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The House of Many Hit Pieces: A Closer Look at Over Two Months of Anti-Bernie Coverage From The Washington Post

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This is by no means an exhaustive study of anti-Bernie Sanders narratives in the media at this time. This is in no way a historic study of that same phenomena. This is simply my attempt to look at the coverage of one major news paper in the last 75 days and see what I can spot after almost three weeks on the campaign trail. And taking a look at the Washington Post’s coverage, the results are in, and it has been overwhelmingly misleading and negative (shocking, I know).

It should probably be said, these articles need to be broken down into categories and really dissected to truly do the analysis required to identify the root of the problem. Most of the articles are probably best described as incredibly poor framing, or just generally allowing editorial staff to run amuck without a compelling enough counter narrative. Also, most of the anti-Sanders or overly skeptical coverage comes from two or three writers. Most frequently, Max Boot, Paul Waldman, and Jennifer Rubin.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Washington Post has many more voices, some of whom do excellent work. Most notably, Dave Weigel, EJ Dionne, and Elizabeth Bruenig. There is of course some positive articles and some good coverage, the Post is a big institution. For precisely this reason the Post’s framing is important. If the Millennial Review proves one thing, it’s that a pro-Bernie narrative is possible. It’s even possible to do so without being a total hack and selling out all objectivity. To really parse out the problems with the Post’s coverage of Bernie, we have to take a closer look at what they’ve written and how it all fits together. 

First, for purposes of our analysis, Washington Post coverage of Bernie Sanders will be broken into two main categories, 1. Attacks and Dismissals of Bernie and 2. More Subtle Anti-Bernie Framing and Feeding Anti-Bernie Narratives. These articles are only from the 75 day period preceding March 9, 2019. Additionally these are only articles where “Bernie Sanders” is featured prominently enough to trigger the Post’s relevance filter. Including figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, terms like Medicare for All or Democratic Socialism, or other more in depth search terms would likely provide a better analysis.

To the degree possible, we’ve provided a brief summary of the articles described and attempted to rebut them, set the record straight, or highlight why we find each problematic. Additionally, this represents a larger problem than just Bernie coverage, each category represents its own problem with the Post and the media more generally. Viewing the Post’s coverage through the lens of Bernie specific stories is just a useful way to highlight broader institutional failings. So without further ado, we’ll begin with the Bernie Sanders attacks.

The Washington Posts Attacks And Outright Dismissals of Bernie Sanders

1. Are Democrats Going to Let Bernie Get Away With It?

 

 

 

This is the first of many anti-Bernie articles published by Jennifer Rubin we’ll take a closer look at. Anyone who followed along with Bernie’s first CNN town hall on twitter saw this article coming before it was ever published. During the Town Hall Wolf Blitzer pressed Bernie Sanders on when he would release his tax returns. Bernie’s response was admittedly lackluster, telling Wolf he would release them “soon” and that they weren’t “very interesting.”

Both are likely true, Bernie Sanders released amended tax documents during the 2016 primary and there was nothing too out of the ordinary. Despite that, pressure continued and Bernie released a full version of his 2014 tax return, followed by 2015 which was at the time the most recent filing. And again, nothing too out of the ordinary. It did spawn many anti-Bernie talking points about the amount of money he donates to charity and his “three homes.” However, those talking points are easily rebutted with the fact he donated a significantly higher percentage of his income than many wealthy public figures and the specifics of his home signal a working senator who inherited some property, not wealthy land baron fronting as a man of the people.

All in all, Bernie’s tax returns are just as he says, not very exciting or particularly important. Jennifer Rubin wants you to think otherwise, but it’s just as well you ignore her for reasons you’ll see in the many articles she published we dissect later.

2. Why Sanders’s Money Haul Doesn’t Mean Very Much

 

In another Jennifer Rubin hit, we find out just why Bernie Sanders record fundraising, which outpaces all of his opponents, actually doesn’t mean much at all.

In Jennifer’s words Bernie’s $6 million plus dollar haul doesn’t matter, even though it over tripled what his closest competition Kamala Harris raised. However, to Rubin,  “for someone with nearly universal name recognition, an extensive donor list and a long run-up to his announcement, Sanders’s haul shouldn’t impress knowledgeable political watchers. (Should Joe Biden announce, I would bet his 24-hour fundraising total will dwarf Sanders’s total. A former vice president shouldn’t have to lift a finger to trigger a flood of money).

