Recently, following Bernie Sanders’ triumphant return to the campaign trail following a heart attack and the biggest rally that the 2020 U.S. Presidential race has yet seen, celebrated journalist and broadcaster Soledad O’Brien tweeted in response to a tweet Sanders’ Twitter account put out:
Fun! The potential of another President who hates the media! (And I’m a big ole critic of the media). But ugh—let’s end this ugly chapter of media hatred from elected officials who don’t like their BS challenged. https://t.co/UlkJOZOM33— Soledad O'Brien (@soledadobrien) October 23, 2019
In the compliant stenographer’s orgy that is the mainstream capitalist media, Soledad O’Brien is unquestionably one of the better examples of journalistic integrity, practising her profession in a way that is at times actually somewhat reminiscent (at least relatively so) of the mythic ideal of adversarial truth-seeking that her peers like to project. O’Brien is smart, critical, and uses her platform to scrutinize political figures from across the spectrum in a much fairer way than many of her contemporaries.
That being said, the message that O’Brien is sending that in that tweet—implying that Bernie Sanders’s critique of the media and Donald Trump’s attacks against it are cut from the same cloth—is, with all due respect to Ms O’Brien, an intellectually lazy and dangerous equivalence, and it is one that’s been reflected across much of the mainstream media since both politicians became major players on the national scene. In reality, Sanders and Trump—obviously—stand about as diametrically opposed as is basically possible within the mainstream of the American political system.
One is a working class-backed democratic socialist with a largely anti-interventionist foreign policy and a history of civil rights involvement; the other the latest despotic figurehead of the oligarchical, white supremacist, imperialist elite that runs America. To conflate the two solely on the basis that they have both managed to marshal a populist appeal outside of traditional bounds of party politics betrays either a tremendous ignorance or an insidious malice, or both—yet that is exactly what the media has done for the past few years.
In the early days of their campaigns the conflation was framed mostly around the type of ‘direct access’ politics that both Sanders and Trump managed to practice—with both politicians appealing directly to ‘the masses’ by using rhetoric that was stridently anti-establishment and anti-elite. More recently the message that Sanders and Trump are more similar than they might appear on the surface—and that Sanders, by insinuation, represents a danger to democracy akin to Trump—has taken on the form of highlighting their hostile attitude to the media.
Now, while it’s obviously true that both Sanders and Trump have a political career that is marked by varying degrees of media hostility, it’s important to highlight the differences between the two cases.
Sanders’ critiques of the media are entirely justified. Trump’s are not.
Trump’s attacks against the media are the actions of a tinpot pseudo-fascist demagogue. They are intended as assaults against the very nature of journalism itself, a crucial part of a campaign designed to rally his supporters to his side and to position them against the press—a classic ‘enemy of the people’-style fascist tactic—and as a jamming of the airwaves, filling it with so much white noise that truth itself begins to fray and lose its structural integrity, becoming almost meaningless as a result. ‘Forget everything anyone else tells you. Only I am right.’ Most often, Trump’s vitriolic verbal effluence is a consequence of an autocrat’s apoplectic spasm, all sound and fury, full of rage and free of substance, and it is—crucially—frequently in response to journalists pushing back against his nonsense, often critiquing policy or exposing lies. Or, as Soledad O’Brien puts it in her tweet, challenging his BS.
For Sanders the picture is quite different. His broadsides against the mainstream media are a response to a hostile media landscape, the hallmarks of which include distortions, lies, and bad faith attacks. In stark contrast to the example of Trump, when the media go after Sanders, they do so in a vacuous fashion. They don’t go after policy. No, instead he’s too old, or too cranky, too ‘unlikable’, or too white (the inclusion of his Jewishness under the umbrella of Whiteness being a switch that they flip on and off at their convenience). In other words, and to use O’Brien’s terminology again—which BS of Sanders’ do the media ever challenge? Again, it’s not policy. Why? Because when it comes to policy—the only thing that really matters in a politician—they know that Sanders is extremely popular, consistent, and reliable. There is minimal there that they can challenge, at least not while pretending to care about the health of the nation and its people.
Sanders is also—and here we get to the real meat of the matter—a threat. A threat to the status quo that much of the mainstream media represent. More specifically, the movement that Sanders represents is a threat. As per that wonderful campaign slogan of his: ‘Not me. Us.’ Sanders’ political ideology and track record in office all revolves around his core belief that in order to achieve real change, you must empower the working class. That only a galvanised body politic will be able to enact the kind of changes necessary to a healthy society; nothing will be handed down at the good will or generosity of the elites. And it so happens that our society is set up in such a way that the interests of that working class are arrayed quite neatly against the interest of the mainstream media. Thus it isn’t much of a surprise to find a quite remarkably consistent messaging across the media in regards to Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaigns, both in 2016, and now.
All this might seem odd or conspiratorial if one were working under the assumption that the media is some sort of neutral, unbiased entity—as indeed the media itself loves to pretend. When one applies a different filter however, by remembering that the media—at least when that is taken to refer to the mainstream media that makes up the vast bulk of airtime and print distribution and online headlines—is a solidly capitalist institution, reliant on ad revenue and wedded to the status quo, then everything starts to click into place.
Saying that the media is neutral, and only there to report The News and The Facts, is one of those cultural memes and soundbites that does not hold up under the lightest scrutiny. In that way it is very much akin to claiming that the police are neutral, only there to uphold The Law. It is an almost self-evident distortion of reality. In terms of politics, the media, as a whole—and again we are discounting independent media here—generally sit within the centre-right to hard right band on the spectrum. The function of that mainstream media is, like the police, to maintain the particular power relations that make up the status quo.
