On August 12th, Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders entered into a public argument with the Washington Post after alleging that the newspaper has a bias against him. The bias, Sanders claimed, is a result of his attacks on Jeff Bezos, the billionaire owner of the Washington Post. Sanders, his staff and his supporters have, for years, claimed that mainstream media covers the Senator less than others, and that when they do cover him, it is mostly negative. Their explanation of this alleged phenomenon is that what they call “corporate media” is designed to work against his campaign.
This most recent spat started when Sanders was at a town hall in Wolfeboro, N.H. discussing how Amazon paid $0 in federal income taxes in 2018. Then Sanders said, “See, I talk about that all 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. But I guess maybe there’s a connection.”
This comment received substantial backlash from the Washington Post when the executive editor, Marty Baron, called Sanders’ remark a “conspiracy theory.” Other journalists and pundits made the glaring connection between what Sanders said and similar attacks President Trump has wielded against the Washington Post.
In NH today, @BernieSanders sounds a lot like @realDonaldTrump as he trashes Amazon: “I talk about that 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.”
— Jeff Zeleny (@jeffzeleny) August 12, 2019
….In my opinion the Washington Post is nothing more than an expensive (the paper loses a fortune) lobbyist for Amazon. Is it used as protection against antitrust claims which many feel should be brought?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2018
On August 13th, Sanders clarified his comments in an interview with CNN. He said, “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.”
— Ryan Nobles (@ryanobles) August 13, 2019
Sanders later expanded his argument in an op-ed in the Columbia Journalism Review, where he expressed concerns over corporate media conglomeration and the influence of advertisers on media content. Additionally, Sanders’ speechwriter, David Sirota, made a blog post further detailing the campaign’s complaints.
Also on August 13th, Senior Campaign Advisor Jeff Weaver expressed concern over coverage of the Senator’s campaign while on a press call. He reminded reporters of the “Bernie Blackout” that took place in 2016. Then he said, “Now we are sort of in the phase that I call the ‘Bernie write-off.’”
The 2016 “Bernie Blackout” is a disputed phenomenon and is more complex than Weaver makes it out to be. In a March 2016, a Pew Research Center study found that 58% of Sanders supporters thought the Senator had received too little coverage during the primary. According to a study by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, that opinion held some credibility because Hilary Clinton received three times as much coverage as Sanders in 2015. However, the Harvard report addressed Sanders supporters grievance by saying, “In relative terms at least, their complaint lacks substance. Among candidates in recent decades who entered the campaign with no money, no organization, and no national following, Sanders fared better than nearly all of them.”
Weaver claims the media is now propagating a “Bernie write-off.” He expressed concerns over journalists only covering polls that fit existing media narratives. He said, “The better the number is in the poll, the less coverage he’s received, and the worse he does, the more it receives.” This is in reference to articles such as “Bernie Sanders, No Longer the Front-Runner, Brings Campaign Home to Vermont” and “Revolution stalled? Bernie Sanders struggles against a double bind.”
.@melbournecoal & @reidepstein describe Sanders critic Mary Anne Marsh as "a Democratic strategist in Boston who worked for John Kerry and Ted Kennedy". They don't mention she's now a corporate lobbyist. https://t.co/vGUoQ1SOA7 pic.twitter.com/4NAJw8OpLg
— Politics Brad (@notclimatebrad) June 12, 2019
The New York Times quotes "Democratic strategist" Tracry Sefl to say Bernie Sanders is "an old white man." Doesn't note she was senior adviser to Ready for Hillary Super PAC or that she was a hired gun at a Republican-led firm Navigators Global https://t.co/PyZiXSqtGe
— Zaid Jilani (@ZaidJilani) March 1, 2019
For Sanders supporters, the New York Times has a history of anti-Sanders reporting. In 2016, the paper was caught making changes, without publicizing them, to an article about the Senator. This included changing the headline from “Bernie Sanders Scored Victories for Years via Legislative Side Doors” to “Via Legislative Side Doors, Bernie Sanders Won Modest Victories.” The Times’ public editor at the time, Margaret Sullivan, criticized the revisions, but the paper ultimately stuck by the changes.
Sanders’ explanation of the purported bias against him has to do with the business side of journalism affecting objectivity. He was critical of profit-driven media after the 2016 election, when he claimed “We need serious discussions about serious issues, and that is not what the media is giving us.”
"The function of corporate media is to make money. It is a business." – @BernieSanders at @gwlisner
— Scott Nover (@ScottNover) November 17, 2016
The Senator has a long history of objections to his portrayal in the media. In 1979, Sanders wrote an op-ed for The Vermont Vanguard Express where he expressed similar concerns. Within a broader critique of commercial television, Sanders said, “television is the major vehicle by which the owners of this society propagate their political points of view (including lies and distortions) through the ‘news’. The major networks are owned and controlled by some of the most powerful institutions in this country.”
This claim, and Sanders’ more recent comments, echo a comparable argument present in other media critiques from the left, such as that found in Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent.” In which the authors contend they have created a propaganda model that “traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public.” Like Sanders’ assertions, Herman and Chomsky faced significant backlash for overstatement and failing to create a causal link between business interests and media output.
Former Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama Dan Pfeiffer commented to POLITICO on the purported bias against the Sanders campaign. He said, ““The right has had unbelievable success working the refs by calling the mainstream media biased against them. 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.”