I’ll come clean here: Before the 2016 Democratic primary, I thought the idea of a “biased” mainstream media was mainly a fever dream of the conservative right who (for instance) didn’t like when reporters wrote that climate change was real. By and large, I trusted the major outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post, and in terms of reporting and investigative journalism, I still do. But as far as the editorial pages go, the corporate agenda became abundantly, distressingly clear over the course of that campaign, and certain illusions were shattered. The evidence was continuous, but it’s impossible to forget this staggering moment from the heart of the primary:
The Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, and while I don’t think he was calling down these headlines to his editors from the heights, the paper’s corporate agenda became impossible to disguise—Bernie Sanders was the enemy, and they weren’t even trying to hide their pro-Clinton antagonism.
Here we are in 2019, and it appears that absolutely nothing has changed. In fact, after Sanders helped shame Amazon into raising its minimum wage to $15, the specific antipathy toward him at the Post has surely only gotten worse. The proof is in the pudding—Sanders declared his candidacy for president on Tuesday, and in the space of 48 hours, the Post churned out four negative pieces—two of them by the same writer!
In that same span, there did not appear to be more than one story (period) about any other candidate, and there was a fifth Bernie story that could charitably be called “neutral,” in which Helaine Olen, responding to his big fundraising numbers, wrote about something called the “Golden Girls Effect” and expressed sentiments like, “Don’t count the Vermont senator out.” Sure, I guess…why would you? He consistently polls as the first or second-most popular candidate in the field, and the idea that he would be dismissed out of hand only makes sense if you’re writing for a publication that desperately harbors that desire.
That piece aside, let’s look at the other four.
This ran on Tuesday, when Sanders announced, and includes passages like this:
In short, Sanders is offering little different from many younger, less cranky Democrats, including nonwhite candidates who haven’t struggled to win over African Americans and women and who haven’t had to explain complaints of sexual harassment in their campaigns.
When she wasn’t pushing the same tired narratives—Bernie has a racism and sexism problem, most prominently—Rubin was dismissing his old policy proposals as old hat, as though the fact that they’re “endorsed” by the other candidates isn’t a direct rest of his advocacy four years ago. Eventually, she convinces herself that someone like Amy Klobuchar can play spoiler (lol), and that Sanders’ launch would go so poorly that it might prevent Joe Biden from running since it would clearly show that the electorate doesn’t want old men or familiar faces.
Oops! A day later, Rubin’s piece had aged rather poorly. He set a first-day record with almost $6 million raised from over 200,000 people, and basically proved that all of Rubin’s contentions from a day earlier were exactly as idiotic as they seemed on first read. Which meant, of course, that Rubin had to diminish the accomplishment in any way possible:
Sanders is the only Democratic contender for 2020 who ran for president in 2016, during which he raised about $230 million. For someone with nearly universal name recognition, an extensive donor list and a long run-up to his announcement, Sanders’s haul shouldn’t impress knowledgeable political watchers. (Should Joe Biden announce, I would bet his 24-hour fundraising total will dwarf Sanders’s total. A former vice president shouldn’t have to lift a finger to trigger a flood of money.)
But wait! Wouldn’t Sanders’ failure be a “blinking red light” to Biden? Not anymore. You see, the goalposts have shifted—now, the sheer amount Bernie raised (which doesn’t matter, remember) will apparently serve as a green light to Biden, who will then destroy Sanders. Rubin goes on to argue that money doesn’t really matter, but any decent point she accidentally approaches is undermined by the fact that she misses the forest for the trees—not once does she mention the 200,000+ donors, and what the money says about the enthusiasm for Sanders’ campaign. It’s a great big point-missing whiff, and a lame attempt at self-justification after being made to look like a fool a day earlier.
If prose were a living entity, this column would be a violation of the Geneva Convention. Von Drehle spends way too many words comparing Bernie Sanders to Eugene McCarthy—an old and obvious analogy that has been done in fewer words thousands of times by now—and attempting to make the point that like McCarthy, Sanders’ time has come and gone. This ran on Tuesday, and Von Drehle’s contention that “the moment doesn’t last,” ridiculous on its face, was undermined almost as fast as Rubin’s piece of wishful thinking. Which is no surprise—unlike McCarthy, who ran for president again and again after his failure in ‘72, Bernie’s moment has literally just begun, and his ideas have done nothing but gather momentum since 2016 as the establishment wing of the Democratic party has floundered from one failure to the next. McCarthy was a cautionary tale when he lost to Nixon, but what many don’t seem to understand is that the modern cautionary tale is Hillary Clintion, who—centrists don’t enjoy recalling—lost her election to Donald Trump.
However the 2020 campaign might unfold for the Democrats, there is no wounded giant to define the party fray. Minus the vacuum, Sanders will find, like gruff Gene, that his moment is gone, his agenda absorbed by more plausible candidates, his future behind him. Only the residue of unslaked ambition remains.
Narrator Voice: “That same Day, Sanders broke every fundraising record on the books.”
This is basically the same piece that Von Drehle wrote, on the same day:
The Democratic presidential jam session gained a new act Tuesday with Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) entry into the race. Despite running second in most early polls, Sanders is likely to find that he can’t recapture the magic once he goes back out on tour.
He goes on to make the same exact points Rubin made:
Today, however, Sanders’s songs are not novel. Just as the Beatles begat a host of imitators, it seems that virtually every Democratic contender sings some sort of Bernie-inspired tune. He launches a new single, “Medicare-for-all,” and suddenly most other Democrats are covering it. The hot new artist from the Bronx, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who goes by the stage name “AOC” — launches “The Green New Deal,” and suddenly he’s the one covering someone else’s tune. Progressive politics is hot, and like the disco era in the late 1970s, it seems there’s a new successful act every minute.
You get the idea: All the other Democrats are Bernie now, and nobody cares about him! He’s done!
Except, he’s not. This is pure wish fulfillment on one hand, but on the other it’s a little more nefarious—a coordinated, corporate campaign that is starting even earlier, and with greater energy, than we saw in 2016. You’d think someone on the editorial board at the Post might have stopped at least one of these stories in its tracks, since they’re incredibly redundant, but I think—just as we saw with the 16 stories in 16 hours debacle—that quantity is part of the point. It’s about throwing everything at the wall until something sticks, and it’s about repeating a talking point so often that, they hope, it becomes truth in the mind of the reader.
Whatever their rhetoric, they’re taking Sanders extremely seriously much earlier than they did last time, and the onslaught of negative coverage will continue unabated. It’s my contention that Sanders has, by far, the best chance of any candidate in the primary, and I think people like Rubin, Von Drehele, and Olsen understand this too. And they understand that the best way to stop him—the only way, maybe—is by sheer propaganda volume. If they can drown the obvious enthusiasm in manufactured narrative, they might be able to stop him in his tracks, and one of the most fascinating storylines of the 2020 campaign will be witnessing exactly how much power these people have left.