It’s 2020, but it could well be 2016 all over again — history is repeating itself as the cadre of neoliberal Democratic Party leaders who worked to derail Sen. Bernie Sanders’s previous presidential bid four years ago are once again projecting their confirmation biased, pro-corporate agendas into the primaries. Along with an establishment media that frames the issue of “electability” in favor of party centrists and moderates, these interests work against more popularly polling progressive candidates, like Sanders, first by ignoring them, then by attack.
Back in 2016, Democratic National Committee’s efforts to suppress Sanders’s chances included giving Hillary Clinton advance notice of debate questions, engaging anti-Semitism by emphasizing Sanders’s Jewish heritage and counting delegates’ votes before they had voted, to cite a few examples.
Four years later, they are once again aligning with many corporate media outlets to try to portray Sanders as an unelectable outlier, despite clear and mounting polling evidence to the contrary.
Reporting from establishment outlets like The New York Times illustrates a clear double standard: While referring to Sanders as a “divisive” candidate, the Times remains silent on former President Barack Obama’s remarks about how he will work to stop a Sanders nomination, and Hillary Clinton’s recent statements implying she would not get behind a Sanders candidacy. Clinton went even further, attacking progressive policies and candidates, especially Sanders.
As we noted in our book United States of Distraction, CNN, Washington Post and The New York Times tacitly admitted their reporting on the 2016 election was inadequate and flawed, and didn’t go far enough to inform voters. However, despite their mea culpae, these same establishment media outlets continue to censor progressive positions and distort the facts for audiences. The people, policies, debates, pundits and media coverage have remained mostly static. One of the tactics up until now has been to try to ignore progressives, and Sanders in particular. But, before voters take to the polls, we want former Clinton supporters to recognize that, just like many Trump voters, they are being led to vote against their own interests, and the broader interests of the public, by the corporate news media and party establishment leaders who have done their best to create a Bernie blackout.
The Bernie Blackout
“The Bernie blackout is real; it is not just a figment of our imagination. It almost seems like every morning these networks get a script that says ‘blackout Bernie Sanders,’” said the national campaign co-chair of Sanders’s presidential campaign, Nina Turner, on a December 5, 2019, episode of “The Rising.” Indeed, GDELT, a real-time open data global graph tracker, found that Sanders was covered three to four times less than Joe Biden in 2019 despite being neck and neck in the polls. Similarly, a November 2019 In These Times poll found that MSNBC gave Sanders the least frequent coverage and the most negative of overall coverage. This is especially shocking given that Sanders has been polling in first or second place.
Censoring Progressivism: Where’s Bernie?
For most of 2019, the corporate press sought to undermine Sanders’s campaign by pretending it did not exist. For example, a Fox News headline noted the first- and third-place candidates Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren respectively, but ignored Sanders who was in second place and added a picture of Pete Buttigieg who was polling in single digits.
Similarly, an MSNBC graphic depicting the Democratic presidential candidates with the most support among Black South Carolinian voters completely removed Sanders, who had the second-most support, from the list of five candidates:
In October 2019, a CNN headline ignored that Sanders was polling in second place in Iowa to emphasize how close to first place Buttigieg and Biden were polling, despite coming in third and fourth place respectively:
Emulating the behavior of the 24-hour news networks, a November 2019 New York Times headline simply ignored that Sanders was the only Democrat out-polling Trump in order to mention how close Biden and Warren were to Trump in the polls:
The major networks were also involved in erasing the Sanders campaign. In December 2019, even though Sanders was polling among the top three candidates in a WBUR New Hampshire primary poll, a CBS graphic removed Sanders for Warren.
Finally, in December 2019, public broadcasting exhibited one of the most egregious examples of the Bernie blackout, when a PBS News Hour segment on the election did not even mention Sanders’s candidacy. One of the program’s personalities, journalist Yamiche Alcindor, who was incidentally chosen to lead the Democratic primary debate that same month, had previously insinuated that Sanders was too old to run for office.
Distorting the Polls: The Bernie Shuffle
Ignoring Sanders’s candidacy is just one of the ways in which the corporate press has tried to marginalize progressive politics in 2020. They have also taken to employing the same people who were wrong about 2016 to distort the electoral realities of 2020.
