Ben Smith, formerly of Buzzfeed fame and now the media editor for the New York Times, continues to make waves at his new position. I was wondering how long he was going to last at his new gig when one of his first columns carried the title, “Why the Success of the New York Times May Be Bad News for Journalism.” Apparently, nobody is ready to put a leash on him at the Gray Lady yet because this week’s entry is almost equally provocative.
This column at least has a somewhat more subdued title: What Bernie Sanders Gets Right About the Media. And what Sanders “gets right” about it is that the corporate, for-profit media has its own agenda aside from needing to show a profit. And that agenda leans toward a more stable, comfortable and, above all, moderate form of progressivism. And also that most of these media mavens don’t like people who come around with radical ideas and rock the boat. Specifically… people like Bernie Sanders.
At the same time, the events of the past week have validated much of his criticism of the media, the subject of a 1988 town hall with Mr. Sanders and the radical provocateur Abbie Hoffman. Mr. Sanders complained that Vermont’s television stations had been “prostituted by commercials.” (The video is a trip, and worth the click.)
His main point: “The media itself is as important a political issue as exists.”
Mr. Sanders is right about that, and about two other big things: that much of the U.S. media still covers elections as if they’re sporting events and that the affluent New Yorkers who run and appear on television networks are not inclined to like him. The narrative of Joe Biden’s comeback was an irresistible story to the media — one that often eclipsed the coronavirus, never mind discussion of health care or poverty — on cable news in recent days.
Smith appears to draw one conclusion (among many) about the current state of cable news, particularly at MSNBC and CNN, that probably rings true to a lot of people. The networks are cranky toward Bernie Sanders largely because he is cranky toward them. His distrust and occasional verbal abuse of mainstream media outlets are scarcely less intense than that displayed by Donald Trump, albeit phrased a bit more politely and at a lower volume.
Smith also discusses the “palpable air of relief” on display at MSNBC when Joe Biden appeared to be the new frontrunner after Super Tuesday. That also feeds into the idea that the press is still rooting against Bernie nearly as much as they despise Donald Trump.
While I find myself nodding along with Ben Smith as he approaches the question from the 10,000-foot level, I find my support for this theory crumbling a bit when we get down to the fine details. I will wholeheartedly agree that the New York Times (sorry, Ben), the Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC all seem to be shoulder to shoulder in their opposition to a Bernie Sanders candidacy, but I don’t get the impression that it’s because of some fundamental policy difference between moderate centrism and more radical socialism.
No, if all their cards were spread out on the table, I would wager that there are plenty of people at all of those media outlets who would be thrilled to see Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, Guaranteed Basic Income and a wealth tax that would send the dreaded One Percent to stand online at the soup kitchens. But there’s one factor stopping them from fully embracing Sanders and the Bernie Bros. Fear.
If there’s one thing those outlets almost universally hate more than everything else, it’s conservatism. And when the mantle of conservatism is draped around the shoulders of the Bad Orange Man, it’s almost infinitely worse. At the same time, most of them are smart enough to realize that all of those planks from Bernie’s platform that I listed above are fringe concepts that are highly popular in the young socialist wing of the Democratic Party but would send the middle of the country’s political ranks screaming for the exit.
In short, going the Full Bernie would do much to guarantee another four years of Trump. And that’s a bridge too far for the vast majority of the MSM. So they huddle up close with Joe Biden as the “safe” (or at least “safer”) option and pray that he doesn’t have a complete memory wipe during the debates. But with all that said, I will reiterate that Smith does make a number of good points about Sanders’ view of the media, if not the underlying motivations that drive them.