Media coverage of Bernie Sanders

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Bernie Sanders in November 2019

Media coverage of Bernie Sanders became a subject of academic and journalistic inquiry during his 2016 presidential run. His campaign, some independent observers, and some media sources question whether the mainstream media in the United States is structurally inclined to be biased against Bernie Sanders. Other individuals and organizations say that coverage is unbiased. The allegations of bias primarily concern both his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, and revolve around corporate ownership of news organizations, misleading graphics, and a perceived under-coverage of his candidacies.

One Harvard study of media coverage showed that overall media coverage of the 2016 primaries focused primarily on the "competitive game" or the mechanics of the primary process, with only 11% of coverage being related to issues.[1] One book length study of the general election said that the amount of coverage of Sanders during the pre-primaries in 2015 was more or less consistent with his polling performance.[2] Researchers have said that he was "largely ignored in the early months" following his announcement because he was little-known and so seen as unelectable, but also that his coverage continued to lag until the pre-primary debates, even after he had emerged as the number-two contender.[3] Analysis of the language used concluded that media coverage of the "underdog" Sanders was more favorable than that of any other candidate.[2][3] By contrast, during the middle period of the voting primary (March 15th-May 3rd), the "particularly sparse" coverage of Sanders turned negative for the first time in his campaign.[1] Stories about Republican candidates, and particularly about Donald Trump, dominated media coverage (64 percent) during both this "middle period" of the primaries and overall, because the media considered the Republican race to be the real "horserace".[1]

During the 2020 Democratic primary, Sanders renewed his criticism of the culture of corporate media with a "plan for journalism" meant to curb the consolidation of media he sees as responsible for the lack of substance on network news.[4] Stories were written about journalists at MSNBC distorting data in a manner unfavorable to Sanders in July[5][6] and more appeared after Sanders speculated at rallies in August as to whether the Washington Post could cover him fairly when he encouraged taxing Post-owner Jeff Bezos' main company, Amazon, more heavily.[7][8] These allegations of bias were discounted by the executive editor of the Post as conspiratorial.[9]


Sanders is a self-styled democratic socialist[10] and the longest serving independent in U.S. congressional history, having avoided party affiliation[11] throughout his political career. In the U.S. two party system, Sanders is ideologically closer to the Democratic Party,[11] 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,[11] 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[11] as well as from the Vermont Progressive Party, which also endorses some Democratic candidates in the state.

Writing in 2005, Sanders identified corporate media coverage of political issues as an issue on which he felt he needed to take a position.[12]

In 2016, Sanders lost his challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. After the election, he devoted a chapter to media issues in a bestselling book. In it, he wrote of how, because he was being covered as a presidential contender, corporate media ran a sizeable number of stories on poverty that he suggests would otherwise not have been aired. He also wrote that while national media did not cover his visits to poverty-stricken areas of the country, local media did. In the chapter, he discusses the consequences of corporations like General Electric, Comcast, and Disney owning media conglomerates for media coverage of issues like taxation and trans-national trade agreements.[13]

Academic books and studies[edit]

Jonathan Stray, a computational journalism researcher at the Columbia Journalism School, wrote for Nieman Lab in January 2016 that, "at least online", Sanders got coverage proportionate to his standing in polls.[14]

Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy wrote a report in June 2016 analyzing the media coverage of candidates in the 2016 presidential primaries.[15] Patterson said that Sanders did better than most "candidates in recent decades who entered the campaign with no money, no organization, and no national following" and said Trump was "arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee".[3] According to data compiled by Media Tenor, "[o]ver the course of 2015, the Democratic race got less than half as much news exposure as the Republican race."[3] Patterson said that this data showed the Sanders campaign was "largely ignored in the early months", but that once he did begin to get coverage in 2015, it was "overwhelmingly positive in tone", but that this positive media exposure did not happen "at a rate close to what he needed to compensate for the early part of the year."[3][16] Patterson also found that coverage of Sanders was "particularly sparse" during the "middle period" of the primary (March 15-May 3).[1] Sanders himself focused on the data the Shorenstein Center provided showing that coverage of issues was vastly inferior (10%) to coverage of the primary process and the political "horserace" (90%).[17]

