New York Times reporter Sydney Ember has a problem with Bernie Sanders—which may be why the paper has her cover him.
Ember is supposed to write reported articles, not op-eds, but she consistently paints a negative picture of Sanders’ temperament, history, policies and/or political prospects in the over two dozen pieces she’s done on him. This makes sense, given the New York Times’ documented anti-Sanders bias, which can be found among both editors and reporters alike.
The paper was caught making significant changes, without acknowledging them, to a 2016 article on Sanders hours after it went up: It changed the headline (from “Bernie Sanders Scored Victories for Years via Legislative Side Doors,” to “Via Legislative Side Doors, Bernie Sanders Won Modest Victories”); deleted a positive quote from a campaign advisor; and added two negative paragraphs. Even after the paper’s public editor chastised the Times for the practice known as stealth editing, the editors defended the changes because they “thought [the article] should say more about his realistic chances.” In its original form, the article didn’t cast enough doubt on Sanders’ viability and ability to govern, in other words.
Ember came to the New York Times with a resumé limited to the finance industry: She was an analyst for BlackRock, the biggest global investment management corporation, and the largest investor in coal plant developers in the world. (Her husband, Mike Bechek, is also in the investment business; he was a senior associate consultant at Bain Capital, where his father was CEO.)
Ember was hired by the Times in 2014 to cover advertising and marketing for the paper’s business vertical Dealbook. She started covering politics in May 2018, and immediately got the enviable assignment of covering one of the leading contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
Ember has a multi-prong approach to undermining Sanders: She went to great lengths to avoid calling him the frontrunner until he was “no longer” one; she attributes his political positions to attention-getting, self-serving ulterior motives; frames even his victories and the popularity of his ideas as weaknesses; cherry-picks polls; presents opinions as facts (claiming he’s “outflanked on the left by rising stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Beto O’Rourke”); and creates false equivalency between Sanders and Donald Trump.
But for the sake of time and length, this piece focuses on her selection and misrepresentation of sources, which have already drawn scrutiny. Brad Johnson, a political analyst with a background in climate science pointed out that Ember quoted a source without mentioning that she’s a corporate lobbyist; journalist Zaid Jilani noted that Ember failed to disclose that another source was a senior advisor for a Hillary Clinton Super PAC. Education scholar Diane Ravitch devoted a blog post to the reporter’s “shameful” reporting on Sanders’ education policy, questioning the authority of her sources.
Ember’s articles on Sanders (sometimes co-written with other Times reporters) often quote as neutral authorities individuals who are on the other side of a wide ideological divide, with longstanding antipathies to Sanders’ left socioeconomic perspective. Moreover, many of these “experts” are corporate lobbyists, whose work in a particular area is not guided by academic, journalistic or other professional standards, but by the economic and political interests of their clients. Ember spins the identity of her authorities, who are themselves professional spinners.
Consider Ember’s March 1 article, which opened with the kind of unflattering headline her stories often bear: “Bernie Sanders Is Making Changes for 2020, but His Desire for Control Remains.” (Headlines, of course, are chosen by editors, not reporters, but in these stories they reflect the slant of the text.) The piece ended on a typically ominous note: “Even if Mr. Sanders does talk more about himself, his competition presents a new set of challenges that his own biography may only compound,” Ember wrote. She brings in an expert to prove her point: “‘At the end of the day, he is still an old white man,’ said Tracy Sefl, a veteran Democratic strategist.”
Sefl is hardly a disinterested authority; she’s a paid political consultant and media specialist who worked as a surrogate and senior advisor for Hillary Clinton. Other outlets mention Sefl’s experience working for Clinton when they cite her, including the New York Times, which has identified her as someone “supporting Mrs. Clinton,” someone who “worked for Mrs. Clinton,” and a “Democratic consultant and Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter.”
A New York Times story (10/22/07) on the 2008 Clinton campaign’s relationship with the right-wing Drudge Report identified Sefl as someone “who has established a friendly working relationship with Mr. Drudge—and through whom Mrs. Clinton’s campaign often worked quietly to open a line of communication.” The paper also noted that her “fingerprints are usually impossible to spot.” Sefl admitted in an interview (Chicago, 7/13/15):
My solo consultancy doesn’t have a name, quite purposely so. I do often collaborate with other consultants, including Republicans—within reason—when the work warrants it.
