LOS ANGELES—Rosario Dawson, the actress, was introducing Bernie Sanders to a packed crowd of supporters at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre last week when her speech rounded into familiar themes, and suddenly she began to sound like AM radio. “I think we see what’s going on in the corporate media of late,” Dawson said, drawing sustained and instant boos at the words corporate and media. “The media has given Trump”—more boos—“almost $1.9 billion worth of free media.” More boos still. “They’ve given Bernie Sanders 16 percent of that.” A lot more boos. “And mostly to say that he should just give up”—lots of boos—“how the entire country shouldn’t even bother voting.” Additional boos. “Considering what people had to do in this country for our right to vote, I find that reprehensible.” Wild applause.
Everyone loves to boo the media. There’s nothing new about that. But Dawson’s line of attack wasn’t the usual vague discontent with the trivializing tendencies of the political press. Her criticism, echoing not only the candidate for whom she’s stumping but even the bellowing front-runner for the Republican nomination whom she opposes, was more pointed.
“The corporate media is afraid of losing their jobs,” she went on to say. “They are being told—believe me … anyone who’s a part of that culture understands, there’s an unspoken little hashtag going around that’s saying, ‘Loyalty will be rewarded.’ ”
Saying that mainstream journalists are venal and corrupt in this way isn’t all that different from Trump calling them “lying, disgusting people” or “bloodsuckers.” The Sanders camp generalizes in these sorts of anti-media statements, preferring to point at systemic failures; Trump, meanwhile, personalizes. But both candidates are working from a similar premise here: that the media is another crooked elite institution whose authority has crumbled. Their supporters love this stuff.
In the case of Sanders and his backers, the substance of their critique is based on a number of misperceptions, chief among them that journalists are out to get the Vermont senator because they want Hillary Clinton to be president and maintain a corporatist status quo. This is a fundamental misreading of the news media for a number of reasons. First, the rise of Sanders has been good for campaign journalists, who prefer close political races and have even been prone to hyping such races where they do not exist because excitement is good copy and good business. Second, the political press has no particular love for Clinton—you can see this in the negative coverage of her campaign for large swaths of 2015 (which may have even contributed to Sanders’ rise), not to mention the general schadenfreude floating in the wake of her failure during the 2008 election. Finally, this worldview imputes motives to the media that just aren’t there. Yes, individual journalists tilt toward specific candidates and ideologies just like everyone else, but the overriding biases are toward either a good story or not sounding dumb.
If the Sandernistas have a point, it’s related to that latter bias. There is indeed a cult of savviness, as press critic Jay Rosen terms it. Among other things it prevented many in the media from taking either Trump’s or Sanders’ candidacies seriously at first, lest they be seen as naïfs not in on the joke. You could see the cult at work, too, in some of the tut-tutting over the supposed callowness of the Sanders platform, as if Clinton’s proposal for criminal justice reform, say, was anything but an aspirational document. But the wish to appear politically hard-edged and shrewd has little to do with a corporate ideology. It’s a matter of self-preservation.
The misunderstanding by Bernie backers—that journalists are stooges opposed to his candidacy because they are beholden to corporate overlords and that supporting Sanders is a good way to throw mud in their eyes—is fostered by the candidate himself, to his great benefit. “What you have is a corporate media which by definition has conflicts of interest,” Sanders told the Young Turks host Cenk Uygur last week, citing a list of corporate control of major television networks. “The media is an arm of the ruling class of this country. And they want to talk about everything in the world except the most important issues.”
When I asked Sanders communications director Michael Briggs for specific examples of nefarious corporate influence, he mentioned Ed Schultz’s show being pulled from Comcast-owned MSNBC last summer, which he attributed to Schultz’s criticism of free trade. “I’m not being a conspiracy theorist here. I’m not saying that there’s some memo that came down from network brass to tell the reporters to cover this, don’t cover that,” Briggs told me. “But reporters want to get on the air. They realize what gets on the air. And what gets on the air is not a discussion of the serious issues facing our country. What gets on the air is the horse-race, soap-opera kind of view of politics in this country.”
This critique of the media is in keeping with Sanders’ wider anti-elitist campaign themes. But as Trump has also found, there are political benefits to attacking the press that you don’t get from attacking other establishment bogeyman such as Wall Street millionaires and billionaires or “stupid” politicians. Namely that when things go bad for either Trump or Sanders, there is a readymade alibi that will bind supporters closer to the candidate and explain away any actual problems the campaign might have.
