Jacobin - November 20, 2019
Supporters of Bernie Sanders have long been accustomed to the nagging feeling that the candidate they champion rarely, if ever, receives a balanced treatment in the mainstream media. Many have also grown used to hearing this impression questioned — characterized as the product of a self-imposed victim complex or a figment of the imagination.
There’s never been any dearth of anecdotal evidence of the media’s systemic bias against Sanders. When MSNBC legal analyst Mimi Rocah declared that Sanders “[makes my] skin crawl . . . [though I] can’t even identify . . . what exactly it is,” she inadvertently summed up the sentiment of generalized but virulent contempt that often characterizes the way Sanders and his campaign are discussed on the airwaves and in marquee newspapers. Though there are simply too many cases to list, examples abound of selective reporting of polls, cartoonish torquing of infographics, erasure of facts or figures favorable to Sanders, and outright lying — at the supposedly liberal-leaning MSNBC in particular.
The week of Sanders’s launch, former Hillary Clinton staffer Zerlina Maxwell (introduced by the host simply as an “MSNBC analyst”) was allowed to insist on air that Sanders hadn’t “mentioned race or gender until twenty-three minutes” into his launch speech — a claim that was entirely inaccurate. On another occasion, Chuck Todd discussed a Quinnipiac poll and claimed it showed Sanders had gone down by five points — whereas, in fact, it had shown the exact opposite. An April 29 segment on the Rachel Maddow Show used blatant cherry-picking of donor data to suggest Sanders had raised “twice as much money from male donors” as female donors — a claim that both flew in the face of the nearly 50-50 gender split among his first-quarter donors and the strong likelihood that he actually had the highest number of female donors overall.
MSNBC, of course, is hardly the only culprit. As Katie Halper documented a few months ago, the New York Times reporter assigned to cover his campaign “consistently paints a negative picture of Sanders’s temperament, history, policies, and political prospects.” The Washington Post once famously ran sixteen negative stories about Sanders in the same number of hours, and its in-house “fact checker,” Glenn Kessler, has himself racked up enough Pinocchios to stuff a landfill with elongated wooden noses.
Nonetheless, a new and systematic look at MSNBC’s recent campaign coverage offers an astonishing empirical snapshot of the media bias facing Sanders in his quest for the Democratic nomination — in this case, from what is ostensibly America’s liberal cable network. Limiting its analysis to coverage of the race’s three leading candidates by the network’s major prime-time shows — The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, All In with Chris Hayes, The Beat with Ari Melber, Hardball with Chris Matthews, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, and the Rachel Maddow Show — in August and September, the study published by In These Times (and authored by Jacobin’s own Branko Marcetic) should lay to rest once and for all the notion that media bias against the Vermont senator is a figment of his supporters’ imaginations.
Among other things, Sanders received far less coverage than either Joe Biden or Elizabeth:
In its August and September coverage, by total mentions, MSNBC talked about Biden twice as often as Warren and three times as often as Sanders. By number of episodes, 64% of the 240 episodes discussed Biden, 43% discussed Warren and 36% discussed Sanders. A quarter of the episodes only discussed Biden, compared to 5% and 1% that mentioned only Warren or Sanders, respectively.
When the network’s talking heads did mention Sanders, their coverage was most likely to be critical in tone. Negative mentions of Sanders far outstripped those of Biden or Warren, with the latter receiving the highest number of positive mentions:
Of the three candidates, Sanders was least likely to be mentioned positively (12.9% of his mentions) and most likely to be mentioned negatively (20.7%). The remaining two-thirds of his mentions were neutral . . . Warren had the lowest proportion of negative coverage of all three candidates (just 7.9% of all her mentions) and the highest proportion of position mentions (30.6%).
MSNBC’s determination to frame Sanders’s campaign and its prospects in the least favorable light emerge in a number of ways. Deploying familiar tropes about electability and obsessing over poll results, the network’s coverage frequently portrayed Sanders’s proposals as unrealistic and lacking in detail, suggested his campaign was losing steam even when the available evidence indicated otherwise, and boosted demonstrably incorrect claims about the demographic breakdown of his support. For example:
In a later episode, Matthews and The Root’s Johnson claimed African American women were “leaving Bernie” and “breaking for Warren,” even though a Pew Research Center poll that week showed Sanders’ base to be the least white (49%) of the leading four candidates (including Sen. Kamala Harris), Warren’s was whitest (71%), and all four had about 50% women supporters.
With record-breaking fundraising numbers, large rallies, and polls showing a competitive position in crucial early states, Sanders clearly continues to generate enthusiasm from voters. Just don’t expect to hear about it on network TV.