If you’ve paid attention to the news in the last few days, you’ve probably heard about Bernie Sanders’s dangerous, scurrilous attack on the US media.
“Do you know how much Amazon paid in income taxes last year?” Sanders asked a crowd, prompting cries of “Zero!”
“I talk about it all of the time,” he continued, “and then I wonder why the Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me.”
The line instantly elicited a hurricane of denunciations from both the media and prominent Democrats. Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron dismissed it as a “conspiracy theory,” and various of the paper’s reporters chimed in to this effect, with one charging that Sanders “sounds a lot like Donald Trump.” MSNBC’s Brian Williams called it a “Trump talking point,” while Meet the Press (more specifically, its Twitter account) labeled it an attack on the free press, after assembling a panel to rubbish the remarks. One of the participants included the Center for American Progress’s Neera Tanden, who said that, at a time when Trump is attacking the press, lines like Sanders’s give Democrats a queasy stomach.
There are several layers of absurdity here. One is that Sanders’s point is not particularly controversial. While it’s understandable that a corporate-controlled press wants to pretend otherwise, there are countless examples of corporate media muzzling its own reporting, whether the wholesale silencing of anti-war voices after September 11 by companies like Disney and NBC, or the editing out of a news station’s parent company from a report on US industry’s use of shoddy materials (also NBC). A less alarming version of this also happens at the Post, which prohibits its employees from criticizing its partners and advertisers on social media.
This isn’t something that just happened back in the day, either. Last year, a standoff developed between the newsrooms and upper management in the newspaper empire of Digital First Media, or DFM, which had been bought by a hedge fund in 2010 that was now ransacking its own newspapers for profit. Editors and reporters were gagged and forbidden from writing critically about what was happening to their own paper, sometimes due to explicit directives from DFM executives, but in some cases simply because editors and publishers preemptively put a stop to such stories to avoid any potential reprisal.
That’s the other thing. As others have pointed out, the idea that corporate censorship solely, or even mostly, takes the form of someone at the top sending a memo or making a phone call — and, make no mistake, that certainly does happen — has never been the left-wing critique of a corporate press. As figures like George Seldes and Noam Chomsky have explained, from our earliest days, we are enveloped by an architecture of beliefs and assumptions that tells us what we should and shouldn’t think, from popular culture to the educational system to the news.
After that, a ruthless process of self-selection means anyone deviating from that line isn’t seen or heard from. As Chomsky explained to a British reporter who balked at being accused of self-censorship: “I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
Second, what makes all of this particularly ironic is that the very same news outlets decrying Sanders’s criticism as an unfair, Trumpian attack have themselves utilized the same logic to smear reporters. CNN raced to criticize Sanders’s statements, complaining he provided no evidence of bias, yet just months earlier the network had Maffick, a left-wing news outlet, removed from Facebook largely because it received funding from the Russian government. Unlike the coverage Sanders is complaining about, which is often either outright wrong or cartoonish in its attempts to play down the senator’s campaign and policies, CNN noted that Maffick’s content “fits comfortably within fairly mainstream American politics.” In other words, its only crime was that its content gelled with the Russian government’s presumed goal of “exploit[ing] existing divisions and tensions in the country.” This same mindset had led the Post to earlier cast several legitimate, independent news sources as “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda,” a story Baron personally promoted.
In other words, the corporate media is entirely comfortable with casting aspersions on otherwise factual reporting based on who owns the news outlet in question, at least when who owns it is a foreign government the United States opposes. For some reason, it’s only criticism of corporate ownership that makes reporters uncomfortable.
Finally, it’s curious that Sanders’s criticism has launched such a furious pushback, including accusations of “attacks [on] the free press” and comparisons to Trump, when, for the past three years, prominent Democrats and liberals have relentlessly attacked the media for their coverage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, including Clinton herself. In some cases, those who lobbed the most vicious criticisms of the press are now solemnly mourning what Sanders said.
Take Neera Tanden for instance, who did just that on Meet the Press (a program, incidentally, whose host once wondered out loud whether a US journalist should be prosecuted for publishing government secrets). You can find example after example of Tanden criticizing reporters and the media for their reporting on Clinton’s email server scandal, and for having the temerity to report on the newsworthy contents of her campaign’s hacked emails.
Tanden has said that “every reporter who gleefully trafficked in stolen emails via WikiLeaks abetted a crime” and that “all those who printed WikiLeaks emails helped a foreign adversary.” Nothing Sanders said remotely comes close to the extreme, nearly intimidating nature of these statements from one of the country’s most influential Democrats, who herself has a habit of censoring the supposedly independent reporters whose outlet her think tank owns, and who once suggested that the Clinton campaign use “brown and women pundits” to “shame the Times and others” into more positive coverage.
So harsh have these criticisms been, they’ve since been internalized by reporters, some of whom now feel bad for having done their jobs and failed Clinton in her bid for the White House. The Times itself decided that “every major publication” that reported on the emails had become “a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.” Who needs an edict from above when media outlets voluntarily decree that adversarial journalism is a Russian plot?
Sanders’s words have afforded the media their best chance yet to trot out the lazy narrative that Sanders is just another version of Trump, an outgrowth of the media’s general tendency to lump all “populists” together. We saw this line tested in last month’s Democratic debate, when Jake Tapper suggested that Trump’s and Sanders’s rhetoric about ending wars potentially makes them indistinguishable to voters.
But it’s also a testament to the ideology that prevails among America’s newsrooms, places that are still more likely to feature the voice of a “never-Trump” Republican than a socialist. These journalists genuinely don’t understand that the criticisms they have of newsrooms owned by autocratic governments might also apply to those owned by autocratic corporate leaders. Marty Baron is right when he says there’s no conspiracy; there doesn’t need to be.