The Media Today

As Bernie Sanders wins in Nevada, pundits freak out

February 24, 2020

On Saturday, Nevada held its Democratic caucuses, and Bernie Sanders won. Unlike in Iowa and/or New Hampshire, the results weren’t close/marred by logistical chaos; with most of the votes counted, Sanders had won close to half of the county convention delegates on offer, handily beating all the moderates in the race put together. The vast majority of the country is yet to vote, of course, and there surely are twists and turns to come; still, as things stand, it looks rather like Sanders is running away with the Democratic nomination. This state of affairs has been foreseeable for a while, yet the chatter of the pundit class—which loves both suspense and Democrats who aren’t Bernie Sanders—has obscured it, to an extent. The results out of Nevada made it harder to avoid. Democrats “should start sobering up and thinking through the real possibility” of Sanders being the nominee, Joy Reid said, somewhat belatedly, at the top of her MSNBC show yesterday. “Bernie is the frontrunner now—full stop. It is what it is.”

What it is, among other things, is unpalatable to many of the talking heads on Reid’s network. The Sanders campaign has long had a fraught relationship with MSNBC, whose pundits have long criticized Sanders. Last week, things came to a head. Ahead of the network’s debate in Las Vegas last Wednesday, Sanders, according to Page Six, upbraided Phil Griffin, the network’s president, and jabbed another executive “repeatedly in the face with his finger”; meanwhile, his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, told Tom Kludt, of Vanity Fair, that Fox News has been fairer on Sanders than MSNBC has. On Saturday, as the Nevada results came in, Kludt tweeted that “The resignation on MSNBC right now is palpable.” Chris Matthews—who, in weeks past, already compared Sanders to George McGovern, “some old guy with some old literature from his socialist party,” and “Castro and the Reds”—likened his breakthrough in Nevada to “the fall of France in the summer of 1940.” James Carville—a Democratic strategist who Sanders recently called a “political hack”—said on air that the Nevada results were “going very well for Vladimir Putin.” (It emerged last week that Russia is trying to boost the chances of both Sanders and Donald Trump, perhaps seeing the former as conducive to the latter; in response, Sanders warned Putin to stay out of the election.) Talking with Carville, Nicolle Wallace, an MSNBC anchor, said the Sanders and Trump campaigns are alike in their use of “dark arts, of abusing the press, of bullying the press,” and warned of the dangers of “paying attention to a squeaky, angry minority.” Yesterday, on Reid’s show, Jimmy Williams, a commentator and operative who is currently advising Tom Steyer, called on Democratic elites to “speak up”—if they don’t, Williams said, Sanders will be the nominee, which would be “a major disaster for the country.”

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MSNBC was far from the only vehicle for fretting and other forms of Sanders-skepticism over the weekend. In news stories, moderate down-ballot Democrats and figures from the party establishment distanced themselves from Sanders and griped about party elites’ ineffectiveness in stopping him. (In one such story, Edward-Isaac Dovere, of The Atlantic, wrote that so far, “the supposedly all-powerful leaders of the party have been about as well organized as The Muppet Show.”) Jennifer Rubin, a columnist for the Washington Post, tweeted that the Democrats “are playing high risk with horrid ramifications.” The political panel on Face the Nation, on CBS, chewed on Sanders’s “divisive” rhetoric; on State of the Union, on CNN, we heard again that Putin was the real winner in Nevada. Rick Santorum, the Republican former senator turned CNN talking head, said on the same show that Sanders represents “the extreme of the Democratic Party.” (Santorum does not believe the same is true of Trump vis-à-vis the GOP.)

In some quarters, these and similar takes co-existed with detailed data from the Nevada caucuses, which painted a very different picture. According to entrance polls, Sanders won among men, women, white voters, Latinx voters, all age groups aside from the over-65s, and all issue-priority groups aside from people who care foremost about foreign policy. He won a plurality of caucusgoers who described themselves as moderate or conservative, and a plurality of caucusgoers from union households—despite the well-advertised opposition of leaders of the state’s powerful Culinary Workers Union to Sanders’s flagship Medicare for All policy. All in all, in fact, a clear majority of caucusgoers expressed support of that plan.

