Amid reports of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ lukewarm reception at the Iowa State Fair, Sanders’ campaign went on to take a few pot shots at the Washington Post‘s continued negative coverage of his candidacy. At a subsequent rally in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, Sanders said the following: “Do you know how much Amazon paid in income taxes last year?” Sanders asked a crowd, prompting cries of “Zero!” “I talk about it all of the time,” he continued, “and then I wonder why the Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me.” Later, top aide for the Sanders campaign Jeff Weaver provided a broader media critique of the press in what he saw as its selective emphasis on reporting negative polls for the Sanders camp, and its disregard in reporting more positive polling. “The undiscriminating coverage of polls that fit existing narratives is certainly an issue that all of us need to be aware of,” Weaver argued, and later followed this up by commenting that the media’s current, primarily negative loop coverage of the campaign is in “the phase of what I call the Bernie write-off.”
Reactions to Sanders’ comments from the press have been predictably unwelcoming. For politicians to launch even mild critiques against the media, is for the likes of CBS News, too traumatically Trump in nature to be given consideration. In a reaction piece to Sanders’ criticisms, CBS posted a clip on Youtube titled, “Bernie Sanders echoes Trump in Washington Post feud”. CNN followed suit, with a clip titled “Bernie Sanders makes Trump-like attack on Washington Post”. NPR argued that Sanders’ criticisms were “echoing the president’s language”, and the Twitter account for Meet the Press even went as far as to call Sander’s criticisms of the Washington Post an attack on the free press. In Aaron Blake’s response to Sanders on behalf of the Washington Post, he likewise argued that Sanders’ attack against the paper is reminiscent of Trump’s takes on the press. As Blake writes, “Sanders seems bent upon turning the media into a boogeyman in this campaign, much like he has turned billionaires and corporations into boogeymen. And as Trump has shown, that can be an effective political strategy.”
I think there are some major takeaways from this skirmish between Sanders and the Washington Post. While Blake was right in arguing, that in a follow-up, Sanders was incorrect to say the press has never asked him about what he would do about income inequality (which isn’t true), I feel like Blake is missing the forest for the trees here. What Sanders seems to have argued in his broader remarks is that the media has an intense propensity to ignore deeper, structural discussions over important issues in exchange for superficial analyses of Trump tweets and pundit fights. In the video above, he provides a more nuanced analysis without backing down from his initial remarks. Furthermore, if the Sanders campaign are willing to pursue this line of campaign rhetoric, they were spot on to target the Washington Post, which has been distinctly aggressive towards the senator since he appeared in their focus during the 2016 Democratic nomination race. A regular anecdote referenced by the Sanders camp is when, in the space of 16 hours, the Washington Post ran 16 negative stories on Sanders back in March 2016. Julie Hollar of Common Dreams provides a comprehensive run-down of numerous additional examples of The Post‘s negative coverage of Sanders’ presidential runs. As the Rolling Stones’ Matt Taibbi argues, “the Post’s Bernie fixation stands out” amid a league of media organisations that have regularly, and very sceptically, covered the Vermont senator. As Taibbi quips on Sanders’ response to the Post, “Apart from being described as a faux-Leninist Russian stooge who wants to elect Trump and mass-release dangerous criminals, what does Sanders have to complain about?”
But like so many issues handled by the press, Sanders’ criticisms were met with a mountain of cartoonishly partisan, narrowly-focused and flabby response pieces. Moreover, my own interest in the media’s reaction to Sanders lies in a particularly prominent tactic the press used in response to the senator, which pretty directly equated his criticisms of the media with Trump’s “Fake News” media rhetoric. Analysing the response to Sanders, the nature of how media critiques are represented has been very substantially affected by the aggressive, daily attacks we see against the media from President Trump. While Trump does have at times grounds for criticising the press’ coverage of him, for the most part his criticisms of specific moments of press coverage fall short, or fall into the same kind of superficial “inside baseball” the 24-hour news media cycle loves to feed off. However, his no-holds-barred attacks on the press throughout his 2016 presidential campaign, and his continued critiques of reportage since taking office, has been nothing short of humiliating for a feted, over-aggrandised institution such as the traditional press. Moreover, it has led to an intensely unforgiving relationship between the White House and the media, and one that feels – particularly on the press’ part – distinctly personal in their reporting of President Trump. Furious at Trump’s open humiliation of the traditional media, this has led at times to an over-eager motivation to smear Trump at the sake of maintaining press credibility, such as the press’ propensity to feverishly over-speculate during its coverage of the Mueller Report, as brilliantly underlined by Taibbi.