A 2018 book co-written by three political scientists said that the amount of news coverage Sanders received exceeded his share in the national polls in 2015. Throughout the campaign as a whole, their analysis showed that his "media coverage and polling numbers were strongly correlated."[2]

In her 2018 book, Rachel Bitecofer wrote that the Democratic primary was effectively over in terms of delegate count by mid-March 2016, but that the media promoted the narrative that the contest between Sanders and Clinton was "heating up" at that time.[18] Bitecofer found that Trump received more 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.[18]

A 2019 study by Northeastern University's School of Journalism found that Sanders initially received the most positive coverage of any major candidate in the 2020 primary and later the third and then fourth most favorable of eight candidates.[19][20]

2016 primary campaign[edit]

Sanders at a town meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, July 2015

On May 26, 2015 Sanders announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in Burlington, Vermont. The New York Times covered the story on page 19. In the course of the campaign he would be endorsed by only one major newspaper: The Seattle Times. Many major newspapers, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, and the Houston Chronicle, endorsed his opponent.[13]

In August 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."[21]

In the following month, Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, wrote that she had received many complaints from readers about purported bias against Sanders. She responded that the Times had given roughly the same amount of articles dedicated to Sanders as they did to similarly-polling Republican candidates (barring Donald Trump), while conceding that some of the articles written were "fluff" and "regrettably dismissive".[22] Later in the month, as the campaign gained some steam, The Washington Post wrote, "Sanders has not faced the kind of media scrutiny, let alone attacks from opponents, that leading candidates eventually experience."[23] John Sides also wrote in the same outlet that the volume of media coverage of Sanders had been consistent with his polling and that the press he had been getting was more favorable than Clinton's.[24]

In October 2015, Story Hinckley of the The Christian Science Monitor said there was "near-blackout from major TV news sources" about the Sanders campaign, despite Sanders polling high and bringing in significant donations.[25] Media Matters reported on a September 2015 study by Andrew Tyndall, which showed ABC, CBS, and NBC devoted 504 minutes to the presidential race (338 to Republicans, 128 minutes to Democrats, of which 8 minutes were about Sanders).[26] Pointing to online polls contradicting media pundits assessment of the October debate, Bernie Sanders supporters complained of media bias without assessing the unreliability of online polling.[27]

In November 2015, David Brock, the founder of American Bridge 21st Century, Media Matters, and Correct the Record, set up a Delaware company to buy Blue Nation Review and turn it into a vehicle for the Clinton campaign. According to Lloyd Grove, the blog was "a comfortable venue for negative Sanders stories that Brock wasn't successful in placing with mainstream news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post".[28] In 2017, Brock apologized to Bernie Sanders for his aggressive support of Clinton during the 2016 campaign,[29][30] In the same month, he made a pitch for donors promising to "weaponize information" against Donald Trump, which led to further coverage of Brock's negative campaigning against Sanders during the 2016 primary.[31]

In January 2016, Claire Malone from FiveThirtyEight said that Sanders was not the subject of a "media blackout," as he had just reached a 30 percent share of coverage. [32] Glenn Greenwald predicted in the same month that "the political and media establishment" would become increasingly hostile towards Sanders as the chances of him winning the Democratic primary increased.[33]

On March 8, the day of the Michigan primary, in an article published by FAIR, Adam Johnson said that the Washington Post ran 16 stories about Bernie Sanders over a 16-hour period between a "crucial" debate and primary, pitching the view that he was "a clueless white man incapable of winning over people of color or speaking to women."[34][35] The Washington Post's Callum Borchers responded, saying 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.[36] After the Michigan primary had passed, Borchers said thatThe Washington Post ran 16 stories which presented Sanders in a positive light.[37] Johnson replied by mocking the idea of the Washington Post investigating itself for bias.[38]

