Bernie Sanders and the Biases of Mainstream American Media

March 10, 2020
Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders speaks to the press in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. JIM WATSON / AFP.

American mainstream media has been generally biased against Senator Bernie Sanders since he announced his candidacy in February 2019. 

The self-described Democratic socialist is ostensibly the most progressive candidate running in the Democratic party, with a policy platform that promotes free healthcare, forgiveness of college tuition debt and significant taxes on the country’s millionaires and billionaires. His relentless and consistent focus on economic inequality demonstrates a clear break from the status quo, championed by the traditional Democratic establishment, the ruling class and their uncritical arm in the mainstream media. 

At first, mainstream networks and pundits omitted Sanders from their coverage, even when he was consistently surging in major polls. But as Sanders’ campaign gained steam and he began to trounce fellow candidates poll after poll and vote after vote, eventually scoring the unprecedented victory of being the first presidential candidate in the history of the country to win the popular vote in all three first states, his threat to the Democratic establishment was all too clear to ignore. 

In recent weeks, major networks and newspapers finally took off their gloves and brought their sneering contempt for Sanders into the limelight. What was a quiet ignorance of the Sanders candidacy turned into a full-blown offensive not often focused on his policy platform, but uniquely attacking his age, tone of voice, support base and health to try and curb the candidate’s steadfast popularity among voters. 

Heated primaries

A day before the Iowa Democratic caucuses on 3 February, the first nominating contest of the presidential elections, the release of one of the most influential polls of the primaries results was halted following a complaint lodged by former Democratic bidder Pete Buttigieg, who suspended his campaign on Sunday and endorsed Joe Biden. 

The Buttigieg campaign said that his name was scrapped by at least one survey, leading the Des Moines Register and CNN to cancel the poll’s release. What came next was a delay in releasing the results of the caucuses themselves, raising legitimate questions about the funders of the group responsible for the voting app. While Buttigieg acquired more delegates than Sanders, the latter won the popular vote. Sanders went on to win the New Hampshire and Nevada primaries as well. 

One day before the Nevada caucus, The Washington Post ran an article claiming that Sanders was briefed by US officials that Russia was attempting to support his campaign, citing unnamed “people familiar with the matter.” The report, conveniently published a day before a major vote despite Sanders being briefed a month before, gives no details on the form this alleged “Russian assistance” has taken. 

Instead of pushing back or demanding evidence for those claims, Sanders stated: “My message to Putin is clear: stay out of American elections, and as president, I will make sure that you do.” The story builds on the same hysteria over Russian interference in US elections that followed Hillary Clinton’s defeat to Donald Trump in 2016. 

The same newspaper ran a story based on similar fear-mongering last year, focusing on Sanders’ honeymoon in Moscow in 1988. The Washington Post’s disdain for Sanders is perhaps understandable. The newspaper is, after all, owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world. Under Sander’s tax cut plan, Bezos would pay $9 billion in taxes in 2019 alone. 

Meanwhile, The New York Times endorsed presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar earlier this year, unprecedentedly making two Democratic nominees share a single endorsement. 

The Times endorsement arguably attempted to buy a new lease of life for two campaigns that were clearly in downfall, but it was evidently not enough to save either candidate from obscurity: both Warren and Klobuchar sat comfortably in third and fourth places, respectively, both in the popular vote and the number of total pledged delegates, until Klobuchar dropped out of the race earlier this week and endorsed Biden. In a feeble attempt at saving face, the Times published an editorial last month titled, “The Primaries Are Just Dumb.” 

Bigoted attacks 

Corporate media outlets like CNN and MSNBC, whose rosters are littered with ex-FBI and CIA officials, have been more blatant, and sometimes outright anti-Semitic, in their attacks on Sanders. 

Chris Matthews of MSNBC compared Sanders’ landslide victory in the Nevada caucus to Nazi Germany occupying France in 1940. “I was reading last night about the fall of France in the summer of 1940 and the general, Reynaud, calls up Churchill and says, ‘It’s over.’ And Churchill says, ‘How can that be? You’ve got the greatest army in Europe. How can it be over?’ He said, ‘It’s over.’ ” Following outcry, Matthews apologized directly to Sanders and called him the “well-deserved winner.” Sanders’ own family members perished during the Nazi Holocaust. 

Matthews abruptly announced his resignation from the major network earlier this month. 

This was not the first time MSNBC aired bigoted attacks against the Jewish nominee. Two weeks before Matthews’ comments, fellow network host Chuck Todd positively cited a right-wing column comparing Sanders’ online supporters to “brown shirts” — a Nazi paramilitary wing. 

The laundry list of media attacks goes on. A pundit on MSNBC once claimed that those who support Sanders over Warren are showing their “sexism.” Another MSNBC guest said that for reasons she “can’t even identify,” Sanders “makes my skin crawl.” A CNN host compared Sanders’ campaign to the coronavirus, running a segment with the chyron, “Can Either Coronavirus or Bernie Sanders Be Stopped?” referring to the virus rapidly spreading across the globe and which has already claimed the lives of some 3,000 people. Neoliberal magazine The Economist ran a cover story last week equating Sanders and Trump as the “American nightmare.” 

Not only did mainstream networks offensively attack Sanders, but they also gave his contenders a leg up by running stories meant to undermine him. 

CNN ran a story before the Democratic debates in Iowa alleging that Sanders told Warren in a private 2018 meeting that he didn’t think a woman could win the presidency, citing four unnamed sources, none of which claim to have been present during the meeting. While past reports cast doubt on the possibility of the interaction taking place as described, and despite Sanders denying that he said those words, CNN still ran it without contest. 

