Media bias and movement building: Bernie Sanders’ revolutionary 2020 campaign

While negative coverage is a fact of life not only for Sanders but for progressives and their ideas in corporate media in general, Sanders’ campaign has been focused on reaching U.S. voters in new ways.

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“Bernie Sanders makes my skin crawl. And I can’t even identify for you what exactly it is.”                                                                                              Former assistant U.S. attorney Mimi Rocah on MSNBC in July

While the 2020 Democratic primaries have showcased a number of progressive candidates (alongside quite a few centrists pretending to be progressive), the coverage being given in the U.S. mainstream media to one, in particular, has been biased in ways that it hasn’t been for most of the others. This has once again been the lot of the Bernie Sanders campaign, which, besides being unconventional in terms of the way it mobilizes voters, receives far more negative (and non) coverage than those of his opponents, with the possible exception of Tulsi Gabbard.

Most recently there was a media pile-on after Senator Sanders made some comments about the Washington Post and its owner Jeff Bezos at a rally in New Hampshire, with the candidate saying, “We have pointed out over and over again that Amazon made $10 billion in profits last year. You know how much they paid in taxes? You got it, zero! Any wonder why the Washington Post is not one of my great supporters, I wonder why? New York Times not much better.” 

These comments drew an almost immediate response from the Post’s executive editor Martin Baron, who released a statement that read, “Sen. Sanders is a member of a large club of politicians – of every ideology – who complain about their coverage. Contrary to the conspiracy theory the senator seems to favor, Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest.” 

What Sanders articulated in his speech was far from a conspiracy theory but something that is proven by history, as the Post’s coverage of the Vermont senator’s 2016 campaign was also almost ridiculously biased. As Adam Johnson of FAIR reported at the time, “In what has to be some kind of record, the Washington Post ran 16 negative stories on Bernie Sanders in 16 hours, between roughly 10:20 PM EST Sunday, March 6, to 3:54 PM EST Monday, March 7—a window that includes the crucial Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, and the next morning’s spin…”

Also, to answer Baron directly, it isn’t as if Bezos has to be personally involved in what editors and reporters at the Post do day in day out. One of the greatest critics of corporate media, Noam Chomsky, made this larger point in his 1989 book, “Necessary Illusions”, long before Bezos owned the Post, writing, “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… Journalists entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures, generally by internalizing the values; it is not easy to say one thing and believe another, and those who fail to conform will tend to be weeded out by familiar mechanisms.” 

Having said this, the Amazon founder probably isn’t Sanders’ biggest fan, considering that he used his national platform and volunteer army to force Bezos’ company to pay its U.S. workers a $15 living wage before these primaries even got started. 

The Vermont senator’s very specific criticism of the Post and its owner on the campaign trail were soon twisted by more than one other outlet, especially the cable news networks, who later used Sanders words to compare him to the current U.S. president, claiming they share a similar disdain for the press, which the latter has famously called “the enemy of the people”.

This comparison would be laughable if it weren’t being so widely disseminated to potential American voters who don’t follow politics. While negative coverage is a fact of life not only for Sanders but for progressives and their ideas in corporate media in general, Sanders’ campaign has been focused on reaching U.S. voters in new ways, not only live streaming events from around the country on his Youtube channel and creating the excellent Hear the Bern podcast, but also making the candidate available to appear where much of his young audience is, on shows like Joe Rogan’s podcast, which probably has more viewers than any of the cable news networks. 

That so many others at other corporate outlets were so quick to defend the Post’s ‘objectivity’ and go after Sanders for his truthful criticism demonstrates just how deep the group think goes in U.S. corporate media.

As Sanders’ former campaign manager and current advisor Jeff Weaver explained to CNN, even in terms of polling, the coverage is always weighed against him, “There seems to be a direct correlation between the media coverage of polls and Bernie Sanders’ specific standing in those polls. The better the number is in the poll, the less coverage it receives. And the worse he does, the more it receives.” 

And it isn’t as if the ‘liberal’ network MSNBC is any better than CNN, the Post or the Times, with the network routinely misleading viewers about where Sanders actually sits in the polls and at one point turning a 5 point gain into a five point loss.  With reporting like this it’s understandable a lot of American voters are starting from the assumption that Sanders has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination.

Nonetheless, at the same time it’s understandable that the U.S. mainstream media find it difficult to comprehend the Sanders campaign this time around because it’s even more unconventional than the one he ran in 2016. The main thing that makes Sanders’ campaign different from any in living memory is the knowledge that he needs a citizen movement behind him if he manages to become the nominee and that even if he doesn’t achieve this goal, his supporters can still work on the issues he has almost single-handedly brought onto the national stage.

As reported by Politico on Monday, “Sanders’ campaign said it has sent hundreds of thousands of emails and a half-million texts to his supporters to push them to attend more than 50 strikes, protests and other events this year. It’s a significant investment for a presidential campaign, considering there’s only so much time or money Sanders’ supporters are willing to give overall, and he’s asking that they commit themselves to causes that only indirectly benefit his candidacy.” 

In one last example of the difficulty the candidate faces in terms of getting media coverage; almost uncovered by mainstream media, Sanders’ campaign recently addressed the issue of criminal justice reform with a comprehensive program “Justice and Safety for All” that promises to put an end to cash bail, conclude the drug war, ban for profit prisons and much more. It’s the kind of ambitious program supporters have come to expect from the Vermont senator, who told an Iowa audience on Wednesday about his commitment to the working people who make up his base,  “If there is going to be class warfare in this country it’s time that the working class of this country won that war.” 

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