The "Bernie Blackout" appears to be over: How will the media cover the Sanders campaign now?

Corporate news media is finally taking the Sanders campaign seriously. Does that mean the end of anti-Bernie bias?

By Sophia A. McClennen
December 30, 2019 11:00AM (UTC)
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Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in Queensbridge Park on October 19, 2019 in Queens, New York City. (Photo by (Bauzen/GC Images)

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Senator Bernie Sanders has had a longstanding feud with corporate news media. Well before his 2016 presidential campaign, Sanders had a history of critiquing the corporate ownership of the U.S. press, its tendency to avoid covering stories that reveal U.S. oligarchy, and its preference for stories that cover political scandals over policy.

All of these criticisms came to a head, though, during his 2016 campaign, when data showed that the Sanders campaign was covered differently from that of other candidates. A 2015 study of what is referred to as the “invisible primary” conducted by the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that Sanders was given disproportionately less news coverage. They found that Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson each received more coverage than Sanders did during 2015. Hillary Clinton got three times more press than Sanders.  Data like this led to what Sanders supporters describe as the “Bernie Blackout.”

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But it was worse. Because, even though the Harvard study offered the positive news that, on those occasions when Sanders got coverage, he “was the most favorably reported candidate,” there were multiple examples of biased coverage of his campaign. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy came after an October 2015 debate between Clinton and Sanders where Sanders won every poll, yet, as Lee Camp pointed out on Redacted Tonight, CNN reported that Clinton had won the debate anyway. And who could forget the “Bernie Bros” narrative, which Glenn Greenwald described for the Intercept as a cheap pro-Clinton campaign tactic “masquerading as journalism and social activism”?

Going into the 2020 campaign many of the same habits were in place.  At least until recently.

In fact, it now seems that the Bernie Blackout may be waning. Jeet Heer, writing for The Nation, points out that the mainstream media and establishment Democrats are finally admitting that Sanders has a shot. Recent pieces in both Politico and The New York Times offer evidence that Sanders should be considered a serious contender. Politico quotes a series of Democratic insiders claiming that “Bernie could win the nomination.” According to The New York Times, Sanders is tough to beat. The Hill also recently ran a piece claiming that Joe Biden and Sanders are now the clear top two contenders.

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It should come as a huge relief to the Sanders campaign and his supporters that he is now, finally, being taken seriously in the media and being given the credit his campaign deserves. But will the end of the Bernie Blackout mean the end of anti-Bernie bias?

It won’t be enough to have more coverage of his campaign, if that coverage still skews to supporting the establishment elite. It won’t matter that we hear more about the rising tide of Sanders supporters, if they continue to be described as entitled, white dudes. And it won’t matter if we get more stories about him, if those stories insist on suggesting that his so-called radical policy plans make him unelectable.

So, even if his coverage starts to be on par with his support, given the history of Sanders coverage, there is reason to expect that media coverage will be biased against him and in favor of the establishment elite.

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Here are five types of anti-Bernie media bias to watch out for:

1. Undercutting his base of support

One of the most obvious examples of anti-Bernie bias has been the tendency to undercut his base of support. As evidenced by the “Bernie bro” narrative in 2016, we often hear that Sanders is unelectable because his base of support is too narrow. This is even more important to note in 2020, when Sanders has, in fact, widened his base of support significantly from 2016Findings from the Economist show that women under 45 made up a larger share of Sanders supporters than men — a fact made even more noteworthy by the fact that Sanders support skews largely towards younger voters.

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In fact, by virtually every metric available, data shows that Sanders has a sizable and diverse base of support. Yet, it is rare to hear about it. As Lee Camp has pointed out, Sanders rallies are massive, yet they never seem to get any media attention. In contrast, he explains, The New York Times ran a piece on October 21, suggesting that Amy Klobachar was getting second look, drawing crowds and new donors, when her numbers are minuscule in comparison with Sanders.

When Sanders held his “I Am Back” rally in New York in October after his heart attack, he drew an audience 6,000 larger than Elizabeth Warren’s the precious month. Yet, CNN coverage of the event chose not to mention the size of Bernie’s crowd at all.

This tweet gives a pretty clear picture of how strong attendance at Sanders rallies gets sidelined:

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Rallies, though, are just one of many metrics. How about campaign contributions and the number of donors? If we sideline Tom Steyer, who is the primary donor to his own campaign, Sanders is winning the money race too. Not only did he raise more than any other candidate in the third quarter of 2019; more than half of his contributions are from small donors giving $200 or less.

Yet, despite the fact that news coverage tends to highlight the top fundraising candidates, Sanders is yet to be treated by the corporate news media as a huge success in fundraising. Could the corporate ownership of the news media and the grassroots nature of Sanders support be the problem?  While it may be tempting to consider a corporate conspiracy on this, it still puzzles, because the Sanders fundraising story has such potential for mass appeal and the ratings that go with it.

There is one more piece of the story that may be even more puzzling. There is almost no attention of any kind to Sanders’s massive presence on social media. His @BernieSanders account , representing him as a candidate, has 10.1 million followers on Twitter (@SenSanders, his other official account, has 8.1 million) compared to only 4 million for Biden and 3.6 million for Warren. As a point of comparison, recall that Trump only had 6.8 million followers in 2016. Given the way that social media helped launch Trump in 2016, one would think that the mainstream news media would be paying closer attention to the social media reach of Sanders. Yet, thus far, they aren’t.

