By David Sirota
Bern Notice (8/16/19)
“People will think what I tell them to think!”
— Charles Foster Kane, Citizen Kane.
As Bernie Sanders has been rising in post-debate polls, why are elite media pundits particularly angry at him? The explosion of rage tells us a lot about what the corporate media says we can and cannot discuss — and how frightened the establishment really is.
Let’s review what happened: this week, the billionaire-owned Boston Globe and New York Times both rehashed an old media-manufactured trope pretending that Bernie Sanders doesn’t talk to people at parades and fairs (he does, a lot). This followed the Washington Post ignoring a slew of recent positive polls for Bernie and instead choosing to only publish a big story on one single bad outlier poll.
In response, Bernie suggested that maybe the reason this keeps happening is because billionaire media moguls like Jeff Bezos and others don’t particularly like his agenda that would take power away from billionaires and corporations.
Vox pointed out that yes, Bernie “has some legitimate complaints. Media outlets do seem to be looking for signs of weakness — there’s more coverage of a sputtering campaign than one that is steadily chugging along in second place nationally (the latter is closer to the truth).”
And yet, Bernie’s comments about media ownership touched off a full freak out by — shocker! — the Washington pundits who are paid by the corporations and billionaires who own the media.
Meet the Press called Bernie’s comments an “attack” on the free press and CNN pundit Chris Cillizza called his comments “ridiculous”. MSNBC’s disgraced anchorman Brian Williams went even further — approvingly reading an anonymous Twitter troll’s anti-Bernie lie on national television, even though the lie had already been thoroughly debunked.
Is it really any surprise that Jeff Bezos’ newspaper published 16 stories in 16 hours denigrating the leading lawmaker pushing to make Bezos and Amazon pay more taxes?
The bizarre part of all these overwrought responses is that, until now, it hasn’t been particularly controversial to suggest that media ownership can influence media coverage. The FCC previously had rules in place — supported by one Bernie Sanders — to regulate media ownership in order to try to prevent “Citizen Kane”-style tycoons from monopolizing the media, and weaponizing it against political opponents (sidenote: Donald Trump’s administration has been working to gut the remaining rules that are still on the books).
“A framework of what we can discuss and what we cannot discuss”
As Bernie said — and as research shows — the influence of a corporate or billionaire owner on media isn’t typically heavy handed, but more often subtle.
“There is a framework of what we can discuss and what we cannot discuss,” Bernie told CNN.
Reporters don’t have to receive a call from Jeff Bezos to know that their paychecks are signed by a billionaire with a well-known personal and corporate agenda — and knowing that agenda exists can shape overall frameworks and angles of coverage.
Consider two examples.
Bernie has been the leading voice in American politics calling for billionaires and large profitable corporations to pay higher taxes. Is it really any surprise that Jeff Bezos’ newspaper published 16 stories in 16 hours denigrating the leading lawmaker pushing to make Bezos and Amazon pay more taxes?
Similarly, Bernie has led the fight to push companies like Amazon to start paying their workers a living wage. Is it really a shock that the newspaper owned by Amazon’s founder promotes a never-ending and obsessive series of editorials and debunked “fact checks” that personally vilify Bernie and demonize his agenda?
The answer is no, it isn’t surprising — and that should be easy for everyone to understand. But as the journalist Upton Sinclair famously said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
“Amazon Is flooding D.C. With money and muscle”
Now, if Jeff Bezos was some silent apolitical statesman, perhaps you could argue that he couldn’t possibly have any overall influence or interest in his newspaper’s coverage. But he’s the opposite — he and his company have a very clear and aggressive political agenda.
Bezos bankrolled the campaign to block lawmakers from raising taxes on billionaires, and as a Politico headline noted: “Bezos plays active role in tax fights.” More recently, Bloomberg News reported that “Amazon is flooding D.C. with money and muscle” as the company seeks to dominate Washington policymaking.
In the lead up to his company’s Washington lobbying blitz, Bezos told everyone he did not buy the Washington Post as some apolitical passive business investment. On the contrary, he publicly declared that he took an interest in it because of its power in our democracy. Here’s what he said:
“I said to myself, ‘If this were a financially upside down salty snack food company, the answer would be no … But as soon as I started thinking abut it that way, it was like, ‘This is an important institution. It is the newspaper in the capital city in the most important country in the world.”
As journalist Kevin Gosztola put it: “Owning an important institution like the Washington Post, in the nation’s capital city, is probably a really good investment if you’re a CEO who has to routinely worry about antitrust probe being launched into your massive corporation.”
And for all the claims that Bezos has no interaction with the Washington Post, Bob Woodward recently told a health insurance lobbying group that he spoke with Bezos about how he makes hiring decisions. Bloomberg has also reported that “every two weeks, Bezos holds an hour-long conference call with executives at the Washington Post (and) twice a year, the managers fly to Seattle for day-long strategy sessions with the Amazon.com founder.”
“Every major news organization uses this insurance industry’s framing”
Does this all mean that corporations and billionaires control and carefully sculpt every piece of media content? No.
Does it mean Jeff Bezos is calling every single shot in his newsroom? Nope.
Does it mean Comcast’s top executive is calling producers at Comcast-owned MSNBC and telling them to destroy the opponents of the presidential candidate he is raising money for? Probably not.
