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Is the Free Press Conspiring Against Senator Bernie Sanders?

Maybe (But Probably Not)

It’s ironically antithetical that Senator Bernie Sanders’ prestige as a pure, transcendentally clean politician is now being marred by his supporters’ viral and largely digital reputation as aggressive, quick-tempered, ride-or-die fanatics. Recent controversy over sexist allegations against the progressive icon further highlight this contrast; much of Sanders’ base viciously refuses to even entertain the possibility that their champion once incorrectly analyzed gendered presidential campaign strategy, instead choosing to declare those levying the charge (primarily CNN and Senator Elizabeth Warren) liars and elite political puppets. Sanders and Warren mutually fluffed execution of the standard debate-end handshake last night, as well, further fueling sharp intra-party conflict online.

Sanders’ supporters’ vitriolic refusal to doubt their patron is structurally supported by a longstanding political narrative: that the [liberal establishment] media refuses to give the democratic socialist fair coverage. I am sympathetic to this argument — that there is potentially some concerted mediated effort to misrepresent Bernie Sanders — but I remain largely skeptical of its scale, coordination, or relative “worseness” compared to the coverage of any other contemporary candidate.

Conglomerate ownership and standardization aside, the general media is pronouncedly and divisively fragmented. Consequently, I do believe there are distinct ways in which the media distorts Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. I also believe, however, that there are certain marked elements of Sanders’ broader media coverage that favor the Vermonter.

He Said, She Said

In anticipation of larger arguments about primary media coverage, let’s first break down this most recent Bernie campaign tension. Earlier this week, CNN’s MJ Lee released recorded dialogue from a 2018 campaign strategy meeting between Sanders and Warren. Though the conversation was largely familial and civil, Lee tells us, Sanders at one point directly told Warren that he didn’t believe a woman could win the presidential election. She disagreed. The conversation moved on.

Electing initially to remain silent, Warren is now confirming the veracity of both the event and the quote. But that’s as much as her campaign is willing to do, it seems, in a pointed effort to rise above the muckraking and sticky discussions of sexism that have the potential to slow her momentum. It’s a smart decision, especially as accusations of dishonesty or inauthenticity stick more effectively to women than their male counterparts and have already been attributed more routinely to Warren than any other candidate in the race, even those with spottier legislative track records.

Sanders’ perspective is that rumors of his sexism — to loosely quote literary legend Mark Twain — have been greatly exaggerated. The Vermont politician denies ever telling Elizabeth Warren that a woman “couldn’t win the election,” suggesting instead that the only comments he made to Warren about her presidential chances concerned the opposition’s sexist and misogynistic behavior. “What I did say that night,” Sanders himself corrected journalists, “Was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist, and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could.”

Sanders’ core base believes him wholeheartedly, and mounted a furious defense of their hero. Campaign manager Faiz Shakir bluntly called the reported account “a lie,” and others launched ferocious social media campaigns both sharing highlights of Sanders’ historical commitment to political feminism and attacking Warren (scroll through the replies to any of her Tweets from the 24 hours after the news broke and you’ll find it replete with snake emojis).

Here’s the truth: Whether Sanders ever told Warren she couldn’t win the election in so many words is irrelevant. Because what Sanders did say, in his own words, is not antithetical to what Warren may well have heard.

Rebecca Traister lays this argument out exquisitely in her recent piece in The Cut. “Women,” Traister writes, “Hear predictions about the kind of bias that could be effectively wielded against them all the time, not just from sexists or blowhards but from friends and allies and progressives and feminists.” This striking lack of belief in the possibility of a female president is key to the “electability” narrative that Warren is dauntlessly grappling with this primary season. Progressives are reluctant to fully throw themselves behind a female candidate again because, as Sanders himself says he discussed with Warren, “She will be running in a general election against a hateful misogynist and that presents a real-life, genuine set of challenges for a female candidate.”

Just because lots of people feel one way doesn’t mean that they’re correct, of course; I certainly do not believe the gendered electability narrative is meaningful in any way that matters. What’s more, subscribing to that narrative actually exacerbates the problem — eschewing female candidates because of perceived disproportionate challenges creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which those candidates are never truly given fair or appropriate consideration. So while Sanders’ comments to Warren are not intrinsically sexist, they do speak to a maddeningly frustrating strategic miscalculation.

Sanders’ core supporters’ instinctive refusal to critically consider their candidate’s words and shortcomings, however, is telling. Moreover, the subsequent aggression displayed online towards Warren and her campaign staff is alarming. The aggressive fanaticism many Bernie supporters display — and yes, I do mean “many,” though I know there will be pushback from some of his more civil supporters once this article is posted — is not exactly inspiring or reassuring.