Reporter Zaid Jilani caught Ember’s omission, tweeting that she didn’t “note [Sefl] was senior adviser to Ready for Hillary Super PAC or that she was a hired gun at a Republican-led firm Navigators Global.” The piece has since been updated—without notice—to describe Sefl as “a veteran Democratic strategist and formerly a senior adviser to the Super PAC Ready for Hillary.”
Sefl’s choice of phrase, “an old white man,” is surely a crude description for someone who, as he has explained, has a strong Jewish identity, shaped in part by his father’s side of the family having been “wiped out” in the Holocaust, and growing up a working-class Jew in Brooklyn. If successful, Sanders would be the first Jewish president of the United States. But Sefl’s dismissive description is consistent with the way Clinton campaign loyalists and much of corporate media continue to weaponize identity politics against Sanders, erasing not only his Jewish identifty, but also his anti-racist record and his supporters of color.
Ember’s February 17 article, “Bernie Sanders Stumbled With Black Voters in 2016. Can He Do Better in 2020?,” published two days before Sanders announced his candidacy, predicted that “his weak track record with black voters — a vital base in the Democratic Party — could be a potential threat to his candidacy.” Echoing the conventional wisdom of the 2016 campaign, the piece made no mention of the CNN poll issued two months earlier that found Sanders had a higher approval rating with nonwhite voters than any other major candidate.
Ember’s March 29 article, “Bernie Sanders Says ‘No’ to Incrementalism, Highlighting Divide Among Democrats,” started with a neutral enough headline, but ended with a harsh critique by a fierce Sanders opponent, whose politics the reporter misrepresents:
“The path to the White House and to majorities has to be in a pragmatic, progressive area,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for Policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank. “If you go too far left, Donald Trump gets re-elected and Republicans control both houses of Congress.”
“Our heads are in the clouds, but our feet are also on the ground at the same time,” he added. He cited his group’s universal healthcare plan, which he said was “just as ambitious” as Mr. Sanders’ proposed “Medicare for all.” There was, however, a key difference.
“It just doesn’t blow up the system,” Mr. Kessler said. “It builds on the existing system.”
But Third Way is a fiscally conservative, not a “center left,” think tank. Given the state of public opinion, a group that pushes to cut Social Security and Medicare, and calls raising taxes on billionaires “soaking the rich,” is to the right of centrist. In 2013, of 29 trustees on Third Way’s board, 20 were investment bankers, three were CEOs and two were corporate lawyers.
Third Way’s “about” section reads, “Our work is grounded in the mainstream American values of opportunity, freedom and security.” They continue, “But we identify as center-left, because we see that space in US politics as offering the only real path for advancing those ideals in the century ahead.” For Third Way, identifying as “center-left” is lip service, a strategic necessity in a nation that has moved to the left and whose demographics promise a more diverse and left electorate to come.
Ember chooses the label that Third Way uses for itself, because if she accurately identified its corporatist mission and positions, she could not use one of its leaders as an objective authority on the efficacy of Bernie Sanders’ proposal of free healthcare for all. It would be obvious that Third Way’s healthcare plan was in no way as ambitious as Sanders’, and that it was using the term “universal” to undermine single payer.
Reflecting its function as a corporate advocate for moving the Democratic Party to the right, Third Way has consistently disparaged Sanders and progressive politics in general. In a 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed (12/2/13), Kessler (and Third Way co-founder and president Jon Cowan) declared that “economic populism is dead,” urging Democrats not to follow Elizabeth Warren and Bill deBlasio “over the populist cliff.” Kessler singled out Sanders in a USA Today op-ed (12/15/17), declaring, “Take It From Voters, Democrats Don’t Want a Bernie Sanders.”
In October 2018, Third Way’s executive vice president Matt Bennet (who can be seen in this video refusing to disclose how much money his think tank gets from Wall Street) disqualified Sanders as a presidential candidate: “The exception is Sen. Sanders. We’re open to everybody except for him.” That would seem to make the organization an odd source to go to to evaluate Sanders’ policy proposals.
But Ember turned to Kessler again in her April 27 article, “Bernie Sanders Opens Space for Debate on Voting Rights for Incarcerated People,” to comment on Sanders’ call to enfranchise the incarcerated:
“There’s a difference between felons who are in prison for nonviolent offenses and those who are in for capital offenses,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank. Mr. Sanders’ remarks, he added, “seemed like a bit of a stumble.”
