Former TV news pundit: The mainstream media bias on the 2020 Democratic race is already in high gear
After having been a mainstream TV news pundit, I’m unfortunately addicted to cable news (mostly MSNBC and CNN) and all the blather and repetition – laughably overhyped as “breaking news.” Even when it’s the same news that’s been breaking . . . and breaking . . . for hours or days.
But I’m more bothered by the repetition of pundits and the narrowness of discussion, resulting in a number of unexamined clichés. Although the Democratic race for president has barely launched, mainstream media bias is already in orbit.
As everyone in politics knows – and mainstream pundits acknowledge – the Democratic Party is seriously divided in two. The conflict today may be as intense as during the 2016 primary battle:
** On one side is the party establishment, allied with corporate donors – preaching pragmatism, caution and incrementalism.
** On the other side is much of the party’s activist base, animated by issues and allied with elected officials like Bernie Sanders and a young crop of insurgent Congress members – calling for transformative change to protect the planet and people from corporatism and greed.
Strange thing: only the corporate Democratic side is regularly represented on MSNBC and CNN, and in mainstream media at large.
(Actually it’s not so strange, given the powerful economic forces that own and sponsor mainstream news: Comcast, Time Warner, Jeff Bezos, etc.)
The now daily MSNBC and CNN discussions of the Democratic 2020 race – which usually include mainstream print reporters and Democratic operatives singing the same tune – feature a chorus of corporate Democratic talking points (standards like “go moderate”), while the progressive wing of the party is often alluded to but rarely heard from.
During the Hillary vs. Bernie battle of 2016, CNN made a fleeting attempt to add a few pro-Bernie voices to balance the many on-air Clintonites. That effort faded when the primaries did – and you could almost sense the relief among network executives now that calls for taxing the rich, breaking up big banks, Medicare for all, and free public college were once again muted.
The absence of pundits firmly allied with the progressive wing of the party leads to un-rebutted establishment clichés, like: “Democrats who are too progressive can’t win the votes of moderate and swing voters.” This line persists despite Hillary Clinton, the candidate of supposed moderation and realism, having lost the White House to the most disliked candidate in the history of polling. And despite Clinton’s narrow losses in Michigan (by 11,000 votes), Wisconsin (23,000 votes) and Pennsylvania (44,000 votes) – with survey data indicating that the number of voters who supported the unabashedly progressive Sanders in primaries and then voted for Trump in the general was far larger than Clinton’s margin of defeat: 48,000 voters in Michigan, 51,000 in Wisconsin and 117,000 in Pennsylvania.
It’s not hard to find these swing voters. I coproduced a soon-to-be-released documentary, “The Corporate Coup D’Etat,” and our film team easily located and interviewed working-class people in Ohio who’d voted for Obama and Bernie . . . and then chose Trump over Hillary in November 2016. (The trailer is here.)
If genuinely progressive pundits were present in mainstream media, they’d argue that anti-corporate, populist candidates are often better positioned to win a large portion of swing voters. By definition, swing voters are not heavily political, partisan or ideological; they are assuredly not activists for feminism or Black Lives Matter. But in 2016, Bernie never shrank from his strong support of civil rights, abortion rights and gay rights (arguably stronger than Hillary on those issues), and he was capable of winning swing votes that Hillary could not.
Yet in major news outlets, the truism remains that “moderate Democrats” (meaning corporate-cozy, non-populists) have a better chance of winning in swing states or districts.
Let’s be clear: One reason mainstream journalists were so wrong about the 2016 election is because they are largely divorced from poor and working-class voters of all races. They seem especially clueless about “non-college-educated whites.” Which may explain their obsession with a group of swing voters they can better relate to: “moderate Republicans in the suburbs.”
On last Friday’s “Meet the Press Daily,” MSNBC host Chuck Todd brought on Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos for a segment largely pooh-poohing Bernie Sanders’ chances in 2020. That’s not an unusual topic for Todd or Markos. But in introducing the segment, Todd confusingly described Moulitsas as the publisher of an outlet that represents “the same part of the Democratic Party that embraced Sanders early on in the 2016 campaign.” A more accurate and helpful introduction would have been: “Markos is a longtime skeptic and critic of Bernie Sanders, beginning early on in the 2016 campaign.”
Unlike Moulitsas, who wants to bridge the party’s competing factions, there are genuine advocates for the progressive wing of the party and they’re easy to find. As mainstream media accelerate their discussions of Democratic strategies and candidates in 2019, how hard would it be to include advocates for both the establishment and progressive wings of the party? How hard for MSNBC and CNN to add a progressive to balance regular Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress, a fervent Clinton loyalist and militant foe of the Democratic left? Tanden is now waging a war against progressive critics of Beto O’Rourke – just as she did in 2016 against criticism of Clinton’s flawed candidacy
When it comes to assessing which Democrat is “electable” in a general election, the last group I’d rely on would be the current narrow array of mainstream pundits who dominate the TV networks. If they were reliable, we’d now be awaiting Hillary Clinton’s second State of the Union address.
Jeff Cohen founded the media watch group FAIR in 1986 and co-founded the online activism group RootsAction.org in 2011. He is the author of "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media." He was founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, where he was an associate professor of journalism.