In April 2019, MSNBC distorted a poll that found that Sanders had more support among non-white voters than Biden, by creating a graphic that added more percentage points to Biden’s support among non-white voters:
That same month, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow broadcast a graphic based on problematic data (candidate contributions by gender) to insinuate that Sanders was running a sexist campaign.
The graphic revealed that Sanders had the least number of female donors and the most number of male donors, 33 percent and 67 percent respectively. However, what Maddow neglected to mention was that the numbers omitted donations of less than $200. Given that the average donation to Sanders is $18, and that Open Secrets reported that he had more donations from women donors than any other candidate besides Warren, this was a major distortion.
Similarly, in May 2019, Chuck Todd of MSNBC displayed an incorrect graphic that claimed Sanders had dropped five points in the Quinnipiac poll of Democratic candidates from the previous month:
In reality, the senator had increased five points. Thus, Todd’s graphic represented a 10-point swing in the opposite direction for Sanders:
In July 2019, MSNBC showed the correct polling numbers, but reordered the candidates to have Sanders, who was polling in second place, appear in fourth place.
That same month in another graphic, MSNBC pulled the same chicanery, dropping Sanders to third place despite his poll numbers being the second-highest among the candidates:
MSNBC was hardly the only 24-hour network to engage in graphic deception. In August 2019, CNN displayed all potential match-ups with a candidate against Trump in ascending order except Sanders, who was placed third despite polling in second:
Similarly, in December 2019, when a Real Clear Politics poll showed Sanders in second place among Iowa voters, CNN relied on a six-week old CNN/Des Moines Register poll that had Sanders in fourth place as the basis for framing the discussion of their pundits:
That same month, CNN ignored Sanders’s poll numbers among California Latino voters by falsely noting that Warren and Biden led among the Golden State’s fastest-growing demographic:
Most recently, this month CNN fastidiously worked to hide Sanders’s funding surge and Biden’s polling decline by carefully placing the starting and ending poll numbers:
The removal and distortion of Sanders’s status in the election is likely the result of a concerted effort by establishment party members and their corresponding corporate interests and backers. Indeed, Bloomberg news, which is owned by billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg (a former Republican, like Warren), ignored its own vow not to cover the primary by publishing a December 2019 hit piece that alleged the Warren and Sanders campaigns depended on Amazon for office supplies. However, it could also be the result of a news media system comprised of oblivious individuals that feign expertise to justify their partisan positions.
Talking Heads: From Bernie Blackout to Bashing Bernie
As Matt Taibbi noted in his latest book, Hate Inc., news media personalities are paid to act as experts, even when they are ignorant about the subject matter, because studies show that audiences reject uninformed and inarticulate personalities for pundits who appear knowledgeable. The news media’s preference for promoting pundits who appear informed, rather than necessarily being informed, gives media personalities incredible latitude to frame and shape news stories without fear of challenge or retribution.
For example, when frequent MSNBC political commentator Jason Johnson learned that Sanders raised nearly $35 million to top the Democratic Party fundraising, Johnson said, “The idea there was going to be a progressive battle between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren … he was always going to end up winning out any sort of policy argument because in the end of the day people they like Bernie and they’re Bernie or bust kind of people.”
Johnson’s dismissive perspective concerning Sanders’s record-breaking donations belied his comments from a year previous. In January 2019, on MSNBC’s “Up”, when asked about how the announcement of Warren’s campaign would influence Sanders’s success, Johnson responded,
I think he is done. I was literally having this discussion with a good contact of mine who is on the campaign. I see Bernie Sanders launching his campaign and by August realizing he will not be in the top 5 of Iowa and dropping out.
Johnson exemplifies how the corporate media manipulate the electoral process, ever evading accountability for their rash, partisan remarks and selective framing.
However, to pass off the corporate media’s egregious coverage of progressive politics as simply a result of their ineptitude would conceal the concerted effort to dismantle the progressive potential of Sanders’s candidacy. Case in point: In January 2020, just weeks before the first caucus in Iowa, Sanders led the polls in California, New Hampshire and Iowa, among other states. He had raised the most money from the most donors in the primary. He was leading among the crucial Latinx voter demographic. The Democratic Party establishment and corporate news media saw the debate as an opportunity to smear a more progressive campaign.
