Janine Jackson interviewed FAIR’s Jim Naureckas about the Democratic primaries for the February 14, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: From debates that encouraged sparring over substance, to evidence-free declarations about electability or momentum, to the insistence—bordering on gaslighting—of the fringiness of ideas that in fact enjoy broad support, corporate media’s election coverage would be disappointing at any time. With all that’s at stake in 2020, it’s a letdown we can ill afford—and a reason, of course, to support independent journalism. Joining us now for a look at the state of reporting on the election is Jim Naureckas. He’s editor of FAIR.org and our newsletter Extra!. He’s right here in studio. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jim Naureckas.
Jim Naureckas: It’s very good to be back.
JJ: All elections are important, but this election is so pivotal. The directions that the country, or the country’s leadership—the people are going to do what we need to do—but the roads for electoral politics are so marked and opposed. We often talk about what corporate media are doing, not just compared to other media or compared to what they did in the past, but compared to what a democracy needs its journalists to do. So I was just wondering: Writ large, what do you make of the job journalists are doing in this election cycle?
JN: I guess I would say that the corporate media are trying to do the job that they usually do during elections, which is to shepherd the conversation, to guard the parameters of discussion. And the process is really changing. The way that politics is being done now is different than it’s been in my lifetime. (I’m 55 years old.) Politics is breaking away from the old model, where rich people give money to politicians who follow the interests of those wealthy donors, and media treat the people who get that kind of money as the serious people that need to be listened to, and anyone who’s not being funded by the wealthy is, by definition, not serious, because they don’t have the resources they need to win.
And now there are models of politics being developed, where people are raising money from the grassroots, in large part by rejecting money from wealthy donors, and people are willing to give money because they see that these people are not beholden to an elite. And it changes the kind of conversation that we’re having, it changes the kind of issues that these candidates can run on. And there’s a close alignment between the interests of the corporations that own the media, the corporations whose advertisements fund the media, and the donor class. As the donor class is becoming less and less relevant, corporate media are trying to figure out what their role is now.
JN: I would say this is the most interesting election since I’ve been following politics professionally.
JJ: And corporate media almost seem to be in panic mode. They’re used to paternalistically saying, “Oh, you might like this idea, Medicare for All, but it’s not possible.” And they’re used to kind of defining what is possible. And I think it’s the breaking apart from their conventional wisdom, and what large numbers of people are coming to accept as the possible. It’s clear in their treatment of Bernie Sanders, certainly, and also in their welcoming of Michael Bloomberg, their notion of what’s practical and what’s realistic. If anything, it’s just very transparent. It’s very out there now.
JN: There used to be a pretty simple way that media would handle outsiders who were trying to break into the process—and disrupt the applecart, from the professional politician’s point of view—which was to ignore them. You just don’t talk about them, and they will have no impact on the political conversation. With the rise of social media, largely, it is impossible to successfully ignore people. People will still talk to each other about the candidates that they’re interested in, even if the New York Times doesn’t say word one about them. That is a disconcerting fact to corporate media.
Howard Dean was a candidate who was not a radical disrupter like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but someone who made the corporate media uncomfortable with the talk he was suggesting of bringing people into the process, basically. And his candidacy was shut down by corporate media with something called the Dean Scream, which was a kind of funny noise that Howard Dean made at a rally.
JJ: When talking about momentum, just an energy kind of a rallying….
JN: Yeah, he made kind of a yip. And this was played over and over and over again, like it was the Challenger disaster. And the ridicule of the corporate media drove him out of the race. And that was the kind of power that they used to have.
And they can’t “Dean Scream” people away anymore. In the past few days, we’ve seen Chris Matthews on MSNBC, suggesting that if Bernie Sanders were elected, there would be mass executions in Central Park, and then followed by Chuck Todd, talking about how—what was the phrase?—“digital brownshirts.”
JJ: Digital brownshirts, yeah.
JN: This is panic mode. They’re frightened by the fact that politicians are running and succeeding without their blessing, with their clearly stated objections. The Democratic electorate has been told, in no uncertain terms, that Bernie Sanders is not electable and that is your signal, people, that you should not vote for him, because the punditocracy has spoken.
It’s an interesting hill for them to stake out. There is a lot of polling on the ability of people to be elected, which presumably is what electability means. The pollsters regularly ask, “Who would you vote for, Trump or Sanders?” They’ve asked this, according to Real Clear Politics’ website that tabulates polls, 68 times, and 63 of those times, people said, “Bernie Sanders. We’d vote for Bernie Sanders over Donald Trump,” which seems to be a sign that he has some kind of electability. Even when you build into the question that Trump calls Sanders “a socialist who supports a government takeover of healthcare and open borders,” they still choose Bernie Sanders over Donald Trump. In fact, they were testing different descriptions of Sanders, and when you call him a “Democrat,” he does worse than when you call him a “socialist”—just slightly worse.
JN: But the idea that, when people find out that Bernie Sanders is a socialist, that’ll be the end for him, like it’s some kind of secret that has been kept from the public….
JJ: And it just shows the disconnect, that seems more apparent every day, between the priorities, and even the language, of elite journalists, as compared to where a whole lot of people are at, the idea that once you say, “public health insurance,” or “Medicare for All” that, oh, people are going to be scared off by that, and despite media’s best attempts, people are not scared off by that.
Of course, elections are about ideas, but there’s also a lot about process. You ask about “why do people feel disconnected from the story?” And part of it is things like Iowa. Iowa comes around, and it’s like, get out your slide rule and your eighth grade civics textbook. And there’s sort of this thing that it’s just for nerds. And it gets very complicated, the degree to which it’s the will of the people, and yet clearly, it’s very, very important in the media cycle. Obviously, this is the real process that we’re dealing with, and yet it’s problematic for various reasons. How are journalists doing in illuminating the procedural, or process, issues of this election?
