Last week, after criticizing Amazon for underpaying its workers and paying nothing in federal income taxes last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) noted: “I talk about that all of the time. 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.” The response was immediate. Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor, dismissed Sanders’s characterization as a “conspiracy theory.” CNN’s commentators accused Sanders of using President Trump’s playbook; NPR similarly suggested he was echoing Trump. Nate Silver, the editor of FiveThirtyEight, descended to psychological babble, assailing Sanders for having a “sense of entitlement,” feeling that “he’s entitled to the nomination this time, and if he doesn’t win, it’s only because ‘the media’/'the establishment’ took it away from him."
Let’s be clear: The Post and the New York Times aren’t the same as Fox News, which has turned into a shameless propaganda outfit. But Sanders wasn’t repeating Trump; he was making a smart structural critique of our commercial mainstream media.
It’s not as if Sanders lacks for evidence that he has particularly suffered at the hands of the mainstream media. The New York Times featured an article on his trip to the Soviet Union decades ago as somehow formative of his views, and got caught quoting a Democratic strategist critical of Sanders without disclosing the strategist’s close ties to Hillary Clinton’s super PAC. Sometimes outlets simply pretend Sanders doesn’t exist, as when Politico headlined a national poll showing Sanders in a strong second place this way: “Harris, Warren tie for third place in new 2020 Dem poll, but Biden still leads.” After one fiercely contested debate between Sanders and Hillary Clinton in early March 2016, The Post published 16 news articles and opinion pieces, many of them critical, about Sanders in 16 hours; a few weeks later, the Times’s own public editor criticized the post-publication “stealth editing” of a piece originally favorable to Sanders.
But, contrary to his critics’ claims, Sanders disavowed any notion that Bezos controls coverage at The Post. “I think my criticism of the corporate media is not … that they wake up, you know, in the morning and say, ‘What could we do to hurt Bernie Sanders?’ ” he told CNN. Instead he offered a criticism that is neither new nor radical: “There is a framework of what we can discuss and what we cannot discuss, and that’s a serious problem.”
In an interview with John Nichols of the Nation (where I serve as publisher and editorial director), Sanders went out of his way to distinguish this critique of the media from Trump’s assault on the free press: “We’ve got to be careful. We have an authoritarian type president right now, who does not believe in our Constitution, who is trying to intimidate the media … That’s not what we do. But I think what we have to be concerned about ... is that you have a small number of very, very large corporate interests who control a lot of what the people in this country see, hear, and read. And they have their agenda.”
In an email to supporters, Sanders wrote: “Even more important than much of the corporate media’s dislike of our campaign is the fact that much of the coverage in this country portrays politics as entertainment, and largely ignores the major crises facing our communities. ... As a general rule of thumb, the more important the issue is to large numbers of working people, the less interesting it is to the corporate media.” The corporate media inevitably turns politics into a horse race and policy into “gotcha” questions or personality disputes. Trump’s ability to dominate the free media in 2016 is testament to this tendency.
The structural bias of the corporate media is particularly clear in these tempestuous times. The elite consensus — the post-Cold War bipartisan embrace of corporate globalization, market fundamentalism and the United States’ global reach — has been shattered in the sands of Iraq and the suites of Wall Street. With the economy — even at its best — not working for most Americans, the old order cannot be sustained. When insurgent candidates such as Sanders shock Beltway pundits, conventional wisdom is exposed as folly. Sanders is particularly frowned on by the Democratic Party establishment and by big business, which disagree with his views, especially on inequality. Not surprisingly, a mainstream media that swims in that same pond takes on the same color. It doesn’t take a call from the outlets’ owners.
But whereas in earlier decades the mainstream media, the keepers of the consensus, could easily set the terms of public debate, new technology gives candidates the chance to challenge that status quo. Sanders has started to build his own independent media apparatus, including a web show, a podcast and a newsletter. While the corporate media focuses on the limits of Sanders’s support, he laps the Democratic field in garnering small donors across the country. While “mainstream” pundits question his reach among people of color, polls show him leading among Latinos and polling favorably among young African Americans.
As Sanders noted, “We have more folks on our social media than anybody except Donald Trump. … We are nowhere near where he is. But we have a lot of people on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, who use it every single day. So certainly one of the technological breakthroughs that has been of help to us in an ability to circumvent corporate media is to talk directly to people, and we do that virtually every day.”
With the elite consensus shattered, this is a frightening and exhilarating time of new ideas and new movements. It is also a time when the gatekeepers of established opinion no longer hold as much sway, when new forms of communication and independent media challenge the old. It’s not surprising that the corporate media gives Sanders bad press. Thankfully, though, that matters less and less.