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Analysis of Primetime MSNBC Programs Finds Sanders Received 'Least' and 'Most Negative' Coverage of Top 2020 Democrats

"MSNBC has close ties to a Democratic establishment that finds the politics of Biden (and even Warren) more palatable than Sanders' 'political revolution.'"

Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speak during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A comprehensive analysis of MSNBC's primetime cable programs published Thursday by In These Times found that Sen. Bernie Sanders received the least frequent and most negative coverage of the top three candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination over a recent two-month period.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), meanwhile, were covered more often and far more favorably by the purportedly liberal network.

"Over the two months, these six programs focused on Biden, often to the exclusion of Warren and Sanders. Sanders received not only the least total coverage (less than one-third of Biden's), but the most negative."
—Branko Marcetic

The investigation, titled "MSNBC's Bernie Blackout," examined August and September coverage of Sanders, Biden, and Warren on six of the network's major cable shows: The 11th Hour With Brian Williams, All In With Chris Hayes, The Beat With Ari Melber, Hardball With Chris Matthews, The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell, and The Rachel Maddow Show.

"The coverage quickly revealed a pattern," wrote journalist Branko Marcetic, the author of the new analysis. "Over the two months, these six programs focused on Biden, often to the exclusion of Warren and Sanders. Sanders received not only the least total coverage (less than one-third of Biden's), but the most negative."

The analysis, which is the cover story for In These Times magazine's December issue, found:

  • 64% of the 240 episodes examined discussed Biden, 43% discussed Warren, and 36% discussed Sanders;
  • 25% of the episodes only discussed Biden, while just 5% mentioned only Warren and 1% mentioned only Sanders;
  • Sanders had the highest percentage of negative mentions (20.7%) and the lowest percentage of positive mentions (12.9%);
  • 87% of Sanders' negative mentions came from Matthews' Hardball and Williams' 11th Hour;
  • Warren had the lowest percentage of negative mentions (7.9%) and the highest percentage of positive mentions (30.6%);
  • 11.3% percent of Biden's mentions were negative.

"While pundits get paid to have opinions, MSNBC's seem to dwell in an alternate reality," wrote Marcetic. "As momentum mounts for longstanding liberal goals like single-payer healthcare and bold climate action, MSNBC's coverage seems devoted, instead, to narrowing the liberal imagination."

"MSNBC has close ties to a Democratic establishment that finds the politics of Biden (and even Warren) more palatable than Sanders' 'political revolution,'" Marcetic noted.

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Media critic Adam Johnson pointed out that Marcetic's analysis likely understates MSNBC's negative stance toward Sanders, given that it did not examine "consistently anti-Sanders shows AM Joy and Stephanie Ruhle."

The analysis came amid mounting anecdotal evidence of corporate media networks' biased coverage of Sanders' 2020 presidential bid.

Last month, as Common Dreams reported, the Sanders campaign accused the media of either ignoring the Vermont senator or deliberately misrepresenting poll results to undercut his candidacy. The campaign pointed to a number of particularly egregious examples that went viral on Twitter:

Jeff Cohen, founder of media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and former MSNBC producer, told Common Dreams in an email Thursday that Sanders "doesn't fit well within" MSNBC's ideological framework. 

"With few exceptions, MSNBC puts forward the views of 'corporate liberalism'—or more accurately: 'liberal corporatism," said Cohen. "It's anti-Trump but rarely is there a focus on corporate greed or exploitation or corporate power. That's no surprise for a for-profit channel that's owned by Comcast (and formerly General Electric) and sponsored day and night by big pharma, health insurance, fossil fuel ads, and the like."

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