The pundit class continues to misunderstand Bernie Sanders – and it shows

Nathan Robinson
Photograph: Olivier Douliery/Getty

A new unofficial Bernie Sanders ad, made by a fan, is making a lot of viewers tear up. It contrasts dismissive and disparaging comments about Bernie from TV pundits with the warmth felt towards him by his supporters across the country. It movingly shows how Sanders inspires people and gives them hope – but also just how insulated the “pundit class” is from the reality of people’s lives.

In the video, commentators from CNN and MSNBC talk about Sanders as a man “yelling at people in the same screechy voice, without smiling, without any kind of personal connection”. He “doesn’t actually smile that much”. Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, thousands of people feel a strong connection to Bernie, because he’s talking about the issues that matter to them: healthcare, student debt, climate change, working conditions. And he smiles quite a bit.

The media not only treat Sanders as a humorless fringe demagogue, but they also understate his popularity. Katie Halper has documented the various ways in which media organizations have subtly fudged the numbers to make Bernie seem less successful than he is, and there is still a narrative that his campaign is failing even as it hauls in giant quantities of small donations from all over the country. Even as he shatters fundraising records there will be stories of him “struggling to attract new supporters, and even keep some of the old ones”.

In part, the media underestimates Bernie because it can’t understand Bernie. The new ad quotes CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson saying it’s “really hard to imagine who the Bernie Sanders voter is at this point”. And it’s true: if you are, like Henderson, a Yale graduate living in Washington DC, or you are, like the New York Times’ Sydney Ember, a former financial analyst for an investment bank, the source of Bernie’s appeal must be mystifying. That’s because Sanders returns again and again to issues that are of little interest to the political media, like environmental policy, social welfare, and education.

Consider MSNBC. Combing through their home page a few days ago, I found that nearly every story was about Trump, Ukraine and impeachment. The one headline about climate change, an issue so important that it should be dominating every day’s deadlines, was “Watch London climate change protest involving 1,800 liters of fake blood go horribly wrong,” hardly a substantive discussion of science or policy.

In a recent New York Times profile, Rachel Maddow was quite open about her show being dominated by stories about Russia and Trump: “I’m happy to admit that I’m obsessed with Russia. I realize it’s controversial, and people give me a lot of grief for focusing on it. But I make no apologies.”

Maddow even says that she has borrowed broadcasting techniques from Roger Ailes, the alleged sexual predator who turned Fox News into a brain-numbing hate factory. This is the kind of television MSNBC aspires to: a leftwing version of Fox News, meaning a lot of drama and excitement but very little relevance to the real issues affecting people’s lives.

If you see MSNBC as “the left” and Fox as “the right”, then Bernie Sanders must be some strange aberration that doesn’t make sense. In fact, he’s just a person with a well-refined sense of what matters and what doesn’t. Sanders has been accused of mirroring Donald Trump in his scathing attacks on the media. But while Trump’s objection to the media is that they spend too much time exposing his crimes and lies, Sanders’ objection is that they don’t elevate the voices of ordinary people and they don’t inform the public about the most important issues.

As he writes in his book Our Revolution:

For years, major crises like climate change, the impact of trade agreements on our economy, the role of big money in politics, and youth unemployment have received scant media coverage. Trade union leaders, environmentalists, low-income activists, people prepared to challenge the corporate ideology, rarely appear on our TV screens … [A]s a general rule of thumb, the more important the issue is to large numbers of working people, the less interesting it is to corporate media.

It is very hard for any honest person to deny that this is true. Maddow essentially admits it. What she cares about is the story about Trump and Russia. Climate scientists? Union leaders? They’re probably ratings poison. The impeachment story is the kind of scandal that makes for great television.

But how much do ordinary people really care? What Trump said to the president of Ukraine matters, but it doesn’t matter so much that it dwarfs climate change and child poverty. As Maximilian Alvarez shows in a thorough new essay for the Nation, the media systematically ignores the voices of actual working-class people, and shows almost no interest in their concerns. (Alvarez, on the other hand, lets workers speak in their own voices on his excellent podcast Working People.)

The reason the media doesn’t understand Sanders, then, is in part that they do not understand the problems he is speaking about or why they matter. To cover him fairly would require them to re-examine their entire values and priorities. And that wouldn’t be good for ratings.

  • Nathan Robinson is the editor of Current Affairs and a Guardian US columnist