During the debates, one of the moderators asked Sanders for clarification after he clearly denied ever having said those words to Warren. “Senator Sanders, I do want to be clear here, you’re saying that you never told Senator Warren that a woman could not win the election?” Abby Phillip asked. “That is correct,” Sanders responded. 

Without a hint of irony or doubt, Phillip turned to Warren and said, “Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”, completely dismissing Sander’s account. 

2016 to 2020

The mainstream media’s disdain for Sanders is not unfamiliar. 

When Sanders ran in 2016, and despite being fellow nominee Hillary Clinton’s central and strongest contender for the Democratic nomination at the time, Sanders received less than 2 percent of overall 2016 campaign coverage from the three major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) in 2015, according to an analysis by the Tyndall Report of the combined coverage during weekday nightly newscasts of the three networks. 

Donald Trump received a whopping 32 percent of the overall 2016 campaign coverage on those platforms, while Clinton received some 23 percent overall coverage, with eight percent uniquely dedicated to the WikiLeaks publication of tens of thousands of emails she sent and received when she was President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. 

“The second most newsworthy Democrat was a non-candidate,” the analysis concluded, giving Biden’s non-candidacy seven percent of the coverage, almost four times more coverage than Sanders, who was in second place. 

More liberal television news channels, like CNN and MSNBC, seemed to actively ignore Sanders during the 2016 campaigns, prompting thousands of his supporters to protest CNN in front of its headquarters in Hollywood in April of that year, using the hashtag #OccupyCNN on Twitter. 

Even newspapers masquerading as more progressive, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, proved to have an establishment bend at the outset. 

Responding to criticism that the Times was actively ignoring Sanders’ candidacy in 2016, public editor at the time Margaret Sullivan admitted in September 2015 that her paper “hasn’t always taken it very seriously” and that his “entry into the presidential race was almost a non-event” for the newspaper. 

“The tone of some stories is regrettably dismissive, even mocking at times. Some of that is focused on the candidate’s age, appearance and style, rather than what he has to say,” Sullivan added. 

Similar accusations were hurdled at The Washington Post as well. At some point, the newspaper ran 16 negative stories on Sanders in 16 hours. 

Why is Sanders a threat? 

The Democratic establishment is probably thrilled at the media’s attacks on Sanders. It is no longer a secret that the establishment is also ready to turn its back on its party’s candidate if necessary. Some superdelegates said as much to The New York Times when asked if they’d risk interparty damage to stop his nomination. A majority of the 93 superdelegates interviewed by the newspaper said they’d prevent Sanders from receiving the nomination even if he landed “the most delegates but fell short of a majority.” 

Perhaps Sanders’ break from the Democratic party can be epitomized in one example. During last month’s Democratic debate in Nevada, moderator Chuck Todd asked the candidates whether the person with the most delegates should get the nomination. “There’s a very good chance none of you are going to have enough delegates,” Todd said. “Should the person with the most delegates at the end of this primary season be the nominee even if they are short of a majority?” Unsurprisingly, Sanders was the only candidate on stage to say that the person with the most votes should get the nomination. 

In a sea of centrist fellow candidates, with some adopting progressive aesthetics, Sanders sticks out like a sore thumb. Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke all withdrew their tickets for the Democratic nomination and endorsed Biden ahead of the Super Tuesday vote, in which the greatest number of states hold their primary nominations on a single day. This helped merge the centrist vote and gave Biden a significant boost. As for the seemingly progressive vote, it is still split between Warren and Sanders. Warren notably insists on remaining in the race despite polling low and landing at third place in her home state of Massachusetts. A Bernie Sanders victory could embolden divisions between the party’s establishment and its progressive wing, fundamentally and perhaps permanently altering the features of the party. Perhaps Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed Sanders, said it best, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” 

Furthermore, certain foreign policy positions of Sanders mark a clear shift between him and other candidates. Sanders was the first presidential candidate to say he may leverage US military aid to Israel to force it to respect Palestinian rights. He even refrained from attending major Israel lobby group AIPAC’s conference two weeks ago. Sanders also has a firmer position than his contenders in opposition to US imperialist wars. While those positions present a radical shift within the Democratic party itself, Sanders is by no means a champion of Palestinian rights or anti-imperialism. 

“Sanders occasionally exhibits empathy for Palestinians and regularly highlights the difficulties of life under Israeli occupation (1967 only), but he doesn’t use a fighting vocabulary.  He never speaks of colonization, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, apartheid, or land theft. ‘Occupation’ is the strongest word he deploys,” scholar Steven Salaita recently wrote

“He also has a habit of reserving sharp criticism for Netanyahu, usually positioned as a Trumpian aberration from a more benevolent norm, In Sanders’s lexicon, the problem isn’t Zionism, but Netanyahu’s Israel.” 

Attacks from US mainstream media on Sanders should not be a surprise, however. 

In the United States, six corporations own some 90 percent of the media consumed by average Americans, as journalist Rania Khalek explains. Not only does this knowledge completely dismantle any semblance of pretense that American consumers are afforded choice when it comes to the news, but it further emboldens the line between the ruling class funding those corporations, and the grassroots movement supporting Sanders. 

“The major media–particularly, the elite media that set the agenda that others generally follow– are corporations ‘selling’ privileged audiences to other businesses. It would hardly come as a surprise if the picture of the world they present were to reflect the perspectives and interests of the sellers, the buyers, and the product,” scholar Noam Chomsky wrote in his book Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies

With corporate media and mainstream networks owned by the ruling billionaire class, acting in the interests of the Democratic establishment, egging on regime change wars and uncritically covering US-staged coups in foreign countries, journalism and state-owned media are starting to sound similar. 


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