the victim of a range of media sins, both in 2016, when he ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and now. Sins of omission—the claim that the media ignores Sanders—can be hard to quantify, but some left-wing journalists have tried; writing for In These Times, for example, Branko Marcetic calculated that, in August and September of last year, primetime shows on MSNBC mentioned Sanders less than they did Warren and far less than they did Biden. Marcetic’s study, while limited in scope, found evidence, too, of sins of commission—the idea that when Sanders is covered, he’s often treated more negatively than his rivals. Online, his supporters frequently call out stories and snippets that, to their eyes, fail to give Sanders a fair shake. So far this year, those have included Sanders’s interview with the Times’s editorial board (sample question: “I’m wondering how you flying around the country in 2021 rallying the people would be different than what Donald Trump has been doing?”); a range of pieces, including one in the Times, on the perceived bullying tactics of Sanders’s “internet army”; and the wall-to-wall coverage of Warren’s claim that Sanders told her a woman can’t win in 2020. Sanders has denied saying this; when he reiterated the denial during a debate on CNN last month, the moderators plowed on as if Warren’s claim were an undisputed statement of fact, riling Sanders fans some more.

Sanders’s strong showing in Iowa has made him harder to ignore; nonetheless, the past week has seen some repetitions of these tropes. After ABC News wrapped its debate on Friday night, its political panel didn’t substantively mention Sanders for 13 minutes. Over on MSNBC, Chris Matthews launched into a bizarre anti-Sanders rant, railing about the Cold War, Castro, “the Reds,” and “executions in Central Park.” Also last week, Matthews compared Sanders to “some old guy with some old literature from his socialist party,” and to George McGovern.

Mooted explanations for skewed coverage of Sanders run the gamut—from conspiracies about the media’s corporate overlords to subtler, structural critiques. (Last summer, Sanders himself suggested that the Washington Post is mean to him because it’s owned by Jeff Bezos, whose business practices Sanders has criticized; later, he clarified that he doesn’t see an intentional effort to harm him, but rather “a framework of what we can discuss and what we cannot discuss.”) As I’ve written before, whatever the reasons for it may be, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that important parts of the media—newspaper opinion sections and cable news panels, in particular—lack an adequate conceptual framework for the discussion of progressive politics and issues. (Not everyone, it’s important to note, falls into this category; progressive outlets, many of which have boomed under Trump, have often been much more sophisticated in their coverage of the left.) In one sense, this is a problem of language. In recent years, as the right has burgeoned, we’ve worked to parse its ideological gradations. The left is growing, too, yet we still use disparate terms—“progressive,” “liberal,” “left”—more interchangeably.

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In a broader sense, such parts of the media often have a hard time conceiving of possible worlds beyond the status quo. Inevitably, that failure of imagination has limited our coverage of Sanders. That’s not to say Sanders shouldn’t face scrutiny—his agenda is highly ambitious, and we should ask sharp questions about its political viability as well as its logistics. But those aren’t the questions we’re asking; not consistently, at least. Instead, when he toured the Sunday shows this past weekend, Sanders faced questions about remarks he made 50 years ago, competency concerns raised by the mess in Iowa (for which he was not responsible), his hostility toward billionaires (They’re People, Too! Chuck Todd said), and the likelihood of Trump weaponizing the toxicity of “socialism” to harm him. (This is a fair point, but in making it incessantly, we risk wielding the weapon on Trump’s behalf.) Too often, we channel a world in which the status quo is neutral; where action always costs money but inaction does not.

Do we ask other politicians to justify capitalism every time we interview them? Do we ask how much not doing Medicare for All or the Green New Deal would cost as often as we ask the inverse? Again, this isn’t about advocacy; it’s about recognizing that, at present, we tend to talk about such ideas, and the politicians who espouse them, in a one-sided way. “Imagination” might not seem a desirable trait to fact-based journalists, but without it, our coverage is constrained by the deadweight of conventional wisdom, which is a bias in itself. It’ll take imagination—more than we’re currently showing—to adequately frame, and interrogate, the choice facing America this year.

