By John Geluardi
While Sen. Bernie Sanders’ thrilling primary bid has exceeded all expectations, it has also drawn out the mainstream media’s resistance to change. For decades, the default mode for political coverage by large, corporate media outlets has been to protect the political status quo, and perhaps its own interests, no matter how corrupt, dysfunctional or apathetic the ruling political parties become.
It’s certainly true that Sanders has received a great deal of positive press and he is beloved on the internet, but there is still a prominent reactionary thread that is constant in its mission to undermine the independent minded Sanders’ message of economic fairness, Wall Street reform, ending corporate influence in politics and climate change. In fact, the more Sanders excites the Democratic base, the more plaintive these media forces become and one doesn’t have to do much Googling to find media dismissals of Sanders as a viable candidate.
Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times unabashedly compared Sanders, a respected elected official with a political record that stretches back to 1981, to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, a wealthy real estate investor and flamboyant television personality with no political experience whatever. In a subtler approach, the Chicago Tribune assured Sanders’ supporters that they are not “delusional,” and that they should have fun while his campaign lasts, but then reminded them that “it’s still pretty clear that Sanders has no real chance of defeating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.”
A particularly shameless example of this journalistic stumping for the status quo appeared on the front page of the New York Times this week under the headline “Sanders Fights Portrait of Him on the Fringes,” by Jason Horowitz. In the article, which ineffectively poses as an objective news story, Sanders is depicted as an erratic outsider with an image problem. Sanders is dismissed as a populist who “bellows” and wildly waves his arms about while quoting Abraham Lincoln and espousing “his own vision for the future of the country.” Horowitz paints Sanders as inconsequential; a “peripheral figure,” an “endearing curio,” and a “compromise-allergic ideologue who has over time managed to infuriate some moderate Democratic lawmakers resentful of his self-assigned role as the Senate’s liberal conscience.”
All of this is fine, of course. What is not alright, as any reporter working on a college newspaper will tell you, is that running down an individual’s image in such a dismissive manner, particularly a political candidate, is only ethically tolerable if the opposition is also run down, something Horowitz neglects to do. In fact, Horowitz suggests that Sanders’ refusal to blindly toe the line of a Democratic Party that has swung far to the right and is characterized by pettiness, lassitude and corruption does not enhance Sanders’ image as a principled leader but rather as an intractable “outlier,” with a “my way or the highway approach.”
Horowitz fails to admit that Sanders’ image as an elected outspoken politician dedicated to progressive economic issues has been the source of his stunning and unexpected popularity. Sanders has risen sharply in the polls and has been packing stadium rallies with overflowing crowds eager to hear him rail against corporate interests and unfair economic policies. According to a Boston Herald poll, Sanders has surged past Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, an important primary state.
Horowitz also fails to discuss another source for Sanders popularity, which is his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her image has been beleaguered by ethical questions, a cold, flat campaign style and a sense that she is beholden to corporations and wealthy interests. One of many examples of Sanders’ image advantage would have been the two candidates campaigning stops in Portland last week. Sanders addressed an overflowing stadium of 28,000 enthusiastic supporters while Clinton held an exclusive event attended by 140 people who paid $2,700 each for the privilege of attending. By the way, it might have been of some value for Horowitz to mention that Sanders has raised $15 million of which 87 percent is made up of donations of $250 or less.
Horowitz could have also touched on Clinton’s other image problems such her highest ever unfavorable ratings and that pesky FBI criminal probe into her growing email scandal, which the majority of voters believe she lied about, according to a recent CBS poll. All of these image problems make Clinton an emblem for a political party that has lost its identity and is bogged down in oozy apathy.
Another glaring omission in Horowitz’s front page story is Sanders gravitational leftward pull on the Democratic Party’s migration to the right, which has been characterized by numerous policies such as aggressive drone assassination programs, unprecedented prosecution of government whistle blowers, anti-environmental policies, pro-gun legislation and corporate rent seeking. Sanders tried to point out this influence to Horowitz during their interview, but the reporter failed to recognize it. One example that’s playing out in the campaign is the effect of Sanders’ progressive stance on college education. For years he has promoted a European-styled free college program, which no doubt, was the inspiration for Clinton to announce last week a $200 million plan to assist single parents return to school as part of her $350 billion education budget proposal. It’s hard to believe the source of Clinton’s plan is not an attempt to shore up her troubled image among progressive voters.
It’s uncertain if Sanders will be able to overcome the powerful Clinton machine to win the primary. But it is certain he has made the Democratic Party nervous. He is challenging them to re-adhere to the principles that made the party an effective engine of social justice and cultural changes throughout the 20th Century. If Sanders doesn’t win the primary, at least he has thrown open the party’s cellar door and shone a bright light into a basement that has become moldy, infested and airless. There is value in that for rank and file Democrats and the mainstream media should recognize it… In a balanced and objective way, of course.