The first thing the New York Times (2/23/16) wants you to know about Bernie Sanders’ media criticism is that it’s wrong: “As News Media Changes, Bernie Sanders’ Critique Remains Constant,” was the headline. Reporter Jason Horowitz’s piece elaborated on Sanders’ failure to appreciate the brave new media world:
Despite the advent of the internet, the diminishing of traditional news media companies and the emergence of new media Goliaths like Facebook that have helped fuel his rise, Mr. Sanders remains orthodox in his mass media doctrine….
As Mr. Sanders sees it, the profit-hungry billionaire owners of news media companies serve up lowest-common-denominator coverage, purposefully avoid the income-inequality issues he prioritizes and mute alternative voices as they take over more and more outlets.
Is that wrong? For example, aren’t news media owners mostly billionaires with a keen interest in profit? The largest stockholder of the New York Times is Mexican telecom mogul Carlos Slim, who’s a billionaire 77 times over; he didn’t get to be the second-richest person in the world without a healthy appetite for return on investment.
Here’s a chart of the top 10 online news sources, courtesy of Pew Research Center. Note that most of them are traditional news sources, now dominating online news. Of the ones that aren’t, Yahoo is partnered with ABC News (which is why they share a slot on the chart); Huffington Post is owned by AOL, which in turn is owned by Verizon; and Buzzfeed sold a $200 million equity stake to NBCUniversal, which is to say Comcast. When people think of “alternative voices,” they’re not generally thinking of giant cable and telecom companies.
Far from shrinking the reach of traditional media, the internet has allowed them to reach vast new audiences. The Times is getting 57 million unique visitors a month—compare that to its peak daily print circulation of 1.2 million. So maybe warnings about the power of corporate media aren’t so out of date after all?
And do corporate media, as Sanders says, avoid issues of income inequality? FAIR has studied this repeatedly (e.g., Extra!, (9–10/07, 6/10, 5/12) and while a content analysis can’t discern whether it’s on purpose or not, corporate media outlets do show a persistent lack of attention to inequality and poverty. According to our analysis of 2012 campaign coverage (Extra!, 9/12), 0.2 percent of campaign stories addressed poverty in a substantive way.
But the real point of the Times article is to respond to Sanders’ complaints about his own coverage, and his relationship with the journalists who follow his campaign—his “antagonism” toward the press, which goes beyond “the standard posture for politicians” and is actually “a pillar of his anti-establishment, socialist worldview.” So what are his anti-establishment, socialist complaints?
In December, his campaign demanded that the “corporate network news” grant him as much coverage as it does Mrs. Clinton (the “Bernie blackout,” they called it).
Sanders was referring to the study by the Tyndall Report (cited in Washington Post, 12/7/15), the standard resource on how much time the networks spend covering what. Tyndall found that in the first 11 months of 2015, Sanders had gotten roughly 1/20th the coverage of Donald Trump, 1/10th the coverage of Hillary Clinton and one-fifth the campaign coverage of Joe Biden, who wasn’t even running.
But rather than mentioning the rather persuasive data that Sanders was pointing to, Horowitz ran a dismissive quote from Sanders’ primary opposition:
The Clinton campaign, however, argues that Mr. Sanders has benefited from the superficial horse-race journalism he scorns, and that coverage has largely focused on his avuncular style and cross-generational appeal rather than thorough inspections of his proposals or record.
It’s not clear where Clinton’s spokesperson saw evidence of this focus on Sanders’ avuncular appeal. Was it the New York Times news story (5/31/15) that reported that Sanders’ platform “may eventually persuade Democrats that he is unelectable in a general election”? Or the one (1/31/16) that lumped Sanders in with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as “candidates on the ideological fringes” and “idol-smashing outsiders”? Or maybe it was the news article (2/15/16) that quoted economists associated with the Democratic establishment—misidentified as “liberal-leaning economists who share his goals”—comparing Sanders’ agenda to “magic flying puppies with winning Lotto tickets tied to their collars.”
Maybe Sanders’ media critique remains constant because media like the New York Times constantly deserve criticism?