t was bound to happen sooner or later. The other day I read something on the far-left, pro–Edward Snowden website The Intercept I found genuinely enlightening. Afterward I felt like taking a shower.
The story was about Bernie Sanders. Since the senator from Vermont and avowed democratic socialist announced his campaign for the Democratic nomination last May, he has drawn crowds ten times the size of Hillary Clinton’s. He’s received a record number of small-dollar donations—more than Barack Obama in 2011. As I write, in mid-January, a poll has him tied with Clinton in Iowa. He’s ahead of her in New Hampshire.
And yet, as far as the traditional media are concerned, Sanders is a nonentity. Zaid Jilani of The Intercept searched the Lexis-Nexis database for mentions of Sanders on news shows during a 30-day period. Sanders, he discovered, had been discussed 20 times. Donald Trump was discussed 690 times over the same period.
Then Jilani performed a headline search using the Google Trends web tool. “On an average day, the ratio of Trump-to-Sanders mentions was 29 to 3,” he found. “On December 9, in the wake of Trump’s call to block Muslims from entering the U.S., the ration [sic] was 100-to-5.” Now, putting up Sanders against Trump distorts the results. It’s like saying a moon and a gas giant will exert, or should exert, the same gravitational pull.
The relevant comparison is between Sanders and his chief opponent: Clinton. Here, too, Sanders falls short. The blogger Andrew Tyndale, who obsessively records the contents of the three nightly newscasts, reports that during 2015, the former secretary of state ran second to Trump in overall coverage. Clinton got 121 minutes. Sanders got 20. Joe Biden received more attention than Sanders—and Biden was never a candidate!
Nor have the most storied liberal outlets covered Sanders to the left’s satisfaction. Responding to criticism from readers, last September the public editor of the New York Times wrote a column headlined “Has the Times Dismissed Bernie Sanders?” She concluded, “The Times has not ignored Mr. Sanders’s campaign, but it hasn’t always taken it very seriously.” MoveOn.org, which seems to have plenty of time on its hands these days, organized a petition to “Tell NPR to stop ignoring and minimizing Bernie Sanders.” It had 8,395 signatures at the time of writing.
What’s behind the neglect? The Sanders campaign has an easy answer typical of left-wing populists: a conspiracy of the money power. “The corporately owned media may not like Bernie’s anti-establishment views but for the sake of American democracy they must allow a fair debate in this presidential campaign,” his campaign manager said in a press release. “Bernie must receive the same level of coverage on the nightly news as the other leading candidates.” Chip in $20 if you agree.
Hillary is ratings kryptonite. Half the country can’t stand to watch her. Yet she runs laps around Sanders in earned media. Why?
A less heated version of this argument says the media boost Trump and ignore Sanders not because of ideology or animosity but because of profit. “Media executives view Trump’s outrageous antics as good for their bottom line,” Jilani concludes. The candidate himself, in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, said the media aren’t “so interested in the serious issues facing this country” and prefer Trump’s “bombastic” verbal eruptions.
No argument that Trump is good for ratings and advertising revenue—a fact he reminds us of on a daily basis. The profit motive may help explain why Trump receives more coverage than Sanders. What it does not explain is the difference in coverage of Sanders and Clinton. Trump’s not running in the Democratic primary. And Hillary is ratings kryptonite. Half the country can’t stand to watch her. Yet she runs laps around Sanders in earned media. Why?
The rather simplistic yet telling answer from the media: Trump and Clinton are in first place. Hence they deserve the most attention. “Trump is winning,” wrote the Christian Science Monitor last October. “That means his every twitch makes news.” Clinton has led national polls for months, and “in the modern media world it takes more than a twitch—or a new policy paper—to catch the camera’s eye.” A writer for the Washington Post agreed: “Winning matters.” The press tells the most urgent stories, the stories that will have the most impact. “Sanders, still, looks like a long shot.”
Stands to reason. The media have scarce resources. There are more than a dozen candidates. Travel is expensive. Better to spend dollars and energy on the men and women with the most likely chance of winning, as measured by polling, and shift expenditures and column-inches to other candidates if an upset does occur. In the meantime, of course, readers and viewers will have missed a large part of the story that might otherwise have affected their votes.
It’s a dilemma. Still, this explanation of editorial decision-making is too simplistic and too self-serving. Obviously the media focus on who’s ahead—it would be a travesty if they did not. What really powers the spotlights on Trump and Clinton, though, isn’t their poll numbers. It’s their celebrity. They are two of the most famous Americans in the world. One is a television star and bestselling author and hotel magnate. The other is a former first lady and U.S. senator and secretary of state. The media are as obsessed with the stars as the rest of us. Think of the trees that have been killed in order to print the newspaper and magazine articles written about these two over the last three decades. Forget about the presidential campaign. Trump and Clinton are news if they walk down the street.
So celebrity is a factor. But it is also the case that the media are in Clinton’s corner. No matter the talk about how the media aren’t biased because they’ll always go wild for a dustup, they don’t want her to have a tough race, and they’re keeping a lid on Sanders news. Remember the relief with which they covered her performance in the first Democratic debate: Clinton “dominated” that matchup, according to the Wall Street Journal, “showcasing her sharp rhetorical skills and broad policy expertise.” She delivered a “poised, polished performance,” according to CNN. Clinton “cut through months of noise about her emails and trustworthiness,” according to Time magazine.
Behaving as though Clinton is the only candidate on the Democratic side is meant to ease her ascent to the presidency. But it’s had an unintended side effect. Sanders has used the media blackout to rally his supporters and lobby for more favorable coverage. And, as this column proves, it’s working.