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What Bernie Sanders gets right with his critique of the corporate media

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Bernie Sanders kicks off his 2020 campaign in Iowa
Bernie Sanders kicks off his 2020 campaign in Iowa
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For generations, the politicians consistently and publicly finding fault with the news media have largely been Republican. But as frustrations rise on the other side of the aisle this campaign season, more Democrats are speaking out, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders. His structural critique of corporate media in America is an important one and goes to the root of so many shortcomings during the Donald Trump media era.

Sanders sparked some controversy when he suggested he was getting poor coverage from The Washington Post because it's owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose hiring practices Sanders has criticized in the past. Some journalists ridiculously likened Sanders' comments to Trump's, and lumped them together as being anti-media. But Sanders soon walked back the Bezos allegation, which was helpful because that way it doesn't cloud his larger, more important points about our corporate media infrastructure and how American news consumers are informed -- or ill-informed.

"There are six major media conglomerates, including Time Warner which owns CNN, which control about 90% of the media in this country in terms of what we see, hear and read. Between you and me, that is a very dangerous situation," Sanders told CNN's Anderson Cooper last week. "The CEOs make tens of millions of dollars a year in compensation. They have an agenda, and I worry about that, as I do worry about concentration of ownership in agribusiness, in Wall Street and in many other areas."

That kind of massive consolidation inevitably leads to group-think. And under Trump, who constantly threatens industries that he perceives to be his enemies, that leads to timidity.

Let's be clear: The media's Trump-era timidity isn't just happening. It's not a fluke that major news organizations in this country continually pull back from telling the truth about Trump on a daily basis -- that he's a "liar" and a "racist," and he appears to be unstable. Those are not stories the bullied press corps has aggressively and unapologetically pursued. Invisible barriers remain in place, and part of the explanation for that is reflected in Sanders' critique.

Some important context: Republicans and the larger conservative movement have been aggressively "working the refs" since Spiro Agnew was vice president nearly a half-century ago. Attacking the so-called "liberal media" has been an absolute conservative hallmark for decades. And what's been so successful and crucial for that attack strategy is that Republican politicians, including the most powerful ones in the country, have gleefully taken up the cause.

Just look at the completely hollow and absurd attacks on social media and tech giants such as Twitter, YouTube and Google. They're getting hammered for their supposed sin of liberal bias -- of somehow freezing out conservative voices online -- and they're getting hammered by the entire right-wing movement in this country, which includes AM talk radio, online sites, Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting, members of the House, members of the Senate, and of course, the president of the United States.

Historically, Democrats and progressives simply do not do that. First of all, as a rule they don't encourage wholesale misinformation the way the GOP and conservatives do. Secondly, when they do critique the media, it rarely includes voices from the Democratic Party and sitting members of Congress, let alone the White House. Embracing the idea that there are more important issues to tackle than the state of the America news media, most Democrats don't consider the topic to be a pressing concern, outside perhaps of the very specific issue of media consolidation, which at times does fall under the purview of the federal government.

So what that means is the GOP's "working the refs" campaign is even more effective because the opposing political side isn't really saying much of anything to the refs, which gives conservatives an unobstructed lane. That's now starting to change.

In the wake of the deadly gun rampage in El Paso, Texas, after a gunman citing a Mexican migrant "invasion" murdered 22 people at a Walmart, a reporter asked Beto O'Rourke if Trump could do anything to "make this better." O'Rourke became somewhat incensed. "He's been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals," he correctly pointed out. "I don't know, like, members of the press, what the f*ck?! It's these questions that you know the answers to." When The New York Times took Trump's culpability in the rise of white nationalism violence and turned it into a preposterous headline that read, "Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism," three different Democratic presidential candidates lashed out at the Times on Twitter.

Back to Bernie Sanders. Do I think Post owner Jeff Bezos has a direct hand in Sanders coverage, and that the paper is tough on the Democrat because Bezos owns Amazon and Sanders has criticized the online behemoth? I do not. It's certainly a situation that's ripe for abuse in terms of having a billionaire owner who is also in the political arena, and it's definitely not the ideal media ownership model in the U.S. But to date, I haven't seen concrete examples of Bezos trying to dictate political coverage at the Post, and I haven't detected a strong anti-Sanders bias at the newspaper during this campaign season -- not the way, for instance there appeared to be a newsroom-wide vendetta -- against Hillary Clinton in 2016 emanating from The New York Times.

Nonetheless, leaning into the drama, CNN labeled Sanders' recent critique a "dangerous" Trump-like attack on the "free press." A.) That's patently absurd, and B.) That kind of exaggerated rhetoric simply proves Sanders' point about the corporate media and the collective lens it uses.

"What Sanders is doing there is absolutely no different than what Trump does," complained CNN's Chris Cillizza, claiming that Sanders was borrowing from Trump's anti-press handbook. Question: Has Sanders vilified and insulted reporters by name? Has Sanders turned a blind eye to the murderous execution of a Washington Post columnist at the hands of Saudi Arabian thugs? Has Sanders derided journalists as the "enemy of the people" and hyped the spread of "fake news"?

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Eric Boehlert is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Free Press, 2006). He worked for five years as a senior writer for Salon.com, where he wrote extensively about media and politics. Prior to that, he worked as a (more...)
 

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