January 22, 2016
Major corporate media outlets in the United States are reporting on a new viability for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, based on his rise in the polls nationally and in Iowa and New Hampshire — and possibly, though this goes largely unmentioned, based on his big new advertising purchases from major corporate media outlets. In independent progressive media as well, there’s a small flood of maybe-he-can-really-win articles.
Whether this goes any further or not, something remarkable has happened. The Donald Trump campaign (in many ways outlandish and uniquely dangerous) more or less fits the usual mold in terms of media success; the data are very clear that the media gave Trump vastly disproportionate media coverage, following which he rose in the polls — the same polls later used anachronistically to justify the coverage. This was the story of how the media created Howard Dean’s success before tearing him down in 2004, and it has been the story of most candidates, successful and otherwise: the polling closely follows the coverage, not the other way around.
Bernie is something new. The major media has given him ridiculously little coverage, and belittled him in most of that coverage. Yet he has surged in the polls, in volunteers, in small-donor fundraising, and in real world events. While television news has shunted aside actual events, crises, social movements, the state of the natural environment, any number of wars, countless injustices, and most legislative activities in order to focus more than ever on the next election, and has done so ever since it was nearly two years away, the media has also given wildly disparate attention to certain candidates, in a way that bears no correlation to polling or internet searching or donors or any such factor. As of last fall, Bernie Sanders had received a total of 8 minutes of coverage from broadcast evening news, less than Mitt Romney or Joe Biden got for deciding not to enter the race.
And yet, Bernie polls better against Donald Trump (now that a pollster finally asked that question and released the results) than does Hillary Clinton. And Bernie is gradually catching up to Clinton in polls of Democrats. If he wins New Hampshire (very likely) and Iowa (pretty likely), all sorts of bandwagon jumpers could switch their support to him, and uninspired voters become inspired to vote in the next several primary states, snowballing the magical force of “momentum” into an upset victory with great media ratings, even if horrifying political implications from the point of view of major media outlets’ corporate owners.
According to Ted Rall, we are seeing the failure of propaganda: “Everyone in a position to block Sanders’ campaign did everything they could to sabotage him. … Marginalization always used to work. Remember John Edwards? His 2008 primary campaign was doomed because TV networks refused to cover him. But the media’s cold shoulder isn’t hurting Bernie.”
As Glenn Greenwald sees it, Sanders is riding the same wave of backlash against the establishment that Jeremy Corbyn has surfed in Britain. Part of that tidal wave may also motivate Trump supporters who, in some cases, admit that they don’t like his views but simply love that he says whatever he feels like saying. Sharp policical observer Sam Husseini pointed out to me that the more the media demanded Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the more the public opposed it. Sometimes what the media wants backfires. As the media shifts from ignoring Sanders to attacking him, that could benefit him, or it could hurt him. As Dave Lindorff and others have pointed out, “socialist” is actually a popular word now. Pundits in whose world “socialist” is equated with traitor, could actually hurt the cause of derailing the Bern inferno if they keep labeling him a socialist.
Some observers are far less sanguine about the defeat of propaganda. “If Bernie wins the nomination,” media critic Jeff Cohen told me, “I suspect we’ll see a barrage of mainstream news media bias and smear and distortion against Bernie and his platform on healthcare and Wall Street and taxes and government-funded jobs that will be at a level rarely witnessed in history. Not to mention a new level of attack ads bought by dozens of GOP and corporate SuperPACs. And all this will have impact, partly mitigated thanks to social media and indy media.”
Cohen draws on history, which he clearly believes has not ended: “The anti-Bernie barrage will be reminiscent of 1934 when former Socialist Party leader Upton Sinclair left that party and stunned the nation by winning the Dem nomination for governor of California on a totally progressive platform; Sinclair was defeated in the general election by new innovations in smear politics from business interests, especially the Hollywood studios. If Bernie somehow gains the nomination, we’ll see whether, aided by new media, the public is any smarter 80 years later in seeing through and fighting back against the distortions.”
