Media bias against Bernie Sanders
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The Bernie Sanders campaign and alternative media have alleged that the mainstream media in the United States is biased against Bernie Sanders, primarily concerning both his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Accusations of bias often revolve around corporate ownership of news organizations, misleading graphics, and a perceived lack of coverage of Bernie Sanders. Organizations like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), alternative media such as Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti's Rising with the Hill (by The Hill), Jacobin, Vox, and Common Dreams, and others have alleged media bias against Bernie Sanders. The campaign runs its own media platforms, many of which allege media bias which they call the Bernie Blackout. The most prominent media organizations accused of bias have been MSNBC, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
According to political scientists, the amount of media coverage of Sanders during the 2016 election was largely consistent with his polling performance, except during 2015 when Sanders received coverage that exceeded his standing in the polls. However, during the 2016 election, all candidates received vastly less media coverage than Donald Trump, and the Democratic primary received substantially less coverage than the Republican primary. During the election, media coverage of Sanders was more favorable than that of any other candidate, whereas his main opponent in the democratic primary, Hillary Clinton, received the most negative coverage.
During the 2020 election, there have been renewed allegations that the media has covered Sanders unfairly, including claims that distorted data and falsehoods have been used to portray him negatively. Sanders himself became involved in a dispute with The Washington Post. He charged that it treated him inequitably due to the influence of its owner, Jeff Bezos, a claim that has been refuted by the Post. Studies by Northeastern University's School of Journalism found that Sanders initially received the most positive coverage of any major candidate in the primary and later the third and then fourth most favorable of eight candidates.
- 1 Background
- 2 2016 primary campaign
- 3 2020 primary campaign
- 4 Response to criticisms
- 5 See also
- 6 References
Sanders is a self-styled democratic socialist and the longest serving independent in U.S. congressional history, avoiding party affiliation throughout his political career. In the U.S. two party system, Sanders is ideologically closer to the Democratic Party, which considers itself primarily ranging from centrist to liberal and even progressive, depending on regional political landscape. While serving in the Congress, Sanders has caucused with the Democrats, which has made him eligible for participation in congressional committees as if he were a member of the Democratic Party. In addition, Sanders received support from Democratic party organizations in Vermont as well as from the Vermont Progressive Party, which also endorses some Democratic candidates in the state.
2016 primary campaign
On April 28, 2015, Vermont Public Radio reported that Sanders would announce his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on April 30. In an interview with USA Today on April 29, Sanders stated that he was "running in this election to win," and launched a campaign website, effectively beginning his run. Sanders said he was motivated to enter the race by what he termed "obscene levels" of income disparity and the campaign finance system. On May 26, 2015, Sanders officially announced his candidacy at Burlington's Waterfront Park.
Early campaign months
In September 2015, John Sides, a Political Science Professor at Vanderbilt University, found that the volume of media coverage of Sanders was consistent with his polling, noting that candidates who poll well get more news coverage. Sides, using data and social analytics tools provided by consumer insights company Crimson Hexagon, also concluded that the coverage Sanders received was proportionally more positive than that received by Clinton.
That same month, amid momentum in the Sanders campaign, The Washington Post wrote, "Sanders has not faced the kind of media scrutiny, let alone attacks from opponents, that leading candidates eventually experience."
In October 2015, Story Hinckley of the The Christian Science Monitor published an article discussing what he called a "near-blackout from major TV news sources". He indicated that, at the time, Sanders was polling high and bringing in significant donations, yet the mainstream media was giving insufficient coverage of the campaign. According to an analysis by Media Matters for America, media networks overwhelmingly covered Hillary Clinton's email controversy, while ignoring Sanders' campaign. In a study of campaign coverage conducted by Andrew Tyndall, ABC, CBS, and NBC devoted 504 minutes to the presidential race, with 338 minutes devoted to the Republican race, 128 minutes to the Democratic race, and a total of 8 minutes devoted to Bernie Sanders (compared to 145 minutes for Trump, 82 minutes for Clinton, 83 minutes for Clinton's email controversy, and 43 minutes for Jeb Bush).
That same month, Bernie Sanders supporters accused the media of being biased against Sanders after a debate when he won online polls while pundits claimed that Clinton won the debate. Josh Voorhees wrote for Slate that the polls cited by Sanders supporters were "informal and unscientific" "instant online polls" impacted by selection bias.
