Many of you are probably aware of the controversy that emerged after the CNN-hosted Democratic Party debate last Tuesday, but let’s recap quickly for those who aren’t: despite many on-line polls and focus groups that said Bernie Sanders won the debate, the press the next day loudly declared that Hillary Clinton the victor. Moreover, these media analyses rarely—by which I mean in none of the articles I read, though I have not read every article—mentioned the powerful on-line response to Bernie’s performance, not even an article on the New York Times entitled “Who Won and Lost the Democratic Debate? The Web Has Its Say.” A post on US Uncut gives an overview of what’s missing with a series of screencaps, including one on CNN in which I voted myself and witnessed Sanders winning by a landslide. Granted, Sanders has strong support among Millennials, and Millennials are certainly over-represented online polls (just as older voters are over-represented in traditional polling). Nevertheless, you’d still think what the Web as a whole actually said would be relevant to an article with such a title. Why not include Sanders’ significant spike in donations and Twitter followers and his poll wins in the follow-up articles, even if caveated?
One can understand why even people who don’t habitually refer to the mainstream media as a sinister propaganda machine question the dynamics at play here. Well, it’s good to be reminded that we need to think critically about the media, what they report to us, and why.
Follow-up discussion defending the pundits’ calls largely misses the key point. It’s not that a case can’t be made that Hillary won. But it’s not the whole story, and it dismisses an angle critical to understanding not only the race, but the trajectory of the American electorate.
“Everyone already knows Millennials like Sanders,” one might protest. Perhaps. But honestly, I don’t hear this story often and never in depth. I did, however, hear on NPR last week about a mom who had been leaning toward Bernie until her nine-year-old daughter explained why Hillary is such a great role model. (I’m grateful that they made their bias clear just before pledge week: they made it easier to decide to give my limited funds to the Sanders campaign and Jacobin.) And it’s easy—indeed, this tactic is employed regularly—to dismiss young voters. But as people tend to form their core political beliefs by their mid-20s, Bernie’s salience with this group will have significance for decades to come. And conventional wisdom says that young people tend to be politically apathetic. What does it mean that there’s a candidate that resonates so strongly with them? And that there are key issues that can rally this demographic?
It does make sense for media outlets to insist that new movements demonstrate their resonance to some degree before the networks cover them. But on balance, consider the impact of such caution on the likelihood of change. The popularity of not only Sanders but also Trump (whom I dislike but consider important) suggests that potential for change is precisely what the media should be covering right now. If Bernie’s stadiums filled with supporters haven’t demonstrated his resonance yet, then the pundits have set the bar too high. But then, I suppose one generally doesn’t become a pundit on a major news network by questioning the status quo. One wonders if they’re afraid.
It is not unreasonable to say that Bernie and Hillary both scored wins in different ways, and that both campaigns have a reason to be pleased with their candidate’s performance. What is unreasonable is the way the media broadly avoided exploring Bernie’s strong resonance with certain groups. As consumers of media, regardless of who we support politically, we forget this at our peril.