When a politician comes along that threatens that status quo, and who promises to empower regular people against the capitalist classes, that politician must be neutralised—whether by mockery, minimisation, character assassination, or other means. Discussion of policy must be kept off the table. Even as the ideas and policies that Sanders has been championing tirelessly for decades and helped popularise in 2016 have now been adopted as talking points by other 2020 Presidential candidates—many of whom can, to put it gently, not exactly be trusted to actually fight for those policies—Sanders’ link to those ideas and his work at bringing them to the mainstream must be downplayed. I’ve posted this video before but it’s relevant here again, as it is a great cross section of the attempted neutralisation of a Sanders campaign and of the way that vast swathes of the mainstream media wage a completely out of touch with reality war against the public interest:
A similar phenomenon has been witnessed on this side of the pond over the past few years as the media—from ostensibly ‘left-wing’ outlets to outright right-wing papers—has closed ranks in an effort to hamper the chances of a politician who challenges the status quo:
It is important to remember that when one refers to ‘the media’ in analyses like this, it is not individual reporters or editors or other staff members that are necessarily under scrutiny. Much like the ‘bad apple’ theory of draconian or corrupt policing, that framing is more diversionary than anything else. It is the institution as a whole, and the systems around it, that are being examined. In the landmark 1988 work, ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’, linguist and political scholar Noam Chomsky and economist and media scholar Edward S. Herman described how the often invisible structural pressures acting on commercial newsrooms acted to shape the limits of debate. They called this the Propaganda Model:
Structural factors are those such as ownership and control, dependence on other major funding sources (notably, advertisers), and mutual interests and relationships between the media and those who make the news and have the power to define it and explain what it means. The propaganda model also incorporates other closely related factors such as the ability to complain about the media’s treatment of news (that is, produce “flak”), to provide “experts” to confirm the official slant on the news, and to fix the basic principles and ideologies that are taken for granted by media personnel and the elite, but are often resisted by the general population. In our view, the same underlying power sources that own the media and fund them as advertisers, that serve as primary definers of the news, and that produce flak and proper-thinking experts, also play a key role in fixing basic principles and the dominant ideologies. We believe that what journalists do, what they see as newsworthy, and what they take for granted as premises of their work are frequently well explained by the incentives, pressures, and constraints incorporated into such a structural analysis.
Here is Chomsky himself, in conversation with now one of the most senior BBC journalists, Andrew Marr, explaining to Marr how the institution of the mainstream media successfully propagates and internalises the directives of the Propaganda Model:
The media have an incredible power to create reality. In Britain a few years ago, for example, a study found that the British public were ‘wrong about basically everything’. That sounds hyperbolic, but the figures around public perception on issues such as immigration, welfare, foreign aid, and a host of other key issues found that members of the public consistently guessed things completely wrong. For example, in that study, the British public thought that immigrants made up 24% of the population. The actual figure at the time was closer to 13%. The public also thought that about 24% of people were unemployed, when in reality the figure was less than a third of that. When it came to welfare, the public believed that about £24 of every £100 paid out in benefits was fraudulently claimed. The actual figure is about 70 pence in every £100. It’s no deep insight to highlight to whose benefit these misconceptions—created and stoked by a ceaseless barrage of sensationalised headlines and outright lies manufactured by a right wing capitalist press and designed to divide and weaken the working class—might be.
The media create the reality that suits them.
Another useful data set from Britain can be found in the Westminster polling data around the General Election of 2017. This was the Election in which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party robbed the Tories of their Parliamentary majority—and it did so after a near-blanket, smug media campaign that claimed that Labour would be completely wiped out at the polls. The then-Tory Party leader Theresa May called the election as a means of strengthening her majority. Surveying the media landscape and all available polling data which portrayed the Labour Party as a sick and feeble animal, May’s hubris in calling the election resembled common sense. The end result was the most dramatic upset in modern British political history, and marked the beginning of Theresa May’s downfall. It was an upset partly because it was a wholly accepted truth in the entire mainstream media and among polling organisations—two self-reinforcing entities—that a renewed socialist Labour was spent as an electoral force. But a funny thing happens in Britain when an election is called: Broadcasters are bound by law to give fair and balanced coverage to all the political parties. Suddenly, the tremendous advantage given to parties of a certain ideology by a compliant media melts away. This is what happened to the polling data once Labour’s actual message and policies were allowed to get through to the public (the red line is, of course, Labour. Blue is the Tories):
The media create the reality that suits them.
Bernie Sanders’ critique of the corporate media may at times seem similar to Donald Trump’s relentless attacks against the media, yet the similarities are superficial at best, and any attempt at drawing an equivalence between them is dangerous. One is pointing out that a capitalist media mostly owned by billionaires and funded by ad revenues from huge corporations might be biased and have a vested interest in trying to hamper a socialist’s chances of getting elected and bringing with him a mass movement of ordinary people demanding a redistribution of power and wealth. The other is a far-right lunatic with an ego so fragile that any challenge to him makes him lash out with an all caps spasm of rage, no matter which quarter it comes from. The latter is dangerous and straight out of the fascist playbook; the former simply a commentary on reality.
Image sources (in order of posting): Getty Images, Wikipedia