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Opinion Bernie Sanders’s real media problem

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his wife, Jane Sanders, arrive to the 2019 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake, Iowa, on Aug. 9. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is not happy with his media coverage.

This gives him something in common with pretty much every candidate, not to mention every president. Because they’re human, they fixate on the stories that get something wrong or characterize something in ways they don’t like, and they lament it when the things they do and say don’t get the level of attention they believe they deserve.

But Sanders and his campaign are alleging that there is a broad bias against him, and he has aimed some of his displeasure at The Post in particular in recent days, suggesting that unsatisfactory coverage in The Post could be a result of his criticisms of Amazon (The Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive.) Noting this week that he has been critical of the taxes Amazon pays (or doesn’t), Sanders said: “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. I don’t know why. But I guess maybe there’s a connection.”

But if that analysis were correct, those getting savaged by The Post would include Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has proposed both breaking up Amazon and a wealth tax that Bezos would have to pay.

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On Tuesday, Sanders clarified that he is not alleging that Bezos calls up the newsroom to dictate coverage about him, but instead was making a point about how his anti-corporate message won’t be received well in media largely controlled by corporations. The trouble is that there isn’t much of a case to be made that Sanders is getting singled out for mistreatment.

I’ve been closely observing media coverage of politics for a couple of decades, first as an academic and now as an opinion writer, and one of the things I concluded long ago is that while biases in news coverage abound, ideological bias is usually the least important. Non-ideological biases in favor of conflict between candidates, in favor of the new over the old, in favor of events over broader conditions and in favor of information that can be obtained quickly under intense deadline pressure all play a far more important role in shaping coverage than whether reporters’ personal preferences on abortion or tax policy are finding their way into stories.

But that is the charge Sanders is making: that because journalists have an issue with his anti-corporate message, they’re choosing to undercut his campaign. His aides even alleged that they are deciding how much coverage to give primary polls based on how Sanders does in each one. “The better the number is in the poll, the less coverage he's received, and the worse he does, the more it receives,” said one.

To prove that, they picked out a couple of polls out of the zillions that have been conducted since the primaries began, to say that they didn’t get the right amount of coverage. It’s not exactly a compelling case.

So let me offer an explanation of what Sanders’s real media problem is: Right now Sanders 2020 is suffering from the comparison with Sanders 2016, when his candidacy was a captivating new phenomenon that turned what could have been a dull coronation for Hillary Clinton into a real contest. That made him compelling to reporters — again, always drawn to what’s new and what creates conflict — who wrote story after story about this fascinating campaign, particularly the unlikely fact that a rumpled 74-year-old had become the hero of college students everywhere. They covered his policy proposals, but they also covered all the attendant human-interest sidelights such as people getting Bernie tattoos.

Sanders’s current candidacy doesn’t provide that same narrative interest. He’s just one candidate among many, running somewhere between second and fourth in every poll — a part of the big story, to be sure, but not the primary protagonist/antagonist, depending on the framing. If during the 2016 primaries he was getting something like half the coverage, most of it positive, now he can expect only to get a much smaller portion of a pie that has been sliced into many more pieces. Is that fair? Perhaps not, but you’d have to define what “fair” coverage would look like for all the candidates to say for sure.

It’s not as though Sanders is being ignored. I did a search on The Post’s website and found 28 articles and videos mentioning him that appeared just this Monday and Tuesday. FiveThirtyEight monitors the volume of cable news coverage of the candidates, and what you see is that coverage pretty well tracks poll standing: Joe Biden gets the most, followed by Sanders, Warren and Kamala D. Harris clustered together. You might be able to make a case for why that’s wrong, but you can’t say it’s particularly unfair to Sanders.

And here’s the thing: I’m sure Sanders knows how this all works. He’s a smart guy, and he has been around for a long time. In most of the comments he and his aides make on this topic, you can tell they understand the incentives and proclivities of the media perfectly well.

That’s why I suspect that these complaints are really about “working the refs,” a long-standing strategy pioneered by conservatives: Complain that you’re the victim of media bias, and reporters will respond by bending over backward to show they’re being fair to you, leading to more favorable coverage, at least for a while. Sanders might also be looking to energize his supporters, who see him as a rebel fighting an establishment that is terrified of him and will do anything to stop him. Four years ago it was the Democratic National Committee. Today it’s the media. Either way, it helps tell a story that gives Sanders’s candidacy a heroic character.

You can’t blame Sanders for wishing he could be covered more the way he was in 2016. But in a primary this crowded, that was never in the cards.

Read more:

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

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Bernie Sanders’s bold ideas are transforming Democratic politics

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

Marc A. Thiessen: Bernie Sanders runs into socialist reality

Robert J. Samuelson: Bernie Sanders is a refugee from the 1930s