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Blackouts, Smears, And A Trump Obsession: Sanders Struggles With Establishment Media

As the results of primaries were announced on March 15, there was one presidential candidate who delivered a speech, which the cable news networks refused to air. The networks didn’t want to cover Bernie Sanders’ speech because he planned to speak about issues instead of how his campaign planned to bounce back from losing five states. The media even aired footage of an empty podium, as they waited for Donald Trump to appear instead of showing clips of Sanders’ speech.

This represents both the media’s obsession with Trump, and it’s clear bias and aversion to covering the Sanders campaign. From the earliest moments of Sanders’ campaign, despite the thousands of people attending his rallies throughout the country, the media has been unwilling to treat Sanders like an “electable” and “serious” candidate, who could compete in a general election.

Adam Johnson, a contributing writer for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), joins the show to talk about media bias against Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. We highlight how the three cable news networks refused to air Sanders’ speech after last week’s primaries.

We talk about the rapid response teams at Hillary Clinton’s network of super PACs, which feed talking points and “off the record” tips to media organizations. Johnson also addresses the media’s Donald Trump obsession and how Trump understands how to work the media so any and all coverage, negative or positive, benefits him.

During the discussion, hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola highlight the upcoming AIPAC conference and how all the presidential candidates will be attending—except for Sanders. We also recap the primaries of the past week and talk about shaming people for not voting.

The podcast episode is available for download on iTunes. For a link to the episode (and also to download the episode as well), go here. A page will load with the audio file of the podcast. The file will automatically start playing so you can listen to the episode.

Also, below is a player for listening to the podcast. You can listen to the podcast this way by clicking on the player.

KHALEK: Let’s start with the coverage of Bernie Sanders. The coverage has been pretty atrocious, and the fact that he’s received the least coverage of any candidate. And also the coverage that he is receiving from many outlets, most of which have endorsed Hillary Clinton in terms of major newspapers, have been distorting his views, distorting his policies, and just portraying him as an old and grumpy idealist dreamer, who can’t possibly win. They’ve also been portraying him as less electable in a general election than Hillary Clinton, which I think is one of the more scandalous aspects of all the coverage because that is actually a reason people have cited for voting for Hillary Clinton over him. So, let’s start with that.

JOHNSON: Bias is always a very difficult thing to unpack or prove. You have to factor your own biases when you look into biases, and obviously, FAIR is a progressive media watchdog, and I’m obviously more to the left. My tendency is to see bias, where it isn’t necessarily there. So, we try to really like have a smoking gun, like a very clear indication of what we see as bias.

What you see in places like the Washington Post [inaudible] is that it’s not that they are so much anti-Sanders. It’s that the core axioms of neoliberalism is something they take for granted as something scientifically obvious, that like free trade, whatever that means is good, that the regime change in Libya and Syria is good, that these sort of things are manifestly good and anyone who says otherwise is a kook. That group think is what is the animating factor behind most of the bias, as opposed to people getting in a room and twirling their mustaches and saying how do we screw this scrappy socialist. That ideological capture, this campaign has challenged those core corruptions, especially on domestic issues, which is, of course, where Sanders is most radical. Foreign policy, he’s slightly less so, but kind of more in line with the kind of NATO order.

What I try to do is find patterns within coverage over a certain period of time and then try to show that it is overwhelming. One of the stories I did was the Washington Post ran 16 negative stories in 16 hours [inaudible]. [*Note: This part of the interview has some audio issues. We apologize for the poor quality.]

That struck a chord, and that went viral. The Washington Post responded. They got a little pouty, and I guess a little petulant and were like, well, you know, you can’t judge us based on one day. I said, well, that was probably the single most crucial day of this primary. It was right before the Michigan primary, which he needed very badly. So, at the end of their defense of that day of coverage, they said, oh, well, even if it was true, even if we were biased, the media’s been too easy on him, which was effectively an admission that they had been biased.

There is this assumption that Sanders has kooky ideas that are outside of their ideological wheelhouse and that, therefore, must be challenged, and that must be seen as being zany. The way they couch this is the term it’s not realistic, or it’s not practical. They do these gas lighting concepts about what can and can’t be done, which, of course, they don’t do to Hillary Clinton whose anti-gun legislation would never pass in a million years. It’s only done for legislation that undermines the kind of neoliberal orthodoxy. So, those are kind of the general games they run, and there’s a few other examples.

KHALEK: I want to hear those other examples as well. But it’s not even that their coverage is negative. It’s what they’ve done is it seems that in a lot of cases — I think you’ve highlighted this in just the way you captured like the headlines of those 16 news stories — is that they run with Hillary Clinton’s lies about Sanders.

JOHNSON:
They run with her talking points. That’s the thing. A lot of these are just talking points.