However, Trump’s crass, and often majorly problematic critiques of the press do share a wider, favourable context in the U.S. In light of Trump’s wholesale refusal to adhere to traditional political-press niceties, the public have also shown little appetite for supporting and trusting the press. In a major poll released by the Columbia Journalism Review in February, they found that, more than even Congress, the press is the one institution that the largest number of Americans had “hardly any confidence at all” in. Trump’s exploitation of this decades-long depreciation in public trust was a brilliant element of his presidential campaign, but his uniquely aggressive, and often fallacious criticisms of the media has subsequently tarnished the ability for politicians to be publicly sceptical of the media’s blind spots without being labelled as Trumpesque. Doing this, of course, serves the corporate media from any kind of healthy degree of self-examination, and has become one of its favourite attack points whenever it is questioned as an institution.
And from this, it feels like under Trump, and distinctly under his presidency, there is zero time for nuance. Nuance and introspection over what has led to us this point has become, for many, seen as a form of complicity with unsavoury agents and organisations. And that includes criticisms of corporate media. In a time of unprecedented attacks on major institutions such as the press, they argue, there is no time for anything less than a wholesale, gleeful embrace of all of the toxic elements of contemporary media, otherwise we could be responsible for its decline. As CNN’s Chris Cillizza argued, the Democrat Party’s standard should not be to echo Trump’s talking points regarding the press. “Traveling the low road, even occasionally, with Trump isn’t a recipe to show the country the necessary change that Democrats believe they represent”. For Cillizza, expressing any vocal degree of public disagreement with press practises has become akin to travelling the “low road”, as clear an expression of media arrogance as could be found in any of the responses to Sanders from last week. Furthermore, this road, in the eyes of the press, has become conveniently defined by President Trump’s press criticisms; if you dare to travel on it, you will be labelled in the same category. By inviting the public to take this approach to media criticisms, rather than of course, opening itself up to some modicum of discussion over press practises, may seem like a great short-term solution, but will do nothing to stop its decay in the eyes of the American people.
The press, wounded by Trump, is more than happy to push the “Fake News” label whenever it feels cornered, seen in its absurd Sanders = Trump comparisons to media criticism. But for journalists to label Sanders as Trumpesque isn’t just absurd, it only nurtures a feeling among so many Americans that the establishment press is too insular, self-serving and privileged to even come close to grasping the errors of its practises, let alone correcting them.
Reflecting on the response to the senator’s mild critiques, while I am hesitant to use the term gatekeeper, I do feel that a major factor that has stymied the potential to really challenge press practises in the U.S has been the reluctance among established left-wing politicians and political candidates to call out the media on lazy, uninspired, or in some cases, outright, comprehensively poor reportage. While it has been long argued that, because Democrats largely wish to inspire trust in institutional power (and often expand it through policies on social security and education, etc.), undermining trust in establishment media only underlines Republican talking points and makes gaining people’s trust in government that much harder. I think this is painfully over-estimated as a strategy. The second, maybe more popular argument has been that a candidate critiquing the press often reeks of sour grapes, and a flailing political campaign. However, Trump started his campaign with major critiques of the press, and went on to dominate the Republican race. While no two races or candidates are ever that similar, I do feel that traditional expectations for why candidates shouldn’t critique the press too aggressively are under-tested. Trump changed the game on how politicians handle the press. For the first time in a half-century, the press’ arrogant hold on political figures and political expectations has been painfully undermined. It is time for the left to use that to its advantage.
While the homogeneity of Republican rejoinders against the press can always be relied on under the current administration, I do think intelligent, and nuanced criticisms of the press from a left-wing platform would pose a credible challenge to existing press practises. Certainly Sanders critique is particularly harmful to the media because of his own credibility as a politician, and his standing as an intelligent and dignified statesman. I truly believe the pathway to garnering a more thoughtful media environment is for left-wing politicians – with nuance and careful deliberation – to follow Sanders and expose the media’s blindspots in discussing substantial structural deficits in American life, while at the same time praising genuinely excellent journalism. The more this is done, the harder it will be for the media to squawk “Fake News” in response.