US cable channels have repeatedly been accused of a bias against the socialist candidate. But despite the limited coverage, he remains a viable candidate for the Democratic party nomination.
Washington: Super Tuesday has come and gone, affirming the status of the two front-runners – Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But does it mean other candidates don’t matter?
The manner in which the US cable channels covered the primaries certainly made it appear so. None of the major channels devoted any time to Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s adversary for the Democratic party nomination, reviving complaints about a media bias against the socialist candidate who has never really got a fair shake since he launched his campaign last summer.
CNN, Fox News and MSNBC blacked out Sanders Tuesday night even as he was addressing his supporters in Arizona, which has a primary next week. Instead, viewers got the same pundits’ parade as they awaited Trump’s speech. Cable channels chose to show Trump’s empty podium as a visual rather than Sanders talking about actual issues.
The only channel to give Sanders time that night was Al Jazeera America, which incidentally is shutting down next month. National Public Radio included him only in a recap, saying his speech was essentially a stump, implying it wasn’t newsworthy. Once again, process had won over substance.
It is true that things are not looking good for Sanders – he lost to Clinton in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Illinois on Super Tuesday. His delegate count is 800 to Clinton’s 1,561. But should it mean blacking out Sanders, who is still a viable candidate and plans to stay in the race?
Even late night comics weighed in. Trevor Noah of The Daily Show asked reporters “to give him some respect,” adding that these days “even Trump’s furniture gets news coverage” and that Sanders should come “dressed as a Trump podium” next time.
Ever since the billionaire entered the race and destroyed other Republican hopefuls, cable news has followed Trump’s every word, giving him more time and space than warranted. In the early stages of campaigning, they caught his every gaffe, his every insult, perhaps in the hope of destroying his credibility. Surely, the American people would move away repulsed by his toxicity if they saw lots of it.
But what happened was exactly the opposite. More coverage meant more support for Trump and no amount of “proof” of violence and intimidation at his rallies dampened enthusiasm.
The excessive amount of “free” media Trump gets is in direct proportion to the media coverage that Sanders and others don’t. A recent study by mediaQuant, a company tracking candidate coverage, showed that Trump’s free ride over the course of his campaign is equivalent to him having spent $2 billion. In comparison, Sanders got coverage worth $321 million while Clinton came second with $746 million.
No surprise that Trump has one of the smallest campaign budgets – the media is doing his job for him in terms of spreading his “message.”
Media Matters for America, another organisation dissecting coverage, says networks have wildly overplayed Trump and wildly underplayed Sanders even though both candidates attract the same percentage of primary voters – 20-30%.
Writing for media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, analyst Adam Johnson wrote that while the “corporate media didn’t create Trump, but they did pave and light the road for his candidacy’s unconstrained acceleration.” The focus on gaffes, polls and idle speculation serve “the Donald Trumps of the world” because his latest outrage is “specifically calibrated to exploit these news instincts.”
But Sanders, who refuses to dumb down his message or launch gratuitous attacks on his opponent, knew the odds in the current media environment when he announced his candidacy. The New York Times reported his entry on Page A21 even though many other presidential hopefuls got the front page.
Even the Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, noticed the lopsided and often dismissive coverage of Sanders in the early months of his campaign after readers wrote to her and complained. She wrote a piece critiquing the stories.
This gem from an interview for The Times by a freelancer was cited by Sullivan as the worst example:
Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?
Hillary’s hair gets more scrutiny than my hair?
Is that what you’re asking?
O.K., Ana, I don’t mean to be rude here. I am running for president of the United States on serious issues, O.K.? Do you have serious questions?
Sullivan agreed that Sanders had not always been taken seriously by the paper of record and “the tone of some stories is regrettably dismissive, even mocking at times.”
If the venerable The Times could admit it was unfair to Sanders, one can only imagine how he was left out in the cold by cable TV debates. But where he surprised everyone, most of all Clinton, is that he has survived and energised the younger generation.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.