Bernie Sanders versus the “corporate media,” explained

Presidential Candidates Hit The Soapbox At The Iowa State FairDemocratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) waves to supporters as he walks along Grand Avenue at the Iowa State Fair August 11, 2019, in Des Moines.  | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sanders came out of an Iowa trip a loser in the media for very weird reasons.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Hordes of cheering fans came to see Sen. Bernie Sanders and hear his message on his recent visit to Iowa. He gave fist bumps and posed for photographs. He told reporters he was “feeling really, really good” about the state of the race. “I think we’re going to win here in Iowa,” he said after delivering his stump speech. After a week of meeting with campaign volunteers and activists, holding town halls, and visiting with Iowans, he went to the state fair, quickly saw the butter cow, and ate a corn dog with a smile.

But the media narrative coming out of the state fair was that the senator ignored voters, skirting the all-important Iowa retail politics. “Somehow Bernie walked around the fairgrounds for 20 minutes without interacting with any human beings other than the guy who sells corn dogs,” the New York Times’s Reid Epstein tweeted. And that the crowd at the fair for Sanders was smaller than Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s, which, as a reporter who saw both crowds, was truly impossible to tell. Sanders fielded questions about how he was slipping in the state polls, where he’s now in fourth behind former Vice President Joe Biden, Warren, and Sen. Kamala Harris.

Sanders and his campaign are calling out media bias: The corporate media is specifically writing them off, they say.

“The undiscriminating coverage of polls that fit existing narratives is certainly an issue that all of us need to be aware of,” Sanders’s top aide Jeff Weaver told reporters, listing coverage from CNN, MSNBC, and major newspapers. “Headline after headline declaring that the Sanders campaign is over.”

In a campaign press call, Sanders staffers aggressively pushed back against reporting in the New York Times that Sanders “grumpily” neglected people. Then at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Sanders quipped, “I wonder why the Washington Post — which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon — doesn’t write particularly good articles about me.” (Sanders has been critical of Amazon’s labor and wage policies.) He later walked back the comment, saying he “absolutely” does not believe Bezos is directly involved in coverage at the paper. (The Washington Post is an independent entity.)

He has some legitimate complaints. Media outlets do seem to be looking for signs of weakness — there’s more coverage of a sputtering campaign than one that is steadily chugging along in second place nationally (the latter is closer to the truth).

And Sanders is turning to a familiar political message. Underlying this all is that he’s a well-known quantity running as an insurgent candidate. His ideas — Medicare-for-all, a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free college — are now all widely accepted within the Democratic Party. But his political style is to be the outsider, going after the power of corporate America, pharmaceutical companies, big banks, and, yes, the mainstream media.

The Sanders campaign sees a “Bernie write-off”

Sanders has always toed the line between being angry with the media and defending the institution of the free press. In 2016, his supporters said the media ignored the senator’s movement, calling it a “Bernie Blackout.” Indeed, a June 2016 study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center found that Sanders’s media coverage did lag (it was three times less than coverage of Hillary Clinton). Now supporters say it’s happening again.

“Now we are in the phase of what I call the Bernie write-off,” Weaver told reporters on the call. The campaign argues that Sanders receives more coverage when he does worse in the polls and less when he does better, creating a negative loop.

Sanders questions how corporate interests influence political coverage, and he vigorously censures Trump for weakening the free press, which he says is an important democratic institution. His complaints are relatively typical for a politician.

“I think my criticism of the corporate media is not that they are anti-Bernie, that they wake up, you know, in the morning and say, ‘What could we do to hurt Bernie Sanders?’ — that’s not the case, that Jeff Bezos gets on the phone to the Washington Post,” Sanders said in an interview with CNN, clarifying his comments about the Post. “There is a framework of what we can discuss and what we cannot discuss, and that’s a serious problem.”

He says reporters have never asked him what he would do about income inequality or the American health care system. On its face, that remark is not true. But it’s also not particularly controversial — or new — to deride political horse race coverage.

NEW: @BernieSanders tells @AnnieGrayerCNN:
“Do I think Jeff Bezos is on the phone, telling the editor of The Washington Post what to do? Absolutely not.” pic.twitter.com/DtV9107k9W

— Ryan Nobles (@ryanobles) August 13, 2019

And it fits in with Sanders’s campaign. He calls for a revolution against Big Pharma, the fossil fuel industry, the military industrial complex, the private insurance industry, Big Agriculture, and Wall Street. Corporate media is on the list, he says, because it isn’t focused on the root cause of America’s biggest problems: wealth inequality.

Bernie Sanders isn’t interested in the media circus, and sometimes he gets punished for it

Campaigning in Iowa — particularly during the state fair — is a bit like a high school spirit week, and the media gets to be the judge. Candidates roll through with banners and buses. They stop at the same diners, call bingo at senior homes, and flip pork chops at the fair. They do press interviews on Ferris wheels and visit a life-size cow made of butter.