Later campaign months
In an article published by the progressive media watchdog FAIR, Adam Johnson documented that the Washington Post ran 16 stories about Bernie Sanders over a 16-hour period between a "crucial" debate and primary, all of which were allegedly presented "in a negative light, mainly by advancing the narrative that he’s a clueless white man incapable of winning over people of color or speaking to women." The Washington Post's Callum Borchers responded to the FAIR piece, writing that FAIR used an overly broad definition of negative, and noting that all the stories with the exception of two were commentary and analysis pieces. Of the two news articles, one was an Associated Press wire story, and the other was about the Sanders campaign's struggle to connect with African-American primary voters in 2016 and its implications for 2020. After the earlier-mentioned primary had passed, The Washington Post ran 16 stories which presented Sanders in a positive light, according to Borchers. Johnson replied that Borchers was unduly narrowing the definition of negative history and that Borchers was trying to justify the negative stories instead of refuting the alleged bias.
The New York Times was criticized for retroactively making significant changes to an article about Bernie Sanders' legislative accomplishments over the past 25 years. The article was originally titled "Bernie Sanders Scored Victories for Years Via Legislative Side Doors" but was subsequently changed to "Via Legislative Side Doors, Bernie Sanders Won Modest Victories." In addition to the revised title, several paragraphs were added. Margaret Sullivan at the New York Times opined that the changes were clear examples of "stealth editing" and that "the changes to this story were so substantive that a reader who saw the piece when it first went up might come away with a very different sense of Mr. Sanders’s legislative accomplishments than one who saw it hours later." Katie Halper from FAIR interpreted that, according to New York Times editors in their defense of the changes, "in its original form, the article didn't cast enough doubt on Sanders' viability and ability to govern."
Jonathan Stray, a scholar of computational journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, wrote for the Nieman Lab that, "at least online", Sanders received coverage proportionate to his standing in polls.
Harvard Kennedy School report
A June 2016 report by the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy on media coverage of candidates in the 2016 presidential primaries. The report found that,
...during the year 2015, major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers—a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls. Trump’s coverage was positive in tone—he received far more “good press” than “bad press.” The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls.
The Democratic race in 2015 received less than half the coverage of the Republican race. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was largely ignored in the early months but, as it began to get coverage, it was overwhelmingly positive in tone. Sanders’ coverage in 2015 was the most favorable of any of the top candidates, Republican or Democratic. For her part, Hillary Clinton had by far the most negative coverage of any candidate. In 11 of the 12 months, her “bad news” outpaced her “good news,” usually by a wide margin, contributing to the increase in her unfavorable poll ratings in 2015.
Patterson stated that,
Less coverage of the Democratic side worked against Bernie Sanders’ efforts to make inroads on Clinton’s support. Sanders struggled to get badly needed press attention in the early going. With almost no money or national name recognition, he needed news coverage if he was to gain traction. His poll standing at the beginning of 2015 was barely more than that of the other lagging Democratic contenders, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb. By summer, Sanders had emerged as Clinton’s leading competitor but, even then, his coverage lagged. Not until the pre-primary debates did his coverage begin to pick up, though not at a rate close to what he needed to compensate for the early part of the year. Five Republican contenders—Trump, Bush, Cruz, Rubio, and Carson—each had more news coverage than Sanders during the invisible primary. Clinton got three times more coverage than he did.
In her book A Rhetoric of Divisive Partisanship: The 2016 American Presidential Campaign Discourse of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Colleen Elizabeth Kelly noted that Sanders and Clinton got a share of news coverage that was similar to their eventual primary results, until the stage of the campaign when Clinton pulled ahead in the primary. Sanders received the most favorable coverage of any primary candidate. Kelly writes that Sanders was both right and wrong to complain about media bias, citing the Shorenstein Center report on the media's outsized coverage of the Republican primary, but noting that Sanders' coverage was the most favorable of any candidate.
Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America
According to the 2018 book Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America by political scientists John Sides (of Vanderbilt University), Michael Tesler (of University of California at Irvine), and Lynn Vavreck (of University of California, Los Angeles), "Sanders’s appeal, like Trump’s, depended on extensive and often positive media coverage." Sanders benefitted from media coverage in 2015, which was more positive than media coverage of Clinton. The amount of news coverage he received exceeded his share in the national polls at that time. Throughout the campaign as a whole, their analysis shows that "Sanders’s media coverage and polling numbers were strongly correlated." They write, "media coverage brought Sanders to a wider audience and helped spur his long climb in the polls by conveying the familiar tale of the surprisingly successful underdog. Meanwhile, Clinton received more negative media coverage."
The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election
In her 2018 book, The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election, Rachel Bitecofer writes that even though the democratic primary was effectively over in terms of delegate count by mid-March 2016, the media promoted the narrative that the contest between Sanders and Clinton was heating up. Matthew Yglesias of Vox made a similar point, arguing that the media was biased in favor of Sanders because it had an interest in exaggerating how close the democratic primary was.
Bitecofer did note the disparity in the amount of coverage for each candidate. According to her analysis, Trump received more extensive media coverage than Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders combined during a time when those were the only primary candidates left in the race.
