What the Media Missed About Bernie at the Debate

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.

4 thoughts on “What the Media Missed About Bernie at the Debate

  1. Maybe if a political journalist who discounts Sanders as a wacky politician, might see that debate as Hillary Clinton amongst a bunch of nobodies. So basically that debate would have been Hillary’s to lose, and then she didn’t mess up or ruin her chances with it. Therefore she de facto won it.

    I’m sure they started writing those Hillary victory articles before the polls were finished. They do like Hillary and may have a bias, but I wouldn’t think it’s some sort of conspiracy to keep Bernie down.

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  2. Chris, I think you’ve accurately captured the way those journalists approached the debate, and I agree that it’s not a conspiracy. If implied that it is by asking “why?” then I’ve been sloppy.

    I think the problem is much more subtle: it comes not from active malicious repression but from reporters who don’t actually think there’s any point in exploring new political currents (perhaps especially when they are personally invested in another candidate, but that need not necessarily be the case). These incurious reporters have so absorbed the ideology that declares Bernie’s ideas politically unpalatable that they are disregard the fact that a significant chunk of the electorate find them to be quite palatable indeed. They therefore do not explore the ideas, and perhaps the idea is then stifled or dies, no conspiracy needed. It just sort of gets sat on by the status quo.

    And that’s what people who what to launch new narratives have to remember. The media will not help you.

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  3. I have to say that I don’t agree with this post. I did take note of this supposed controversy a few days ago, but when I read up on it I quickly realized that the polls being “censored” here were just unscientific internet polls, not actual scientific polling conducted according to recognized standards. You say that these polls are nonetheless useful for understanding the views of internet-savvy millennials, but I would argue that they aren’t even useful for that. Since they are unscientific, the results can easily be manipulated and are not necessarily representative of the views of all millennials, or of any group at all. Respectable news outlets would therefore steer clear of them, and I would be upset if they didn’t. If Sanders supporters want to demonstrate his support among millennials, they would be better served by commissioning scientific polling of this group.

    In addition, I think you (and many others) are overly optimistic in pointing to Bernie’s large crowds as a harbinger of a major social movement. In 2008, Ron Paul attracted large crowds, excelled in fundraising due to his online “money bombs,” and won many unscientific straw polls thanks to his fervent supporters. However, this did not translate into actual votes, and Paul’s brand of libertarianism has never really caught on beyond his supporters (even his own son Rand has subtly moved away from it). Journalists have long memories about political campaigns, and I suspect that they are hesitant to proclaim a new social movement without additional evidence.

    Now, Bernie’s standing in the polls is certainly better than Paul’s ever was, but right now he is still down by double digits to Clinton nationally, and he looks a lot like the “random candidate who wins Iowa/New Hampshire before the real nominee takes over” (this phenomenon is actually not uncommon in US political history). I would say that the coverage he is receiving is commensurate with that perceived standing. If he wants to attract more favorable coverage, the best thing he could do would be to improve his standing with minority voters so that he looks like he will have legs beyond New Hampshire (I believe recent polling in Nevada and South Carolina shows Hillary with huge leads in both states).

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  4. Dana, you bring up some points worth discussing, but let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing here. I didn’t use the word “censored” anywhere (it conveys a conspiratorial feeling that isn’t what I intended) so I presume that you’re responding to the broader debate and not my post per se. My overarching point is that we should think critically about media, what they choose to report, and why. I hope this is something with which you do agree.

    (Though you may have a point when you say that Sanders is getting coverage that’s at least somewhat close to what he deserves. I just went in search of info about Sanders’ fundraising numbers and discovered some very decent coverage in the New York Times that I seem to have missed. I maintain that their post-debate coverage left out some good material, but I don’t mind noting this delightful discovery. Apparently I am now working too hard to consume all the news I did before! And I’m now even more disappointed with NPR, because I haven’t heard any of what I just discovered on the NYT on there.)

    Now, on to some of your criticisms:

    On the unscientific polls: CNN itself took one of these polls. Would you further your argument to say respectable news outlets shouldn’t be conducting them? What does it mean to conduct it and then throw it out? I’d wager that if that poll had favored Clinton, they would have included it as a data point in their analysis. Not because of an active “conspiracy” to manipulate data, but because it fit the narrative in the reporters’ minds. It’s something to watch in the future, at any rate.

    As for being overly optimistic, that remains to be seen. As someone involved in the movement, it is partly my job to try to keep that from happening. But I can tell you why I think it’s worth my time, and it relates to your Ron Paul comparison — with which Bernie’s campign differs quantitatively and qualitatively.

    Quantity: Ron Paul’s fundraising through Q1, Q2, and Q3 of 2007 looks like it totalled about $8 million, judging from the graph here: http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/money/gop.html Bernie, meanwhile, has raised $26 million in Q3 2015 alone, beating Barack Obama’s 2007-08 pace, according to this article: http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/09/30/bernie-sanders-raises-26-million-powered-by-online-donations-exceeding-obamas-2008-pace/

    Quality: Ron Paul’s supporters are Libertarians who are trying to find a home in the two-party system; their ideas frequently differ from those of the GOP mainstream. You often hear mainstream Democrats, however, saying “I like Bernie’s ideas, but he’s unelectable!” His proposals are not a fundamental change from the party’s mainstream; he just pushes the party to stop mucking about in the center without any conviction. To put it another way (and one that doesn’t exactly flatter us, but it counters your point!) — we’re not the Ron Paul of the Left; we’re the Tea Party of the Left. And the Tea Party, as crazy as it is, has had an impact.

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