For the better part of a year I have shared Cohen’s expectations for what the media might try to do to Sanders in early 2016. I assumed it would wait this long because a contest makes for better ratings than a coronation. But I did not predict this level of success for Sanders. I think we will see media support for all kinds of lies coming from the Clinton campaign, like those issued recently around healthcare. We’ll see smears about sexism, and all variety of molehills turned into mountains. We’ll also see Sanders denounced as a cowardly pacifist endangering us all by refusing to bomb enough people.
The tragic and ironic flaw in Sanders’ strategy may be this. He’ll take criticism as a socialist because he is one. And he’ll take criticism as a pacifist although he’s become a dedicated militarist at heart, intent on continuing drone kills and “destroying” ISIS, and unwilling to say he’ll cut military spending. Not only is cutting military spending incredibly popular, not only would proposing to cut it lead to people like me knocking on doors for Bernie, but if Bernie were willing to cut a small fraction of the military that he routinely says is loaded with fraud and waste, he wouldn’t have to fund healthcare or college or anything else with any sort of tax increases.
The U.S. government does not need more money in order to provide world-class social services. It needs to tax multi-billionaires in order to reign in their power. But it can fund our wildest dream by shifting money out of the military. And Bernie knows this. Yet he has opened himself up wide to what will likely be the most common criticism: “He wants to raise taxes!” He can explain that you’ll save more by ending private health insurance than you’ll pay in higher taxes, but how will he fit that in 4 seconds? How will he repeat it as often as the accusation? How can we be sure people are both mad at the establishment and intelligent enough to see through its deceptions?
Incidentally, peace groups have tried everything short of interrupting a Sanders event on the Black Lives Matter model. The Black Lives Matter activists who did that may have looked ill-informed, but they improved Bernie’s campaign and benefited his campaign and thereby the country. Peace activists should consider that.
Most media deceptions are somewhat subtle. Look at this Time magazine video and text. The video at the top of the page is remarkably fair. The text below it, including an error-plagued transcript apparently produced by a robot, is less fair. Time says of Bernie: “[H]e’s so far been unable to convince most Democrats he’d make a better candidate against a Republican than Clinton.” By no stretch of the English language is the 48% or 52% backing Clinton in polls “most Democrats.” The polling story should be that Sanders has climbed from 3% to 37% or 41% without any help.
Here’s Time‘s summary of Sanders’ platform: “He talked taxes (he’d raise them), turning points (he thinks he’s at one) and tuxedos (he’s never owned one).” Notice that two of the three items are sheer fluff and the only serious one is that he’ll raise your taxes. Time follows that by linking to an article making the case that Sanders cannot win. Time of course has no “balancing” argument that he can win.
Time then links to an article on “The Philosophical Fight Underlying the Democratic Debate,” which presents this very serious, well-researched reporting: “If Sanders and Clinton were in business together, he’d be the dreamy one pitching the next big thing while she’d be the hard-nosed one arguing that they need to stay within their budget. The decision voters will have to make is: do they want big dreams or clear-eyed realism?” Gosh, I want clear eyes and a hard nose, doesn’t everyone?
What weighs against this steady stream of bias on the Time website is the transcript of Sanders’ own comments, and his willingness to push back against the media. Pushing back against the media is even more popular than taxing billionaires or cutting the military. Here’s Sanders replying to a cheap shot from Time: “Someone says oh you’re raising taxes by $5,000. No, I am lowering your healthcare costs by $5000. So you can take a cheap shot, say I’m just trying to raise taxes. That’s a distortion of reality. We are substantially lowering healthcare costs.” Fewer people will hear his reply than hear the accusation, but they’ll hear it in the context of media criticism, and that could inspire them. Check out this exchange:
Time: “So as president you’re calling rallies—”
Bernie: “It’s not just rallies, don’t be sarcastic here.”
The media mocks popular assembly, free speech, and petitioning the government for a redress of grievances, and Sanders instructs the media not to be sarcastic. That’s a plus for Bernie.
Will it get him past the onslaught? If it does, will the super delegates outvote the people? Will the DNC outmaneuver him? Is the voting process itself rigged? If he gets elected will anything get through Congress? Let’s Bern those bridges when we come to them.
David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director ofWorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a2015 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.
War Is A Lie: Second Edition, published by Just World Books on April 5, 2016. Please buy it online that day. I’ll come anywhere in the world to speak about it. Invite me!