The Democratic Party establishment wants you to know that they’re not afraid of primary challenges from the Justice Democrats—a progressive political action committee that runs progressive candidates who reject campaign funding from the ultra-rich and corporations. But when the establishment Democrats tell you they aren’t afraid, they often aren’t brave enough to let reporters quote them by name.
These anonymous sources are rarely as insulting as the one quoted by Fox News’ Brooke Singman: “No one is afraid of those [Justice Democrat] nerds. They don’t have the ability to primary anyone.” But as FAIR contributor Adam Johnson and Justice Democrats communications director Waleed Shahid observed, other anonymous sources are not very different in content, because corporate media are generally granting anonymity to sources in the Democratic establishment looking to run opposition talking points against progressive lawmakers and organizations.
For example, The Hill (7/11/19) carried an anonymous response to Saikat Chakrabarti, then Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, after he tweeted that centrists in the Blue Dog and New Democrat caucuses were “the new Southern Democrats” because they voted to fund Trump’s border concentration camps: “You can be someone who does not personally harbor ill will towards a race, but through your actions still enable a racist system,” Chakrabarti said. A Hill source identified as “a senior Democratic aide associated with the Blue Dog Coalition” retorted:
Let’s not forget the fact that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff called a group of members racist. This is a group of members led by an immigrant woman of color, and this group includes several other people of color, including two black men who actually experienced the segregated South.
Why grant anonymity to a partisan source making an inaccurate attack—unless giving cover for a non-returnable attack on a progressive political figure was the point?
Another anonymous source in The Hill (7/12/19) branded Ocasio-Cortez as “a puppet” of “elitist white liberals,” in a report on Justice Democrats’ plans to primary incumbent Democrats belonging to the Congressional Black Caucus:
She’s only a woman of color when it’s convenient. None of the things she’s fought for aligned with communities of color and her group is funded only by elitist white liberals; she’s a puppet.
The nameless aide went on to say, “It’s offensive that these elitist white liberals feel like they can undermine the foundation of our party.”
To be fair, The Hill also included an anonymous source from the Justice Democrats, briefly denying these allegations as “absurd and more about protecting incumbency over democracy.”
The Hill didn’t offer any justification for including these statements without attribution. It also didn’t question the assertion that “elitist white liberals” were the puppetmasters of Justice Democrats, an organization whose goals include getting “everyday, working people into Congress”—like former bartender Ocasio-Cortez, who does, in fact, regularly advocate for communities of color.
Libby Watson at Splinter News (7/12/19) articulated the problem with corporate media’s slanted use of anonymous sources by the establishment wing of the Democratic Party:
There is a big difference between political journalism that explains and contextualizes internal battles going on in the Democratic Party and Hill gossip pieces that make the media its battleground to wage those internal battles. When congressional aides give you a quote, they’re probably using you to advance their boss’ or their own interests. That’s what they’re paid to do, and it’s unavoidable. But sometimes there’s other value in printing what they’re saying; other times, like this one, it does nothing but advance their agenda.
Further demonstrating Watson’s point, The Hill (1/29/19) quoted a “Democratic lawmaker, who requested anonymity,” about their desire to see Ocasio-Cortez primaried out of her seat, because other politicians have been waiting their turn longer:
What I have recommended to the New York delegation is that you find her a primary opponent and make her a one-term congressperson…. You’ve got numerous council people and state legislators who’ve been waiting 20 years for that seat. I’m sure they can find numerous people who want that seat in that district.
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The New York Daily News (7/12/19) featured “a Democratic leadership source, who only spoke on condition of anonymity,” making the curious argument that it’s “elitist” to criticize black lawmakers from poor districts for accepting corporate campaign contributions:
“Justice Democrats in general are trust fund kids who are funding this with their parents’ money,” the source said, blasting the progressive group as “elitist” for criticizing black lawmakers from poor districts who take corporate donations. “It’s offensive for CBC members when these elites are looking down on them when they don’t have the financial ability to say, ‘I don’t want that money.’”
The nameless “leader” accused Justice Democrats and Ocasio-Cortez of “getting some of their own medicine”:
“They have attacked, attacked, attacked and attacked. For the first time, they were attacked back and now they claim to be the victim,” the source said…. “Ocasio-Cortez kind of operates like Trump. She’s hellbent on sowing discord and spreading chaos, but if you look at it, it always traces back to one person: her.”
Again, the paper offers no justification for concealing the identity of an official source making unsubstantiated personal attacks against an ideological rival.
Axios (7/14/19) took the unusual step of granting anonymity to a poll, revealing neither who conducted the survey nor who (selectively) revealed its findings—other than “top Democrats.” Writer Mike Allen wrote that the polling group’s name was withheld “because the group has to work with all parts of the party.”
The poll surveyed “likely general-election voters who are white and have two years or less of college education,” described as voters who “are needed by Democrats in swing House districts.” Asking about perceptions of Justice Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, it ostensibly found that their name recognition was much higher than their favorability ratings—and also that “capitalism” was viewed more favorably than “socialism” among these voters.
HuffPost reporter Ariel Edwards-Levy (7/15/19) pointed out that all sorts of critical information was missing from the account of this anonymous poll:
Readers have no way of knowing who commissioned the poll, who conducted it, how they identified the voters they surveyed, what methodology they used to interview them or what exactly respondents were asked. That makes it basically impossible to evaluate the survey in any meaningful way.
There are a few additional hazy details in the Axios story. The headline implies that its findings reflect “swing states,” but the article doesn’t make it clear whether the poll was conducted nationally or only in battleground states. And although the article provides exact percentages on how few of the voters polled viewed Ocasio-Cortez and Omar favorably, it doesn’t include numbers on how many viewed them outright unfavorably, rather than having no opinion.
The report did, however, feature an anonymous source—a “top Democrat who is involved in 2020 congressional races”—who provided negative spin on Ocasio-Cortez and the news media attention she receives: “If all voters hear about is AOC, it could put the [House] majority at risk…. She’s getting all the news and defining everyone else’s races.”
FAIR (Extra!, 11/11; FAIR.org, 3/29/16) has long found that corporate media routinely violate their own stated guidelines for their use of anonymity, which are generally supposed to bar reporters from concealing the names of sources making personal or partisan attacks. In coverage of the Democrats’ intra-party disputes, anonymity is constantly allowed to provide cover for such attacks—whose targets just happen to be the progressive politicians whom corporate journalists themselves frequently express disdain for (FAIR.org, 8/31/18, 1/23/19).
When the perspective of anonymous sources consistently leans in one direction, it’s a sure indication of news outlets’ political slant. In this case, it’s a bias in favor of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party, which is utilizing its coziness with corporate media to wage a covert war on the progressive wing.