The comment seemed like a bit of a stumble for Kessler, into an area where he has no evident expertise, and, interestingly, where Third Way hardly wades.
Ember’s May 17 article, “Mayor and ‘Foreign Minister’: How Bernie Sanders Brought the Cold War to Burlington,” presented as problematic and incriminating the senator’s support of Nicaraguan Sandinistas and his opposition to the CIA-backed Contra rebels trying to overthrow them—whose systematic pattern of gross human rights violations in the 1980s included death squad assassination, kidnapping, rape, mutilation and torture. In a subsequent interview, Ember’s first and apparently most pressing question to Sanders was whether he had heard an anti-American chant at a rally he and approximately 499,999 other people attended. Her second question was whether he would have stayed at the event if he had heard it.
While NBC’s Meet the Press (5/19/19) and New York’s Jonathan Chait (5/27/19) accepted and amplified Ember’s framing, other journalists and historians familiar with Latin American history condemned the piece as context-lacking “neo-McCarthyite,” “‘anti-American’ baiting,” “only slightly more subtle than Fox News.” Calling the piece “fundamentally ahistorical” “bothsidesism,” the Long Version’s Jonathan Katz (5/20/19) wrote that Ember doesn’t “have much experience covering foreign affairs in general or Latin America in particular. It shows.” Journalist Ryan Cooper (The Week, 5/29/19) quipped, “Americans should be very concerned about Bernie Sanders’ record of opposing mass murder.”
For this article on Sanders’ foreign policy past, Ember thought it would be appropriate to get a quote from a significant player in the Iran/Contra scandal:
Otto J. Reich, a former special envoy for Latin America who helped oversee Nicaragua policy for the Reagan administration, said that by the middle of the 1980s a politician like Mr. Sanders “should have known better” than to fawn over Mr. Ortega.
Reagan’s “Nicaragua policy” involved illegally funding the terrorist Contras in an effort to overthrow the elected Sandinista government. And he oversaw it as director of the now defunct State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy, working with CIA propaganda experts and Army psy-ops specialists, leaking hoaxes, spreading rumors, smearing, and pressuring and threatening reporters, in order to whitewash the Contras and demonize the Sandinistas.
Reich’s office was condemned by the U.S. Comptroller General, the General Accounting Office, the Congressional Iran/Contra Committee and a House Foreign Affairs committee for conducting “prohibited, covert propaganda activities,” including psychological operations (psy-ops) “beyond the range of acceptable agency public information activities.”
Ember, though, offers Reich as an expert witness on Sanders’ Cold War activities:
“He has, by virtue of these travels and associations, joined up with some of the most repressive regimes in the world,” Mr. Reich said of Mr. Sanders, alluding to his visit to Nicaragua and subsequent trips to the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Speaking of travels and associations, as well as Cuba, Ember fails to mention that Reich has worked as a lobbyist for Bacardi-Martini and Lockheed Martin, and tried to get an anti-Castro terrorist a US visa.
The Office of Public Diplomacy was one of the most corrupting and degrading instruments of democracy you can imagine…. It was a destabilization and disinformation campaign.
“People like Sydney Ember,” he noted, are “the product of that reeducation.”
Back to domestic issues, Ember ended her May 23 article, “Sanders’ Education Plan Renews Debate Over Charter Schools and Segregation,” on a predictably down note:
But while the charter-school issue might be relevant in cities, Mr. Loadholt said, it was hardly top-of-mind for voters in the state’s expansive rural areas, where charter schools are rare. “To a hammer, everything is a nail,” he said. “And to Sanders, everything is an issue created by millionaires and billionaires.”
Ember describes Jarrod Loadholt as “a Democratic strategist who has worked on education policy in South Carolina.” This obfuscating description was one of the many things that led Diane Ravitch to write her blog post, “The New York Times vs. Senator Bernie Sanders. ” I’ll let Ravitch explain:
The real stinker in the Times’ article comes at the end, where the writers quote someone unfamiliar to me. I know many education activists in South Carolina, but I have never run across Jarrod Loadholt…. I googled. He is a lawyer and lobbyist in Washington, DC, who was born in South Carolina. I can find no evidence of any involvement by him in any education issues. His specialty seems to be consumer finance. Why was he called upon to put down Senator Sanders’ factual statement that the Waltons, the DeVos family and hedge fund managers are behind the push for charter schools? Senator Sanders made his statement in South Carolina, and Loadholt was born there. South Carolina has dreadful education policy. When did Loadholt work on it and with what results? To the naked eye, he was called upon as a Beltway insider to cut Bernie Sanders down with a false statement. Shameful.