2020 primary campaign
Shane Ryan from Paste Magazine reported that 48 hours after Sanders' declaration to run, the Post published four negative articles about him, two of which were by the same author, Jennifer Rubin. Rubin had criticized Sanders as a dated, unpopular candidate upon which the next day he reached record fundraising numbers. Rubin continued to disparage the senator's success in what Ryan called, "a great big point-missing whiff, and a lame attempt at self-justification after being made to look like a fool a day earlier."
Katie Halper in FAIR documented a number of cases where the media was utilizing selective poll reporting and distortions of graphics. In her article, she starts with an MSNBC 2020 matchup against Trump poll on March 7. The poll showed Biden at 53%, Sanders at 49%, and Warren and Kamala at 48%. Sanders however, was listed as being in fourth place. A similar sequence error was made on MSNBC on March 15 with Sanders in a third place order despite being in second numerically. On May 24, Chuck Todd of Meet The Press reported a Quinnipiac Poll that found Sanders had gone up by 5 points between April 30 and May 21 whereas Todd signed it as if Sanders had gone down by 5 points. On April 29, Velshe and Ruhle of MSNBC inaccurately displayed the data of a Monmouth poll that put Sanders at 27% polling with white voters and Biden at 25%. The MSNBC graphic showed Biden at 28%; a three point difference not in accordance with the poll. In a segment by Rachel Maddow on April 29, she showed a graphic with candidates leading with female donations. Kirsten Gillibrand was highest at 52% with women while Sanders was at the bottom at 33%. Maddow did not mention that the data was only based on donations of $200 or more (the only data that is itemized based on gender). According to the Sanders campaign, in the first quarter of his campaign, 46% of his donations were from women. MSNBC panelist Zerlina Maxwell said that Sanders, "did not mention race or gender until 23 minutes into the speech" in his kickoff speech. Glenn Greenwald from The Intercept described her claim as a blatant lie; Politifact also ruled her claim as "false". Maxwell later retracted her statement on Twitter after her claims were widely criticized on the social media platform, where many brought up that Sanders mentioned the issue of race and gender within the first five minutes of his speech. Greenwald criticized MSNBC for not retracting the claim on air, where it was made.
Sanders along with various members of his campaign have spoken out directly about the media bias. After Sanders led the movement to pressure Amazon to pay its employees $15 an hour, "I talk about [Amazon’s taxes] all of the time... And then I wonder why The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn't write particularly good articles about me. I don't know why." According to CNN, Sanders said, "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?" He added, "New York Times not much better". An executive editor of Washington Post stated in response, "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."
Around the same time, Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir told CNN,
In about, you know, a minute or so or two minutes or so you’re going to cut to commercial breaks and you’re going to see some pharmaceutical ads. You’re going to see a lot of ads that are basically paying your bills and the bills of the entire media enterprise. And what that ends up doing is incentivizing you and others to make sure that you’re asking the questions and driving the conversations in certain areas and not in certain areas.
Sanders responded to the entire discourse in the end by stating,
So this is not into conspiracy theory. We are taking on corporate America. Large corporations own the media in America, by and large, and I think there is a framework, about how the corporate media focuses on politics. That is my concern. It’s not that Jeff Bezos is on the phone every day; he’s not.
Chris Cillizza from CNN opined that Sanders and Shakir,
have zero evidence to back up these big claims is beside the point for many supporters of the independent senator from Vermont. They believe deeply in Sanders and see anyone who disagrees with them as a corporate shill or part of the Big Bad Establishment.
Which is their right. But it doesn't make these claims true.
Domenico Montanaro from NPR opined that, "the remark [by Sanders] sounded an awful lot like the kind of criticism leveled by someone else" indicating that Sanders mimicked Trump's criticism of the media. However, in the same interview where Bernie Sanders criticized The Washington Post, he explicitly stated that Trump was undermining American democracy and that, "There are some really great articles out there, like investigations, which we use, so I don't think media is fake news."
In These Times analysis
In November 2019, the Chicago left-wing magazine In These Times published an in-depth article analyzing the coverage of the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary by MSNBC between August and September 2019. They focused primarily on Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and former Vice President Joe Biden. The analysis covered The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, All In with Chris Hayes, The Beat with Ari Melber, Hardball with Chris Matthews, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell and The Rachel Maddow Show while categorizing positive, neutral, and negative discussion of the candidates. The analysis found that Sanders was discussed 36% of the time, compared to 43% for Warren and 64% Biden. The author notes that part of this discrepancy may be attributed to the Trump-Ukraine scandal. As for positive and negative mentions, 12.9% were positive towards Sanders, while 20.7% were negative—the most likely of the three. Most of the negative mentions came from Hardball and the 11th Hour. In comparison, 11.4% of comments towards Biden were negative, with 23.3% positive. The analysis found numerous inaccurate claims made by various political commentators regarding all candidates. Almost all the coverage discussed polls.