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2. Missing his success in polls

Polls, of course, are the go-to metric that tends to be favored in the news media. But what is weird in the Sanders story of media coverage of polls is how often the news media just seems to gloss over the actual data. In the most egregious examples, the news media seems to deliberately misrepresent the facts. CNN recently offered one of the most outrageous examples, when it reportedly twice-aired a six-week-old poll from Iowa showing Bernie in fourth place. At the time of their reporting, more recent polling showed Sanders clearly in second place behind Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

It is always a good idea to be skeptical of polling data — remember that the polls said Hillary Clinton was a sure thing in 2016. But even so, Sanders’s rising numbers in polls is still only thinly covered by the news media. As Zeeshan Aleem reports for Vice, in the past month Sanders has leaped ahead in the rankings in New HampshireIowa, and most recently South Carolina. Aleem also points to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that shows Sanders only “two points behind Biden among Democratic voters nationwide.” That poll also further dispelled the Bernie Bro myth by showing that Sanders leads the race among nonwhite voters. Aleem points to massive disparities in candidate coverage that simply don’t follow polling numbers: “the continued negligence of Sanders even as his poll numbers pick up is particularly galling — and suggests that he faces an unfair handicap as the primaries draw near.”

3. Ignoring his endorsements

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One of the most interesting metrics that the news media likes to cover are endorsements. And in that story, we can uncover one of the critical ways that the Sanders campaign is handicapped by news media coverage.

A number of outlets run endorsements trackers. Here is the one from FiveThirtyEight.  That list has Sanders ranked #5 and Biden on top. But here’s the catch. All they are tracking are party elites, a metric they say can be used to anticipate voter influence and the success of a candidate among powerful party members.

By that accounting, Sanders should be expected to be even lower on the list, given his unabashed critique of all forms of oligarchy, especially that of the DNC establishment.

Meanwhile, here is the real story about Sanders endorsements that the corporate news media isn’t covering.

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Bernie Sanders already leads all other Democratic candidates in endorsements by influencers. Besides having the support of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Sanders has collected influential endorsements from Noam Chomsky, Shaun King, Naomi Klein, Linda Sarsour and Cornel West.

Michael Moore has not only endorsed Sanders, he recently predicted Sanders could beat Trump—a fact worth noting since he was the only leading public figure to predict Trump’s win in 2016. According to Moore, "Bernie understands that capitalism and the greedy form of capitalism, especially, that we have now is at the core of so many of the problems that we're talking about."

The fact that Sanders has such strong backing by public figures with major reach and influence should be news; yet, that isn’t the story we have been hearing. Why is it that the news media leans towards only covering endorsements by party elites, when the real source of public influence is far more complex in today’s political landscape?

4. Saying America isn’t “ready” for his progressive policies

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I’ve run down some real numbers that show the significance of the Sanders campaign, but when the numbers don’t favor the dominant political narrative, expect to hear the word “electable.” The story, as we have heard, is that Democrats won’t win an election against Trump if they don’t choose a more moderate, “electable” candidate. Even former President Barack Obama warned that the Democrats shouldn’t put up a candidate that is too far left because it would alienate voters.

Yet, thus far, as I argued in a piece for Salon back in August, that story has been largely wrong. Recent research suggests, for example, that the notion of a political center is largely a myth, because most so-called centrist voters are actually cross-pressured on issues, meaning that they may align with different parties on different issues.

Ernest A. Canning writes for Common Dreams that it is time to stop referring to corporate-money-compromised Democratic policy as either "centrist" or "moderate." Canning cites a 2018 poll that found that 70 percent of all Americans, (52 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats) supported Medicare for All.  Another 2018 poll that showed that 81 percent of Americans supported a Green New Deal. He further notes that 82 percent of Americans want the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.

This is all to say that the policy platform promoted by Sanders is, in fact, appealing to a large segment of the electorate — a fact that should suggest that is electable.

In Michael Moore’s endorsement speech for Sanders in New York, he ran down the common critiques of Sanders. Addressing the question of age, he said, Sanders supporters hear he is too old, to which Moore retorted, “You know what is too old? The Electoral College. A $7.25 minimum wage. That is too old. Women not being paid the same as men. That is too old.” He then ran down the list of key Sanders’s policy points and showed how his progressive political vision is at the core of what makes him appealing to the public.

5. Highlighting the negative and going light on policy

Shouldn’t one of the key metrics for electability be connected to the number of supporters—at rallies, in donations, in followers, and in polls?  Shouldn’t the appeal of a candidate’s policy count? And if Sanders is strong in these areas and the news media is missing or misconstruing it, then it seems clear that we have evidence of anti-Bernie bias.

Sanders has, at times, been blunt about his suspicions that outlets like The Washington Post, owned by Jeff Bezos, are skewed to support the status quo of the corporate oligarchy. Yet, he has also wanted to avoid attacks on the press that come too close to Trump’s own whining about “fake news.”

That said, there is little question that the news media plays a major role in setting the tone for elections. In assessing news coverage of the 2016 election, The Shorenstein Center claimed that the U.S. news media “failed the voters,” by focusing excessively on negative news and offering coverage extremely light on policy. They contend that the incommensurate coverage of Trump, who got far more news than Clinton, was a key factor in his win. As they put it, “the press historically has helped citizens recognize the difference between the earnest politician and the pretender. Today’s news coverage blurs the distinction.”

Thus far, in ignoring the positive news of the Sanders campaign, the corporate news media seems to be repeating many of the same mistakes. And that’s why, even if Sanders does get more coverage in the mainstream media, there is no reason to expect it to be fair or unbiased. This means that the problem isn’t whether Sanders gets coverage; it’s how he gets covered. If voters want the news media to do a better job, we have to watch out for both bias and blackouts.


Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

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