From March 15 – May 3, according to researcher Thomas Patterson, the Republican/Democratic primary coverage split was 64:36, and the Clinton/Sanders media coverage split was 61:39.[1] Patterson ascribes this difference to "the influence of “electability” on reporting," rather than on polling numbers. For the first time in the campaign, Clinton's press was positive (51:49) and Sanders' press was negative (46:54).[1] On March 15th, Sanders lost four of the day's five Democratic primaries. Though the national media had film crews on hand in Phoenix, AZ where he was speaking, they chose not to broadcast video of his speech, opting to transmit images of the empty podium behind which Trump would emerge 20 minutes later, covering the "dead time" with horserace punditry.[39][17]

The New York Times was criticized for retroactively making significant changes to a March 15, 2016 article about Bernie Sanders' legislative accomplishments over the past 25 years.[40][41] In addition to the revised title, several negative paragraphs were added.[42] In 2019, Margaret Sullivan, public editor at the NY Times, wrote 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 Sanders' legislative accomplishments than one who saw it hours later."[43]

In April 2016, NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik responded to criticisms of bias against Sanders saying 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[44]

After Sanders' win in the Wisconsin primary the next week, Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias of Vox agreed with each other that the media was biased in favor of Sanders because it had a vested commercial interest in exaggerating how close the race was in the weeks prior to the NY primary.[45][46] Leading into the April 19 New York primary, Juan Gonzalez, at the time a senior columnist at NY Daily News, reported that members of the paper's editorial board "were surprised by the furor" surrounding their interview of Bernie Sanders, which Gonzalez said was "largely fueled by the Clinton campaign and their surrogates."[47] Democracy Now! co-host Amy Goodman reviewed some of that negative press just prior to the last debate between the two candidates.[48]

2020 primary campaign[edit]

In February 2019, Shane Ryan (Paste Magazine) reported that within 48 hours of Sanders' campaign launch, the Washington Post had published four opinion pieces about him, two of which were by columnist Jennifer Rubin. Ryan described the common themes in these columns as a "manufactured narrative" that Sanders' time had—as one of the columnists put it—"come and gone".[49] One week later, Paul Heintz opined in the Post that "the way the senator sees it, the job of a journalist is merely to transcribe his diatribes unchallenged and broadcast his sermons unfiltered".[50]

According to a March 2019 analysis by Northeastern University's School of Journalism, Sanders received the most positive coverage of any major candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary. An updated analysis in April placed him third out of eight candidates;[19] a further update for June–September 2019 found that Sanders's positive coverage ranked fourth out of eight major candidates.[20]

In April 2019, Sanders wrote to the board of the Center for American Progress in response to a video produced by their former media outlet ThinkProgress. The video mocked him for becoming a millionaire after writing a book about his 2016 election run.[51][52] The following month, Politico published a feature article on Sanders's income. Both the article and tweets from official Politico accounts on Twitter promoting the text, described him as "rich" and "cheap"; the article itself also contained a montage of a giant Sanders holding three houses.[53] People on social media complained that the promotion of the article was anti-Semitic. Politico deleted one of its tweets promoting the text and replaced the aforementioned illustration with another, showing Sanders in a backyard with a money tree in the background.[54] Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who later endorsed Sanders, asked on Twitter: "Can ⁦@politico ⁩ explain to us how photoshopping money trees next to the only Jewish candidate for president and talking about how "cheap" and rich he is *isn't* antisemitic? Or are they just letting this happen because he's a progressive politician they don't like?"[55] Articles in Buzzfeed News, Jacobin, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency criticized the tone and arguments of Politico's article.[54][56] Writing for the JTA, Andrew Silow-Carroll summarized what he called selective outrage after comparing the story to other recent examples of political "conjunction of Jews, money and influence" : "If you are only enraged by the anti-Semitism of your political enemies, then it’s hard to take your outrage seriously."[57] Sanders himself called the article anti-Semitic days later.[58]

