The Press and Bernie Sanders
On May 26, Sen. Bernie Sanders hosted his first major campaign rally since announcing his presidential candidacy last month. Staged on the banks of Lake Champlain in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont, the Sanders rally reportedly drew more than five thousand people, making it one of the largest campaign events of 2015, hosted by either a Democrat or a Republican.
But the sprawling rally didn't cause much of a media stir. Rather than cover it as a major news event, the Washington Post ignored the rally in its print edition the next day, as did the New York Times, according to a search of the Nexis database. The network news programs that night covered the event in just a few sentences.
At a time when it seems any movement on the Republican side of the candidate field produces instant and extensive press coverage, more and more observers are suggesting there's something out of whack with Sanders' press treatment.
And they're right.
As the Vermont liberal spreads his income equality campaign message, the press corps seems unsure of how to cover him. In the month since he announced his bid, Sanders' coverage seems to pale in comparison to comparable Republican candidates who face an arduous task of obtaining their party's nomination. The reluctance is ironic, since the D.C. press corps for months brayed loudly about how Hillary Clinton must face a primary challenger. Now she has one, and the press can barely feign interest?
As for the media attention Sanders does receive, a lot of it attempts to place him and his liberal policies outside the mainstream of American politics. Yes, he's a proud socialist, but note that most of the GOP's White House hopefuls are adamant climate deniers. No matter, the Beltway press doesn't portray them as political outliers.
Also, too much of Sanders' coverage today views him solely through the prism of Hillary Clinton. It's all about how his campaign might affect her strategy and her possible policy shifts, instead of how his campaign will affect voters and public policy. On the Republican side, candidates are generally covered as stand-alone entities, not as appendages to a specific rival.
Yes, the campaign dynamics are different on the Democratic side with far fewer candidates running and with a frontrunner enjoying such a large lead. (Clinton continues to garner broad support among self-indentified liberal voters.) But that's no excuse for how the press is treating Sanders and his campaign.
"Bernie can't win! He's a long shot!" goes the media refrain.
"Reporters owe their readers and viewers the facts as they know them. And part of telling the truth (as they understand it) is telling their audience whether a presidential candidate is a plausible nominee or not," argued Jonathan Bernstein at Bloomberg.
If that's the new baseline, why do long-shot Republican candidates such as Carly Fiorina, former Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Bobby Jindal routinely draw steady campaign coverage? Note that The Washington Post published three features on Perry during a recent seven-month span. And when Cruz announced his candidacy in March, the Times marked the event with a 1,500-word, page-one article that described him as "brilliant."
As Steve Hendricks recently noted in the Columbia Journalism Review (emphasis added):
The trouble with this commonplace is that editors actually love covering long shots -- certain long shots anyway. Ted Cruz, for example, received his serious, in-depth treatment in the Times' news columns even as its analysts were writing pieces like "Why Ted Cruz Is Such A Long Shot."
Hendricks further explained, "The Times, for example, buried [Sanders'] announcement on page A21, even though every other candidate who had declared before then had been put on the front page above the fold."
Crunching the numbers, the Washington Post recently observed that while Sanders still trails Clinton by a huge margin:
... because he has a higher percentage of support in a slightly bigger pool of people, [he] has more on-the-ground support at this moment than Christie or Ben Carson or Rick Perry. He has more than Fiorina, John Kasich, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham combined.
And as Slate noted:
Sanders' polling is actually in the neighborhood of the GOP's current second tier of Rand Paul (9.2 percent), Mike Huckabee (8.6 percent), Ted Cruz (8.6 percent,) Ben Carson (7.4), and Chris Christie (5.4 percent). Yet those guys have had no trouble securing their fair share of media coverage.
Meanwhile, there has been a slight uptick in Sanders' coverage this week in the New York Times, including a page-one feature today on the state of his campaign. But note that a constant reference point still persists:
"Bernie Sanders Challenges Hillary Clinton at His First Rally"
"Bernie Sanders Attacks Hillary Clinton Directly on Trade Deal"
"The Senate Votes That Divided Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders"
Over and over, we see the same media construct: Sanders' campaign only exists as it relates to Clinton's bid for the nomination. There's no justification for such a narrow-minded view of Sanders' run.