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MSNBC’s Anti-Sanders Bias Was on Display in Nevada, But It Hasn’t Hurt Him

The attacks have become more cartoonish and frequent but have not hurt Bernie Sanders in the polls.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the ninth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 19, 2020.

After months of speculation, billionaire and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg finally appeared at a Democratic primary debate last night. In an ominous sign, the first answer he gave to a question was a dishonest attack aimed at scaring voters away from a universal health care system.

Asked to compare his chances of beating President Trump to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s chances of doing so, Bloomberg attacked Sanders and his Medicare for All Plan, falsely suggesting it would throw 160 million people off their health insurance. “It is the oldest lie from this particular presidential election,” said Cenk Uygur during The Young Turks’s post-debate coverage. In fact, a Medicare-for-All proposal would provide a universal health care system for all Americans — while reducing overall health spending — a long-stated goal for the Democratic Party.

Yet, MSNBC moderators did not bother correcting Bloomberg’s mistake. Other examples of MSNBC’s anti-Sanders bias were also apparent in its coverage of the Democratic debate in Las Vegas. Several of the moderators of the Las Vegas debate already had major anti-Sanders bona fides. Moderator Chuck Todd was recently scolded by the Anti-Defamation League for comparing Sanders supporters to Nazis. Moderator Jon Ralson is infamous for manufacturing a story about progressive organizers throwing a chair during the 2020 Democratic primary.

MSNBC also carved out a prominent role for anti-Sanders pundits like Jason Johnson and Chris Matthews in the network’s post-debate coverage. Johnson, in fact, cheered for a brokered convention that would enable superdelegates to steal the nomination from Sanders. One host of the network’s pre-debate coverage was Stephanie Ruhle, who worked for Bloomberg just a few years ago. Hedge Fund millionaire Steve Rattner, an economic analyst for the “Morning Joe” show, literally manages Bloomberg’s money. The conflicts of interest never end. Among those paying for ad time during the debate: the health care industry and Bloomberg himself.

These anti-Sanders conflicts of interest, however, won’t surprise those who have been following the election closely. In fact, Sanders fans on social media largely predicted the tenor of the questions. MSNBC’s aggressive anti-Sanders bias is an open secret at this point. From “body language experts” on Joy Reid’s show to Chris Matthews’s dread over the “Reds” killing him in a public execution, no amount of hyperbole is too rich for the network — so long as it comes at the expense of Sanders. On Monday Vanity Fair reported on the exhausting negativity from MSNBC, arguing that the right-wing Fox News has been fairer than even the iconic liberal network.

“They’ve been among the last to acknowledge that Bernie Sanders’s path to the nomination is real, and even when it’s become real, they frequently discount it,” said Sanders Campaign Manager Faiz Shakir.

On some level, the negative coverage may be backfiring. The attacks have become more cartoonish and frequent but have not hurt Sanders in the polls. Watching this dynamic take place, however, helps validate one of Sanders’s core critiques of the media: that it serves its shareholders and the super wealthy, rather than provide a civic function. As one exhausted New Hampshire voter told MSNBC’s own Ari Melber last week, the network’s constant attacks on Sanders were the top reason she voted for the 78-year-old senator from Vermont.

This lesson in the political economy of the mass media is even more apparent now that Bloomberg has entered the fray. The very political and economic conditions that orient corporate media against Sanders also compel them to take a soft approach in covering a tycoon who is propping up Big Media with his unprecedented spending on political ads.

While corporate media outlets spend much of their time falsely comparing Sanders to President Trump, the comparisons between Trump and Bloomberg, on the other hand, are quite real. Both are billionaires with long histories of workplace scandals, sexual harassment and racist policies. By minimizing these concerns about Bloomberg, media pundits have brazenly shown how selective their principles are.

“[Corporate media pundits] are used to kind of defining what is possible. And I think it’s the breaking apart from their conventional wisdom, and what large numbers of people are coming to accept as the possible,” said Janine Jackson on Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s radio broadcast “CounterPoint.” “It’s clear in their treatment of Bernie Sanders, certainly, and also in their welcoming of Michael Bloomberg, their notion of what’s practical and what’s realistic. If anything, it’s just very transparent. It’s very out there now.”

Bloomberg: The Ultimate Conflict of Interest

The president has broad executive power when it comes to media and telecommunications policy. A president’s Federal Communications Commission director will often decide if a major media merger can be accepted, or how much of the media giant conglomerates can own. This ability for a president to directly impact the bottom line of media companies has long led to discomforting relationships between Big Media and presidential candidates.