She goes on to posit that money itself is not a good indicator of electoral success. Which is fair, pointing to campaigns like that of Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton as proof that money alone does not win elections is all well and good. However it obfuscates the fundamental difference between the money Bernie Sanders raised and that of a candidate like Jeb or Hillary, or Joe Biden for that matter.

Bernie’s money comes from small donors. In his first day $5.9 million dollar haul over 230,000 donors in all 50 states fueled that push. Compare that to the $1.5 million from Kamala Harris from 38,000 donors or the $290,000 first day figure of Elizabeth Warren, coming from just over 8,000 donors. It seems clear, Bernie not only raises more money, but he has created more excitement and that’s what enables him to raise more money in the first place. These are real people, donating real money, and signing up to donate their time as well. That’s no small thing, these donors don’t represent just dollars, they represent enthusiastic people as well. 

At the peak of the primary, Bernie Sanders was out raising Hillary Clinton despite the fact the majority of his donors were small dollar donors under $200 and donors giving less than $200 represented 18% of Hillary Clinton’s donor base. So yeah, Joe Biden might be able to raise more money and money alone won’t win a primary. But if Joe Biden is getting all that money from Wall Street Executives and Bernie’s money is coming from an excited movement of people, doesn’t it seem a little disingenuous to compare Bernie to Jeb and laud Joe Biden’s potential movement? Isn’t that just a little bit silly, Jennifer?

3. Warren Makes Democrats Antsy, Sanders Should Petrify Them

 

Rounding out our discussion of Jennifer Rubin’s trash articles, is a two for one hit job on the most progressive candidates in the race, a bold attack on both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

The entire premise is that Elizabeth Warren is somehow unelectable because of the Native American ancestry debacle and the political fight with Trump that ensued. On its face this isn’t a terrible argument, it did show poor political judgment from Warren. However, Rubin completely overlooks the reason Warren is so popular despite this liability, there was no discussion of her policy agenda or how popular it is with Democratic voters. The premise is basically, if Democrats are worried about Elizabeth Warren’s political vulnerabilities, they should be, but also, let me tell you about Bernie Sanders’s liabilities because they’re even more worrisome.

From there, Rubin launches into another half-baked anti-Bernie tirade. This time centered on the potential for Trump to grab on to the “socialist” label and scare the American electorate into voting conservative to stave of the inevitable turn toward Venezuelan socialism a Sanders presidency would bring. She goes on to say that Bernie Sanders has no clear advantage and a huge liability because of this label. Again, ignoring the policy agenda that Bernie Sanders describes as socialist to begin with and the sheer popularity of those proposals. From Medicare for All, to tuition free university, to a green new deal, the Bernie Sanders agenda polls over 60%. These are incredibly popular policies and for most Americans over the age of 40, the term socialism isn’t a call back to USSR style centrally planned economies, but instead a call to Scandinavia and the more generous aspects of Western Europe’s social democracies.

We’ll take a step away from Jennifer Rubin for now, but this is the problem we’re talking about. Washington Post is a big organization. People like David Weigal and Elizabeth Bruenig do good work within that institution. But it also allows people like Jennifer Rubin to run wild, throwing their shit at the wall until it sticks, and when you crank out three or four hit pieces a week, some of it will stick eventually.

4. I’ve Reported on Bernie Sanders for Years a Free Press Won’t Give Him What He Wants

 

This is another fairly common angle of anti-Bernie journalism. The “I’ve known Bernie since before he was a national figure and let me tell you, he’s actually pretty bad” line of attack. These were common in 2016 and some of them certainly level fair criticism. My problem with these articles in general, is they’re never coupled with someone proclaiming the positive changes Bernie brought as mayor of Burlington. This attack in particular also failed to reckon with the real criticism Bernie has consistently leveled against the media, instead wrapping up this criticism as nothing but self serving political posturing. On some level it’s both, but to divorce it from its double meaning and only push the self-serving Bernie narrative is bad journalism.

It’s easy to find a reporter who is put off by Bernie’s desire for reporters to just parrot his message. It’s just as easy to find someone in Burlington who felt motivated by Bernie’s campaigns and got involved for the first time. A narrative that is basically perfect for media consumption given the first-time-participant younger voter nature of Bernie’s base. It’s harder to dive into Bernie’s long standing critique of the media. Since he came onto the scene in the 1980’s Bernie has consistently leveled criticisms against the media and what they choose to cover. However, that’s important to note, Bernie largely always criticize what the media fails to cover. Pointing to the fact that most news is ratings and personality driven, not necessarily driven by the biggest or most pressing issues of the day. Nor their human consequence. 