Sanders is participating in these types of events this presidential cycle more than he did in 2015. This trip to Iowa was his eighth swing through the state, double that of frontrunner Biden. When his campaign hosts a softball game against the press at the Field of Dreams in Iowa next week, it will be his ninth trip to the state.

But as far as spirit contests go, there are times the Sanders team is proudly too cool for school.

As other campaigns competed in chants and dance-offs outside the annual Wing Ding dinner in Clear Lake, Iowa — an event put on by the Iowa Democratic Party where voters hear from candidates over a dinner of chicken nuggets and baked beans — Sanders’s team held a low-key “volunteer appreciation” event at a dive bar next door. Their message: “While other campaigns twirl signs, we knock doors,” Sanders’s digital director Josh Miller-Lewis tweeted. The campaign canvassed all the Democratic doors in town.

The Iowa State Fair and the Wing Ding dinner were the most media-covered events, but Sanders also toured a factory farm and contaminated water wells, met with Latino voters, held two town halls — one on women’s rights and another on economic inequality — and attended to a gun violence prevention forum. Any of those events could be classified as “retail politics,” but the media tends to focus on candidate cattle calls.

The New York Times reported that Sanders “has grounded his campaign in championing ideas rather than establishing human connections.” The reporter on the story, Sydney Ember, was the subject of a piece in Jacobin magazine, where Sanders-supporting podcaster Katie Halper called her the “New York Times’ Senior Anti-Bernie Correspondent.”

Reporters with the Washington Post and the Atlantic both argued that Warren’s crowd was bigger at the state fair. (There is no official count at these types of events.) Sanders’s team went on the defensive that Sanders’s was the biggest. It should be noted that crowd size at a state fair is really not a good metric for a candidate’s actual support in the Iowa caucuses this coming February.

But the back-and-forth between Sanders and the media felt familiar: It was once again Bernie supporters versus corporate media.

Sanders is still basically in second place — and media seems to find that boring

Sanders is in a vastly different position in the 2020 race than he was in 2016.

“Compared to 2015, we are head and shoulders above where we were then,” Weaver said of the state of the race.

When Sanders complained about the media in 2016, it was tied to complaints about the Democratic Party as a whole. The Democratic National Committee, which Sanders hit relentlessly for propping up Clinton in the 2016 election, is now in regular communication with his campaign. The party changed its rules in direct response to Sanders’s concerns, limiting the power of “superdelegates” and erring heavily on the side of candidate inclusivity in the debates, drawing them out into two-night marathons.

Leading presidential candidates are running on platforms similar to Sanders’s. Even those who are running to the center of the party are substantially more progressive than Clinton’s campaign was in 2016. Sanders is less of an outsider in the halls of Congress than he was even three years ago. He’s made nice with Democratic leadership, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. He’s a nationally recognized figure, with the experience of having already run one presidential campaign.

Sanders isn’t winning in the polls outright; Joe Biden is. And he’s not a rising star, either: Warren has seen the biggest jumps in the polls. But he’s certainly not losing. Nationally, since Biden entered the race, Sanders has been relatively stable in the polls while others have risen and fallen around him.

Many of the metrics about Sanders’s campaign are consistent. He still has more individual donors than any other candidate. He has high name recognition. His policies are no longer novel, but they are steadily gaining popularity, even as Democrats fight over what Medicare-for-all actually means.

Still, even after coming within a point of Clinton in 2016, Sanders’s shot at winning Iowa is far from guaranteed in a dramatically different presidential race. Standing in his way most centrally is Biden, who’s led all the polls since announcing his candidacy. Sanders’s campaign is taking heart in the fact that Biden supporters consistently name the Vermont senator as their second choice, most notably in a July Reuters/Ipsos poll.

There isn’t yet a clear sign that Sanders is substantially broadening his base of support. And there have been some warning signs in states like Iowa. The latest Monmouth University poll had him slipping from 16 percent in April to 9 percent in August.

At events for Sanders, Warren, Biden, and Harris in Iowa, it was as easy as to find die-hard Sanders fans as it was to find undecided voters who liked him in 2016 but are now interested in the rest of the field. Or voters who want a woman in the White House or someone younger than Sanders, or who are wary of Sanders’s plan to cut out private insurance, or who think not all student debt should be forgiven. It also wasn’t hard to find voters who loved Clinton and will never vote for Sanders.

The reality is that there isn’t a clean narrative, except that Bernie is doing well but is not currently the frontrunner. That doesn’t fit into the horse race. And the Sanders campaign understandably sees it as a bias in media.

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