On December 2, 2019, PBS News Hour hosted a segment discussing a presidential primary election that excluded Sanders while focusing on candidates with less successful campaigns and polling numbers. Left leaning magazine Current Affairs wrote that even though the segment "found time to talk about Joe Sestak and Steve Bullock, plus plenty of candidates struggling to get out of single-digit poll numbers" it did not include "even a photo of Bernie Sanders." This article later was cited in an article by Common Dreams which levied the same accusation, describing it as part of the supposed "Bernie Blackout".
Response to criticisms
This article's Criticism or Controversy section may compromise the article's neutral point of view of the subject. (December 2019)
Various commentators have responded, criticized, or offered explanations of the various accusations of media bias. In addition, many researchers and institutions have published works analyzing these allegations.
In 2016, the Harvard University Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that major media coverage of the Sanders 2016 campaign was scant in the early months of the campaign but as his candidacy gained traction and popularity among voters, media coverage increased steadily and was "overwhelmingly positive in tone," according to the study. In 2015, "Sanders’ coverage in 2015 was the most favorable of any of the top candidates, Republican or Democratic," the study found. In addition the ratio of positive over negative coverage on Sanders' policy positions was much higher than candidates from either party. A review of Fox News found that Sanders was the subject of 79 positive reports and 31 negative reports while his opponent Hillary Clinton had 291 negative reports and 39 positive ones.
Politico put forth the idea that the Sanders campaign's perception of bias may be an artifact of Sanders propensity to decline informal interviews at "press gaggles" after events and his reluctance to focus on breaking news. Dan Pfeiffer of Crooked Media, quoted by Politico, questioned the effectiveness of critiquing the media coverage by the press over the Sanders campaign. "Unfortunately for the Sanders campaign, the press too often considers complaints from the left as validation of their objectivity and complaints from the right as something worth addressing to prove their objectivity" Pfeiffer said when comparing the accusations with the technique of the right-wing having, "unbelievable success working the refs by calling the mainstream media biased against them".
Vox proposed a similar explanation stating that the "media circus" is not something that Sanders and his campaign prefer to participate in. They also contend that the media may find his position in the polls and his popularity as "boring" because it "doesn't fit into the horserace" like some of their other candidates campaigns do.
Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron characterized Sanders' suggestions that Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, was influencing the Washington Post's coverage as a "conspiracy theory." Washington Post columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote that Sanders was making a smart case of media bias that was uniquely different from Trump's explicit criticism; indicating that, "the gatekeepers of established opinion no longer hold as much sway, when new forms of communication and independent media challenge the old. It’s not surprising that the corporate media gives Sanders bad press. Thankfully, though, that matters less and less."
A controversy arose between the Sanders campaign and the Post in late August concerning fact-checking. The Post gave Sanders "Three Pinocchios" (meaning mostly false) for his claim on medical debt. Sanders has consistently maintained that, “500,000 people go bankrupt every year because they cannot pay their outrageous medical bills”. Journalists disputed the article's finding and said that the claim was true. The Post then claimed that the paper was not peer-reviewed. Upon inspection it was found that the paper was peer reviewed.
Paul Heintz suggested that Sanders' solution to his concern about media bias would be complete, verbatim coverage of his pronouncements.
Emma Specter at Vogue doubted that there was a conspiracy against Sanders. However, she listed several examples of bias and interpreted lack of coverage of Sanders on certain issues and events as slightly unfair.
Domenico Montanaro of NPR claimed that Sanders sounded like Trump in his criticism of the media, quoting Trump's tweet, "...[T]he failing New York Times and the Amazon Washington Post do nothing but write bad stories even on very positive achievements - and they will never change!" In 2015, Elizabeth Jensen of NPR responded to an influx of emails regarding a "Morning Edition" segment. Jensen said that she does not "find that NPR has been slighting his campaign. In the last two days alone, NPR has covered the Democrats' climate change stances and reactions to the Republican debate and Sanders has been well in the mix." NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik responded to criticisms of bias against Sanders in April 2016 by noting that Sanders had appeared three times on NPR whereas Clinton had only done so once, that media outlets saw a Sanders win as a "long shot" early in the campaign, and that by April 2016, she appeared very likely to win the nomination.
In March 2019, a preliminary study by Northeastern University's School of Journalism found that Sanders was receiving the most positive coverage of any major candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary, while an expanded, updated analysis in April placed him third out of eight candidates; a further update for June–September 2019 found that Sanders's positive coverage ranked fourth out of eight major candidates.
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