From failing to cover “the greenhouse gas effect” to just generally focusing on issues of celebrity over questioning entrenched power or highlighting issues like poverty, Bernie has a clear and consistent critique of the media. Just because he feels the media should cover his agenda, doesn’t mean he wants them to play stenographer. And just because one reporter from Bernie’s past thinks he’s anti-first amendment, doesn’t mean he is, the same way Jennifer Rubin calling his fundraising lackluster doesn’t make it so.

5. Progressives More Focused on Disagreeing with Trump Than Countering Dictator

 

This is the first article by our fedora wearing friend at the Post, Max Boot. Like Jennifer Rubin, Max Boot is a Never Trump hack turned terrible op-ed writer who found his home in the pages of the Washington Post. Unlike Rubin, Boot’s critiques are usually of the left more broadly and specifically tend to cover on the people who are mean to him on twitter as opposed to meaningful issues of the day. That said, he took a brief hiatus from decrying the “twitter mob” to produce some bad faith takes on Bernie Sanders and Venezuela.

The general thrust of the article should be familiar to any who have watched the U.S. and Venezuela relationship further erode over the last few months. Essentially, it frames what is happening in Venezuela as the collapse of a uniquely authoritarian regime and posits people like Bernie Sanders refuse to criticize the regime because of some perception Max Boot has of potential ideological ties between Sanders and the Maduro regime. He makes the same complaint of Ro Khanna and Ilhan Omar as well. Boot is able to contend that military intervention is wrong, which is ostensibly all Sanders, Khanna, and Omar said to begin with. However, in Boot’s eyes, coming from them, the new leaders of the left, that’s not enough, because they’re obviously holding back to protect their socialist buddies.

There was another similar shot taken at Bernie Sanders published in the post, which you can find here, but for our purposes dissecting the Max Boot piece was enough. One pro-empire screed is enough for us, even if a dozen isn’t enough for the Washington Post.

6. Democratic Socialists Can’t Hide Their Shallowness

 

While this attack, nor the next one, attack Bernie Sanders directly. Up until about 6 months ago an attack on “Democratic Socialism” was essentially an attack on Sanders, as he was the only Democratic Socialist of any prominence. Now it can be credibly tied to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and is increasingly becoming synonymous with the left wing of the Democratic Party. The piece itself is rambling, incoherent, and doesn’t really provide a very strong critique of Sanders or his message. It simply contends that the 70% top marginal rate is unreasonable and claims Sanders response to Republicans criticisms of socialism are nonsensical. Which is just like, Ed Rogers the author of this piece’s, opinion, man.

That’s the problem, he goes on to just level broad criticisms on the Democratic Party which he somehow ties to Democratic Socialists of America. Emphasis on the somehow because it’s a transition which doesn’t really make sense. The entire article doesn’t make much sense, but taken as a headline, taken as a simply a vehicle for a pot shot at Bernie and AOC, it makes a lot of sense. At least then it’s bad, but serves some purpose other than sharing Ed’s awful writing with the world. 

7. Democratic Socialists Are Selling Us a System That No Longer Works

 

Another veiled swipe at Bernie and the left more generally came from long time Washington Post bad take factory, Megan McArdle. McArdle isn’t exactly a bastion of cutting edge opinion writing, but credit where it is due, her critique of the Democratic Socialists of America and their vision is a lot more genuine and thoughtful than that of Ed Rogers. McArdle posits that Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the 55,000+ members of the Democratic Socialists of America have a fundamental tension in their vision. Workplace democracy requires a level of civic engagement not found in the American political sphere today. Without this civic engagement she posits, workers will simply be exploited by union bosses and the leaders of workers co-ops, not the bosses. Meaning the entire DSA project, in her view, is kind of silly and pointless.

This is actually a pretty decent critique I think. Workplace democracy and workers cooperatives certainly will require a level of civic engagement not really found in American life today. And it’s not totally unfair to scoff at the prospect of that happening. That said, it seems a lot like criticizing early democracy because the powerful are best suited to utilize the electoral system and run for office to begin with. That might be true. Democracy might not overturn the applecart right way, but it creates the tools necessary to do so. In that way, even if it must be built on a foundation not currently found, having the blueprint before the foundation goes down is important and in my view never a bad thing.

