Friday, June 19, 2015

Bernie's Media Challenge

June 19, 2015, 11:40 a.m.

See also, Bernie!, June 1, 2015.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Radio Station
Our corporate media's approach to politics in general and the presidential primaries in particular [is] as a horse race, and delights over their gotcha presentations of candidates' gaffs. When Sanders is mentioned at all it's usually to compare him with Hillary. Seldom has any report devoted even a single sentence to each of his policy proposals -- most of which, polls show, are supported by a majority of Americans.

However one might characterize what the media is currently doing, it's not an effort to inform and involve the American people in a discussion and debate regarding the "best practices" approach to our nation's challenges. Since that's what Bernie wants to do, no other candidate seems to, and therefore ought to be one of the most newsworthy elements of his campaign, the fact that it's impossible to report his exciting platform in the media's 20-second sound bites is a substantial campaign challenge.

-- Bernie!

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting's research discloses that between January 3rd and May 3rd of 2015, Meet the Press (NBC; host, Chuck Todd) made no mention whatsoever of Senator Bernie Sanders, notwithstanding 16 mentions of Hillary Clinton, 13 of Jeb Bush, 12 of Scott Walker, 11 of Chris Christie, and 10 each for Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee. In total, 24 presidential candidates received mentions during this four-month period. Bernie? Zero. "Meet the Press Breaks Its Silence on Bernie Sanders," Extra!, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), June 2015, vol. 28, no. 5, p. 3 ("Meet the Press host Chuck Todd . . . declared on the show's May 3 episode . . . 'I'm obsessed with elections.' Yet the one major candidate who had announced he was running that week -- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who declared on April 30 he was running for the Democratic nomination -- was strikingly ignored on that same broadcast.")
Bernie Sanders is the only avowed "Democratic Socialist" serving in the United States Congress. Defeating both Democrats and Republicans, he served as Vermont's only member of the House of Representatives for 16 years (1990-2006). Sanders has now served in the United States Senate for more than nine years (2006 to the present). As acknowledged by Todd himself . . . , in all those years, Meet the Press never saw fit to have Sanders appear on "America's most watched...Sunday morning public affairs program" until September 14, 2014 when Sanders was interviewed about his "possible" run for the Presidency. (One month earlier than the October date initially cited by Todd in response to FAIR.)
Ernest A. Canning, "Bernie Who? Media Watchdog Documents NBC's 'Meet the Press' Marginalization of Sanders," The Brad Blog, May 11, 2015

Only following FAIR's report was an invitation extended, which Bernie accepted. "Meet the Press Transcript - May 31, 2015." While it certainly counted as an after-the-fact "mention" of his candidacy, it was scarcely an effort to explore his past and approach to the issues.
As one of Sanders’s first nationwide appearances as a presidential candidate, you might think that Todd would take the opportunity to probe more deeply into the senator’s not uncontroversial policy proposals, such as providing free tuition to students attending public colleges, or raising the marginal tax rates, or how he might deal with ISIS. But you would be wrong. To begin, Todd spend the first part of the program discussing the unfolding Dennis Hastert scandal in a not-so-subtle effort to tell us what it says about Congress as a whole. (Answer: nothing, but that’s not newsworthy, so….) When Sanders finally made his appearance about midway through the program, Todd begin with one useful question regarding whether the senator would support the House bill to extend the USA Patriot Act, then under debate in the Senate. . . .

At that point, the interview degenerated into full horse-race, candidate-personality mode. Specifically, Todd sought Sanders’s views on a topic arguably of far less relevance to the senator’s qualifications to be president: Hillary Clinton. He began indirectly by asking Sanders to weigh the relative merits of Bill Clinton’s presidency versus Barack Obama’s. When Sanders appeared to praise Obama more than Clinton, Todd pressed further: “You singled out President Obama for praise but not President Clinton. Why?” You might wonder why Todd raised this issue, since Bill is not a candidate for higher office, but Todd’s intention soon became clear when he asked Sanders to comment on Hillary Clinton’s apparent leftward movement on a number of issues, including “same-sex marriage, on immigration … on NAFTA, on trade, on the Iraq War, on Cuba. She has moved from a position, basically, in disagreement with you, to a position that comes closer to your view. So I guess is, do you take her at her word?”

Cue the horse race! To his credit, Sanders refused to take the bait. Instead, he expressed hope that “the media will allow us to have a serious debate in this campaign on the enormous issues facing the American people” and tried to move the conversation to his policy views. Todd, however, had no interest in having a serious debate on the issues; he followed up with: “Do you trust these changes that Hillary Clinton has made? Or do you think she’s been doing it just for primary politics?”

When Sanders again refused to engage Todd in a discussion of Clinton’s motives, the MTP [Meet the Press] moderator closed with his zinger: Sanders’s 43-year-old essay discussing women’s “rape fantasy.”
Matthew Dickinson, "Bernie Sanders and Chuck Todd's 'Meet the Press' fiasco: 50 shades of bad; Bernie Sanders deftly refused to engage in media-generated controversy and expressed hope that 'the media will allow us to have a serious debate in this campaign,'" Christian Science Monitor, June 1, 2015.

