BERN NOTICE: What We Cannot Discuss

Pundits freak out over the suggestion that billionaire media tycoons don't like Bernie Sanders

This is the first edition of Bern Notice — the digital newsletter of the Bernie 2020 campaign. Please forward this on to your friends and tell them to subscribe. The views expressed here are solely of the bylined author.

"People will think-”

“What I tell them to think!” - Charles Foster Kane

As Bernie Sanders has been rising in post-debate polls, why are elite media pundits particularly angry at him? The explosion of rage tells us a lot about what the corporate media says we can and cannot discuss — and how frightened the establishment really is.

Let’s review what happened: this week, the billionaire-owned Boston Globe and New York Times both rehashed an old media-manufactured trope pretending that Bernie Sanders doesn’t talk to people at parades and fairs (he does, a lot). This followed the Washington Post ignoring a slew of recent positive polls for Bernie and instead choosing to only publish a big story on one single bad outlier poll.

In response, Bernie suggested that maybe the reason this keeps happening is because billionaire media moguls like Jeff Bezos and others don’t particularly like his agenda that would take power away from billionaires and corporations.

Vox pointed out that yes, Bernie “has some legitimate complaints. Media outlets do seem to be looking for signs of weakness — there’s more coverage of a sputtering campaign than one that is steadily chugging along in second place nationally (the latter is closer to the truth).”

And yet, Bernie’s comments about media ownership touched off a full freak out by — shocker! — the Washington pundits who are paid by the corporations and billionaires who own the media.

Meet the Press called Bernie’s comments an “attack” on the free press and CNN pundit Chris Cillizza called his comments “ridiculous”. MSNBC’s disgraced anchorman Brian Williams went even further — approvingly reading an anonymous Twitter troll’s anti-Bernie lie on national television, even though the lie had already been thoroughly debunked.

The bizarre part of all these overwrought responses is that, until now, it hasn’t been particularly controversial to suggest that media ownership can influence media coverage. The FCC previously had rules in place — supported by one Bernie Sanders — to regulate media ownership in order to try to prevent “Citizen Kane”-style tycoons from monopolizing the media, and weaponizing it against political opponents (sidenote: Donald Trump’s administration has been working to gut the remaining rules that are still on the books).

“A framework of what we can discuss and what we cannot discuss”

As Bernie said -- and as research shows -- the influence of a corporate or billionaire owner on media isn’t typically heavy handed, but more often subtle.

“There is a framework of what we can discuss and what we cannot discuss,” Bernie told CNN.

Reporters don’t have to receive a call from Jeff Bezos to know that their paychecks are signed by a billionaire with a well-known personal and corporate agenda — and knowing that agenda exists can shape overall frameworks and angles of coverage.

Consider two examples.

Bernie has been the leading voice in American politics calling for billionaires and large profitable corporations to pay higher taxes. Is it really any surprise that Jeff Bezos’ newspaper published 16 stories in 16 hours denigrating the leading lawmaker pushing to make Bezos and Amazon pay more taxes?

Similarly, Bernie has led the fight to push companies like Amazon to start paying their workers a living wage. Is it really a shock that the newspaper owned by Amazon’s founder promotes a never-ending and obsessive series of editorials and debunked “fact checks” that personally vilify Bernie and demonize his agenda?

The answer is no, it isn’t surprising -- and that should be easy for everyone to understand. But as the journalist Upton Sinclair famously said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

“Amazon Is flooding D.C. With money and muscle”

Now, if Jeff Bezos was some silent apolitical statesman, perhaps you could argue that he couldn’t possibly have any overall influence or interest in his newspaper’s coverage. But he’s the opposite — he and his company have a very clear and aggressive political agenda.

Bezos bankrolled the campaign to block lawmakers from raising taxes on billionaires, and as a Politico headline noted: “Bezos plays active role in tax fights.” More recently, Bloomberg News reported that “Amazon is flooding D.C. with money and muscle” as the company seeks to dominate Washington policymaking. 

In the lead up to his company’s Washington lobbying blitz, Bezos told everyone he did not buy the Washington Post as some apolitical passive business investment. On the contrary, he publicly declared that he took an interest in it because of its power in our democracy. Here’s what he said:

I said to myself, ‘If this were a financially upside down salty snack food company, the answer would be no...But as soon as I started thinking about it that way, it was like, ‘This is an important institution.’ It is the newspaper in the capital city in the most important country in the world."

As journalist Kevin Gosztola put it: “Owning an important institution like the Washington Post, in the nation's capital city, is probably a really good investment if you're a CEO who has to routinely worry about antitrust probe being launched into your massive corporation.”

And for all the claims that Bezos has no interaction with the Washington Post, Bob Woodward recently told a health insurance lobbying group that he spoke with Bezos about how he makes hiring decisions. Bloomberg has also reported that “every two weeks, Bezos holds an hour-long conference call with executives at the Washington Post (and) twice a year, the managers fly to Seattle for day-long strategy sessions with the founder.”

“Every major news organization uses this insurance industry’s framing”

Does this all mean that corporations and billionaires control and carefully sculpt every piece of media content? No.

Does it mean Jeff Bezos is calling every single shot in his newsroom? Nope.

Does it mean Comcast’s top executive is calling producers at Comcast-owned MSNBC and telling them to destroy the opponents of the presidential candidate he is raising money for? Probably not.

Does it mean there are no good reporters managing to do excellent and honest journalism? No, of course not — great journalists are still doing great work.

But does corporate and billionaire ownership help create a general framework of coverage?

Yes, of course.

Think about it: outlets owned by Disney and Amazon’s founder probably aren’t going to consistently and aggressively cover the fight to raise Disney and Amazon workers’ wages, and they probably aren’t going to make it their core mission to honor Joseph Pulitzer’s famous demand that journalists “attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”

Cable TV networks bankrolled by pharmaceutical ads probably aren’t going to be super psyched about Bernie’s bill to reduce prescription drug prices.

Media conglomerates making big money off fossil fuel ads probably aren’t interested in holding fossil fuel executives accountable for their pollution — and they often do not provide adequate coverage of emergencies like climate change.

Washington pundits and reporters doing paid speaking gigs to health insurance lobbyists probably aren’t interested in giving Bernie’s widely popular Medicare for All proposal a genuinely fair hearing. Indeed, as one recent study noted, today “virtually every major news organization covering health care policy routinely uses (the) insurance industry’s framing to define Medicare for All.”

In other words, as the Hill’s Krystal Ball shows in the video below, corporate and billionaire-owned media often tilts coverage against candidates like Bernie who push a working-class agenda — an agenda threatens the political power of corporations and billionaires.

Bern after reading,


P.S. If you want to go deeper on the Washington Post’s ideological crusade against Bernie, read this terrific 2016 Harper’s magazine report from Thomas Frank.

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