Dear Corporate Media:
In bringing us the 2016 election spectacle, you demonstrate once again that the national mass media in the United States function, consciously or not, as the guardians of “managed democracy.” That is, as the distinguished political scientist Sheldon Wolin observed, democracy that does not threaten the interests of, well, you, the corporate elite.
For much of the campaign your entertainment medium called TV news has been fervently attending to the demagogic campaign of Donald Trump. Competing for audience attention, your cameras gravitate to the latest outrageous comment of Trump (or Ted Cruz, or Ben Carson for that matter). After all, the Donald was already a media-anointed celebrity on reality TV.
As huge corporations, it is obviously in your immediate economic interest to give the demagogues a lot of air time—they do grab our attention, whether positively or negatively. And sure enough, as media watchers like Andrew Tyndall and Eric Boehlert have documented, Trump coverage on network news has radically overwhelmed coverage of other candidates, most notably Bernie Sanders:
The three major news networks gave Donald Trump 284 minutes of coverage from January 1, 2015 through November, as compared to 10 minutes for Bernie Sanders. The disparity on ABC World News Tonight was even more staggering: 81 minutes for Trump, less than 20 seconds for Sanders!
The content of coverage of Bernie Sanders’ campaign has also been telling. Initially, of course, Senator Sanders was viewed as a nobody candidate on the very margins of American politics—until you media started to notice that huge crowds were turning out to hear his message. From that point on, the establishment has played up Sanders’ non-electability and/or lack of “realism.”
Now, with Sanders and Clinton finishing in a virtual tie in Iowa, and Sanders the landslide winner in New Hampshire, you seem to have panicked—nowhere more clearly than on the liberal paper of record, the New York Times.
Times columnists from David Brooks on the right to Nicholas Kristof and Paul Krugman on the liberal left have gone after Sanders ever since his polling caught up with Hillary Clinton’s. Brooks’ penned a plaintiff column, “Stay Sane America, Please!” equating Sanders with Trump and Cruz as extremist candidates who are “not acceptable to all parts” of their parties. Hmmm, I wonder whom he’s talking about.
On January 22, the liberal Krugman lectured the passionate Sanders partisans on “How Change Happens,” warning them against preferring “happy dreams to hard thinking.” Kristof chimed in recently with the warning that Sanders’ bolder proposals simply “won’t happen” and that voters won’t vote for a “socialist.”
The editorial board itself issued an unusual pre-primary endorsement of Hillary Clinton as “one of the most broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history”—a one-term Senator and Secretary of State with a record of devastating foreign policy decisions? The paper did acknowledge that Sanders’ “boldest proposals … earned him support among alienated middle-class voters and young people,” but asserted that he did “not have the breadth of experience or policy ideas that Mrs. Clinton offers.”
Others have chimed in as well. The Boston Globe, once owned by the Times, also endorsed Clinton. The editorially conservative Washington Post attacked Sanders’ allegedly “fiction-filled campaign,” and Post columnist Dana Milbank chimed in that the Democrats would be “insane to nominate” Sanders. A David Horsey column in the Los Angeles Times suggested Clinton and Sanders posed an “imperfect choice” for Democrats, the latter because Americans were not attracted to “old guys with stooped shoulders and white hair.”
Corporate media bias is also readily apparent in post-New Hampshire headlines and editorials. The Boston Globe’s lead headlines read “Trump Crushes His Rivals in N. H.” and “Bernie Sanders Defeats Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire.” Note to Globe: 60% is conventionally known as a “landslide.” Meanwhile from its lofty heights, the Times assured Clinton that she “had no reason to panic,” since, as the paper reported, she was clearly the “more experienced” candidate with strong support from the Democratic coalition.
Up to now, you national media have obviously misjudged Bernie Sanders’ appeal, narrowing it to “telling progressives what they want to hear,” or more recently tapping into the “alienation” of youth and the middle-class. But Sanders’ critique of the control exercised by corporate and wealthy elites over our political system taps into consciousness that has been building since the Occupy movement first emerged in 2011.
Clearly, the more Americans hear Bernie Sanders, the more they like what they are hearing: personal integrity, commitment to an egalitarian democracy, and some profound truth-telling about the nature of American politics. The campaign has galvanized a hopeful fervor around these issues and has introduced into our political discourse issues that have lurked on the margins for a long time—the very ones you media criticize as “unrealistic.”
All the talk about “experience” and “realism” reflects age-old American elitism, echoing back through our history. In the tumultuous 1930s, Harold Lasswell argued against “democratic dogmatisms”—like the belief that people are “the best judges of their own interests.” A decade earlier, journalist Walter Lippmann’s asserted that only the “responsible men” of the “political classes” could discern the nation’s “common interests.” The rest of us are just the passionate, misguided “bewildered herd.” The Framers of the Constitution, themselves, feared democracy –the “faction” of the property-less masses, or as Alexander Hamilton put it, “the people, sir, are a great beast.”
The distinguished sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein has argued the world historic capitalist system that has, one way or another, shaped so much of world history for the last several hundred years has entered a period of transition to something different. That “something different” can be more democratic than what we have or it can be less democratic.
It doesn’t take genius to catch the whiff of fascism in some of the passions aroused by the demagogues on the right. But the enlightened answer would seem to be the candidate, Sanders, who offers something more democratic, rather than the “politics as usual” candidates who offer at best minor tinkering here and there in ways that bend to the interests of the corporate elite.