Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Corporate Press & Bernie: A Systemic Problem

Author Steve Hendricks has a pretty good article at the Columbia Journalism Review about the presidential candidacy of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. "Bernie Sanders can't win: Why the press loves to hate underdogs." A self-described social democrat, Sanders has, for the most part, received the usual treatment doled out by the corporate press to candidates with liberal or left views. Typically, he's entirely ignored and on those rare occasions when he is mentioned, he's treated as a fringe crank who can't win described as merely a potential stumbling-block for Hillary Clinton on her way to the Democratic nomination. As Hendricks describes it, the press, having settled on this "can't win" prophecy, "went about covering Sanders so as to fulfill it":
"The [New York] Times, for example, buried his announcement on page A21, even though every other candidate who had declared before then had been put on the front page above the fold. Sanders’s straight-news story didn’t even crack 700 words, compared to the 1,100 to 1,500 that Marco RubioRand PaulTed Cruz, and Hillary Clinton got. As for the content, the Times’ reporters declared high in Sanders’s piece that he was a long shot for the Democratic nomination and that Clinton was all but a lock. None of the Republican entrants got the long-shot treatment, even though Paul, Rubio, and Cruz were generally polling fifth, seventh, and eighth among Republicans before they announced."
As this author noted at the time, the evening newscasts of the three major networks virtually ignored Sanders' official announcement. ABC's World News Tonight disposed of it in less than 20 seconds, the CBS Evening News gave it only a portion of a single sentence as an aside at the end of an unrelated report about the Clinton Foundation and the NBC Nightly News shoehorned a few seconds about it into a report about Hillary Clinton's political chameleonism over the years. Not a single newscast ran a full report on Sanders, despite all three having devoted full reports to the campaign launches of Clinton and every Republican who had, to that date, announced his candidacy.

The good folks at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting have spotlighted some of this sort of nonsense. On the week of Sanders' announcement, the reaction of the major network Sunday shows was mixed. ABC's This Week, to its credit, featured Sanders as a guest, but both Face the Nation on CBS and Meet the Press on NBC ignored the news.[1] Sanders' one and only appearance on Meet the Press happened back in September 2014 and his name hadn't even been mentioned on that broadcast since. When host Chuck Todd tried to brush off this criticism, FAIR opened the books on Meet the Press and revealed that, in 2015 to date, 24 candidates or potential candidates had been mentioned on Meet the Press, all but three of them more than once. But no Sanders.[2] FAIR also pointed to the New York Times' coverage of its own poll on the presidential race released earlier this month. In the poll, the Times had asked about Sanders and other potential Democratic candidates (Sanders being the only one of the batch who had announced); when it came time to write about it, the Times "chose not to share those results with readers in any kind of reader-friendly form."

Hendricks notes that, when faced, in the past, with charges they've shortchanged candidates like Sanders, editors have rationalized this by saying he's a longshot. And he takes down this premise.
"The trouble with this commonplace is that editors actually love covering long shots—certain long shots anyway. Ted Cruz, for example, received his serious, in-depth treatment in the Times’ news columns... The difference is that Cruz has not erected a platform whose planks present a boardwalk of horror to the corporate class atop the media."
Hendricks tackles the "Sanders can't win" talk head on:
"...over the last 40 years, out of seven races in which the Democratic nomination was up for grabs—races, that is, when a sitting Democrat president wasn’t seeking reelection—underdogs have won the nomination either three or four times (depending on your definition of an underdog) and have gone on to win the presidency more often than favored candidates."
The most recent of those underdogs took out Hillary Clinton in 2008. Clinton's negatives remain sky-high.

Hendricks does a pretty good, if basic, job of stripping away nearly every pretense the corporate press may offer for giving Sanders short shrift. One area where he falls short is when he notes that some of the press "chatterers... have continued to say that money or no, Sanders is a non-starter because of his distance from the political center" but he doesn't really challenge that premise. Josh Harkinson, writing for Mother Jones, did. Calling Sanders "an extremely long shot," Harkinson asks, "Does that mean his views on key political issues are too radical for America's voters? Not necessarily." And then presents a significant cross-section of polling data showing that Sanders' views on major issues are, for the most part, perfectly in line with the American mainstream. Harkinson doesn't offer any sort of detailed analysis, making his piece vulnerable to charges of superficiality but it does a fairly good job of making a general case,[3] and it isn't a surprising one to those who pay attention. On most issues, Sanders is by no means distant from the American political center. His distance is merely from the "center" as defined by the corporate press, which is way to the right of the actual center.

At the moment, multiple polls have shown that around 60% of Americans, give or take, haven't even heard of Sanders. That, alone, is a very damning comment on the work of the Establishment media. One routinely hears overblown claims about how New Media allow candidates to skip the filter of the corporate press but the reality is that a candidate who is ignored by the major media and persistently treated as "the crank who can't win" isn't going to be winning a national presidential race. And that isn't a chicken-or-egg question. The corporate press is not a bystander in the electoral process. In Iranian democracy at present, a clutch of unelected mullahs insist on the power to vet who can and can't present themselves as a candidate for elective office. What are the implications for the American version of liberal democracy when the corporate press takes up this function of deciding who is and isn't a legitimate candidate? This is a significant--and systemic--problem, one that yields to no simple solutions.



[1] Subsequently, on 10 May, Face the Nation did host Sanders as a guest.

[2] After FAIR pointed this out, Todd suddenly remembered Sanders' existence.

[3] Some of the items Harkinson cites could have used some further analysis. When, for example, Harkinson addresses the Trans Pacific Partnership, which Sanders opposes, he cites a 2014 Pew poll that showed majority support for it and concludes that Sanders is at odds with most of the public. But, of course, most of the public have no idea what the TPP even contains, as the negotiations have proceeded in secret and much of the press has declined to cover it. That Pew poll elicited a positive response by entangling its questioning in the broader matter of international trade, of which Americans have a generally positive view. In the same context, the poll asked about the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and received a similarly positive result but when the same respondents were asked about some of the specific elements of the TTIP proposal, support dropped across the board, a sure sign that the pollsters were queering their results.

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