At the Los Angeles event, Sanders field organizer Juan Ayon told the crowd: “The truth is that this campaign is on the path to victory. Don’t worry about what the corporate media tells you. They want you to lose hope. They want you to lose faith. But trust me we will win.” The previous speaker, pastor and Carson City Councilman Jawane Hilton, had suggested that the media was ignoring Sanders’ March 22 victories in Idaho and Utah in an effort to “sweep that under the rug.”
Sanders himself got in on the act. Before praising Rosario Dawson’s “very important points” about the media, he opened his speech by echoing her idea that the media was spreading lies about his campaign. “Let me get right to the point and pick up where Rosario left off,” he said. “There’s some mythology going on out there that we cannot win this election—that is mythology.”
This is mythology. The media has treated Sanders’ campaign as a long-shot candidacy throughout, because that’s what it has been throughout. That it is still one was even acknowledged by the candidate himself in an interview with the Los Angeles Times editorial board just the previous day. “I would fully concede that we have a narrow path to victory,” he told the Times. That negative assessment of Bernie Sanders’ chances by corporate media shill Bernie Sanders is backed up by math. Even after Sanders’ dominating performance in this past Saturday’s caucuses, his delegate deficit is enormous. What he needs to do to achieve victory is nearly impossible considering the remaining electoral map.
Again, this is not because the evil media is out to get him, but rather because of fundamental issues Sanders has had winning core segments of the Democratic primary electorate. “Secretary Clinton did very well in the South. We’re out of the South. We’re in the West now,” Sanders boasted to his Los Angeles supporters to loud cheers. That description made it sound as if geography itself were biased against Sanders. The real reason is that older minority voters made up a large portion of the electorate in those Southern states, and they swept Clinton to victory there. Sanders has done exceptionally well in smaller caucus states with fewer minority voters. (His Saturday victory in Hawaii, a small caucus state with minority voters who are not as represented in the rest of the Democratic electorate, is an exception, as was his surprise win in the Michigan primary with its fairly diverse electorate.) But many of the remaining contests he needs to win are bigger primary states with large populations of black and Hispanic voters. Even in liberal California, where Sanders is banking a considerable portion of his hopes for an overall victory, he trails Clinton by a considerable margin thanks to these voters. The last two major California polls had Clinton leading by 7 points and 10 points respectively, attributing a good amount of that margin to heavy support from black and Hispanic voters.
When confronted with these facts, Sanders supporters tend to return to the media issue. At the Sanders rally, I asked 25-year-old writer Jenna Steckel about his long odds, and she immediately cited “media bias.” While this idea is being stoked by the candidate, among his supporters it comes from a place much deeper than pure disbelief that Sanders might lose an election. “My generation grew up during the war on terror and skyrocketing unemployment rates,” Steckel said. “We’ve seen a lot of things, and the collapse of our trust is pretty shaky in a lot of institutions.” Other young Sanders supporters I spoke with echoed this sentiment. David Green, a black 33-year-old musician who voted for Obama twice and sees racism as one reason for the level of Republican obstruction during his presidency, cited MSNBC as being particularly “out of touch” in its coverage of Sanders. “Them saying he should cash in early is just an emphasis on how bad the news media is approaching this,” Green said. Last year, a Harvard survey of 18- to 29-year-olds showed trust in the media among young people had reached an all-time low of 11 percent.
This erosion of faith in the media tracked with the population at large, which explains why Sanders’ themes of a corrupt “corporate media” are similar in ways to Trump’s populist tirades against reporters. When asked about the difference between Trump’s posture toward the media and Sanders’, Briggs, the communications director for Sanders, said that Trump was a “master media manipulator,” whereas “I think the way that we talk about the media is in a helpful critique that they’ll pay more attention to important issues.” But both sides are playing the same card to similar effect.
In fact, at the Los Angeles rally, Dawson seemed to praise Trump implicitly for taking advantage of anti-elitist, anti-media sentiment. “The media and the establishment are afraid of Trump because he has a groundswell—despite the media bias—of people who are behind him because he is not establishment,” she said. “And he is pointing at the establishment and the corporate media and saying, ‘You’re fired.’ ” At this, there were loud cheers and laughter.