Does it mean there are no good reporters managing to do excellent and honest journalism? No, of course not — great journalists are still doing great work.
But does corporate and billionaire ownership help create a general framework of coverage?
Yes, of course.
Think about it: outlets owned by Disney and Amazon’s founder probably aren’t going to consistently and aggressively cover the fight to raise Disney and Amazon workers’ wages, and they probably aren’t going to make it their core mission to honor Joseph Pulitzer’s famous demand that journalists “attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”
Cable TV networks bankrolled by pharmaceutical ads probably aren’t going to be super psyched about Bernie’s bill to reduce prescription drug prices.
Media conglomerates making big money off fossil fuel ads probably aren’t interested in holding fossil fuel executives accountable for their pollution — and they often do not provide adequate coverage of emergencies like climate change.
Washington pundits and reporters doing paid speaking gigs to health insurance lobbyists probably aren’t interested in giving Bernie’s widely popular Medicare for All proposal a genuinely fair hearing. Indeed, as one recent study noted, today “virtually every major news organization covering health care policy routinely uses (the) insurance industry’s framing to define Medicare for All.”
In other words, as the Hill’s Krystal Ball shows in the video below, corporate and billionaire-owned media often tilts coverage against candidates like Bernie who push a working-class agenda — an agenda threatens the political power of corporations and billionaires.
Bern after reading,
P.S. If you want to go deeper on the Washington Post’s ideological crusade against Bernie, read this terrific 2016 Harper’s magazine report from Thomas Frank.
The Campaign Press: Members Of The 10 Percent, Reporting For The One Percent
By Matt Taibbi
Rolling Stone (8/16/19)
I talk about (Amazon’s taxes) all of the time… And then I wonder why The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why.
Employees of the Post were put out by Sanders’s comments. They insisted they hold no ill will against him for regularly bashing the man who writes their checks as one of earth’s most obnoxious plutocrats, and moreover that Sanders is wrong to make the media a “boogeyman” the way he’s turned “billionaires and corporations” into boogeymen. This “doesn’t add up,” noted the Post, going so far as to put the term “corporate media” in quotation marks, as if it were a mythical creature.
In sum: a $10 million per year anchor for a Comcast subsidiary brings on employees of Bezos and Rupert Murdoch to ask if the press has a problem covering billionaires – and concludes it does not.
Perhaps the negativity toward Sanders isn’t over Amazon. After all, Sanders gets similar treatment from the New York Times, CNN, the Atlantic and other outlets. Still, the Post’s Bernie fixation stands out. The paper humorously once wrote 16 negative pieces about Sanders in the space of 16 hours (e.g. “Clinton Is Running for President. Sanders Is Doing Something Else,” “Bernie Sanders Pledges the US Won’t Be No. 1 in Incarceration. He’ll Need to Release Lots of Criminals,”etc).
The Post in 2017 asked readers how Democrats would “cope” with the Kremlin backing Bernie Sanders with “dirty tricks” in 2020. In April of this year it described the Sanders campaign as a Russian plot to help elect Donald Trump. They’ve run multiple stories about his “$575,000 lake house,” ripping his “socialist hankering” for real estate. “From each according to his ability,” the paper quipped, “to each according to his need for lakefront property…
Apart from being described as a faux-Leninist Russian stooge who wants to elect Trump and mass-release dangerous criminals, what does Sanders have to complain about?
After Bernie’s Wolfeboro speech, other media outlets let out a group howl. …
- Shove It, Media: Bernie Sanders Is Right — Mainstream journalists are having a ridiculous hissy fit over Sen. Bernie Sanders’ suggestion that there may be a connection between the owner of a news outlet and the content or biases of that outlet’s coverage. If Sanders had suggested that Rupert Murdoch’s ownership of Fox News impacts its coverage, few would argue with him. But Sanders referred to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Washington Post — a corporate centrist outlet. And the senator, an Amazon critic, complained that the newspaper “doesn’t write particularly good articles about me.” Immediately, the Post’s top editor denounced Sanders’ “conspiracy theory” – claiming his newsroom operates “with full independence.” A Post columnist tweeted that she’d never “heard a hint of Jeff Bezos interfering.” Are they deluding themselves? Or sincerely clueless? I worked in and around mainstream TV news for years, including at corporate centrist outlets CNN and MSNBC. Unlike at Fox News (where I’d also been a paid contributor), there’s almost never a memo or direct order from top management to cover or not cover certain stories or viewpoints. But here’s the sad reality: There doesn’t have to be a memo from the owner to achieve the homogeneity of coverage at “centrist” outlets that media watchdog groups like FAIR (which I founded) have documented in study after study over the decades. It happens because of groupthink. It happens because top editors and producers know — without being told — which issues and sources are off limits. … Read the Rest
- Bernie Sanders Leads Dem Rivals In Wisconsin Fundraising — Wisconsin Democrats aren’t giving up on Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator, who won the state’s Democratic presidential primary back in 2016, has raked in more campaign contributions from Wisconsin than any other Democratic candidate, according to the most recent campaign finance filings. That total includes itemized contributions from donors giving more than $200 and can also include smaller donations. Sanders has raised about $117,000 from 467 individual Wisconsin donors this cycle, according to the financial reports that tally donations through the end of June. The second-place Democratic fundraiser in the state, Elizabeth Warren, has raised about $91,000 from 217 unique donors. … Read the Rest