Democratic Primary

Bernie Sanders and the coming media revolution

Pundits and major networks ignore Bernie Sanders at risk of their own increasing irrelevance
Photo: Steve Rainwater

First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic primary in Michigan anyway.

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Tuesday’s come-from-behind win by Bernie Sanders was a potential game changer. It means that the race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination will continue to be competitive for at least a few more weeks, and quite likely for months. There’s now even a growing-if-still-slim possibility that the real “Super Tuesday” will be June 7, with California, the most populous state of all, looming as a decisive battleground.

“Sanders’s win in Michigan was one of the greatest upsets in modern political history,” wrote famed political data analyst Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com. “Bernie Sanders made folks like me eat a stack of humble pie on Tuesday night. He won the Michigan primary over Hillary Clinton, 50 per cent to 48 per cent, when not a single poll taken over the last month had Clinton leading by less than 5 percentage points. In fact, many had her lead at 20 percentage points or higher.”

Pundits said it couldn’t happen

The pollsters didn’t see it coming, and the pundits told us time and again it was impossible.

Earlier this year, Michal Rozworski and I wrote, “For some time now, mainstream political commentators have been throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Sanders to dissuade primary voters from taking his campaign seriously. These pundits, presenting themselves as hard-headed realists while wagging their fingers, try to explain away Sanders’ growing public appeal. They are unwilling, and seemingly unable, to look fairly at what the campaign is proposing and how that might relate to people’s lives.”

The Sanders campaign invested more heavily in outreach to Michigan’s significant Arab and Muslim populations.

In the lead up to Michigan, an army of smug pundits churned out commentary dismissing Sanders based on polls, overshadowing the real issues at play for progressive voters in the state. Sanders’ campaign spent big on ads highlighting his opposition to corporate trade and investment deals like NAFTA and the TPP. This direct appeal to blue collar and working class communities in Michigan, framed by Sanders’ relentless critique of Wall Street and of class inequality in the United States, obviously paid off.

The Nation’s John Nichols suggests the corporate media did not see the Sanders surge coming because they paid little attention to the issue of opposition to corporate trade deals. Nichols also points to the media’s neglect of the Arab-American vote in Michigan. Beneath the mainstream’s radar, the Sanders campaign invested more heavily in outreach to Michigan’s significant Arab and Muslim populations.

In the days leading up to Michigan, Sanders won three of four Democratic contests (Maine, Kansas and Nebraska). Even as his campaign gathered momentum, voices close to the Clinton team and their supporters in the press were implying that Sanders should suspend his campaign, suggesting he was “bogging down” the front runner’s desire to focus on the general election. The Washington Post went into overdrive, publishing 16 stories hostile to, or skeptical of, the Sanders campaign in a single 24 hour stretch.

Sanders blasts corporate media

As the primary returns came in Tuesday night, the Twitter feeds of many prominent political pundits fell silent. Others simply ignored the Democratic primary in Michigan, commenting relentlessly on the dumpster fire that is the GOP race, as Trump had another big night in the Republican contest.

The big networks also seemed to be in denial. If you only followed MSNBC’s headlines Tuesday evening, you wouldn’t have known Sanders was even in the lead.

Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Once the upset win was made official, the Sanders campaign wasted no timing taking direct aim at big media.

It’s now clear that the political landscape of the United States is changing rapidly. The unexpected and unpredictable way the presidential primary season is playing out is, I think, at least partially related to the crisis and transformation of media taking place.

Media: Who’s got next?

With the decline of legacy media, the decreasing authority and dominance of the traditional corporate-owned TV networks, and the seemingly inexorable growth and influence of social media, the field is open as never before for new independent media players to reach a mass audience.

It’s already happening. Just look at the rapid growth in viewers and influence of The Young Turks, for example. What began as a radio and community access TV show has grown into an online sensation, claiming a staggering total of more than 1.5 billion total views.

TYT has grown, in large part, because its hosts offer informed commentary that cuts through the nonsense of the pundits on the mainstream, corporate networks. In other words, they combine political and media criticism. And they have been vocally supportive of Bernie Sanders from the beginning of his seemingly quixotic presidential run.

The corporate media’s efforts to ignore and dismiss the Sanders campaign have failed. Many if not most outlets will continue to fight against his campaign’s core messages of class politics and popular mobilization. But others may feel compelled to begin to give voice to the issues the Sanders insurgency has raised. In the last Gilded Age in the U.S., some capitalists eventually figured out that muckraking, truth-telling journalism could prove extremely good for business. (That said, unlike legacy media, new journalism projects in the digital age just won’t be driven primarily by traditional advertising revenue.)

In our digital era, political revolution requires media revolution.

The new politics manifested in the Bernie Sanders campaign will help call forth new media. His base is young, digitally-informed, and open to more radical ideas than previous generations. They will demand better journalism, and they’re savvy enough to seek it out or start creating it themselves if they don’t find it.

In this new digital era, political revolution requires media revolution. That’s not hyperbole or utopian thinking. That’s the practical reality. And, although it’s early days yet, the revolution we so desperately need is already underway.

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