You probably think you know how I'll answer that question. I work for The Washington Post, and I'm not an ombudsman, so I'm going to argue against the charge that our newspaper's coverage of Bernie Sanders after Sunday's Democratic presidential debate was unduly harsh, right?
I could object to your skepticism — say that I call ’em like I see ’em and point to times when I’ve included The Post in my media critiques — but you still might not believe me. Especially since I am indeed going to defend the coverage.
So just examine my reasoning. I’ve got a good case.
First, the complaint: The progressive media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) tracked The Post's Sanders-related stories from Sunday night into Monday and concluded that, "in what has to be some kind of record," the paper "ran 16 negative stories on Bernie Sanders in 16 hours."
Washington Post coverage of Bernie Sanders over the past 24 hours alone: see if you can spot an agenda. pic.twitter.com/4Dsnn4ZPEV
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) March 8, 2016
As of this writing, author Adam Johnson's tweet about his tabulation had been retweeted more than 5,600 times, his story had been "liked" on Facebook roughly 33,000 times, and a Reddit thread devoted to the piece had drawn almost 3,000 comments.
The notion of an anti-Sanders agenda clearly resonated — no surprise, given that the Vermont senator has complained about media coverage, generally, and The Post, specifically.
But as I see it, there are three problems with the idea that Sanders was treated unfairly in the hours after Sunday night's debate in Flint, Mich.
First, the definition of "negative" — in this case and in a lot of media griping — is overly broad. For example, the "negative" category, according to FAIR, included a story by The Fix's Philip Bump with the following headline: "Bernie Sanders pledges the U.S. won’t be No. 1 in incarceration. He'll need to release lots of criminals."
Bump pointed out that to keep a campaign promise — "At the end of my first term, we will not have more people in jail than any other country" — Sanders would need to set free roughly a quarter of the United States prison population, or about 567,000 criminals.
Is that negative? I mean, it's math.
Second, complaints that a given story is too positive or negative — biased in either direction — presume that it is supposed to be right down-the-middle, with equal time provided to both sides. That's often not the case. Two of the 16 articles cited by FAIR were published in the opinion section. Another was an Associated Press wire story that didn't come from The Post newsroom. And a dozen others — the bulk of the examples cited — were published on Post blogs that permit (nay, require) writers to inject commentary and analysis.
It is important, of course, that a newspaper's opinion and analysis pieces reflect a range of perspectives. Overall, I can confidently say The Post's do. But if you're going to take a one-day sample — on a day when Sanders was coming off a debate performance that was widely panned — you're going to find a lot of opinion and analysis that reflects that consensus.
So we're left with one piece of Washington Post journalism, billed as straight news, that FAIR deemed negative. The headline: "Awkward reality for Bernie Sanders: A strategy focused on whiter states."
This story, like Bump's, was rooted in math. A brief excerpt:
Despite heavy spending on TV and paid canvassers in South Carolina, Clinton beat him by more than 70 points among African American voters there and in Georgia — and by a whopping 85 points in Alabama. On Saturday, she won the Louisiana primary 71 percent to 23 percent, again thanks to her strong showing among black voters.
Sanders doesn't do well with black voters; white voters are the key to his success. Those are facts. They are facts that are bad for his campaign, but should Post journalists not point them out?
Finally, even if we accept the idea that Post reporting, analysis and commentary combined to put Sanders through the wringer, I fail to see the inherent trouble. As I've written before, Sanders skated through the early portion of the primary season on stories about his "yuge" crowds and better-than-expected poll numbers. It was one of the perks of being an underdog. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, faced constant scrutiny of her tenure as secretary of state — most notably her response to a 2012 attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya and her use of a private email server.
When Sanders came close to winning the Iowa caucuses last month, I wrote that things were about to change for his little-engine-that-could campaign. He would be treated by the press like a front-runner, or something close to it, and his policy proposals would be parsed like never before.
That's what's happening now. It's called vetting. It's what journalists do. And when a candidate has a not-so-good debate, like Sanders did on Sunday night, and has a not-so-viable path to the Democratic nomination, it will be covered as such.
When I asked Washington Post national editor Scott Wilson about FAIR's criticism, he made many of the same points listed above — that the group conflated news, analysis and opinion, and overlooked the paper's tough reporting on Clinton.
“Our coverage of the Sanders campaign has been committed, extensive and fair,” Wilson said in a statement. “Sustained scrutiny should be expected by Sen. Sanders and anyone else seeking the presidency.”
Sanders's job as a candidate is to put the best possible spin on everything, to paint an idealistic portrait of his hypothetical presidency. The media's job is to deliver reality checks, to point out all the flaws that Sanders glosses over.
Thoughtful Sanders backers should anticipate — and even welcome — negative coverage as a counterweight to the all-positive projections they hear from their favorite candidate. And if, after digesting all the cons, they still support him, they'll be making more informed decisions.