Below, more on the election:

  • Dixville’s Midnight Runners: Continuing a primary-day tradition, a handful of small New Hampshire towns voted just after midnight. One of them, Dixville Notch, gave us a surprise winner: Michael Bloomberg, who isn’t on the ballot in New Hampshire. Bloomberg was written in by 50 percent of voters—or two people, of the four present.
  • Stranglehold: For the Times, Marc Tracy profiles Stranglehold, a controversial podcast about the primary from New Hampshire Public Radio. Lauren Chooljian, its cohost, believes that the primary has been “protected and upheld by powerful people who stand to benefit from its survival”; the podcast’s detractors, including the former publisher of the Union Leader newspaper, have called it “a hatchet job.” (For more on the role of local media in the primary, Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire has a useful roundup.)
  • The never-ending Iowa story: Yesterday, the Times published a deep dive on the “epic fiasco” of the Iowa caucuses, which, believe it or not, were an even bigger mess than we all first thought. Among the new details: the chief financial officer of the Iowa Democratic Party, who was in charge of the caucus-night nerve center, “did not know how to operate a Google spreadsheet application used to input data.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Trump administration unveiled its budget yesterday. Among other measures, the Pentagon has proposed scaling back its funding of Stars and Stripes, a newspaper that, while owned and operated by the government, is editorially independent. (Stars and Stripes first learned of the proposed cut via an article in the Wall Street Journal.) An article on Stars and Stripes’s website explains that the paper is mostly funded by sales, subscriptions, and ads, but that it also “depends on the Defense Department subsidy to cover the expensive and sometimes dangerous task of overseas reporting and distribution.” The Pentagon cited “the public’s transition from print” to justify its proposal—but as CNN’s Barbara Starr notes, the print edition of Stars and Stripes reaches places where troops can’t use their phones. It’s not yet clear how much federal funding the paper stands to lose, but Congress looks likely to push back on the cut.
  • For CJR, Lee Siegel argues that news coverage failed to adequately communicate a sense of national crisis following Trump’s acquittal in the Senate. “The New York Times should have run, across its home and front page, an editorial declaring a national emergency. CNN should have devoted an entire day and night to panels declaring the same,” Siegel writes. “Instead the news cycle sank back into its well-worn grooves.”
  • In her newsletter, HEATED, Emily Atkin argues that the editorial boards of the Times and the Post are failing when it comes to climate change—their composition, she writes, displays “a concerning lack of climate expertise; a lack of representation from racial and gender groups most affected by climate change; and a history of sympathy for climate science denialism among the top editors.”
  • The Times’s Tim Arango profiles Carl Butz, a retiree who recently stepped in to keep the Mountain Messenger, a small paper in Downieville, California, from closing. “The story around town is how Mr. Butz saved the local newspaper,” Arango writes. “But Mr. Butz, a still-grieving widower… sees it another way. ‘It’s saving me,’ he said.”
  • Yesterday, officials in the Philippines filed a legal motion aimed at ending the franchise of ABS-CBN, a broadcast network that has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte and his war on drugs. (Last year, Maria Ressa, editor of the Philippines news site Rappler, wrote for CJR on being targeted by Duterte.)
  • It isn’t just Iowa that’s having trouble with an election app. In Israel—which is about to have its third elections in less than a year—a voter-outreach app used by Likud, the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, may inadvertently have exposed private information about every registered voter in the country. Haaretz has more details.
  • Following Tony Hall’s recent decision to step down as director general of the BBC, the hunt is on for his successor. According to The i, the British government, which is waging war on the broadcaster, sees Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert, as a suitable candidate for the role—a possibility that will likely “strike fear” into BBC staff.
  • And Carlos Ghosn—the businessman who recently fled house arrest in Japan hidden inside a box—has enlisted Michael Ovitz, the former president of Disney, to help him explore film and TV projects. Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw and Ania Nussbaum have more.

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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.