Mainstream Media Blacks Out the Bern

Sanders pulls 20,000 in Sacramento, press coverage minimal

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Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign stop in Sacramento on May 9. It was the senator’s first Northern California rally, gearing up for the June 7 state Democratic primary. Photo by Stephen de Ropp
Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign stop in Sacramento on May 9. It was the senator’s first Northern California rally, gearing up for the June 7 state Democratic primary. Photo by Stephen de Ropp.

Everyone was for Bernie. As many as 20,000 people who filled Bonney Field in Sacramento on May 9 represented different factions of the community — signs read “Muslims for Bernie,” “Farmers for Bernie,” “Students for Bernie,” “Moms for Bernie” and “Nurses for Bernie.”

“When we began this campaign a little over a year ago, we had no political organization, we had no money and we had no name recognition,” Bernie Sanders told the crowd. “And we were taking on the most powerful political organization in this country. The media determined that we were a fringe candidacy. Who would have believed that millions of Americans want a political revolution?”

The bleachers rumbled as people stomped their feet on aluminum and cheered for a speech that had been delivered dozens of times before but was for those in Sacramento on that day.

“The first time I saw him speak on television I knew that was the person I could get behind,” said Santa Cruz native and rally attendee Daniel Kerns. “I went back and looked at all the speeches he’s given over the past 25, 30 years on the Senate floor. And it hasn’t changed. I know he has integrity and is telling the truth.”

Yet the event received little coverage from mainstream media outlets. The Washington Post and The New York Times covered the rally, but The Post mentioned the Sacramento rally only briefly and The Times published a photo of the back of the stage, not showing the estimated 20,000 people in attendance.

Upward of 20,000 people packed Bonney Field at Cal Expo in Sacramento on May 9 for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Photo by Stephen de Ropp.
Upward of 20,000 people packed Bonney Field at Cal Expo in Sacramento on May 9 for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Photo by Stephen de Ropp.

This has been a trend since the beginning of the campaign. Sanders won 21 out of 47 primaries as of Wednesday. The media reports on his success, but it swiftly says there’s virtually no way he can win the nomination.

Recently Vanity Fair headlined a story “Bernie Sanders Just Signaled That He Knows He Can’t Win,” and People Magazine published “Why Bernie Sanders Can’t Win — But May Be Hurting Hillary Clinton by Continuing to Campaign.”

The media has always played a large role in elections. But with the internet, there’s a visible divide in the type of content outlets create and people are taking notice.

“[Bernie] has been frozen out of media, and there has been a relentless denigration of the campaign,” said Conn Hallinan, a journalist for almost 50 years. “‘It’s one-issue. There’s no way he can possibly win the nomination, so why does he keep going?’ That’s the kind of underlying tone we’ve heard all the way through the election.”

Hallinan said coverage of the Sanders campaign undermined and underreported the campaign’s popularity, directly shaping the election. He pointed out that in 2008, Hillary Clinton was not spoken about the same way in terms of her chance of getting the nomination. “So the question is — why?” he said.

Over the course of a few hours, hundreds of students filled Quarry Plaza midday Wednesday waiting to take a photo with actress and activist Shailene Woodley. While students waited in line, student volunteers for Santa Cruz for Bernie encouraged students to register to vote in the upcoming California Primary on June 7 and volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign outreach. Photo by Stephen de Ropp.
Over the course of a few hours, hundreds of students filled Quarry Plaza midday Wednesday waiting to take a photo with actress and activist Shailene Woodley. While students waited in line, student volunteers for Santa Cruz for Bernie encouraged students to register to vote in the upcoming California Primary on June 7 and volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign outreach. Photo by Stephen de Ropp.

Hallinan taught writing and journalism classes at UC Santa Cruz for 23 years and was the staff adviser for City on a Hill Press. He writes for Foreign Policy in Focus, The Nation and Alternet, among other alternative news outlets.

There are multiple factors at play, Hallinan said, but one of the main ones is that “Bernie Sanders hounds against corporations non-stop.” Ninety percent of the U.S. media is owned by six corporations, according to Business Insider.

Hallinan said he doesn’t think the corporations explicitly tell reporters to write stories with a certain slant, but that reporters “feed into what they think the people who own their newspaper would like to hear.”

In an interview with Sanders in December, CNN reporter Chris Cuomo admitted his home network gives Donald Trump more airtime than other candidates. He defended the disproportionate coverage by citing Trump’s position in the polls.

“Do we cover him more? Yes,” Cuomo said. “Why? He’s number one in the polls. He’s highly relevant. He drives the discussion.”

Thousands of supporters packed Bonney Field in Sacramento.  The stadium normally has a bleacher capacity of 11,400 but some estimate that as many as 20,000 packed the field and stands.
Thousands of supporters packed Bonney Field in Sacramento. The stadium normally has a bleacher capacity of 11,400 but some estimate that as many as 20,000 packed the field and stands.

If what Cuomo says is true, we should expect data to tell us that if someone receives a lot of media attention, it’s probably because they are doing well in the polls. But the data suggest otherwise.

Decision Data, a website that analyzes quantifiable trends, published a study in January examining the relationship between poll numbers and media coverage or internet searches between June 2015 and January 2016.

The study shows Trump received the most mainstream media mentions at 183,903. Clinton trails at 87,737, Ben Carson at 33,794 and Sanders at 29,525. Compared to individual Google searches, the numbers are grossly inconsistent. Trump is still the front-runner at 37,046,010, Sanders is second at 21,536,032 and after him is Clinton, with 9,235,231 searches.

“Our analysis shows Sanders is being ignored by the mainstream media to a shocking degree,” the study reads. “If covered at the average rate we’d have seen about 61,500 more stories including Sanders in the last six months: 91,094 mentions instead of 29,525.”

Sanders made campaign stops at four different rallies in Northern California between May 9 and May 18. Photo by Stephen de Ropp.
Sanders made campaign stops at four different rallies in Northern California between May 9 and May 18. Photo by Stephen de Ropp.

The study clarifies that it’s unclear whether search interest causes news coverage or vice versa, but it asserts that “some candidates receive far more coverage than is justified by either poll figures or search interest.”

“The press should be at least partially self-correcting,” Conn Hallinan said. “You start off saying, ‘Bernie Sanders can’t raise a lot of money. He’s going to get swamped in these primaries.’ But when that doesn’t happen, in theory, the press should pull back and say, ‘OK, well, we got this wrong. Let’s get the story right.’ They have not done that.”

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