The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I’ve reported on Bernie Sanders for years. A free press won’t give him what he wants.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted a fact: The Walton family earns $25,149 a minute, more than most Walmart workers earn a year. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Paul Heintz is a staff writer for and political editor of Seven Days, a Vermont newsweekly.

In the fall of 1988, Bernie Sanders charged up the stairs of a Montpelier bar to the Vermont offices of the Associated Press, followed by CBS News reporter Harry Reasoner and a camera crew from “60 Minutes.”

Sanders, who was running for a U.S. House seat, was steamed that the AP had skipped his news conference earlier that day at a farm in central Vermont. Once again, Sanders thought, the mainstream media had ignored the problems plaguing America — and refused to cover his proposed solutions.

“If you’re getting screwed by the media, you don’t have much recourse,” Sanders wrote of the incident in his 1997 memoir, “Outsider in the House.”

This time, Sanders thought he had recourse, in the form of a national reporter he hoped would cover the snub and his subsequent confrontation with AP bureau chief Chris Graff. “I could expose the AP to the world,” Sanders wrote. “It was delicious.”

Graff remembers it differently. “He had been embarrassed,” Graff told me years later. “He holds a press conference and not one reporter shows up.”

Such has been the story of much of Sanders’s political career. Since he mounted a failed 1972 bid for the U.S. Senate on the left-wing Liberty Union Party ticket, Sanders has been underestimated, underappreciated and often ignored by the press. He has long maintained that if the media would only cover what he has to say, the American people would embrace it — a theory that was bolstered by his surprising success in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

But Sanders’s remedy for what ails the media — uncritical, stenographic coverage of his agenda — betrays a misunderstanding of the role of a free press. And his dismissal of legitimate journalism not to his liking as “political gossip” bears a troubling resemblance to what another politician refers to as “fake news.”

Like most of Sanders’s political positions, his views on the media have remained remarkably consistent over his nearly five decades in public life.

In an essay published 40 years ago in the Vanguard Press, a since-shuttered Vermont alt-weekly, citizen Sanders argued that the television industry’s corporate owners were seeking to “use that medium to intentionally brainwash people into submission and helplessness,” creating “a nation of morons.” He bemoaned the “psychological damage that constant advertising interruptions have on the capacity of a human being to think.”

Eighteen years later, Sanders argued in “Outsider in the House” that “Television, which provides instantaneous coverage of earthquakes thousands of miles away, seems to have ‘missed’” the “precipitous decline” of the nation’s working class.

“One of the greatest crises in American society,” Sanders added, “is that the ownership of the media is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.”

Many of those views now seem prescient. Corporate consolidation has decimated U.S. newsrooms, contributing to a 23 percent decline in journalism jobs over the course of a decade. The rise of right-wing propaganda outfits such as Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting has validated Sanders’s thesis on the influence of corporate owners. And reporters’ obsession with the political horse race and the latest clickable micro-scoop has come at the expense of a serious discussion about public policy.

Though Sanders understands the problem, his solutions leave something to be desired. The way the senator sees it, the job of a journalist is merely to transcribe his diatribes unchallenged and broadcast his sermons unfiltered.

“He would not be happy with anything that did not basically publish his press release in its entirety — word for word, quote for quote,” said Graff, who spent nearly three decades reporting in Vermont for the AP.

Back when Sanders held regular news conferences in Vermont — it’s been a few years — he typically refused to answer questions unrelated to his chosen topic of the day. That’s problematic for local reporters, who rarely have the opportunity to quiz the members of Congress they cover without spokespeople running interference.

At a 1985 forum on the media, the late Vermont political columnist Peter Freyne complained to Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, that he had reneged on his promise to hold regular press conferences, pointing out that “When asked a question you don’t want to answer, you leave the room.”

Sanders’s response? An ad hominem: “Peter, you are basically a gossip columnist.”

Decades later, Sanders hasn’t changed. During my time covering him for Seven Days, a statewide weekly based in Burlington, the senator has refused to answer questions I’ve posed on topics ranging from gun rights to the Syrian civil war to drone strikes on American citizens — hardly “political gossip.”

Sanders has always preferred to bypass the news media in order to stay on his chosen message. That’s why he hosted his own cable access show as mayor, his own talk radio show as a member of the House and his own podcast and social media empire as a senator.

In December 2015, as Sanders’s first presidential campaign was gaining traction, the candidate returned to familiar rhetoric, accusing the networks of engaging in a “Bernie blackout.”

Back home, Vermont news organizations were suffering from a different kind of Bernie blackout: For more than two years, he refused to speak with VTDigger or Seven Days, and he refused to appear live on Vermont Public Radio’s marquee call-in show, “Vermont Edition.” Unlike the “corporate” media he loathes, it should be noted, the three news outlets are nonprofit or locally owned.

The boycott coincided with aggressive reporting the three organizations conducted on his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders’s, troubled presidency of the bankrupted Burlington College, which prompted an FBI investigation.

In January 2018, nearly three years after Sanders blacklisted Seven Days, his spokesperson finally granted me an interview. But the offer came with a caveat: The senator would not answer questions about “political gossip” or members of his family.

Such conditions are unacceptable to ethical news organizations, so I declined the offer — but I showed up anyway to Burlington International Airport, where the interview was to take place. As I followed him to security, I asked when he’d finally grant us a real interview.

“I don’t talk to gossip columnists,” he said. “I talk about issues.”

Read more:

David Von Drehle: Bernie, your moment has come — and gone

Helaine Olen: Bernie Sanders would like to talk about Social Security

David Byler: Bernie Sanders’s biggest strength for 2020 is his ability to thrive on chaos

Paul Waldman: What we learned from Bernie Sanders’s town hall

Jennifer Rubin: Are Democrats going to let Sanders get away with this?