If you think the project is unrealistic and unobtainable to begin with, this critique is probably a strong one. If you think the socialist project is one of fundamental change, as such it’s difficult to predict it’s success or failure because the political ground will change by the very nature of the movement, then the critique is kind of silly. Obviously I’m in the latter camp.

8. Sanders Has An Uphill Climb Ahead

 

Finally, this article, like the next three, isn’t so bad for its substance or the fact it levels a direct bad faith attack on Sanders or his campaign. Instead, it’s bad because it fronts as unbiased news and sneaks in a lot of opinion. This article in particular paints itself a fair look at where the Sanders campaign stands today and potential hurdles it faces going forward. However, instead of tempering that analysis with the flipside of any of the articles propositions, it simply becomes a list of ten common attack lines used by Sanders critics.

It takes at face value basically every prominent anti-Sanders media narrative. First the article is framed from the beginning around the idea that one-time movement builders like Rick Santorum or Hillary Clinton fall off on a second run (despite the fact Clinton won the primary). They claim he’ll face more scrutiny as if he didn’t face any the first time around (or that the Washington Post is a large driver of that scrutiny). From the “fact” that he struggles with voters of color, despite being the overwhelming favorite for young voters of color and being viewed more favorably than any other candidate minus Joe Biden by older voters of color.

It points to his “failures” on issues like guns and immigration, despite pointing out Bernie’s record is still incredibly liberal in either case and even markedly more so than many of his competitors. It also tries to solidify some of the anti-Bernie narratives the Washington Post itself seemingly created. Namely that the excitement, enthusiasm, and donors he draws somehow mean less than it did in 2016 or might coming from another candidate. These narratives all have equally compelling counter narratives. From Bernie’s aforementioned popularity with voters of color according to polling data, to the fact he’s largely fallen in line with the Democratic Party on guns and is to their left on immigration. 

If these narratives end up proving true come election day, part of that outcome will be wrapped up in stories like this that legitimized them.

9. Sanders Could Face More Scrutiny For Socialist Leanings

 

This piece by Sean Sullivan strikes me as a slightly more reasonable version of the Rubin piece described before. The idea that Bernie’s socialist label could be politically advantageous to Trump or his opponents in the Democratic Primary is definitely worth discussing. Rubin assumed it was a bad thing out of hand and ignored the broad popularity of the blossoming Democratic Socialist policy agenda. Again, Sean Sullivan ignored these policies and their popularity. And instead focused on what he sees as Bernie’s long history of support for left wing authoritarians. Something he feels Trump will seize on.

This isn’t as unfair as the Rubin piece and isn’t as explicitly anti-Bernie. It poses mere speculation on the potential backlash from voters who aren’t ready for a leftist candidate. That’s worth speculating on, but the speculation itself was not very imaginative and definitely frames the debate as “socialism is this one particular thing we find problematic” and not “socialism is an inherently opaque and hard to define term, to Bernie it seems to mean these popular programs and these popular programs are very popular.” Which is a more accurate framing entirely.

Again, there is a lot of baggage and opinion snuck in the back door of an article that poses as unbiased accounting of Bernie’s pro-Latin American leftist regime history. But it delivers tried and true red baiting.

10. As Bernie Sanders Launches His Second Presidential Campaign, Big Crowds But Some Doubt in Early States

 

This is another piece by Sean Sullivan framed as straight news that sneaks a lot of opinions and subtle assumptions in the back door. Once again the premise of the piece is not unfair, on its face. Taking a closer look though and it seems to overlook some very important facts, perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not. The article starts with a brief summary of Bernie’s first two rallies in Brooklyn and Chicago respectively.

It then dives into a discussion of his potential in Iowa and New Hampshire, relying on smaller crowd sizes and the fact that some staffers now work for other candidates as proof that his influence in the early states is “waning.” They do contend that he jumped into the race late and quote a Democratic Party operative who says he will find a campaign staff eventually. However, the entire article is sort of wrapped in this framing that Bernie will struggle to get off the ground this time, which doesn’t seem based in reality at all. The fact Bernie brought out less people in Cedar Rapids than Chicago means nothing, unless you’re Sean Sullivan apparently.

