There’s little the Washington Post won’t do to stop Bernie Sanders, including endanger American lives.
That was made clear with the March 17 Democratic primaries, which were held amid a rapidly worsening pandemic, and with enthusiastic support from the Post. Seeing its chance to thwart Sanders’ second bid for the presidency, the Post risked voters’ health by staying silent about the dangers of in-person voting, even encouraging it.
With Sanders’ opponent for the Democratic nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden, surging, postponing the March 17 elections likely would have hurt Biden’s chances at ending the unpredictable primary race, in which momentum has swung wildly. To “get an insurmountable delegate lead,” the Post reported (3/16/20), “Biden needs primaries held sooner rather than later, and he needs his supporters to feel comfortable voting.”
The Post was eager to help, even if it meant ignoring the paper’s own stark daily warnings about the coronavirus.
Tip of the Iceberg
It’s unlikely that a Washington Post columnist (3/9/20) would have urged states to carry on with a planned primary in the face of Hurricane Katrina.
In the lead up to the March 17 primary elections—in Florida, Illinois and Arizona—coronavirus cases were taking off in the US. As a leading national newspaper, the Post did the responsible thing and put out a daily clarion call. “All the elements now exist for a swiftly unfolding emergency, on a scale that dwarfs [Hurricane] Katrina,” warned Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson (3/9/20).
Tom Bossert, a former adviser to the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in a Post op-ed (3/9/20), “By the time cases are confirmed, significant community transmission has likely already occurred. This is a classic tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon.”
But with immediate and drastic action, there was still time to “avoid hitting that threshold where sizable regions of the country will suddenly step into hell,” wrote Post columnist Megan McArdle (3/10/20).
The coronavirus’s exponential growth “is math, not prophecy,” explained Harry Stevens (3/14/20) in one of the Post’s most viewed stories of all time. The story included simulations of how viruses move through populations when social distancing is practiced more or less, and Stevens noted:
The spread can be slowed, public health professionals say, if people practice “social distancing” by avoiding public spaces and generally limiting their movement.
Silent as Pandemic Soars
On March 17, voters in Florida, Illinois and Arizona headed to polling places, where social distancing can be difficult if not impossible.
Despite its own stark warnings about the virus, the Washington Post kept quiet about the dangers of voting, even as the skyrocketing number of cases led health professionals and others to call on the states to postpone their primaries.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines calling on broad swaths of people, including “older person[s],” to stay home. And President Trump recommended avoiding gatherings of 10 people or more.
“There is simply no way to comply with these guidelines and also hold those elections as scheduled,” warned the Intercept’s Ryan Grim (3/17/20), who said on Twitter (3/16/20), “Even small gatherings at this point in the pandemic can exponentially explode the death count.”
Two weeks before the March 17 primaries, the US had only 125 confirmed cases. A week later that number had jumped to 1,018. By the day of the March 17 vote, it stood at 5,904. Two weeks later, on March 31, the US would have over 160,000 confirmed cases and 3,000 deaths from coronavirus.
‘Risking American Lives’
Once Biden secured crucial victories over Sanders on March 17, the Washington Post suddenly became alarmed by the danger of in-person voting amid a pandemic. “Americans should not have to choose between their personal health and that of the country’s democracy,” read a Post editorial (3/18/20) published the day after the vote.
That same day, postponing primaries suddenly became “laudable,” while not doing so would be “risking American lives,” wrote Post columnist Henry Olsen (3/18/20). Only the day before, a Post headline on a Jennifer Rubin column (3/17/20) had called postponement a “terrible precedent.”
Spanish Flu or Abraham Lincoln?
While there’s little precedent for voting amid a pandemic, a week before the March 17 primaries, Washington Post reporters Isaac Stanley-Becker and Elise Viebeck (3/9/20) pointed to the 1918 midterm election as an analogous situation.
During that election, the Spanish Flu, which killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide, was in full swing. To protect public health, some officials ordered voters to wear masks while voting, and advised against public gatherings to hear results.
But this historical analogy may have posed a problem for the Post, which needed the March 17 elections to proceed to finish off Sanders. If would-be voters conjured up images of masks, epidemics and widespread death, postponing elections would seem rational. That may be why the Post revised the analogy.
The day before the election, Stanley-Becker and Amy Gardner (3/16/20) discarded the Spanish Flu for something positive, even noble. In making the revision, the Post reporters relied not on public health experts, but “political scientists and experts in election law [who] reached back further to find a historical touchstone.” Americans shouldn’t think of an epidemic when voting, but of patriotic duty, the Post reporters wrote:
In 1864, with the nation still rent by the Confederate rebellion, Abraham Lincoln insisted on standing for election, arguing, “If the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”
Right-wing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—among others, including the Biden campaign—echoed this refrain to justify going ahead with the March 17 primary, saying, “They voted during the Civil War” (CBSMiami, 3/13/20).
But as FAIR (3/28/20) noted, voting during a time of war and amidst a pandemic are different, since you can’t “catch Civil War by going to the polls.”
The Washington Post‘s David Byler (3/17/20) argued that the solution to the problem of how to vote safely was to not bother voting.
With Biden’s primary victories secured, the Washington Post’s newfound concern for voting amid a pandemic pivoted in a surprising direction. Suddenly, it was Sanders who was responsible for putting voters’ health at risk.
“In the midst of this chaos, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would do public health…a big favor by acknowledging reality and leaving the race now,” so as to “free voters from making an impossible choice between casting their ballots and safeguarding their health,” wrote Post columnist David Byler (3/17/20).
By staying in the race, Sanders “forces Democratic voters in a country in the midst of a health pandemic to trudge to the polls (or forgo voting),” wrote Post columnist Jennifer Rubin (3/19/20).
