The Washington Post’s Denial of Bias

19/08/2019

Martin Baron, Executive Editor of the Washington Post, called out Bernie Sanders recently, saying the Senator and Presidential candidate was unfairly criticising the paper for being biased against him. Sanders, however, is right – there is a bias against him from the liberal/mainstream media, it’s just much more subtle than other forms of propaganda.

If you haven’t read Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, then I highly recommend you do so. It explains how media bias works much better than I could ever hope to, and Sanders has been a victim of this since the 2016 election. For an assessment piece at university, my group presentation is about how the media and Bernie played off of each other in the 2016 election, and you can already see things following the same path in the lead up to the 2020 campaigns. I’ll link/list some sources used for that below, if anyone is interested.

I’ll quote part of what Baron said, the most telling part, in my opinion.

“Contrary to the conspiracy theory the Senator seems to favour, Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest.”

My emphasis. The word allows is interesting, almost as though being owned by the richest man on earth comes with strings attached… You would have to be blind to not pick up that there will be bias from a newspaper owned by the CEO of Amazon towards a popular candidate who has been one of Amazon’s loudest critics. The mainstream media in the US work in various ways, but almost all of them are submissive to power.

Bias against Sanders from these corporate media outlets isn’t the blatant, fearmongering style of bias that we consider propaganda, like the vitriol we see from Fox News. The two biggest factors are much more subtle, namely the quality and the quantity of the reporting done. This year, they have actually stepped up the attacks, with a number of negative headlines about Sanders, mostly blaming him for the Democratic split (who’d have thought a man with actual ideas would have rocked the boat?) But in 2016, marginalisation and horserace reporting were the enemy.

When looking at the number of mentions Trump, Clinton, and Sanders received on ‘left-leaning’ TV networks in the US, Trump received just under 75% of them; Sanders got between 7-8%. The focus on the Republican primaries was insanely high, mostly because headlines about Trump got a lot of consumer attention (I have seen varying numbers, but the amount of ‘free advertising’ Trump got from the media in 2016 was anywhere between $2 and $6 billion). People were saturated with stories about Trump, which put the Democrats – particularly Sanders – to the sidelines.

“Clinton and Trump were by far the most dominant voices within their parties. Thus, the more left-wing brand of politics of the Democrat’s Bernie Sanders was marginalised, while more moderate Republican perspectives received far less media attention. Bias, in this sense, is more about what is excluded than what is included in election coverage.”

– Stephen Cushion/Richard Thomas, Reporting Elections: Rethinking the Logic of Campaign Coverage

Horserace reporting, the act of focussing on polls and leads rather than actual policy, also played a major role. Much was made of Clinton’s ‘electability’ (we now know how that turned out) compared to Sanders, and there was a concentrated push by the media to ensure that Clinton would win the primaries. It was evident in 2015 who the media intended to win the DNC nomination, and if it weren’t for the behind the scenes nonsense that took place in 2016, Sanders would have certainly taken that away from them.

When it came to policy, Bernie was received much better than anything Clinton had to offer, and yet the reporting was extremely one-sided. An easy way to prove this is comparing voter engagement with media attention. In terms of social media interactions, Google searches, and individual donations from ordinary citizens, Bernie Sanders toppled Clinton. Yet Clinton received more than double the media attention Sanders did. Social media really is a double-edged sword, swinging Trump into the spotlight week after week, but also the base for grassroots movements by people like Sanders.

A similar story is taking place this year, this time with some of the façade fading away. A Politico headline (which I have written about before) referencing Biden, Warren, and Harris but neglecting Sanders (he was mentioned in the article, but it was a story about polls – and he was coming second – why the skip over in the headline?); articles, one I recall by the New York Times, attacking Sanders for dividing the Democrats again; the corporate media’s push to make Biden seem palatable; the saturation of Democratic candidates, making the whole affair more about who will survive rather than who deserves to.

And now the Washington Post is accusing Sanders of propagating conspiracy theories about bias against him. If only it wasn’t true.

It reminds me of an interview I stumbled across some years ago between Chomsky and the BBC’s Andrew Marr, from 1996. Chomsky explained how the media was biased, even if they didn’t realise it, and Marr just couldn’t believe a word of it. There was one quote, after Marr (rather irritated at this stage) asked how people know they are self-censoring. This was Chomsky’s reply:

“I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

And so it is with the reporters at the Washington Post. If they truly were not biased against Sanders – a default position when your boss is literally the richest businessman in the world – then they would not be working for the Washington Post, because they’d be too busy telling the truth.

 

Previous piece: Alan Jones: A Mainstay Cog Indeed

References

Further reading/references for anyone who wishes to read more:

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman

Reporting Elections: Rethinking the Logic of Campaign Coverage by Stephen Cushion and Richard Thomas

Data about TV station mentions found HERE

Chomsky’s interview with Andrew Marr can be found HERE

Two pieces by Thomas E. Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School:

Graphs highlighting the contrast between media stories vs online searches/mentions HERE

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