That said, the article couples well with a narrative the Washington Post seems intent on pushing, Bernie is having a difficult time staffing up.

Maybe that’s true, maybe Bernie will underperform and months from now we’ll look back at his failure to lock down activist and campaign workers as the root cause of that underperformance. However it seems unlikely the guy with the most grassroots donors, the biggest campaign infrastructure pre-built heading into the primary, and the most enthusiasm, will have a hard time staffing up. But again, maybe the Washington Post knows something I and the numbers do not.

11. Sanders Campaign Revives Criticisms From Clinton Campaign

 

This article sits somewhere between the ten I’ve discussed before, closest to #10 in my view, and the articles I’ll discuss below. Largely because it’s not on its face an anti-Bernie smear, just as questioning his potential success in early states and making a case that it might stall is not, on its face, an attack. It’s a possibility that political reporters would be wise to consider. The problem with #10 is that it veered from potential speculation and an unbiased account of why and why not the Sanders campaign may stall, and actively made the case his campaign is doing so.

Here, a similar thing is happening. Reviving criticisms from the Clinton campaign is fair, if the critique is fair. Just like it’s fair to question whether the campaign is stalling, if you do so in a way that is actually balanced and responsive to the facts. Bernie facing criticisms of the Clinton campaign could have something substantive to tie to the 2020 race. However, complaining that he took too many private jet flights, because of poor planning on the Clinton campaign and their planning for Bernie’s rally appearances, is bad faith.

Using the mega phone that is the Washington Post to amplify that critique, even though it has no tie to the 2020 campaign outside one joint appearance by Clinton and Sanders, seems questionable at best. It’s simply forcing this discussion into the narrative in a way that was unnecessary and really just the sort of tabloid, gossip type coverage devoid of any broader political or policy posturing, and it is this sort of coverage that degrades political media as a whole.  

Subtly Framing the Narrative

 

This section will be devoted to articles that aren’t as explicitly anti-Bernie, but still frame the debate and general political discourse in a way that I think can be broadly characterized as anti-Bernie. Instead of reviewing each article as I did above, I’m simply going to list the headlines and write on why I find the grouping of headlines as a whole is problematic. And in the end is basically just anti-left propaganda without much real or honest grappling with the policies or genuine critiques at work.

  1. Patriotic Capitalism Is A Better Way To Go Than Democratic Socialism
  2. Do Democrats Really Have To Worry About The Left? Not So Much.
  3. The Left Is Bubbling With Ideas They’re Just The Wrong Ones
  4. It’s Common To Praise Socialism It’s Rarer To Define It
  5. Democrats Need to Beware of Their Loony Left
  6. The Left Learns From Donald Trump, Promises the Impossible
  7. Medicare For All Is A Grand Idea, But We Still Have To Pay For It

There are undoubtedly more titles with similar articles that simply level broad critiques of the left or leftist politicians without grappling with the policy. Take for example #7 on Medicare for All. It’s wrapped in the condescending “how do we pay for it language” that pretty clearly implies it’s too expensive from the very beginning. Despite the fact that as a national expenditure healthcare costs the country $34 trillion dollars over ten years and Medicare for All saves trillions of dollars by reducing that cost to $32 or $30 trillion depending on the study. This isn’t discussed in the piece, it’s just taken as fact that it’s too expensive because $34 trillion dollars is a big number.

The rest have a more general critique that is usually equally lacking in substance. “The left is too radical, Democrats better be careful.” It echoes a lot of the critiques that were discussed in the first part, that I would contend are a little more bad faith. I write general pieces that decry the status quo all the time, that’s my opinion informed by my politics. That’s what these articles are as well. But there’s a reason the Millennial Review’s broad stroke opinion articles still advocate leftist policy and a shift from the status quo, that’s our institutional bias. The institutional bias of the Washington Post is obviously cling to the status quo at all costs, and enable capital/billionaires in doing so.

Which probably isn’t a coincidence given the entire publication is owned by Jeff Bezos who has a clear interest in the status quo versus even a moderate social democracy. These are fine opinions, I think they’re wrong but it’s not dishonest writing. Especially when placed alongside the opinion pieces of socialists like Elizabeth Bruenig. Still it says a lot that these critiques are held up alongside the more direct criticisms leveled against Sanders. They’re not as bad faith as those, but they’re close.

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