Aaron Blake, The Washington Post
Published 10:45 am PDT, Wednesday, August 14, 2019
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday clarified his criticism of the “corporate media,” emphasizing that he wasn’t saying that owners, such as The Washington Post’s Jeff Bezos, tell editors which stories to run.
But even in doing so, he lodged another criticism of the media that just doesn’t add up.
“Do I think Jeff Bezos is on the phone, telling the editor of The Washington Post what to do? Absolutely not. It doesn’t work that way,” Sanders, I-Vt., began, responding to pushback from leaders including Post executive editor Martin Baron, who called the allegation a “conspiracy theory.”
Then Sanders elaborated, arguing that top media companies such as The Post, the New York Times and CNN operate under a certain “framework.”
“For example, I’ve been in politics for a few years,” he said. “You know what? Not one reporter has ever asked me: ‘Bernie, what are you going to do about the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality?’ Are you going to ask me that? Is that part of what the media talks about?”
There are a few problems with this claim. The first is that it’s patently untrue.
Within about 20 minutes of searching on Lexis Nexis, I was able to find at least four documented examples of Sanders being asked what he would do about income inequality:
– CBS’s John Dickerson on to July 12, 2015: “A lot of the issues you have mentioned both on wages and income inequality are going to be the topic of a speech by Hillary Clinton . . . on Monday. How do you distinguish yourself from her for Democratic voters out there?”
– CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Oct. 14, 2015: “Senator Sanders, let’s talk about income inequality. Wages and incomes are flat. You’ve argued that the gap between rich and poor is wider than at any time since the 1920s. We’ve had a Democratic president for seven years. What are you going to be able to do that President Obama didn’t?”
– MSNBC’s Al Sharpton on March 15, 2016: “What do you say to black and Latino voters who you need to support you in November if you’re the nominee . . . What do you say will be their particular way of dealing with racial inequality in the fight about income inequality?”
– And CNN’s Wolf Blitzer did a lengthy interview with Sanders on May 19, 2015, the first one-third of which was devoted to his views on income inequality.
This was not an exhaustive search, and there are plenty of other examples of reporters asking Sanders narrower questions about income inequality. I tried to find the questions that were as broad as possible, given that that was the type of question Sanders said he hadn’t been asked. (Another asked him, for instance, whether his stance on taxing the wealthy was more about deficit reduction or income inequality, for instance.)
It’s also worth emphasizing that Nexis doesn’t include transcripts of every interview every reporter has ever conducted with Sanders; far from it. It includes a very limited universe of mostly broadcast interviews and debates for which transcripts were available.
When I posted these on Twitter on Tuesday night, many of Sanders’s defenders noted that they were from 2015 and 2016 – not exactly recent. Well, Sanders said he had never been asked such questions, so the date doesn’t really matter.
But that gets at the second problem with his claim. The reason this was asked in broad terms in 2015 and 2016 – and perhaps less since then – is because Sanders was a new national political figure, and he was just starting to make this a major issue in his campaign. He talked about it in nearly every interview. Within a couple of months, there was very little utility in asking Sanders, “What are you going to do about income inequality,” because he’d talked about it so much already. Reporters are supposed to probe for new things, and that question had been asked several times and answered many more times (including often with no probing). It’s a little like asking President Donald Trump, “What do you want to do about illegal immigration?” We already know the answer.
And a third note is that it’s just so hard to stomach the idea that the media doesn’t want to talk about income inequality. The Post and the Times write about it regularly, including often from the perspective of how dangerous it could be. If the “framework” in place prevents such coverage, it’s clearly not doing a very good job.
(Some argued Sanders was complaining that reporters don’t specifically label income inequality “grotesque” in their questions to him; if he thinks reporters are supposed to use such adjectives in their questions, that’s another issue entirely.)
Buried beneath Sanders’s criticism is a very valid point: that the media often focuses too much on process. The review I conducted showed many questions on income inequality Sanders was asked keyed on how his focus on the issue might play politically. There’s a place for that (including here), but it’s too pervasive.
But that’s not the point he made Tuesday. Instead, he made an implausible claim that he had never been asked about his signature issue, and he made it in a way that doesn’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny. Sanders seems bent upon turning the media into a bogeyman in this campaign, much like he has turned billionaires and corporations into bogeymen. And as Trump has shown, that can be an effective political strategy.
But as Trump has also shown, the gripes can often be badly exaggerated, undermining whatever valid points you might be making. If you’re going to criticize the media for being bad actors – and we’re hardly above criticism – you should choose your words more carefully and make sure you’re not undermining your own credibility in the process.
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