Why Bernie Sanders can't stand the media

The Vermont senator has made criticism of the press central to his message.
Image: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, speaks to the press after a Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami on June 27, 2019.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, speaks to the press after a Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami on June 27, 2019.Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images file

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — Bernie Sanders had a camera crew and a bone to pick.

It was 1988 and Sanders was running for Congress, but he felt the local press was giving his campaign short shrift. So when CBS' "60 Minutes" came to Vermont to profile him, he decided to turn the tables on the local Associated Press staffers by marching the TV crew into their bureau to grill them for not covering his recent press conference.

"It was delicious," Sanders later wrote in his memoir, "Outsider in the House." "I had a lot of fun that afternoon. Of course, I paid for it later. You never beat the media."

Every politician complains about the press, especially when things aren't going his or her way. But few — the current president aside — have made media criticism as central to their message as Sanders, who has long viewed the mainstream media as a bulwark of the political and economic system he has spent his life trying to tear down.

"In my 25 years running the Vermont bureau, I can't think of a candidate or governor who did not complain at one time or another about our political coverage," longtime former Vermont AP bureau chief Chris Graff wrote in his memoir in 2006. "Sanders' criticism, however, was in a whole different league."

That long-simmering tension came to a boil last week when Sanders' campaign complained about coverage of his polls and when Sanders suggested — in what Washington Post editor Marty Barton dubbed a "conspiracy theory" — that the paper's billionaire owner, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, influences its coverage.

Last night, the campaign offered an olive branch of sorts to the press in the form of a friendly softball game between campaign staff and reporters in Iowa on the ball field made famous by the movie "Field of Dreams."

"At a time when members of the media are demonized by the president, we hope to show goodwill and sportsmanship on the Field of Dreams," Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir said in a statement.

But it may do little to cool decades of enmity.

From Sanders' earliest days in politics, the populist outsider has consistently leveled a structural critique of the news media that he views as being as much a part of the corrupt "establishment" as corporations and their lobbyists.

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He's complained about media consolidation and corporate ownership, an ethos of political reporting that favors the horse race and personality — "gossip" — over policy and substance, and a belief that the mainstream media dumbs down the discourse to distract the masses from its advertisers' agenda.

At the same time, critics and even some allies say that such criticism can sometimes serve as a convenient excuse for Sanders to explain away problems in his campaigns or dodge tough questions he'd rather not have to answer, much as Trump dismisses reporting he doesn't like as "fake news."

And after a former Vermont political columnist complained to Sanders in 1985 that "when asked a question you don’t want to answer, you leave the room," Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, replied, "Peter, you are basically a gossip columnist."

It's a posture that Sanders carries to this day, portraying himself as the righteous underdog standing up to the forces trying to silence him.

Last week, his campaign organized a conference call to argue to reporters that they were trying to downplay Sanders' strength in polls, calling it "The Bernie Write-off" of 2019.

"There seems to be a direct correlation between the media coverage of polls and Bernie Sanders' specific standing in those polls," top Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver said on the call. "The better the number is in the poll, the less coverage it receives. And the worse he does, the more it receives."

And reporters took note of the campaign’s decision to launch a newsletter written by an adviser, David Sirota, known for picking fights with reporters on Twitter that sometimes veer toward the personal and ad hominem.

"Bernie's comments about media ownership touched off a full freak out by — shocker! — the Washington pundits who are paid by the corporations and billionaires who own the media," Sirota wrote in his first newsletter.

But it was Sanders himself who touched off the biggest controversy by suggesting on the stump that The Washington Post covers him negatively because it is owned by Bezos, a frequent Sanders villain.

"I wonder why the Washington Post ... doesn't write particularly good articles about me," he said in New Hampshire. "I don’t know why. But I guess maybe there's a connection."

Baron and many others in the press compared Sanders' rhetoric to Trump's and noted that Warren, who regularly criticizes Amazon and Bezos, and even called for breaking up the company before Sanders did, isn't accusing the paper of malfeasance.

FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism site, tracks cable news coverage of the 2020 candidates and found Sanders consistently among the most-covered candidates. A Harvard University study of the 2016 campaign found that while Sanders received substantially less coverage than rival Hillary Clinton, it was better for him — "the most positive coverage of any of the presidential contenders."

Sanders dropped the line about The Washington Post after mentioning it a couple of times on the campaign trail, and later clarified that his beef is bigger than any one news outlet.

"Do I think Jeff Bezos is on the phone, telling the editor of The Washington Post what to do? Absolutely not," he told CNN. But, he added, "there is a framework of what we can discuss and what we cannot discuss, and that's a serious problem."

It's a criticism that's as central to Sanders' political identity as his unkempt hair and that leads him to seek alternative means of getting his message to voters by circumventing the gatekeepers in the press.

He started in the 1970s by writing essays — including one in which he said corporate America uses TV "to intentionally brainwash people into submission and helplessness" — then got into making documentaries and, as mayor, produced his own cable access show, even as he sometimes snubbed the press.

Now, he has the biggest social media following of any 2020 presidential candidate and has produced a wide range of his own direct-to-supporters content, including a live talk show and a podcast and started a channel on Twitch, the (Amazon-owned) gamer-focused streaming platform.

"I think a lot of his feelings for the press come from feeling ignored, ridiculed or marginalized by the press over decades," said Paul Heinz, a reporter and former political editor at the Burlington-based alt-weekly Seven Days who has covered Sanders for years.

Heinz said Sanders has valid points about media consolidation and sometimes short-sided editorial decisions that he said many reporters and press advocates share.

But Heinz noted that at the same time Sanders rails against TV outlets owned by large corporations (Comcast is the parent company of NBC News), he also has largely ignored the local Vermont press.

"He view of his own coverage is where he goes off track a little bit," Heinz said. "He is so self-assured and so-convinced that he is right about everything that when he sees a perspective that doesn't match his own, he sees it as evidence of incompetence or corruption."

Gary Grumbach and Shaquille Brewster contributed.