Sanders In the Spotlight

To say that MJ Lee’s allegations of Sanders’ misconduct may hold water is not to say that the extended media always covers the radical progressive fairly, of course. So here’s the real question: is the free press conspiring against Senator Bernie Sanders?

Well, kind of. Sanders is an unusual candidate in that his relationship with the national political press corps goes back a long way. The political icon’s striking accessibility and radical political agenda mean many members of the press already hold developed opinions of him as a politician. These hardened perceptions protect Sanders from certain kinds of criticism — anyone challenging his commitment to progressivism is met with instant and obvious derision — but invite other kinds as well.

Sanders has a reputation as a candidate who produces lots of messaging bills but doesn’t dive too deep into the details of legislation. He raises issues without problem, but neglects the subsequent coalition-building work necessary to move forward tangible legislation. That candidate Sanders is more comfortable speaking about abstract American economic unfairness than, say, the details of foreign policy confirms this reputation — which is why stories that speak to those perceptions are taken unusually seriously by the press. It’s why interviews in which Sanders fails to provide incredibly detailed or thorough answers are emphasized, even though he’s not obviously wrong or uninformed.

But the very same familiarity with Sanders that invites mediated criticism also directly and substantially benefits the Senator’s campaign. Primarily, viral performance of Sanders-related content on social media incentivizes journalists to increase positively-framed coverage. This phenomenon coincides with broad desire among the press corps for exciting campaigns — as Vox journalist Matt Yglesias wrote in 2016, “The media has a systematic self-interested bias toward exaggerating how close the race is. Sanders supporters are a minority of Democrats, but they are still a large number of people, and they avidly read and share content about Sanders’s big fundraising hauls and his wins in low-population states.”

Moreover, as Ezra Klein puts it, “A lot of journalists simply like and believe Sanders.” When Sanders says something, the common belief is that he means it (not that he’s positioning himself in some sort of Machiavellian political move). “Sanders receives an assumption of good faith that most politicians simply don’t,” Klein writes, “If he gets something wrong, it tends to get covered as him not having enough information or perhaps making a mistake, not as a lie.” This is basic, fundamental trust, and it’s invaluable to any candidate.

So yes, the press is intensely attuned to Sanders’ behavior and missteps. Crucially, however, that scrutiny arises from unusual familiarity with Sanders and his abilities — not hostile intent — and also observably benefits the Vermontian’s primary campaign.

Bernie Sanders Is Not Special

Moreover, I’m not convinced that the press is any more biased towards Sanders than any other candidate. Members of the press succeed by creating models of celebrities and public figures to absorb new information into, especially concerning those who’ve long been in the public eye. Hillary Clinton has a famously awful relationship with the press; consequently, nobody doubts her technical policy expertise or knowledge of the bureaucratic system, but many view her as a secretive political opportunist with questionable ethics. Rick Perry’s “oops” moment devastated his campaign because it played into an already-developing mental model of him as a dullard, not because it was itself a momentous mistake.

For all that Sanders’ supporters feel the press is biased against their candidate, others are subjected to virtually the exact same model-based journalistic system. It’s a communicative process as old as time. The only difference is that initial constructed reputational mental model.

All Coverage Is Good Coverage

Finally — and this is a biggie — I’m not entirely convinced that negative media coverage actually hurts candidates. The contemporary candidate aided most by media coverage, President Donald Trump himself, is also the one the press is most biased against. Trump is potentially living proof of that age-old adage ‘any press is good press,’ theoretically suggesting that it matters less how you’re covered than that you are covered.

Of course, Trump is exceptional in many ways. He fans the flames of media hostility; Sanders does not. He positions himself oppositional to a liberal establishment; Sanders is enveloped in progressive ideology. Sanders might not be able to successfully harness hostile press relations the same way Trump has, even if the Senator wanted to, but it is worth considering nonetheless.

Is the press corps running a concerted smear campaign against Senator Bernie Sanders? Probably not. Sanders has a complicated relationship with the free press, stemming from years of public service and accessibility, and is both hindered and abetted by his established reputational model. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that the Senator is being treated unfairly in the media any more than his contemporaries.

Sanders is an insurgent political outsider in many ways. His radical policies and intelligent tenacity have shaped contemporary American politics more than many of his peers, and will continue to do so in the years to come. But any narrative pitting Sanders against the press, or as an underdog candidate struggling for coverage, is a simplistic account of deeper realities.

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