Current Affairs

How To Handle The Press

A master class from Bernie Sanders.

If you are unfamiliar with Maureen Dowd’s newspaper columns, know that they are morally frivolous and a waste of the New York Times’ limited space. Dowd writes about politics, but displays zero interest in the human consequences of political decisions. It is rare for serious policy issues to be mentioned in a Dowd column; she is unabashedly interested in Washington D.C. as a soap opera. She writes in an irritating style heavy on “sarcasm, cutesy nicknames, and, most importantly, countless gag-worthy pop cultural references,” and was infamously more interested in cutefying Barack Obama (who she called “Obambi”) than analyzing the consequences of his presidency. Naturally, she was in her element during the Clinton impeachment scandal, and in 1999 won a Pulitzer Prize “for a portfolio of 10 columns, all of them about the scandal and its lively cast of characters.” (Her characterization of Monica Lewinsky is particularly infamous for its lively misogyny; Dowd used her influential New York Times platform to call Monica Lewinsky fat, silly, and crazy, and won the biggest award in journalism for it).

A 2011 Gawker article by Hamilton Nolan called “Why Maureen Dowd Is Not A Good Columnist” explains the core of the problem. Nolan picked a column of hers about former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, who had recently become CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), making him a top movie industry lobbyist and a clear example of the “revolving door” politics through which corporations create the laws they want rather than the laws preferred by, say, the public. But when Dowd wrote about Dodd’s transition from D.C. to Hollywood, the economics and politics of the situation were apparently of little interest to her. Instead, Nolan says, Dowd’s column tells us that Chris Dodd has “gleaming white hair and laughs with gleaming white teeth,” is “not into the glitz,” his life revolves around his family, he has known many celebrities, he thinks “thinks movies can have ‘a profound influence,’” and he likes Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull. But what about the problem of having ex-senators becoming lobbyists? What about the fact that this was a Democratic senator, offering proof of the rot in both parties? It all went unmentioned, which led Nolan to conclude that Dowd “doesn’t have a single fucking useful thing to say.”

This was back in 2011, and by that point had been true for some time: whatever political instincts Dowd may once have had, she’d given them all up to embody the stereotype of the empty, power-serving gossip columnist. Today, Dowd’s columns continue to impress with how completely she manages to take the policy out of politics. (Is Joe Biden cool? Will Mitch ditch Donald?) 

You might have expected that when Maureen Dowd requested an interview with Senator Bernie Sanders, he would have turned her down cold. After all, Sanders is known for despising personality journalism and famously wants to talk about nothing but Medicare For All, free college, and other left policy goals. But Sanders did have lunch with Dowd, and the result is a fascinating example of how a stubborn enough lefty can force a journalist to cover matters of substance against their will. 

Dowd’s column begins like this: 

I want to talk to Bernie about Balenciaga. And Britney. And Dua Lipa, Sha’Carri Richardson and Joe Manchin’s houseboat. And whether he prefers red or white horseradish on his gefilte fish. And the state of capitalism, and the absurd price of a Birkin bag.

Now, you may be thinking: she’s joking. This is tongue in cheek. She didn’t really want to talk to Bernie Sanders about Britney Spears and a houseboat. But if you think this, you are not familiar with the career and columns of Maureen Dowd. She often makes it sound like she is only ironically interested in these topics, and is mocking the sorts of people who would be interested in fashion and celebrities, but these are quite clearly her favorite topics. Fashion and celebrities are by no means necessarily shallow subjects—for example there are plenty of substantive matters to discuss when it comes to Britney Spears—but it’s unlikely Dowd is interested in a serious discussion of, say, legal autonomy and conservatorships; we can expect she wants to ask about Spears because “Bernie on Britney” would be extremely clickable. But Bernie was having none of it, according to Dowd. When she pulled out her sheet of questions, he produced his own list of the things he was willing to talk about: 

He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out his own piece of paper, a list of items written in his loopy scrawl. These are the only things he’s here to talk about. At 79, Bernie Sanders is a man on a mission, laser-focused on a list that represents trillions of dollars in government spending that he deems essential. When I stray into other subjects, the senator jabs his finger at his piece of paper or waves it in my face, like Van Helsing warding off Dracula with a cross.

(That last line is admittedly a fine piece of writing, vivid and true. One of the most disappointing things about Dowd is that under her bullshit she is considerably talented.) 

