“I believe that in a democracy what elections are about are serious debates over serious issues,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said upon announcing his presidential campaign in April 2015. He concluded with a plea to the press: “I would hope, and I ask the media’s help on this, allow us to discuss the important issues facing the American people and let’s not get hung up on political gossip or all the other soap opera aspects of modern campaigns.”
Less than two months later, Donald Trump rode his escalator into the race and promptly obliterated any possibility of the media heeding Sanders’s call. Almost immediately, the election came to resemble, if not a soap opera, a reality TV show with the incendiary former star of “The Apprentice” at its center. This has resulted not only in ridiculously lopsided coverage of Trump, at the expense of his rivals in both parties, but also a lack of sustained and serious attention to the important issues of our time.
The problem was evident as early as last summer, when political scientist John Sides argued that Trump was rising in the polls in part because “people are being bombarded with news stories” about him. But that was only the beginning. On the three major network evening newscasts, media analyst Andrew Tyndall found that Trump’s campaign was the second most heavily covered story of 2015, trailing only the weather. For the year, Trump received 327 minutes of evening network news coverage. That’s more than twice as much as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton (121 minutes), Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (21 minutes), and Sanders (20 minutes) combined.
Indeed, while lavishing obscene coverage on Trump, many journalists and talking heads have consistently marginalized or written off Sanders, who, aspiring to lead a “political revolution,” has attracted similar levels of support and enthusiasm. Last summer, as the mainstream media obsessed over Trump’s every move, they paid little attention to Sanders’s rallies even though they regularly drew massive crowds. And much of the coverage Sanders does receive is negative: The Post, for instance, recently published 16 negative articles and opinion pieces about Sanders online in the space of 16 hours.
Last week’s Michigan primary reinforced how Sanders is underrated by the media. Before his upset victory, much of the media had prematurely written political obituaries for the Sanders campaign. Yet the stunning upset didn’t seem to have a chastening effect. Heading into Tuesday’s primaries, too much of the coverage has once again emphasized Clinton’s lead over Sanders in the polls, and some have even suggested that the expected results could “increase pressure on him to consider dropping out of the race.”
Meanwhile, as the Trump spectacle overshadows the other candidates, it also drowns out a much-needed conversation about issues of vital importance, including those that help explain why Trump and Sanders have generated so much passionate support. As John Nichols writes in the Nation, “The saturation coverage of Trump has obscured the real story of 2016: Americans are strikingly agitated not just about politics and governance, but about an economic ‘recovery’ that never seems to reach them.”
One of the central causes of this media malpractice is not a mystery. For the corporate media, clicks and ratings amount to profits, and Trump undoubtedly attracts more eyeballs than deep reporting on, say, trade policy. Last month, CBS President and Chief Executive Les Moonves bluntly acknowledged the motives behind the media’s election coverage. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said of Trump’s rise, adding, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”
This is not to say that Trump should be ignored. It is certainly newsworthy that the Republican Party is on the verge of nominating a demagogue for president. The aborted rally in Chicago on Friday evening, which was canceled amid clashes between Trump supporters and protesters, was just the latest evidence that the Republican front-runner is putting people in real danger. It demands media attention that Trump’s campaign events have inspired racial violence, which he refuses to condemn and that he continues to encourage anti-Muslim hate. Trump’s undisguised bigotry, however, only underscores how irresponsible the fawning coverage of his campaign has been, while making a more serious discussion of the alternatives even more urgently needed.
The good news is that, while the damage cannot be undone, it’s not too late for the media to change course. To that end, the Democratic primary represents an opportunity. Despite the prevailing narrative, the race is far from over. Clinton and Sanders are engaged in a serious debate over serious solutions to this country’s problems. And with a likely Trump nomination in sight, it’s absolutely critical for voters to have as much substantive information as possible before making their decision. Nearly one year later, it’s time for the media to finally answer Sanders’s plea and stop favoring the spectacle over “the important issues facing the American people.”