As Ryan Lizza wrote for Politico, Sanders’s broad-based coalition in Nevada “laid waste not just to his five main rivals but also to every shard of conventional wisdom about the Democratic presidential primaries. You could see the dominoes of punditry cliches falling inside the caucus rooms.” Cable news, in particular, has been responsible for the dominance of such cliches in campaign coverage to this point. Predicting who will vote for whom is a hard task, of course. When it comes to coverage of Sanders, it’s been made harder still by the dearth of pundits who understand his worldview, let alone support it. TV news panels (and, it must also be said, some newspaper opinion sections) have been dominated by voices who represent, or at least channel, the moderate establishments of the Democratic and Republican parties; after 2016, some outlets added a sprinkling of pro-Trump voices to their offerings, but continued to neglect pro-Sanders voices, despite their increased relevance. There are some exceptions to the rule. CNN added Alexandra Rojas, who worked on Sanders’s 2016 campaign, as a political commentator (she was on State of the Union yesterday); on MSNBC, some personalities—Chris Hayes, Ali Velshi, and Anand Giridharadas, for example—have given Sanders and his policies a fairer hearing than others. Still, as Kludt wrote for Vanity Fair last week, “Identifying a Sanders sympathizer on MSNBC’s roster is reminiscent of Where’s Waldo?

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This lack of representativeness isn’t just a problem because it limits the range of ideas we get to substantively debate (though that is certainly a big concern). Whatever you think of its merits, it also distorts our coverage of the horserace—if we skew our opinion programming toward elites, we miss large swathes of viewpoints that are influential in the country. Trump’s rise proved this in 2016, yet still we seem surprised by the Sanders surge. That’s unforgivably complacent; as a result, much of the national political conversation feels panicked and reactive.

On Reid’s show yesterday, Giridharadas tackled this short-sightedness head on. “I think this is a wake-up moment for the American power establishment,” he said, implicating the media in general—and Matthews, in particular—in his critique. Faced with Sanders’s success, this establishment is behaving “like out-of-touch aristocrats in a dying aristocracy,” Giridharadas said. “It is time for all of us to step up, rethink, and understand the dawn of what may be, frankly, a new era in American life.” Reid’s first response was to defend her friend Chris Matthews.

Below, more on Sanders and 2020:

Other notable stories:

  • Trump is visiting India this week. On the agenda: “made-for-TV” moments, including a rally, headlined “Namaste Trump,” at the largest cricket stadium in the world; a visit to the Taj Mahal (the tourist landmark, not the twice-bankrupted Trump casino); and maybe, if there’s time, some trade talk. (“I hear it’s going to be a big event,” Trump said yesterday, ahead of the trip. “Some people say the biggest event they’ve ever had in India.”) Ahead of time, journalists emphasized similarities between Trump and Narendra Modi, India’s populist, Hindu-nationalist prime minister, including around their treatment of the press. Rana Ayyub, a high-profile Indian reporter, writes for the Washington Post that Trump “will surely feel right at home with a government that also dismisses critical news stories as fake and casts aspersions on journalistic integrity everyday.” (ICYMI, the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins profiled Ayyub and the state of Indian journalism last year.)
  • Last week, China expelled three journalists from the Wall Street Journal in response to a headline, in the paper’s opinion section, referring to the country as “the sick man of Asia.” Per the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, the Journal’s China staff called the headline “deeply offensive” and urged management to apologize. It will not do so. For CJR, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, writes that the US government’s recent designation of five Chinese state-run outlets as “foreign missions” likely also had something to do with the expulsions. The designation, Simon says, was a bad idea—not least because it risks hindering reporting on the coronavirus.
  • Ahead of the census later this year, the Republican National Committee has been mailing California residents questionnaires that look like the official form; as Sarah D. Wire reports for the LA Times, “Critics say the misleading mailers… are designed to confuse people and possibly lower the response rate when the count begins.” Steve Contorno, of the Tampa Bay Times, found the mailer in Florida, too. (The forms do state that they were sent by the Republican Party, alongside an appeal for donations.)
  • Last week, E. Jean Carroll said that Elle magazine fired her because of Trump’s response to a rape allegation Carroll made against him last year. Elle responded that it killed Carroll’s column (which was lavishly paid) for business reasons that had “nothing to do with politics.” According to Katherine Rosman and Jessica Bennett, of the Times, the magazine’s loyalty to Carroll was largely eroded by the time of her termination—in part because she took the book excerpt containing her rape claim to New York, not Elle.
  • Last week, American Media Inc., which is (still) the parent company of the National Enquirer, sold Muscle & Fitness, Muscle & Fitness Hers, and Flex magazines, as well as its bodybuilding-show business, to the entrepreneur Jake Wood. As Keith J. Kelly writes in the New York Post, Men’s Journal, another AMI title, seemed to “dodge a bullet” when it was left out of that deal—but on Friday, its entire editorial staff was laid off.
  • Last week, a far-right extremist in Hanau, Germany, killed nine people at two hookah bars. The murders, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch argues, echoed hate-fueled trends in the US, yet got little play in American media. The attacks “barely dented the bottom of the hour,” Bunch writes. “That’s disgraceful—and arguably racist.”
  • And as Kanye West has become a fixture in Cody, Wyoming, the town’s newspaper, the Enterprise, has mostly refrained from reporting gossip about him—but its readers and columnists have been less circumspect. Jonah Engel Bromwich, of the Times, has 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.