As his polling numbers and donations continue to rise, the media finally seems to be taking Bernie Sanders seriously. Why did it take so long? CNN's Dylan Byers talks with Bob about what made the pundits miss the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders.
"Newsreel" by Randy Newman
BOB: Sanders may not have been the victim of a media blackout, but the last two weeks have still felt something like a discovery:
NEWSCASTER 1: Could Hillary Clinton lose to Bernie Sanders in both Iowa and New Hampshire, why a new poll shows the race for the democratic nomination is far from over.
NEWSCASTER 2: Hillary Clinton’s campaign is ready for a brutal primary fight. are they concerned with how long this could go on?
NEWSCASTER 3: So we caught up with Bernie Sanders and we asked him why he’s talking so much about why he can win.
BOB: You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Sanders has been running for president for nine months, drawing record breaking crowds and donations along the way. Of course, part of this could be the fact that he wasn’t polling this well at any time before. But according to Dylan Byers, Senior Reporter for Media and Politics for CNN, it’s more than just numbers. Byers says that if the media never intentionally “blacked out” Sanders, they haven’t taken him seriously either.
BYERS: If you look at the coverage, if you look at what we call the national narrative, if you look at the front pages, if you look at cable news, if you look at the broadcast networks, you would never have known that this 74 year old Democratic Socialist from Vermont was going to give Hillary Clinton a run for her money in these early states.
BOB: Tell me the evidence for your assertion.
BYERS: Well let's start here: he announces he's running for president, and whereas Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz all got page A1 of the New York Times, he got page 21.
BOB: Okay, okay, that's a data point.
BYERS: If you look at the way the Washington Post described him when he began to run, it was the sort of unkempt 74 year old Democratic Socialist with these sort of expensive impractical progressive policy nostrums. You're just looking at 2 very different attitudes toward the viability of these campaigns.
BOB: Now the most forgiving explanation for the media's conduct to date might be that Sanders is a kind of insurgent and by definition, you don't pay that much attention until he surges. But, you really don't think that that's the nub of the problem.
BYERS: No, I really don't. I mean, look at all the insurgents on the Republican side that we are paying attention to. There's this reputation that the mainstream media has, for being a sort of left wing media, harboring progressive values that it can barely keep out of its copy. i think that there's also a bias against the far left, I think just generally speaking, the media tends to adhere to the conventional wisdom that reflects what the establishment on both sides of the party is thinking, and that is what made it so hard for the media to anticipate the rise of the tea party on the right, and it's what makes it simultaneously so hard to imagine, that a Democratic Socialist who speaks about his campaign in terms of a political revolution and does not apologize for that worldview, that this could be the guy who is actually doing as well as he's doing.
BOB: Let's get to the specifics. There have been a number of reasons proffered by pundits from the beginning as to why Sanders campaign is a quixotic tilt at the electoral windmill.
BYERS: So this is the complaint I heard directly from Bernie Sanders' campaign managers, Jeff Weaver, when I was in Burlington the other week. We announce in Burlington and we get huge crowds and the media says "huh, those are big crowds, but that's his home territory." And then we go to New Hampshire, and we draw thousands and the media says:
NEWSCASTER: Look at the demographics of New Hampshire, it's an elderly, perhaps older electorate, it's almost exclusively white, there are a lot of senior progressives there. That's exactly Bernie Sanders demographic.
BYERS: And then all of a sudden they're going to Denver and they're drawing tens of thousands, and those people happen to be young, and then they have to say those are just young college kids.
NEWSCASTER: Bernie Sanders getting a lot of young voters, they're taking a lot of selfies of themselves in the crowd, it's up on Facebook. And it spreads like wildfire.
BOB: So his appeal is limited to old people and young people?
BYERS: And now the questions becoming well okay fine, sure he has support among white people of all ages, but can he expand that support to the minorities.
NEWSCASTER: Bernie Sanders is very strong in the polls in Iowa, but experts say he could have some trouble winning bigger, more diverse states such as South Carolina.
BYERS: And of course the answer to that is look, he's only starting to make his pitch to the african American groups in South Carolina. And if Bernie Sanders comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire with a win and a tie, they're probably going to be taking a much more serious look at him.
BOB: If we can agree that human nature is that once you have declared something you're loathe to back off your claim. Can you impute that kind of human nature to an entire institution like the media? Because we don't want to concede that we were wrong about him to begin with?
BYERS: I think this is a very important question. I spoke to about 25 or 30 reporters when I was working on this piece, in addition to the campaign strategists and other folks. The most sage thing I heard from a veteran political reporter and columnist about why the media adheres the the conventional wisdom despite all the evidence is that especially among big time reporters, your job is to understand how this thing works. And you want to appear to be with it, you want to be wired into the smartest people in the room, and if you do that it became very hard to take a risk on something like Bernie Sanders or to go on cable news or to write your columns, and to make the argument that we just don't know what's going to happen because that never sounds very smart. And what happens to is that if you have everyone wanting to sound smart, wanting to sound like they know what's going on, this sort of feeds in to this echo chamber where all of a sudden everyone is saying the same things and it becomes very hard to be the sort of lone voice out there saying well this time it might be different.
BOB: It's not as though history were bereft of examples of the media making the wrong call almost as one in a democratic nomination battle. In fact, it happens like this last time!
BYERS: That's what's really amazing about this. If you take the chart showing how the poll numbers have changed throughout this process and you overlay it with the polls from the 2008 campaign, the moment at which Barack Obama surged and caught up with Hillary Clinton both nationally and certainly in iowa, almost directly mirrors what's happened with Bernie Sanders. And if you look at the similarities between the Sanders and the Obama campaigns in terms of more contributions from more people than Hillary Clinton, a much more engaged volunteer base, far larger crowds, I mean this is deja vu all over again. If we know we got it wrong in 2008 why aren't we more open to the possibility that this could happen in 2016? And this might go back to where this conversation started which is this idea that sure a young energetic charismatic extremely rhetorically gifted African American senator might be able to get away with it, but a 74 year old Democratic Socialist from Vermont, no way. It just doesn't happen in American politics. But of course this is the story of American politics: things that don't happen, happen.
BOB: I'd love to point fingers, but here are two sentences that I have uttered within the last 12 months: Donald Trump will not get the Republican nomination, and Bernie Sanders will not be the president of the United States. And they were uttered with certainty, leaving no room for dissent. Uh, I'd love to say I'm part of the solution, but I appear to be part of the problem. Dylan, thank you.
BYERS: Thank you so much for having me.
BOB: Dylan Byers is a senior reporter for media and politics at CNN.
That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Mythili Rao. We had more help from Alex Friedland, Dasha Lisitsina and David Conrad. And our show was edited by…Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Cayce Means.
BROOKE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB: And I’m Bob Garfield.