If the mayor of a fishing village decried shark attacks, and the headline in the next day’s paper read, “Mayor opposes fish,” you might think the paper had it in for him. That’s about where Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator running for president, stood with the press after his rally last weekend in Denver, which drew a formidable 5,000 people.
Try a thought exercise with me. Pretend you’re the editor at The Denver Post who’s writing the headline on the story about Sanders’s speech. The recurring themes of the speech are well represented by the following extracts:
“In my view, the issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time. It is the great economic issue of our time. It is the great political issue of our time.”
“There is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of 1 percent today owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. There is something profoundly wrong when today 99 percent of all new income created goes to the top 1 percent. … There is something profoundly wrong when one family in America, the Walton family, owns more wealth than the bottom 130 million Americans.”
“What we are doing tonight is sending a message to the billionaire class, and that is: You can’t have it all.”
When you write your headline, what noun do you put in the following blank: “Bernie Sanders delivers blistering condemnation of _________, billionaires in Denver”?
The virtue of (a) and (b) is that they are true. Throughout his speech, Sanders directed his fire almost exclusively at America’s appalling economic inequality and a few of the most rapacious grandees who uphold it — the sharks. Truth, however, did not suit the Post, which went for (c), whose virtue was that it smeared Sanders with the false claim that he was against business generally. It is a claim, of course, that justifiably vexed any number of businesspeople and the myriad employees who depend on them — the fish. So that no one would miss the point, the Post’s reporter also led with the slur in his article.
It would be gratifying to report this idiocy was idiosyncratic to the Post, whose dislike of Sanders is undisguised. (The Post had already taken the unusual step, months ahead of the first primary, of editorializing against Sanders and his “history of odd views.”) But it wasn’t just the Post. The Associated Press ran a similar story, which a number of outlets uncritically snapped up, and many other newspeople have treated Sanders likewise on many other occasions.
What you’d never guess from reading the pieces about the Denver rally is that so rarely did Sanders speak of business, he never had cause to use the word, save for a colloquial lamentation of Washington’s “business as usual” attitude toward climate change. He used “corporate” just once (and “corporation” not at all), when decrying corporate trade agreements that sent American jobs abroad and watered down health and environmental laws. His only other assault on corporations was his call to break up “too big to exist” banks. In short, in an hour-long speech, he attacked “business” just twice, and at that only a few of the largest and most notoriously avaricious of corporations.
What Sanders realizes, but the mainstream media does not, is that you needn’t argue against business to argue for ordinary Americans. This choice between treating workers well or businesses well is a false zero-sum game. If you doubt it, take a look at Germany, Switzerland or Finland, all of whose robust economies are marked by thriving businesses and generously compensated workers, even in a battered Europe. Or look at IKEA, which last year raised its U.S. minimum wage, which caused its employee turnover to decline so dramatically and the quality of its job applicants to improve so dramatically that the company is raising the minimum wage again, to an average of nearly $12 an hour. (The wage varies with the local cost of living.) Far from an attack on business, then, Sanders’s speech was a series of passionate pleas for the little guy — pleas for paid family and medical leave and paid vacation time, restoration of the 40-hour work week, an increase in the minimum wage, expansion of Social Security, universal health care, free tuition at state colleges, a repeal of the Supreme Court’s billionairefriendly Citizens United ruling, and an end to global warming, which, incidentally, is crippling many an agricultural business. Only a willful misreading could have turned his speech into a wholesale attack on “business.”
But the AP and Post were not just willful misreaders; they were also skilled ones. By presenting the “Bernie hates business” claim as calm fact, they appeared more credible, and he more dangerous, than had they reported his actual views and declared them extremist. Consider the one time that the Post’s reporter, John Frank, tried to do just that, deep in his article. Sanders’ “stance on particular issues,” Frank wrote, “is likely to alienate some Democrats. Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, vowed to break up large banks, offer government-paid health care and overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United campaign finance case, replacing it with public funding of elections.” I don’t know which Democrats Frank is talking to, but every Democrat I know — and broad majorities of polled Democrats — would sooner oppose a cure for cancer than oppose those measures. What Frank meant by “likely to alienate some Democrats” was that he, his employer and the minority Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party are alienated by Sanders’s progressivism. Because the facts didn’t bear out Frank’s editorializing, many readers could see through it, which is perhaps why it landed near the bottom of the article while the misrepresentation of Sanders alighted on the lede.
If you sense in all of this a certain fear and trembling among the media, you wouldn’t be far wrong. As I’ve written elsewhere, from the moment Sanders stepped into the race, an awful lot of publishers, editors and reporters splashed around an awful lot of ink to portray Sanders as an unelectable extremist — notwithstanding that most Americans support his core positions and that he is polling better at this stage of the race than did earlier Democratic candidates who went on to become president. The same journalists unashamedly touted their consecrated candidate, Hillary Clinton, whose center-rightism on economic and foreign affairs and centerleftism on social affairs match their own politics.
Yet despite their best efforts, Sanders is ascendant. Just six weeks into his campaign, his support among Democratic voters had climbed from 4 to 15 percent, which, seven months before primary season, compares favorably to Obama’s 22 percent weeks before his first primary in 2008. (At the time, Clinton’s 41 percent was deemed “insurmountable.” Sound familiar?) As of last week in the first-primary state of New Hampshire, Sanders was polling an astonishing 31 percent while Clinton had dropped to 41 percent. The crowds that have turned out for Sanders are the uncomfortable manifestation (uncomfortable to the press anyway) of the poll numbers. Here are a few facts about those crowds that the media has utterly underreported, utterly unsurprisingly: Sanders drew his 5,000 in Denver, a city of 650,000, on little more than a week’s notice, the rally having been put together almost as an afterthought to a trip to California. Clinton’s biggest crowd to date is also 5,000, but it came at her long-planned, highly orchestrated campaign kickoff in New York City, population 8 million. The draw was embarrassingly smaller than her campaign had expected, as was made clear by two large, roped-off, but unoccupied viewing areas at the rally. It was all the more embarrassing when set beside the 5,000 at Sanders’s kickoff in Burlington, Vermont — population 42,000.
So the anti-progressive media have cause to be fearful. And as Sanders’s numbers rise, so will their fears, and with them their smears. Sanders knows all too well that if he is to win the nomination, he’ll need to use progressive social media to counter the pillorying he’s getting in the traditional media. To judge from his numbers, he’s doing that pretty well. Whether he can do it well enough to win — whether, for that matter, anyone can do it well enough to win in our oligarchic political system, a system that is all but bought and paid for by the wealthy and that is wellguarded by their praetorians in the media — is another question. For the moment, though, let’s just enjoy watching the oligarchs and praetorians squirm.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.
Steve Hendricks is the author, most recently, of A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial. His website is www.SteveHendricks.org. He lives in Boulder.