Elsewhere, Rubin called on Sanders—the “self-absorbed crank” (3/25/20)—to “behave like an adult” and drop out, or prepare to “draw anger for…compelling millions of people to leave their homes” (3/17/20). But, as Katie Halper (FAIR.org, 3/28/20) noted:
Our primaries are not just for candidates running for president, but for thousands of people running for Congress, mayor, governor and countless other local offices. In other words, these primaries are going to occur independently of the presidential race.
To ‘Seize’ Advantage
In addition to jeopardizing the country’s health, the Washington Post accused Sanders of another sinister deed. This “78-year-old man who knows this is his last chance for the White House” is trying to “seize” advantage of the coronavirus crisis. That’s according to the Post’s Henry Olsen (3/26/20), whose column is headlined, “The Coronavirus Is Hurting Millions of People. But There’s One Person Who Could Benefit.”
Olsen was echoing a Post story from four days earlier (3/22/20)—which also featured a picture of Sanders at the top—headlined, “Liberals Seize on Pandemic Response to Revive Campaign Proposals.”
Sanders is the first Jewish candidate with a plausible chance of being president. Portraying him as profiting off of a virus comes uncomfortably close to antisemitic tropes, something the Post has struggled with in its past coverage of Sanders (FAIR.org, 1/28/20). (Several other news outlets also associated Sanders with the coronavirus—Washington Post, 2/28/20; Glenn Greenwald tweet, 2/29/20.)
The principal way that Sanders has sought to “seize” on the pandemic is by highlighting the need for Medicare for All, which would provide healthcare to all US residents, bringing the country in line with all other wealthy nations.
For this, Sanders is subjected to Post attacks, while his rival—who, like the Post, opposes Medicare for All—receives decidedly different treatment. A recent Post headline (3/13/20) read, “Why Joe Biden Is the Antidote to This Virus.”
Washington Post reporting (3/17/20) depicted conditions that would prevent a responsible campaign from urging its supporters to get out and vote—but that didn’t prevent the paper from trumpeting the results as conclusive.
In what may be a first, a major presidential campaign shuttered its regular get-out-the-vote efforts on the eve of an election. Citing CDC guidelines to voters, the Sanders campaign said in a statement, “We are making clear to voters that we believe going to the polls amid the coronavirus outbreak is a personal decision and we respect whichever choice they make.”
The Washington Post misleadingly reported that “both candidates urged voters to take extra precautions” (3/17/20). But the Biden campaign—using similar war-time analogies to the Post—made a full-throated push to get supporters to the polls, telling them it was “safe” (FAIR.org, 3/28/20).
Among those who voted (or tried to), many found polling places that were dangerously overcrowded, understaffed or closed altogether. And some precincts were short on supplies, including hand-sanitizer and wipes (Washington Post, 3/17/20).
Voting irregularities were most apparent in Illinois, where, the day before voting, billionaire Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the elections would be “safe” and endorsed Biden. That same night, Illinois recorded its first death from coronavirus. Three days after the election, Pritzker announced a statewide “stay-at-home” order.
While noting some of the elections’ extraordinary irregularities, the Washington Post emphasized Biden’s wins. “Joe Biden Romps Over Bernie Sanders in Florida, Illinois and Arizona in Tuesday Balloting,” was the headline of the paper’s news report (3/17/20).
In Illinois and Florida, Biden “obliterated” Sanders “by margins rarely seen in a presidential primary (because the loser inevitably gets out before he is humiliated week after week),” cheered Jennifer Rubin (3/17/20), in a column headlined: “It’s Over. Biden Is the Presumptive Nominee.”
Meanwhile, in Arizona, where Biden’s win was narrower, the Post’s Henry Olsen (3/26/20) had an explanation: pandemic fears likely caused “older voters—Biden’s base—to choose not to vote.”
So, according to the Post, it’s Sanders, not Biden who benefitted from the elections being held under the threat of the coronavirus.
Ohio’s ‘Terrible Precedent’
Of the four states scheduled to hold their primaries on March 17, only Ohio postponed, citing the pandemic—the postponement that the Post headline (3/17/20) called a “terrible precedent.”
Post columnist Dan Balz (3/17/20) dismissed life-and-death decisions over whether to hold in-person elections amid the pandemic as mere “squabbles among state and local officials.”
But these “squabbles” have consequences. In Florida, three poll workers subsequently tested positive for coronavirus. And who knows how many voters were infected in dangerously overcrowded polling places in Chicago, where city election officials said they privately urged the governor to postpone the primary (Intercept, 3/18/20).
Wisconsin: ‘Voters at Risk’
Despite a statewide stay-at-home order and desperate pleas to postpone Wisconsin’s April 7 primary, it was less than 24 hours before polls opened that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers finally delayed the vote. Sanders, the Democratic Party and voting rights activists had all called on Wisconsin to postpone the election. But Biden hadn’t, even saying the election could be conducted safely (Washington Post, 4/3/20)—a position that was as reckless as it was politically advantageous. (Polls showed Biden with a decisive lead over Sanders in Wisconsin.)
Without calling for postponement, the Post belatedly expressed its growing concern with the situation in Wisconsin (4/5/20), with Jennifer Rubin (4/2/20) acknowledging that, for many, proceeding with the election sounded “crazy.”
In its increasingly strident critiques of the pending “electoral disaster” (4/5/20), the Post was careful not to criticize Biden for prioritizing politics over public health. Instead, the paper pointed the finger at Wisconsin Republicans, who pushed for the April 7 election to proceed without expanded mail-in options. “In seeking political advantage for themselves,” noted the Post’s Stephen Stromberg (4/5/20), the state’s Republicans are placing “voters at risk.”
Indeed they were. In so doing, they were following the lead of Biden and the Washington Post.