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7 Pointed Questions for Corporate Media About Their Anti-Progressive Biases

Over the last year, corporate outlets have continuously portrayed progressive reforms as scarily left-wing despite poll after poll showing they are broadly popular.

Despite CNN's grandstanding claims that Sanders has not provided a price tag on his health plan, he repeatedly says that Medicare for All will cost $30 trillion or a bit more over 10 years. (Photo: CNN)

Despite CNN's grandstanding claims that Sanders has not provided a price tag on his health plan, he repeatedly says that Medicare for All will cost $30 trillion or a bit more over 10 years. (Photo: CNN)

We need to ask many serious questions of our nation's corporate media. Here are just a few.

1. Why don't you refer to our current healthcare system as "corporate-run system"? 

At Democratic presidential debates and elsewhere, network TV journalists have aggressively challenged the notion of "abolishing private health insurance"—without discussing what health insurance companies actually contribute to healthcare beyond bureaucracy and profiteering. At last June's debate, NBC's Lester Holt asked candidates to raise their hands if they would "abolish private insurance in favor of a government-run plan." Over and over, when mainstream journalists refer to Medicare for All—wherein the government would be the provider of health insurance, while doctors and hospitals remain private—they mislabel it "government-run healthcare" or a "government-run system." Yet they never call our current system "corporate-run healthcare." 

2. Why don't you provide actual data on the public's attitudes toward health insurance firms?  

2016 Harris poll found deep disdain for health insurance companies, with only 16 percent believing that these firms put patients over profits. In a 2018 Forbes article on "The Top 5 Industries Most Hated by Customers," the health insurance industry was ranked fourth (after cable TV, internet providers and wireless phone)—based on American Customer Satisfaction Index rankings. Yet at Democratic debates, we've repeatedly heard from journalists about the millions of US consumers who supposedly relish their private insurance. While I've yet to meet one of those satisfied customers, it's a mantra from media outlets (which are often sponsored by health insurers). More to the point: I've yet to meet anyone who would refuse a plan with more complete coverage at less cost to him or her: "No, I want my beloved Aetna!" 

3. Why do you so rarely care about the views of unions . . . unless they're in conflict with environmentalists?  

For more than 30 years, the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)—which I co-founded—has documented that the views and voices of labor unions have been marginalized by mainstream media. An exception occurred at the CNN-hosted presidential debate last week, when Bernie Sanders explained his reasons for opposing NAFTA 2.0. (Below is from the transcript.) 

SANDERS: Every major environmental organization has said no to this new trade agreement because it does not even have the phrase "climate change" in it . . . 

MODERATOR: But, Senator Sanders, to be clear, the AFL-CIO supports this deal. Are you unwilling to compromise?     

4. Why do you also invoke unions to cast doubt on Medicare for All? 

While presidential debate panelists (and corporate Democrats like Joe Biden) have frequently brought up union-negotiated health benefits as an argument against Medicare for All, they rarely mention how US unions have sacrificed wage gains and other benefits to stave off employer cuts to their healthcare.  As flight attendants' union president Sara Nelson told Politico last year: "When we're able to hang on to the health plan we have, that's considered a massive win. But it's a huge drag on our bargaining. So our message is: Get it off the table." As Biden admitted last week, attaching health insurance to a job (whether unionized or not) is an iffy proposition for any worker.  

5. Why do you interrogate politicians over the price tags of social programs but not war?  

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CNN devoted the first portion of last week's debate to war, military deployment and foreign conflict—but not one of the 25 questions from CNN journalists or the other moderators asked about the price tag of endless war and militarism. This despite the fact that roughly 57 percent of federal discretionary spending goes to the military and Trump keeps lavishing more money on the military than the Pentagon asks for. When it comes to war spending, mainstream journalists don't ask: "Can our country afford it?"  

"Bias is stark when journalists obsess on the estimated cost of reform while ignoring the estimated cost of the status quo."

After CNN's debate turned from war to progressive proposals for social programs benefitting the vast majority of the public, panelists turned from lapdogs to watchdogs on the issue of cost. Sanders was asked, "Don't voters deserve to see a price tag [on Medicare for All]?" and "How would you keep your plans from bankrupting the country?" To pound home the bias visually, CNN's banners across the bottom of the screen blared: "QUESTION: Does Sanders owe voters an explanation of how much his health care plan will cost them and the country?" And the absurd: "QUESTION: Sanders' proposals would double federal spending over a decade; how will he avoid bankrupting the country?" There were no such banners displayed for viewers about military price tags or the costs of endless war. 

6. Why do you probe the costs of reform while sidestepping the higher price tags of the status quo? 

Despite CNN's grandstanding claims that Sanders has not provided a price tag on his health plan, he repeatedly says that Medicare for All will cost $30 trillion or a bit more over 10 years. And he immediately adds another assertion that has provoked little media interest or rebuttal—that persisting with the status quo will cost far more, according to federal government sources, perhaps $50 trillion or more. The higher cost is due to corporate profits, executive pay, bureaucracy, etc. Bias is stark when journalists obsess on the estimated cost of reform while ignoring the estimated cost of the status quo. It's media propaganda by omission. Similarly, conservative media have savaged the jobs-creating Green New Deal proposalwhich, indeed, will cost trillionswithout acknowledging the far higher price tag of continuing the status quo. 

7. Why do you ignore the 2016 presidential result in your incessant punditry on which Democrats are electable in 2020? 

I'm unaware of a single serious analyst who asserts with a straight face that Hillary Clinton lost to a faux-populist in 2016 because voters perceived her as "too far left" or "too radical." But she obviously did lose votes because she was seen as too status quo and too cozy with the corporate establishment. In key swing states, Clinton failed to energize voters of color, lost young voters to third parties, and lost working-class whites who'd voted for Obama and Sanders. Democrats have been defeated in six presidential elections since the Reagan era, but one would be hard-pressed to find a single defeat attributable to far-leftism. 

Establishment journalists seem intent on ignoring this history as they cover Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Over the last year, corporate outlets have continuously portrayed progressive reforms as scarily left-wing, in the face of polls showing they are broadly popular (not just with Democrats)—such as increasing taxes on the rich (a new Reuters poll found most Republicans favor a wealth tax); free public college and cancelling student debtMedicare for All; and the Green New Deal.

News articles matter-of-factly denigrate these popular proposals as "shoot-the-moon policy ideas" (Washington Post) that may push the Democratic Party "over a liberal cliff" (New York Times). I sometimes wonder if the computer keyboards in certain newsroomsbesides letter and number keys—have a single key that spits out the 8-word phrase: "too far left to win a general election." 

Unfortunately, many Democratic voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and elsewhere are unduly influenced by mainstream media, despite the punditocracy's awful track record in 2016 and earlier on predicting who's "electable" in a general election.  

Elite journalists regularly quote their "expert" sources in the Democratic establishment who express worries that if Bernie Sanders wins the nomination, he'll lose badly in November.   

Or do those who own or run corporate media (and corporate Democrats) have a different worry—that Sanders will win the general election, shake up the system, and take away some of their wealth and power? 

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen was associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). He is the author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media - and a cofounder of the online action group, www.RootsAction.org. His website is here: http://jeffcohen.org

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