Billionaires, Candidates or Not, Make Their Way Into the 2020 News Cycle

As leading progressive candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have solidified their positions at the top of the Democratic presidential primary, the ultra-wealthy targets of their proposals have enjoyed an outsized voice in news coverage of the race.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates made his way into headlines in the New York Times, BBC, The Washington Post and elsewhere last Wednesday after he said Warren’s proposed wealth tax was a bridge too far during a public interview. 

“But, you know, when you say I should pay $100 billion, okay, then I’m starting to do a little math about what I have left over,” Gates said. “Sorry, I’m just kidding. So you really want the incentive system to be there and you can go a long ways without threatening that.”

Earlier in the week, Omega Advisors CEO Leon Cooperman became emotional while appearing on CNBC to blast Warren for her “vilification of billionaires.” 

“I feel she’s taking the country down a very wrong path,” Cooperman said. “What’s she peddling is bull. Total, complete bull. That comes from someone who believes in a progressive income tax structure, who believes the rich should pay more. I have no problem with that.”

And billionaire investor Steve Schwarzman recently grabbed a day in the media spotlight after Senator Bernie Sanders, also a presidential contender, opined on Twitter that billionaires shouldn’t exist.

“Maybe Bernie Sanders shouldn’t exist,” Schwarzman shot back while promoting his new book.

One billionaire, former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, is running for president himself, and news broke Thursday that former New York City Mayor, and billionaire, Michael Bloomberg is closer than ever to announcing an official bid for the nomination. Bloomberg, founder of the eponymous financial services company, is among the top 10 richest individuals in the world, with a net worth of $55.5 billion.

The ubiquity of billionaires in the 2020 news cycle has raised questions about their ability to find earned media.

“The fact that each random billionaire’s thoughts on Elizabeth Warren is a news story is itself a powerful demonstration of the disproportionate political influence of the very rich,” tweeted Matthew Yglesias, senior correspondent at Vox.

On Sunday, Warren criticized the media for not balancing reporting on her proposed tax by covering the potential impact on lower-income Americans at the opposite end of the wealth spectrum.

“Well-connected billionaires are given plenty of space to complain about my #TwoCentWealthTax,” Warren tweeted. “Let’s give more space to the stories of working-class and middle-class families whose lives would be transformed by Universal Child Care and free public college.”

The lack of coverage that highlights the experiences of the lower and working class could be due to the simple fact that billionaires are more convenient sources for journalists who cover the 2020 race. 

Dave Karpf, associate professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University, said that in a primary cycle where exciting news can be sparse, billionaires are an easy voice for journalists to turn to for commentary. 

“It’s a sign of how long, slow and boring the American presidential process really is,” Karpf said. He added that journalists often turn to specific billionaires who play a more active role in making political donations because they have so much money to throw around to campaigns that it makes their opinions inherently important. 

“In the 2016 election, there was lots of coverage of the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. They were noteworthy because they were going to spend extraordinary amounts of money on the campaign,” Karpf explained. 

Others point out that billionaires only help their critics when they make reactionary comments to the press. According to Vox’s Emily Stewart, pushback from billionaires is a badge of honor for populist candidates like Warren and Sanders.

“The thing that happens when some billionaire comes out against Warren is that she takes advantage of it to further her message,” Stewart wrote. “Another rich guy opposes her candidacy? Okay, fine, that’s why you should vote for her, she says.”

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