KHALEK: Right, they run with her talking points, and at the same time, they don’t accurately reflect that truth about her. For people who are just getting their news coverage from traditional media outlets and aren’t online, which I think is a lot of the baby boomer generation that is voting for Hillary Clinton, they would have no idea [about] her shoddy record, other than what right wingers say about her because that gets into newspapers. But other than that, they would have no clue.

JOHNSON: It’s funny. After we ran our piece, and they ran two responses to our piece, I think we may have spooked [the Washington Post] a little bit. The next day they ran an article about why Hillary Clinton needs to come clean on her record in Honduras, which is like if you’ve ever read the Washington Post they never do that. So, I am not taking credit for that myself, but I think they realized that there was a kind of —

Again, they just have an editorial meeting and someone says let’s turn the heat up on Sanders. He’s been skating by. That’s all it takes. It’s nothing particularly sinister, but anyone who’s been in an editorial meeting knows that those kinds of things happen.

My whole argument is this: Alternet, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, places like that, places like The Intercept—They’re basically pro-Sanders. I have no problem saying that, right. Let me rephrase that. They’re pro-progressive, and as such are against Hillary Clinton, I think, in general.

The problem is those places don’t make any pretext of being objective or neutral. Like you go to those places, you expect a certain ideology, a certain perspective. The problem is the Washington Post is posing as this neutral arbitrator, when they’re not. They’re ideologically a neoliberal orthodoxy. They have their own ideology, but they like to act like they’re somehow post-ideology. But they’re not. They are the definition of ideology.

That’s always my argument. Everyone’s biased. Let’s be honest about that instead of acting like you’re just calling balls and strikes. Especially in their blogging vertical, which is they say, well, we want our bloggers to have different perspectives, but well, you hire five or six bloggers and they all have this very strident anti-Bernie Sanders bent. It’s clear why they were hired in the first place.

GOSZTOLA: You talk about how a lot of what the media is putting out there is talking points. I just want to emphasize that these are being fed to media corporations or to these media organizations by not just the Hillary Clinton campaign, but she has Correct the Record working for her. She’s got these other rapid response outfits. That’s what they call themselves rapid response, and they far surpass the capacity and abilities and skills of the Sanders campaign.

The other thing I would put to you and have you react is that Correct the Record will call up a media organization and offer “off the record” news tips, and then they won’t put their name to it for the organization to then publish a hit piece on Sanders.

JOHNSON: Yeah, there’s a lot of oppositional research that’s kind of routine. The only problem is that most of the messaging comes from super PACs like Correct the Record, which are obviously by unlimited funds from individuals and corporations and other PACs. So, Sanders doesn’t have that. So he doesn’t have the counter-messaging apparatus. I mean, his head of public communications has like 6,000 followers on Twitter. It’s not — So, he’s relied mainly on activists.

They don’t have the messaging capacity. They’ve relied mostly on the kind of Reddit warriors that have actually done quite a good job. Like the New York Times where they edited out a piece and put in basically two editorial paragraphs that sound like basically they were written by David Brock, who runs Clinton’s super PAC, that was found by activists online. So, the opposition research that they dump to the news outlets seem rather obvious.

A lot of the tone policing, the identity politics element of it, which has been very prominent on social media, but I think actually doesn’t have much purchase for most people—After the Flint debate, there was I think three separate articles in the Washington Post about how Bernie Sanders had the wrong tone or he interrupted her.

Things like that, things that I call meta-critiques, which are not really critiques. They’re critiques of critiques. They’re critiques of how someone may perceive something and so it’s not very substantive. You’re not really discussing policy or political positions or value sets. You’re discussing how things are perceived, and when things get into the meta, you’re not having a conversation of substance. Invariably, it’s going to benefit Hillary Clinton.

KHALEK: I also want to talk a little bit about the fact that right now the mainstream press and politicians from across the political spectrum—Actually, I’d say the press across the political spectrum is losing its collective shit because they did not anticipate him becoming as popular as he has, and now they’re all terrified for various reasons. Some of those reasons are legitimate. Other reasons they they’re terrified of him are based on the fact that they’re scared he will not uphold the status quo for them. They don’t even really care about the racism and the demagoguery as much as they say they do. Whatever the case may be, the media across the board is freaking out about Donald Trump.

JOHNSON: I think you see — not to put it in distinctly Marxist terms — but you see this is the ruling class at war with itself. The mainstream Tea Party element of the Republican Party, which was always sort of the goons, the warriors, sort of like the MoveOn.org crowd for Democrats, the people that go out there and get votes, they seem to actually like Trump. They’ve embraced him, and I don’t think the business community really seems to care. You don’t hear any uproar from the business sector of the Republican Party, but what we call the neoconservatives, the pro-regime change in Libya, Iraq, and Syria, the sort of perpetual war, very sort of Zionist crowd, they’re the ones freaking out the most.

For the rest of the interview with Adam Johnson, go here.

Campaign rally at Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina (Photo by Nathania Johnson)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."