Earlier this week I heard a radio call-in talk show addressing the matter of the media's coverage of politics. A professional journalist, one of the formal guests, was offering as advice to journalists that they should not just repeat what the candidates say (however fairly and accurately they do so) but go beyond that to the candidates' experience, consistency and credibility, dig into the issues that really made a difference for ordinary Americans, understand and explain candidates' positions on those issues from Americans' perspective, and provide the information that will enable voters to participate more intelligently in the democratic process.

Realizing that the story of the media's treatment (or non-treatment) of Bernie Sanders, told above, was dead center on topic, and that somehow Bernie had not even been mentioned by name during the first part of the program, I decided to give the station a call. I was asked my name, city, what I wanted to add to the program, and was left with the impression I would soon be up. While placed on hold, I could listen to the program. Soon the person I'd spoken to came back on the phone. Although there did not appear to have been any caller ahead of me, I was told that I would not be put on the air anyway. Explaining that I'd be happy to wait through the break, I was told that the topic was going to change. So I thanked her and hung up -- but continued to listen on the radio.

For some reason my mind wandered back to my time as an FCC commissioner, when most networks and local stations seemed anxious to put the "controversial commissioner" on the air. (Apparently I was good for ratings. Following my appearance on CBS' Sunday show, Issues and Answers they told me it produced the most mail they'd ever received for the show.) When scheduling permitted, I'd usually accept.

The networks all had their late night shows, too. Dick Cavett hosted the one on ABC show, Merv Griffin was on CBS, and Johnny Carson on NBC. Cavett and Griffin both had me on their shows. Carson did not. But it was not for his young staff's not trying.

I'd get an invite from some young producer inviting me on the Tonight Show. I'd accept, but add, "However, you may find yourself calling me back in a couple weeks and uninviting me." "Why do you say that?" she would ask. "Oh, never mind," I'd reply, "let's just wait and see." Sure enough, the call would come, "Oh, it turns out we'll not be able to have you on that night." "Well, how about another night then?" I'd reply, knowing what was coming next: "There just don't seem to be any open right now." Someone had slipped me the information much earlier that NBC had an internal memo indicating that neither Ralph Nader nor I was ever to appear on the Tonight Show. Apparently, the newest assistant producers for the show "never got the memo."

There was another occasion in a station's studio, when in the middle of an interview, ranting on about the abuses brought on the American people by the AT&T telephone monopoly, the station's phone lines suddenly went dead.

It's true that AT&T was then everywhere. They had one lobbyist just devoted to me. They were in the White House, the Congress, governors' offices, state legislatures, and city councils. AT&T had eyes and ears everywhere. I used to joke that they probably supplied most of the scout masters and den mothers for scout troops. So they certainly could have cut off the service because of what I was saying. But I really think that was unlikely; that it was probably just a coincidence. But it makes a good story regardless. (As Mason Williams once ended a song lyric, "This is not a true tale, but who needs truth if it's dull?")

So it is with my recent radio experience. I think the irony makes a good story; "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Radio Station" (with apologies to the Broadway show, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum").

What's the irony? Not only does the media not give Bernie his due, ignoring him completely, or refusing to permit him to discuss the issues he is raising -- which is the real "news" of his campaign, making him unique among the army of candidates -- but a citizen is kept from even raising the media's failure during a program discussing the media's inadequate coverage of politics.

FAIR and others, such as Project Censored, have amassed considerable evidence of the impact of big business, the wealthy, media owners, and advertisers on what subjects are covered at all, and how they are covered. More than one broadcast journalist has done a mea culpa or two over their cheerleader presentation of President W. Bush's "preemptive war" in Iraq. Even as lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as a threat to women, MS magazine continued to carry cigarette advertising and no articles about the dangers of smoking. There are hundreds of examples. So it is not surprising that the same forces from the outside, and self-censorship on the inside, would result in some favoritism toward the candidates with a pro-corporate ideology and Wall Street contributors.

Consider: ""During his campaign kickoff Saturday, [candidate Martin] O'Malley referenced reports that Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein had told employees that he would be happy if either Bush or Clinton were elected. 'I bet he would,' O'Malley said '. . .. 'I very much was supportive of Hillary Clinton the last go-round,” he [the Goldman Sachs CEO] told Politico last year. 'I held fundraisers for her.'” Ali Elkin, "Martin O'Malley Uses Goldman Sachs to Hit Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush," Bloomberg, May 31, 2015.

In fairness, as with my AT&T story, I need to make clear that this week's radio program is one of its network's best, hosted by one of its finest hosts. (I don't mention names because I don't want to risk this blog essay being interpreted as criticizing either.) My call did come toward the end of the program's first segment. And while the second segment also dealt with politics, it did switch from the media coverage issues.

I could make fun of its second segment choices: Clinton, Bush, and the Republican's clown, Donald Trump -- and ask why Sanders is not at least as important as Trump. But there was a rationale to the program's choice: those three were the most recent additions to the field of 20-plus. Moreover, before the second segment was over, however insignificant, Bernie did get one mention of no more than his name, and another in the context of how his positions (not identified) might have influenced Hillary's move to the left (both mentions together probably totaling less than 10 seconds).

It's still kind of a wonderful irony. It illustrates the point that no one on the radio program mentioned Bernie's treatment as one of the best examples of media failures in political reporting, and that when it was offered the information from a caller, it chose not to put it on the air.

Oh, and that when I tried to upload this blog essay just now Google told me, "An error occurred while trying to save or publish your post." Et tu, Google?! Maybe later.

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