In fact, there are no traces of Loadholt having worked on any education policy. When I tweeted out Ravitch’s piece, he responded, “Lol. I guess if you’re a lawyer or a lobbyist, you could at no point in your life worked on ed policy in SC.” When I asked him if he had worked on education policy, he replied, “My quote speaks for itself. And it’s like a month old.” Loadholt has also tweeted that Sanders is “like a rash.”
Loadholt does have experience as a lobbyist and currently works at Pine Street Strategies, a lobbying firm whose clients include Anheuser-Busch and the National Bankers Association (NBA). It was in his capacity as an NBA lobbyist that Loadholt defended a sweeping rollback of Dodd/Frank banking regulations. Dubbed the Bank Lobbyist Act by critics, which included the NAACP, the bill made it easier for banks to discriminate against communities of color. Loadholt, however, dismissed the concerns: “[Black] banks don’t have the luxury of waiting on a perfect bill…. If we thought the [bill] did substantial damage to African-Americans, we would not support it.”
Then there’s the June 12 article, originally headlined “Sanders Delivers Defense of His Democratic Socialist Philosophy” and later renamed “Bernie Sanders Calls His Brand of Socialism a Pathway to Beating Trump,” where Ember quoted as an authority Mary Anne Marsh, whom she described as “a Democratic strategist in Boston who worked for Senators Senators John Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy.” Marsh did not mince words in her assessment of Sanders’ politics, policies and electability:
Most Democrats running don’t subscribe to Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism and his economic policies. Ultimately, Bernie Sanders giving this speech will appeal to his base and no one else, and it gives fodder to Trump and the Republicans.
But the woman linking Sanders’ socialist rhetoric to a Trump victory is not just a Democratic strategist. When reporters at places like the Financial Times, CNBC, NPR, Yahoo! Business and Jewish News Services quote her, they cite her as a principal at the Dewey Square Group, a lobbying and public relations firm. Dewey Square’s corporate clients have included Allegiance Healthcare Corporation, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Coca-Cola, Collegiate Funding Services, Countrywide Mortgage, DuPont, General Motors Corporation, Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), Mortgage Insurance Companies of America, Purdue Pharma, Starbucks, United Health Group. The US Chamber of Commerce hired the firm to fight for caps on damages that can be paid in lawsuits; the National Restaurant Association paid them to fight against a law that made it easier for unions to organize workers; and Fix the Debt to push its austerity astroturf campaign to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
When Dewey Square was caught (CJR, 2/24/09) tricking senior citizens into signing letters to the editor on behalf of its client Medicare Advantage, Marsh tried to blame the hapless victims who had been lured to events with door prizes and free food and were unaware of what they were signing, positing, “The time that elapsed between the meetings when the seniors saw the letters and the letters’ arrival at the newspaper may have clouded some memories.”
Her career as a lobbyist for many of the industries that would be most impacted by Sanders’ proposals might explain Marsh’s obvious animus against the candidate, as displayed in the May 20 edition of her weekly Fox News column, “Bernie Sanders’ Incredible Shrinking Candidacy—Why He Won’t Be Dem Nominee.” One of Sanders’ apparent insurmountable weaknesses, she wrote, is that people “remember Sanders didn’t support Clinton in the general election against Trump.” People with better memories recall that Sanders was one of the most energetic surrogates for Clinton on the campaign trail, campaigning constantly for her in battleground states (New Yorker, 11/4/16).
Marsh is right when she says that “most Democrats running don’t subscribe to Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism,” which is why he’s seen as a unique threat to those who promote rapacious profiteering in the areas of finance, health care, education and the military. Third Way made that clear, once again, at a conference they held last week, where its co-founder Matt Bennett singled out Sanders’ vision from his opponents’: “One is a Democratic capitalist narrative…. The other is a socialist narrative,” notably omitting the “Democratic” descriptor for the latter.
By presenting her sources as objective authorities, instead of paid lobbyists and austerity ideologues, Ember both conceals and advances their agenda, undermining the integrity of the Fourth Estate, our democracy, and one of the most popular politicians.