JN: Iowa got bogged down in this interminable count that took several days, to determine exactly how many “State Delegate Equivalents” each candidate was going to get, which is this kind of formula that they use to translate the votes that people get into how many delegates they get. And State Delegate Equivalents are an intermediate stage, where somehow it bears some kind of relationship to how many delegates you end up getting at the national convention.
And there was this long period where people were like, “Oh, we don’t know who won. You know, it looks like Buttigieg is ahead. But we can’t say,” because it was taking so long for the numbers to come out. But it was clear, very early on, that Sanders had a big lead in actual votes, that many more people had voted for him than had voted for Buttigieg, the No. 2 candidate. And that didn’t matter, because, really, what was important here was the State Delegate Equivalents, and so that was what they kept going back to.
And it’s funny, because when Sanders said, “You know, we actually got more votes,” and acted like that was a reason for him to claim victory, people were like, “Oh, that’s kind of dirty pool, because that is not how the game is played. It’s really about the State Delegate Equivalents.” And then, in New Hampshire, suddenly, the fact that Buttigieg came sort of close to Sanders in the popular vote, that was suddenly very important.
You look at these things, you see that corporate media are not observers of the electoral process; they are participants in the electoral process. And the stories that they tell you about what has happened so far in the race are stories designed to sell you on a narrative. They’re not objective accounts of reality. They spend a lot of time talking about the horse race; that makes you think, “Oh, they must be experts on how elections work.” And the fact is, they are very often making it up.
I was looking at the polling averages. And back on December 1, Sanders was ahead of Buttigieg by 5 points in the polling averages, and I think they were, at that point, third and fourth in the race—that’s a little more than a couple months ago. Today, Sanders leads Buttigieg by 12 points in the polling average, and yet it’s Buttigieg who has the momentum, according to corporate media.
I read a tweet from Jeremy Peters, who’s a politics reporter for the New York Times, and he said, “Pete, after winning Iowa, is almost beating Bernie in a state Bernie won four years ago by 22 points. Under any normal standard of assessing the Democratic race, Pete would be called a frontrunner.” Well, by any normal standard of assessing a race, the person who is in fifth place in the national polling would not be called a frontrunner. Only when you get to decide who you would like to win, and label that person the frontrunner, would the fifth-place person be called a frontrunner.
JJ: I do see hopefulness in the transparency, if you will, of corporate media showing their priorities, and their willingness to ignore things that are big and lift up things that are little, in order to sell a certain storyline. What should we be looking for in the next weeks, months?
JN: I really do believe that the media will be trying to “Dean Scream” Bernie Sanders all the way through the convention, and probably to November 3. I think that if he is not stopped by one of the other candidates, the media will be his toughest opponent. And I think that people need to cultivate their ability to read the news critically, to think about what the agenda is behind the reports that you’re reading, and learn to discount the media narratives that are trying to create self-fulfilling prophecies that will affect the choices that you have for your democratic decision-making.
JJ: Just to say, this is of course about candidates, because it’s about the presidential election, but it’s about ideas. And when media, corporate media, come out against Senator Sanders, they’re coming out against the idea of changing the socioeconomic status quo in a major way in this country. It’s not just Bernie Sanders; they would figure out a way to try to come after anyone who was suggesting that kind of change, is my sense.
JN: You used to see people talking about the idea of raising taxes as the kiss of death for a candidate. You’d see, “This person is too liberal to win, because they believe in raising taxes.” Raising taxes on the wealthy is consistently a popular position. Most people believe that the wealthy have too much money, and would like to see them have less of it. I feel like the media are catching on that raising taxes on the wealthy is not the bogeyman that they used to think it was.
You see a focus on Medicare for All, and the idea of people losing choice from their healthcare. I would love to see a poll where someone says, “Would you like to have free healthcare, paid for by taxes, or would you like to pay thousands of dollars for healthcare out of your own pocket? Which of those would you prefer?” And see just how well “thousands of dollars out of your own pocket” does in a head-to-head poll. The idea of choice is predicated on the idea that the government healthcare will be so bad, even paying thousands of dollars for private healthcare would be preferable.
JJ: And also the idea that it’s a “government doctor,” as opposed to, you know, being administered by the government. It doesn’t mean that some civic engineer off the street is going to do your appendectomy. I mean, that all is a sort of media-manufactured confusion.
JN: I notice I’m falling into the media-trained habit of talking about “government healthcare” and “private healthcare,” as opposed to public or corporate healthcare.
JJ: Just to say that the ideas that Sanders and Warren put forward, that are things that media presented as third rails that politicians could never do, it’s outswept them, it’s gone past them. The popularity of those ideas is now acknowledged, and I feel like corporate media are trying desperately to make us think they’re not practical, they’re not popular. And people just choose to believe their lyin’ eyes, you know?
JN: It is the big scam of politics, maybe the biggest scam, is the idea that the safe, politically wise thing to do is to support policies that maintain the income of the wealthy, as if that’s what the median voter is looking for, is to make sure that the wealth of the rich is not threatened. And that is a complete misunderstanding of the actual sociology of America.
And it’s based on the idea that there’s been a veto power, exercised by donors and exercised by the media, on what kind of policies you could propose. With donors being edged out by some candidates, and the media more and more not having that ability to dictate what the terms of the debate are, we’re seeing that these formerly taboo proposals—for, like, minimum wage that actually keeps pace with productivity, or for a wealth tax that actually redistributes income from the upper reaches, where it’s been concentrating for the past 50 years—these policies are on the agenda, whether the corporate media like it or not.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with FAIR editor Jim Naureckas; you can find decades of his work on FAIR.org.