Trump has engaged in all sorts of defacto bribery with media giant Sinclair, trading access and relaxed deregulation for positive coverage. Former President Bill Clinton deregulated media ownership with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which has led to the intense acceleration of media consolidation into a few large conglomerates. Comcast openly raised money for Democratic presidential nominee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016, while the Clinton Foundation has received money from almost every dominant media organization and/or their corporate parents.

But to quite literally own a large chunk of media ecosystem, as Bloomberg does, is a new ball game. In the hypothetical scenario of a Bloomberg win, how could corporate media outlets credibly claim to be an adversary to power if a sitting president of the United States literally owned them?

A President Sanders would be actively hostile to things that make Big Media and Telecom a lot of money. Sanders was among just 4 percent of Congress who opposed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the consolidation of the media. He supports campaign finance reform that would dramatically limit political ad spending by billionaires and corporations. He would reverse Trump’s position on net neutrality, and limit or ban pharmaceutical advertising and a host of other policies that put the financial interests of Big Media ahead of the public good. His presidency would weaken the ability of corporations to dominate mass communications. In this sense, the media’s dismissive treatment of Sanders makes a lot of sense.

Yet, the media needn’t even wait for Bloomberg to win the presidency for them to benefit from his candidacy. By spending more than $400 million so far on political advertising, he is already helping Big Media shareholders out. As CNBC reported: “Mike Bloomberg’s ad-buying spree may be rankling his fellow Democrats and President Donald Trump, but local broadcasters are loving it.” Broadcast companies, according to Wells Fargo analyst Steven Cahall, “are jazzed to have Bloomberg in the fray.”

Indeed, media companies have long been profiting off the relationship between money and politics. The 2010 Citizens United decision, according to The Hill, was a “treasure trove,” for broadcast and cable media corporations in 2010.

“Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS,” said Les Moonves, president of CBS News. He made the same statement about President Trump in 2016, after media companies profited greatly off the ratings his candidacy sparked. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” Moonves said at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco, California, in the winter prior to the 2016 election.

Bloomberg’s efforts to buy the nomination while providing revenue to the dominant media institutions that Americans rely on to cover his campaign are not lost on a skeptical public.

“They Ran a F**king Bloomberg Ad During the Break,” said progressive radio host Farron Cousins on Twitter.

Hypocrisy and Liberal Institutions

Of course, the financial conflicts of interest with candidates (and advertisers) are industry-wide. It helps explain why the corporate media in general amplify a worldview beneficial to Bloomberg. Still, this does not quite explain why MSNBC, even in comparison to cable media giants CNN and Fox News, stands apart in its ceaseless negative coverage of the Sanders movement. It is worth asking why the network most closely associated with Democratic Party politics is the most hostile toward a genuine left-leaning candidate?

To understand this, it is worth noting the threat the Sanders campaign represents to the privileged status of so many establishment Democrats. Think tank leaders, transactional labor leaders, lobbyists, partisan pundits and hordes of consultants have been fighting for political capital in this world of establishment Democrats. A Sanders victory would squander away much of the influence for the party establishment. It is arguable that the very same corporate lobbyists who make up the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) rules committee (and other parts of the establishment) would hold far more power should former Vice President Joseph Biden or Bloomberg lose to Trump, than if Sanders defeated Trump. At least in the former case, they maintain sizable influence to a viable, if weakened opposition party.

MSNBC, more than any other cable network, represents the interests of this Democratic Party establishment. It fills its airwaves from representatives of these establishment institutions and many of them directly from President Obama’s Federal Communications Commission, according to a report from the Center for Responsive Politics. It depends on organizations, such as state Democratic Parties, members of the DNC and think tanks. For instance, the network regularly features the Center for American Progress, a leading liberal think tank in the U.S. that was founded by pro-Clinton figures. The center’s director, Neera Tanden, often uses the network to critique Sanders and the left more broadly.

The New York Times recently reported that the Center for American Progress has received money from Bloomberg and, as a result, deleted research exposing his racist policies. Likewise, nearly every state party, the DNC and hosts of other liberal, nonprofit organizations are beneficiaries of Bloomberg’s money and the status quo more broadly.

The Bloomberg-versus-Sanders dynamic is forcing many liberal institutions to unmask themselves. Those that for years have been using the language of progressive politics are now finding themselves defending Bloomberg’s racist policies to stop the most viable left-wing presidential candidate in U.S. history. It is a high-stakes battle. No matter who wins, however, MSNBC’s biased coverage of the Democratic Primary is a learning experience for all involved.

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