The op-ed is even accompanied by a photograph of Sanders holding up this handwritten list. It says: 

Physical infrastructure
-broadband
Climate
Childcare
Paid family & medical [leave]
Home healthcare
Prescription drugs
Expand Medicare
– GME expansion
Higher ed
Housing
Progressive taxation

All of these, I think you will agree, are things that matter a lot and have many consequences for millions of people. They are also woefully under-discussed, not just in the New York Times, but everywhere. Even a cursory look at the average Dowd column shows that she is unlikely to have given attention to any of them. 

Sure enough, during his lunch with Dowd, Bernie stuck to the list:

[D]igging into some eggs over easy and white toast, [Sanders says:] “Does anyone deny that our child care system, for example, is a disaster? Does anyone deny that pre-K, similarly, is totally inadequate? Does anyone deny that there’s something absurd that our young people can’t afford to go to college or are leaving school deeply in debt? Does anybody deny that our physical infrastructure is collapsing? Does anybody except anti-science people deny that climate change is real? Does anyone deny that we have a major health care crisis? Does anyone deny that we pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs? Does anyone deny we have a housing crisis? Does anyone deny that half the people live paycheck to paycheck?

Dowd, rather than responding to any of this, tries hard to make her column about the relationship between Bernie and Joe Biden, and about his dual status as outsider and insider, and about the Squad, and whatever other personality matters she can inject. But he remains firm when she attempts to take things in any kind of Dowdian direction: 

When I ask Sanders if he thinks A.O.C. could be president someday, out comes the list.
“That’s not what I want to get into,” he barks. “I want to get into what this legislation is about.”
“You don’t want to discuss ‘Free Britney’?” I ask.
“No.”
[…] 
“I want to talk about this legislation.”
But wait, what does he think of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s lurking around A.O.C.’s office and calling her “a little communist”?
“You’re getting off the subject here,” Sanders chides, before relenting…
[…] 
Before the senator leaves to work the phones, he returns to his list with one last directive: “Tell people what we are trying to accomplish.”

Of course, Dowd does no such thing. She does, as promised, tell us that Sanders was “featured in this month’s Vanity Fair cover story as a friend of pop star Dua Lipa, and that he was an inspiration for a Balenciaga show in Paris in 2017.” But because Bernie wouldn’t stray far from the list, and her column was based on lunch with him, Dowd had to mention at least some of the substantive and important things Bernie said. 

Bernie is a broken record, and the record in question is usually some mix of the Greatest Hits on the list he brought to his meeting with Dowd. But you can see why this actually makes Sanders a very effective communicator. He is always on message, always trying to make sure the press has to talk about what he wants them to talk about. With Maureen Dowd, that’s difficult; she has built her brand on “frivolous” topics and light cruelty. But instead of declining to meet with her, he had lunch and simply wouldn’t stop talking about the issues he wanted to talk about. In doing so, he forced her to write a column about his refusal to stray from those issues. It’s not the column she would have written if he’d asked her what questions she had and simply answered each one. It is an exercise in manipulating a journalist to successful effect.

I think leftists can learn a great deal from this. Bernie has his flaws and made serious mistakes in both of his presidential campaigns, but he is very good at politics despite his marginal position. If he goes on a talk show, he will be discussing wealth inequality or the future of democracy, even if he is talking to a manchild like Jimmy Fallon. Staying relentlessly on message—and thinking about what topics we want to spend our finite resources and time talking about—is critical to having an effective, persuasive left. It’s easy to lose focus and forget what actually matters. We can get lost in personality drama. Sometimes leftists spend far too much time criticizing other leftists with very similar policy goals, seemingly forgetting that we need to build a unified movement against the right, a thing which can only happen if we treat each other as comrades (and are definitive about what it means to be a leftist, rather than embracing right-wing faux-populism). Perhaps we should directly lift Bernie’s approach and just keep a damn list. It’s fine to let our minds wander, to indulge in frivolity and amusement. But we have to know what’s on the list and train ourselves to always come back to it. Otherwise we will lose. Professional hacks like Dowd do not care about the lives that are affected by the issues on Bernie’s list. They care about D.C. drama. But it’s possible, as Bernie showed, to force the conversation to be about what you want it to be about. This is what we must constantly be trying to do.

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