In June 2019, Katie Halper, writing for FAIR, reported that Sydney Ember, a New York Times reporter assigned to cover Sanders, was regularly citing criticism of the candidate by his ideological opponents. "Moreover," wrote Halper, "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 was citing these sources as neutral authorities, without disclosing their potential conflicts of interest.[40]

In July 2019, Halper documented a number of instances in which cable news network MSNBC employed graphics that distorted polling and donor data to Sanders' detriment.[5] 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.[59] At the end of the month, Sanders' campaign manager (Faiz Shakir) was invited to CNN's Reliable Sources to talk with Brian Stelter about media bias. Shakir criticized debates and talking head spots on networks like CNN being interspersed with pharmaceutical industry commercials. When asked what issues the campaign wanted to discuss more than the daily dissection of Trump's tweets, Shakir spoke of regulatory capture.[60]

In August 2019, Sanders said that The Washington Post did not "write particularly good articles about" him and suggested that it was because he frequently mentioned that Amazon did not pay taxes.[61][62] Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, responded, "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."[62] Sanders rejected that his claim was a conspiracy theory.[63] NPR wrote that Sanders's comments bore similarities to Trump's criticism of the media.[63] CNN columnist Chris Cillizza said that Sanders had no evidence for his claims.[64]

In the same month, the Washington Post deemed false Sanders's claim that "500,000 people go bankrupt every year because they cannot pay their outrageous medical bills". In an article for Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson disputed the Post's findings and said that the claim made by Sanders was true, citing a study in the American Journal of Public Health.[65][66]

In November 2019, Emma Specter at Vogue doubted that there was a conspiracy against Sanders. She also listed several examples of limited coverage of his policy proposals and interpreted lack of coverage of Sanders on certain issues and events as being "only somewhat surprising".[67] In the same month, In These Times analyzed coverage of the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary by MSNBC between August and September 2019.[68][69] They found that "MSNBC talked about Biden twice as often as Warren and three times as often as Sanders", and that Sanders was the candidate spoken of negatively the most frequently of the three. They also found that "[o]verall, MSNBC's primary coverage was devoid of policy discussion."[70] Also in November 2019, Politico reported that Biden had received nearly three times more cable news coverage than Sanders and Warren.[71]

In a December 2019 opinion column for the NYT, David Leonhardt agreed with John F. Harris — the co-founder of Politico — about the media having a centrist bias. Leonardt argued this hurt Sanders and Warren — particularly in questions posed to both about the issue of a wealth tax.[72] In the same month, Ryan Grim of The Intercept used examples of media coverage and the preceding month's In These Times analysis to argue that the media misreported on or omitted coverage of Sanders instead of treating him as a "top-tier candidate." He hypothesized that this alleged "Bernie Blackout" was a positive for Sanders, as it could prevent him from receiving the level of criticism that other front-running candidates typically receive.[73]

The CNN-sponsored debate between Democratic candidates on January 14, 2020, was the subject of criticism over perceived bias against Sanders, especially concerning moderator Abby Phillip's handling of a he-said, she-said controversy[74] between Sanders and fellow Senator and candidate Elizabeth Warren.[75][76][77] Journalism think-tank Poynter Institute called Phillip's treatment of Sanders "stunning in its ineptness, and stunning in its unprofessionalism."[78][79] Following the exchange, Joy Ann Reid argued that Sanders was lying during her morning show on MSNBC by interviewing a self-styled body language expert who was later found to be an opponent of vaccination. In her explanation, the guest referred to Sanders having a hunched posture, which critics including Glenn Greenwald condemned as an anti-Semitic trope.[80][81]

See also[edit]



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