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Cable News Covers Everyone’s Speech but Sanders–Who Made the Mistake of Discussing Policy

CNN (3/15/16) shows Trump’s empty podium. (Screen grab: Laila Al-Arian)

The March 15 primary elections handed five victories to Hillary Clinton, giving the former secretary of State a 1,094-to-774 pledged delegate lead, by the New York Timescount,  heading into the second half of the primary season.

Bernie Sanders, while well behind, is still a viable candidate and is very much staying in the race. One wouldn’t know this, however, from watching last night’s cable news coverage, because the three major 24-hour news networks–CNN, MSNBC and Fox News–cut away from Sanders’ speech. As the Huffington Post reported late Tuesday night:

Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all declined to carry Sanders’ speech, instead offering punditry about the evening, with the chyrons promising, “AWAITING TRUMP” and “STANDING BY FOR TRUMP.”

Hillary Clinton last week got similarly dissed by the networks in favor of Trump.

New York Times: Paid vs. Earned Media

This pecking order follows a similar pattern: The media prioritizes Trump, then Clinton, and, if there’s time left over, Sanders. This tracks with a recent study by the New York Times showing the overwhelming amount of “free media” that Trump has gotten compared to the two Democratic candidates, particularly Sanders. (All Republican candidates combined got almost three times as much free media as the Democratic candidates–$3 billion vs. $1.1 billion.)

Sanders’ major sin appears to have been choosing to discuss policy rather than dishing out the typical hoorah platitudes. His hour-long speech which, according to Talking Points Memo, wasn’t carried even in part, focused on issues like campaign finance reform and the barriers to mass political change. You can watch the whole thing here, courtesy of C-SPAN.

NPR, in its recap of Tuesday night’s events, provided some insight as to why Sanders’ speech didn’t merit airplay. After airing soundbites from Clinton and Rubio, the public radio service explained that Sanders “delivered what was largely his standard stump speech for nearly an hour in Arizona on Tuesday night, but made little reference to the night’s results.”

In ignoring the process story of “the night’s results” and instead focusing on substance (what NPR dismisses as a “standard stump speech”), Sanders all but assured that the networks would cover more urgent matters, like b-roll of an empty podium waiting for Trump and idle speculation as to how the results would “play” over the next few days.

Critiques of corporate media choosing horserace over substance are evergreen, but remain as urgent as ever. Political discourse that focuses on the meta, discussing perceptions or gaffes or polls rather than material issues, will inherently serve the Donald Trumps of the world. His latest “outrage” is specifically calibrated to exploit these news instincts. The corporate media didn’t create Trump, but they did pave and light the road for his candidacy’s unconstrained acceleration.

The Sanders campaign has been as much an indictment of the media as of the political establishment they prop up. Progressive media, including FAIR, have noted from the beginning the lack of coverage Sanders was afforded–an omission that’s  demonstrable and quantifiable. The reasons for the scarcity and negative tone of Sanders’ media coverage are debatable, but Tuesday night showed once again that their existence isn’t.

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Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson is a New York-based  journalist, a contributing analyst for, and co-host of the Citations Needed podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc

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