Commentary: Why Sanders, media have never had a honeymoon

There’s little love lost between Sanders and media pundits. And Bernie’s just fine with that.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

As the presidential campaign got underway last year, we watched the media lavish its affections on Beto O’Rourke for a while, then Kamala Harris, briefly, and Elizabeth Warren for perhaps a month.

But, as it will, love waned.

Joe Biden became the new sure thing: experienced, solid and empathetic. Most of all, he possessed that ineffable quality: electability. But last week, after the Iowa caucuses, the attention shifted squarely to Pete Buttigieg, portrayed as a centrist savior, though it’s still debatable if he actually won.

Then Tuesday night, the news media’s roving crush moved to Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar. Her third-place finish in the New Hampshire Democratic primary became the story of the night.

Never, though, has mainstream media turned its loving eyes to the frontrunner, Bernie Sanders. Quite the opposite.

“He is a grumpy, angry person on the stump and he is not going to be elected,” raved Republican strategist Sara Fagen on ABC News one recent Sunday morning.

At the New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman scoffed at the Sanders surge to write in praise of former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is on the verge of being the next flavor du jour, if his record on criminal justice doesn’t catch up with him.

On a sentence-by-sentence basis, straight news coverage may not have reflected an anti-Sanders bias, but the framing of that coverage — choices made on headlines and emphasis — sometimes did. (Sanders, in a home page headline in the Times, “tightens grip” on the party’s liberal wing, which sounds more threatening than victorious.)

Meanwhile, Klobuchar was queen for a day, garnering headlines like this one from Yahoo News: “Riding wave of momentum, Klobuchar lands in 3rd place in New Hampshire primary.” You heard words like “Klobucharge” and “Klomentum” bandied about.

On MSNBC Tuesday night, host Chris Matthews fawned: “Bernie indicts. She finds a way to care.”

Amy Goodman of the progressive news program “Democracy Now,” a Sanders defender, recalled hearing one cable pundit say that Sanders had “flatlined at No. 1.” On a recent episode she bemoaned that most of the media coverage is “so anti-Bernie it’s just remarkable.”

The subtext behind much of the disdain is a partly a deep-seated sentiment that Sanders, if nominated, has little chance of winning the general election. But it’s also partly — and more insidiously — that many journalists don’t identify easily with Sanders in the same way they do with, say, Warren or O’Rourke or Buttigieg.

In Iowa early this month, I asked one local reporter who had met all the major candidates who would be the strongest Democratic candidate. “I don’t have a hope, I have a fear,” came the answer. It wasn’t hard to figure out what that meant or how that sort of visceral dislike might make its way, subtly, into coverage.

While many reporters and pundits have seemed, until very recently, to casually discount Sanders, a few opinion writers are taking him very seriously; seriously enough to shoot off flares about what a bad choice they think he would make.

“Running Sanders Against Trump Would Be an Act of Insanity,” thundered the headline on a New York magazine piece by Jonathan Chait in late January.

He wrote: “No party nomination, with the possible exception of Barry Goldwater in 1964, has put forth a presidential nominee with the level of downside risk exposure as a Sanders-led ticket would bring. To nominate Sanders would be insane.”

“Bernie Can’t Win,” opined David Frum in the Atlantic, characterizing Sanders in unflattering terms as “a Marxist of the old school of dialectical materialism, from the land that time forgot.” At The Washington Post, columnist Jennifer Rubin has been equally tough; one recent headline: “Bernie Sanders’ Trump-like campaign is a disaster for Democrats.”

In turn, Sanders keeps dissing what he calls the corporate media, as he has for years.

In the official editorial-board interview with the New York Times recently, Sanders blustered that he doesn’t cozy up to powerful media figures as other candidates are wont to do.

“I’m not good at pleasantries. If you have your birthday, I’m not going to call you up to congratulate you, so you’ll love me and you’ll write nice things about me,” he said.

A few media figures are giving him his due, if a little grudgingly. CNN’s Jake Tapper was one: “Take a step back. He is 78 years old, he is a Democratic socialist, he is a Jewish American, originally from Brooklyn; it is a stunning achievement by Senator Sanders and for his movement.”

Sanders, though, doesn’t seem to mind. His ardent followers bond with him and with each other by despising the mainstream media, often enough with good reason.

And it may well be that he doesn’t need or want the help of cable pundits, columnists and other opinion-makers.

From Beto to Biden, their crushes, so far, have turned into heartbreaks.

Maybe media love — fickle and fleeting — is a valentine that Bernie Sanders would rather do without.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.