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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

“Manufacturing Consent” In Action

PBS NewsHour does a long update on all the candidates except one.

Bernie Sanders’ supporters are often accused of being conspiratorial when they say there is a bias against him in the press—Bernie himself has been called “Trumpian” for criticizing the media. But if you watched last night’s PBS NewsHour, you got a real taste of what Bernie is talking about. Remember that Sanders has been No. 1 in two out of three recent New Hampshire polls, and is currently second in Iowa, ahead of “frontrunner” Joe Biden. Now watch NewsHour correspondent Yamiche Alcindor’s update from the campaign trail:

Let us look closely at what happens here. Alcindor begins over a shot of Joe Biden in front of his new “No Malarkey” bus, saying that we have a “Democratic field” in flux, which is true. She mentions “candidates on the rise” “shoring up weaknesses” over a shot of Pete Buttigieg, “candidates whose campaigns are lagging” over a shot of Kamala Harris asking a woman “What are the challenges for you as a small business owner?” and candidates dropping out. Here Alcindor dwells on the candidacy of Steve Bullock, who left the race Monday morning (“and nobody cared,” reported CNN) She quotes Bullock’s statement, then mentions Joe Sestak, another forgettable dropout, over some pictures of him.

We are then back to Buttigieg, who “hoped to build on his strong standing in Iowa” at a visit to a black church. We are told that Buttigieg has a new campaign ad out. We see some of the campaign ad, Buttigieg saying something about “the hope of the American experience” and talking about how “unifying” the country doesn’t mean “pretending we’re all the same.” We then see more pictures of Joe Biden in Iowa, “where his support has been losing steam.” We are told about the “No Malarkey bus tour” and given a snippet from one of Biden’s speeches. Then it’s back to Kamala Harris (“During the holiday shopping period, she spoke with small business owners…”) and the bad publicity of a recent New York Times report on the poor performance of her campaign. Then we get a look at what’s happening with Amy Klobuchar. She has, we are told, a new campaign ad. We get to see a piece of the ad. Then, Alcindor covers Cory Booker, for whom “Iowa was a focus, too.” Booker brags that he is No. 3 in net favorability in Iowa but admits it’s “not translating to people choosing me in the polls.” Then, we check in on Elizabeth Warren: We hear a clip of her telling an attendee at a town hall a moving story about the end of her first marriage. Warren then gives the questioner a hug. “A quiet, deeply personal moment, even in the rush to the first in the nation caucuses, just two months away,” Alcindor concludes.

Thus ends the Democratic primary update! Did you notice something missing? Alcindor found time to talk about Joe Sestak and Steve Bullock, plus plenty of candidates struggling to get out of single-digit poll numbers. And yet: not even a photo of Bernie Sanders. Incredible. He’s just… erased. He’s gone. Bernie who? I’m constantly reminded of Jason Adam Katzenstein‘s wonderful Current Affairs cartoon:

I’m particularly fascinated by the constant effort to sell voters on Amy Klobuchar, a person who spends most debates mocking universal healthcare and free college tuition, and who is infamously horrific in her treatment of those in her employment. The New York Times, seemingly every few weeks, runs an article trying to make Amy Klobuchar into a thing and convince the country that Klobuchar-mania is just on the horizon. (“In Iowa, Amy Klobuchar Gets Second Look After Debate”; “The Punch Lines Amy Klobuchar Uses To Keep Voters Laughing”; “When To Peak? Amy Klobuchar Has Some Thoughts”) And in Politico, you’ll see: “It sure feels like Buttigieg and Klobuchar have wind in their sails.

What’s that? You’re not feeling it? Well, you’re not alone. Klobuchar’s poll numbers have been consistently horrible. She’s a bottom-tier candidate about as likely to win the nomination as Michael Bennet. Nate Silver amusingly describes the situation thusly:

Klobuchar probably has one of the best electability arguments in the field, so the fact that she’s tied for last here is a sign that voters don’t really think about electability in the same way that political analysts do.

This is an interesting admission that for pundits, “electability” has very little to do with what voters actually seem to want. You’d think a person voters disliked would not, in fact, have “one of the best electability arguments.” We appear to have drifted into topsy-turvy land, where Bernie Sanders is unelectable (and unmentionable) despite consistently beating Donald Trump in polls. (*grumble* Some of us were pointing out in 2016 that nominating Bernie could have avoided a Trump presidency. *end grumble*)

After the NewsHour‘s campaign roundup segment, Alcindor hosts a panel discussion on the race with Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and NPR‘s Domenico Montanaro. Walter compliments Alcindor’s summary and then discusses Iowa as a race between Buttigieg and Biden. Montanaro then talks about Warren’s rise in the polls and then her muddle over Medicare For All. Montonaro clearly thinks Medicare For All is a bad policy to support, and says it wouldn’t pass in the Senate. Montonaro then talks about Joe Biden’s path to the nomination. Walter mentions the possibility that different candidates could win all of the early primaries. Then they talk about Michael Bloomberg. Then the election part of the discussion is over. Not once has the name “Bernie Sanders” been spoken!

It’s not really surprising that Yamiche Alcindor would ignore Bernie; during her time at the New York Times she wrote an indefensible article arguing that the shooting of Steve Scalise was a “test of Bernie’s movement.” (The shooter, for instance, had mentioned corporate influence in Washington on Facebook, which is “not far from Mr. Sanders’s own message.”) But it’s important to actually document this stuff, because it’s easy to think that complaints about an anti-Bernie bias might just be paranoia. But no: Even on supposedly public (rather than corporate) media, you’ll find Bernie outright erased. Actually, it’s probably worse now than it was in 2016, because in 2016 the media’s need for a “horse race” meant that, with only two serious candidates, it was difficult to completely ignore Bernie. Now, with plenty of other candidates to cover, it’s easier to pull an “Oops, looks like we ran out of time!”

Political commentator David Pakman recently asked, looking at Pete Buttigieg’s rising poll numbers, “What do you think is behind Pete’s rise?” My own answer to that is simple: the manufacture of consent by a media apparatus invested in selling a candidate that will not disrupt the economic status quo. What is important to understand about news stories like “Pete Buttigieg is surging in polls” is that Pete Buttigieg is surging in polls in part because of news stories about Pete Buttigieg. Unless you’ve spent time in South Bend, Indiana, you probably didn’t know much about Pete Buttigieg until you saw stories packaging him as an important person worth paying attention to. You saw him on magazine covers. NewsHour is giving Amy Klobuchar free advertising—quite literally, by playing one of her ads as part of its reporting! So much of our understanding of the world and what matters is filtered through the media, because that’s how we get access to things that are not in our direct experience. If nobody talks about Bernie Sanders’ campaign, how are you supposed to learn about it unless Bernie people come and knock on your door?

Bernie Sanders is at a serious disadvantage in this race because he can literally disappear from the news even when he is ahead in the polls. The good news is, though, that he’s very well-funded, thanks to people’s small donations, and he actually has a very good shot at being the nominee. (I wonder what NewsHour is going to do if Bernie starts winning every state. Probably we’ll start seeing more headlines like “Buttigieg in Fourth, but a Strong Fourth.”) His campaign represents a historic opportunity to bring about real political change. Let’s keep our eyes on the goal, ignore the press, and keep moving the poll numbers slowly upward and upward.

Thank you to my parents for calling my attention to this NewsHour segment. They were shouting at the television last night “Where’s Bernie?”

More In: 2020 Election

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