The stage was set days before the December debate with Warren stating that the Sanders campaign had smeared her candidacy because Sanders’s volunteers had a script meant for Warren supporters that read, “People who support [Warren] are highly-educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what.… [Her campaign] is bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.” Warren’s campaign aides then leaked to CNN that they had once heard from Warren that Sanders supposedly said in 2018 that a woman could not win the presidency.
Sanders has expressed longtime support for having a woman president from the 1980s, 2013 and to his 2015 calls for Warren, a woman, to literally run for the presidency, not to mention the many rallies he held for Clinton in 2016. Nonetheless, CNN ran the story without corroboration under the headline “Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren in private 2018 meeting that a woman can’t win, sources say.” Sanders called the claims “ludicrous.” Later that day, Warren confirmed that when she told Sanders “I thought a woman could win [the presidency]; he disagreed.” She added, “I have no interest in discussing this private meeting any further because Bernie and I have far more in common than our differences on punditry.”
The job of a journalist would be to figure out who was telling the truth, but the second after Sanders noted that CNN moderator Abby Phillip correctly assessed his position as “You’re saying that you never told Sen. Warren that a woman could not win the election?” Phillip asked Warren, with absolutely no attempt at journalistic objectivity, “Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”
The audience erupted with laughter, until they realized it was not a joke. Warren responded that she disagreed and the moderators did not press either candidate to extrapolate what exactly happened that led to these two very different versions of the truth.
Phillip’s stunt was one of many tactics used to smear Sanders at the last debate. The moderators had prepared questions like “Will Bernie Sanders bankrupt America?” and others that framed Medicare for All as a way to make Iowans working at insurance companies unemployed.
At the bottom of the screen, CNN maintained a steady scroll of propaganda in written form to frame the debate for viewers:
In the post-debate coverage, CNN continued to pile on. In fact, Princeton historian Matt Karp tweeted, “Even as Bernie Sanders has built the largest grassroots campaign in US history — and currently leads the race in Iowa and NH — the networks still run post-debate panels without a single Bernie-friendly voice.” Indeed, on CNN’s post-debate coverage, political commentator Jess McIntosh, who rarely if ever discloses that she worked for Al Franken’s senatorial and Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, had the audacity to misrepresent CNN’s reporting by stating, “I think what Bernie forgot was that this isn’t a ‘he said, she said’ story. This is a reported out story that CNN was part of breaking, so to have him just flat out say no I think wasn’t nearly enough to address that for the women watching.”
Even Anderson Cooper was so flummoxed by the propagandistic statement that he interjected, noting that the people cited in the story admitted they were not there and only heard it secondhand. The next day, Warren’s campaign said they wanted to “de-escalate,” but voters still have no idea who was lying or why. Just like in 2016, this media-generated conundrum of “post-truth” reared its head. Welcome to the United States of Distraction.
Will We Heed Lessons of 2016 in 2020?
In 2020, this kind of framing, bias and propaganda must be stopped. Ultimately, these lowlights from the debate were another distraction from issues that impact people’s lives. Unless primary voters think critically about corporate media talking points, they are susceptible to adopting the neoliberal notions of “electability” and the “right side of history.” At some level, corporate media personalities are just capable enough to frame politics like a horse race, but unable to digest, clarify or connect complex issues facing our world. The viewers are well loaded with pro-Trump propaganda from Fox News and Democratic Party establishment talking points from CNN and MSNBC. This is exactly where we were in 2016; it’s like déjà vu all over again.
It is high time we not only reveal but remove the corporate thumbs of the establishment press and bought party leaders from the public scales of our elections. Those who want to see Trump removed from office in 2020 would do well to give corporate media and their social media echo chambers a rest, and examine the solutions we propose in United States of Distraction to Make America Think Again, in turn helping the public become less susceptible to propaganda and, in the process, strengthen our democracy.
Note: Nolan Higdon and Mickey are the authors of the new book, United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (And What We Can Do About It) (City Lights Books, Open Media Series, 2019). Special thanks to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, The Young Turks and The Hill’s Rising for research and commentary.