With only about half the states having cast their votes in the Democratic primaries, the Covid-19 pandemic has frozen the majority of campaign activity, but the New York Times has already chosen its winner. In Times headlines, Sen. Bernie Sanders is as good as conceded, despite him still being in the race, hosting a virtual town hall to discuss a coronavirus relief package and advocating for frontline workers during the pandemic.
It’s not that the Times is ignoring Sanders; in fact, from February 1 to April 6, he’s been mentioned in far more articles than his rival Joe Biden, 1,973 vs. 735. But at best, the paper is dismissing Sanders. At worst, it’s demonizing him.
On March 18, the Times published “Bernie Sanders Has No Realistic Chance to Win. Some Democrats Say, ‘It’s Over’” (3/18/20), taking it upon itself to call the race. But days later, “How It All Came Apart for Bernie Sanders” (3/21/20) truly read like post-mortem coverage. In fact, the article does not clarify that Sanders is, indeed, still in the race until the sixth paragraph. The piece explains how Sanders’ early success was eclipsed by former Vice President Joe Biden’s Super Tuesday comeback, leaving Sanders’ campaign “all but vanquished.”
In this piece, Sanders was “revolutionary to a fault,” delivering “anti-establishment diatribes,” while Biden is “safe-and-steady.” The article highlighted Biden’s endorsements from Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, uniting more Democrats on his side. It presented conflicts among Sanders’ inner circle, and his difficulties in uniting the Democratic Party—and engaging the majority of black voters— as reasons the Vermont senator was trailing. It also mentioned his conflict with Sen. Elizabeth Warren over whether he had told her he didn’t think a woman could become president.
A March 30 Times article (3/30/20) discussed a Washington Post/ABC News poll that found Republicans are more excited to vote for Trump than Democrats are to vote for Biden. Just 24% of voters said they were “very enthusiastic” about voting for Biden in the presidential race—the lowest level of enthusiasm for a presidential candidate the Post and ABC have recorded in 20 years.
There was no mention of why many voters might be less excited to vote for Biden—aside from the fact that during the coronavirus, people are preoccupied. There was no mention, for example, of Medicare for All, a program that is extremely popular among Democratic voters—76% supported it in the latest Morning Consult poll (4/1/20), up 9 points in net approval since the impact of the pandemic was widely felt—but is decisively rejected by the former vice president, who says of the coronavirus crisis (NBCNews.com, 3/30/20), “Single payer will not solve that at all.”
The Times piece acknowledges that voter enthusiasm can be the critical difference between who shows up to polls and who stays home, but does not entertain the fact that Sanders’ voting base is notoriously dedicated and enthusiastic. The poll the article cited did not compare how excited citizens would be to vote for Sanders vs. Trump.
A 538 blog post (4/1/20) pointed out how former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a similar enthusiasm problem in 2016 — one that ultimately cost her the presidency. The Times failed to draw that same parallel in the brief article that pointed out Biden’s enthusiasm gap.
Another Times article, “How ‘Never Bernie’ Voters Threw In With Biden and Changed the Primary” (4/1/20), asserted that “a chief reason for Mr. Biden’s success” was voters who “found the prospect of Mr. Sanders and his calls for political revolution so distasteful that they put aside misgivings about Mr. Biden and backed him instead.” These voters, the piece argued, saw Sanders as “the only candidate in the vast Democratic field they found objectionable for reasons personal and political.”
Such voters no doubt exist, but that they exist in numbers large enough to swing the election is dubious. In the last Morning Consult poll conducted prior to Super Tuesday (2/23–27/20), 74% of Democratic voters said they viewed Sanders favorably, vs. 22% who saw him unfavorably. For Biden, it was 67% favorable, 27% unfavorable. A month later (3/23–29/20), no doubt boosted by media treating him as the nominee-apparent, Biden’s numbers had improved to 76%/20%—but Sanders favorability was little changed, at 72%/23%.
While there aren’t an overwhelming number of Democratic voters who saw Sanders as utterly unacceptable, that is a common attitude among the “donors and party officials” that the Times (4/16/19) has acknowledged are the core of the “anti-Sanders campaign.” The Times has always been close to these “establishment-aligned Democrats,” going back to the 19th century, and the paper has routinely served as a platform for their concerns (FAIR.org, 10/28/17).
The Times and others treat Sanders pointing to the coronavirus pandemic as proof of the need for his Medicare for All plan as somehow egregiously self-serving. In a political memo, “As Coronavirus Crisis Unfolds, Sanders Sees a Moment That Matches His Ideas” (3/26/20), Sydney Ember wrote that Sanders is “still pushing his agenda” in the midst of the pandemic, though “it’s not clear who’s listening.” She suggested he remains in the race to take advantage of the pandemic to bolster his agenda—as if arguing that a more progressive health system would be beneficial during a public health emergency is selfish and opportunistic. Ember wrote:
Mr. Sanders will take the stage when he can get it—including on the Senate floor Wednesday night, but also in news releases, radio and television interviews and livestreams where he studiously repeats his mantra to loyalists who once crowded Iowa auditoriums to cheer him, but now must settle for sometimes technologically challenged digital presentations.
The result of such coverage may be a reverse causation. As recently as February 29, Sanders had a double-digit lead over Biden in polling averages among Democratic voters. As coverage painting Sanders as an unviable candidate mounted, so did Biden’s popularity in polls.
The coronavirus may have halted most campaigning for now — but it evidently has not stopped anti-Sanders media bias.