By Jasper Craven, VTDigger.org
So far this year, Bernie Sanders has been on ABC “World News Tonight” for a total of 20 seconds. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has received 81 minutes of coverage on the same program.
During a recent speech here in a crowded college gymnasium, it was unclear who the Vermont senator felt was a bigger threat to American Democracy — the Koch brothers or the corporate alphabet-soup brotherhood of CBS, NBC and ABC.
“Who decides what the issues are?” Sanders asked the crowd. “When you turn on the TV tonight, someone will say ‘This is the main issue facing the country — it’s the only issue — until tomorrow’s issue, when that’s the only issue.”
“Who determines the major issues?” Sanders reiterated. “You do!”
“You’ve got to do that,” he continued, his tone sharpening. “And don’t let CNN or NBC or anyone else tell you what the major issues are, because what goes on in your lives, and the lives of your family, are by definition, the important issues.”
While the Vermont senator has never been a huge fan of the press, he has become a vocal critic of those covering him in recent weeks. He’s perplexed that the press doesn’t cover him as much anymore; he is upset by the media titillation for Trump and frustrated that his message of income inequality is being pushed aside to make way for talk of terrorism.
At his announcement in May on the Burlington waterfront, Sanders drew the biggest applause when he railed against the media for being shallow, highlighting irrelevant issues and engaging in gossip.
“He has said his frustration is not about how you treat me,” spokesman Michael Briggs said. “It’s about how you treat the issues.”
Last week, frustration over media coverage from Team Sanders boiled over, prompting Briggs to push out a press release asking: “Why the Bernie Blackout on Corporate Network News?”
“The corporately owned media may not like Bernie’s anti-establishment views but for the sake of American democracy they must allow for a fair debate in this presidential campaign,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager. “Bernie must receive the same level of coverage on the nightly news as other leading candidates.”
The campaign pointed to the Tyndall Report, a site which monitors network news coverage, as evidence of the media discrimination. The report found that ABC “World News Tonight” has devoted just 20 seconds to Sanders through this year. Donald Trump received 81 minutes of coverage by ABC this year.
The campaign is now circulating petitions for supporters to sign, demanding national news outlets up their coverage of Sanders. NBC “Nightly News” has given 2.9 minutes of coverage to Sanders since January; CBS provided 6.4 minutes, according to the report.
“The network newscasts are wildly overplaying Trump, who regularly attracts between 20-30 percent of primary voter support, while at the same time wildly underplaying Sanders, who regularly attracts between 20-30 percent of primary voter support,” wrote Eric Boehlert on the Media Matters blog.
Briggs confirmed that the Sanders press pool has a core membership of three reporters: Mary Alice Parks of ABC, John Wagner of the Washington Post and Evan McMorris-Santoro of BuzzFeed News.
Reporters from other major outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, CBS and The New York Times come and go. While the Times put a reporter on the Clinton beat in early 2013, the paper has no Bernie beat, and has been sharply criticized for lack of coverage of Sanders.
In September, following many letters and comments from readers, the Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan investigated the matter. She found that in August, when Sanders was surging in polls, he was the subject of 14 articles; Clinton was the focus of 54.
“The Times has not ignored Mr. Sanders’s campaign, but it hasn’t always taken it very seriously,” Sullivan wrote. “The tone of some stories is regrettably dismissive, even mocking at times. Some of that is focused on the candidate’s age, appearance and style, rather than what he has to say.”
Explaining the darkness
In the horse-race election, Bernie the Bronco is no longer a hot ticket. Clinton the Warhorse is at the head of the pack, and experts say that’s where the attention will always go.
“When the media looks at the on-the-ground polling numbers, money, infrastructure, support around the country and potential to build a majority during the Democratic convention, they have concluded that Hillary Clinton is the one,” said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of media and politics at American University in Washington, D.C.
Besides the cloak of inevitability that the former Secretary of State now owns, media experts said the lack of media attention for Sanders is a direct result of his unwillingness to adapt to a 24-hour news cycle where topics of concern are constantly changing.
“The media has been focused to a great extent on terrorism, and recent attacks have sent a chill of anxiety through many voters,” Steinhorn said. “If you are talking about economic inequality when the lead story in the news is about a couple mowing down civilians in San Bernardino, the media won’t be covering you.”
Steinhorn also pointed to Trump’s round-the-clock coverage as an example of a media system craving sensation, personality and controversy. In his estimation, these are qualities Sanders lacks.
“The strength of his campaign is his integrity and his sticking to issues,” Steinhorn said. “But perhaps that’s the weakness of his campaign, too.”
Tim Groeling, chair of communication studies at UCLA, said it’s fair for Sanders to be upset by the lack of coverage. He said a lack of coverage can do real damage.
“It’s a bad situation to be in when journalists don’t think you have a chance,” Groeling said. “If the media doesn’t think you are viable then your donors may not treat you seriously and then that can be reflected in the polling.”
“The measure of viability from the press can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he added.
Where Sanders wins: The internet
On the online social forum Reddit, Bernie Sanders is a star. The /r/SandersForPresident page has nearly 140,000 subscribers, many of whom frequently post diatribes against the mainstream media for ignoring their candidate.
Redditors discuss the senator’s policy proposals, organize phone banks, and some even paint photos of Sanders and upload them online.
Aidan King, a Montpelier resident who is one of the main moderators of the page, says the Sanders subReddit acts as an “unofficial” digital arm of the campaign, noting he receives between 500 to 1,000 submissions about Sanders every day.
“In an era where misinformation and apathy are running rampant through the political system, it’s really important to have unfettered discourse about the news, the political process, the Democratic debates, and about Bernie and his policies,” King said.
Reddit users, and the composition of Internet users more broadly, skews young, where Sanders performs best. A recent poll out of Iowa found Clinton faring better with older demographics while Sanders snagged 58 percent of support of voters under 45.
The young, energetic population of Bernie supporters online pushes a conflicting narrative to mainstream media reports, asserting that Sanders will win.
While most political pundits gave Clinton the win in the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas, online polls put Sanders as the winner.
In the recent online poll for Time’s Person of the Year, Sanders won the most votes. Time picked German Chancellor Angela Merkel instead, prompting some Sanders supporter to go online to vent their displeasure and put up a mock cover with Sanders as the winner.
On Tuesday, one of the most popular links on the Sanders Reddit page was a Vermont community access television video of Sanders at a media forum in November, 1987. In the grainy video, Sanders asserted that the nation’s growing wealth gap “doesn’t make the mass media.” As is often the case, the Vermont senator’s words on the matter have changed little over the last 28 years.