When we look back at this year’s election, the biggest question might well be: Was it deliberate dishonesty, or just incompetence and unconscious bias that explains the media’s treatment of Bernie Sanders’s candidacy?
Let’s review what happened just this last week. First Politico succeeded in drumming up outrage over an anodyne Sanders campaign script that instructed volunteers to tell people they “like Elizabeth Warren” and consider her their “second choice,” but that they had concerns about her more affluent, well-educated voter base, a base that was originally described in another Politico report. This was roundly condemned as a vicious attack by the Sanders camp.
Next, in one of the most finely orchestrated bits of political theater in recent memory, CNN first reported Warren’s allegation that Sanders had told her in 2018 a woman couldn’t win the presidency against Trump, a contested claim her own campaign doesn’t seem to be sure about. Then, during the following night’s debate, a CNN moderator flatly treated Warren’s version of events as fact, all but called Sanders a liar on national TV when he denied it, and teed Warren up for a pre-prepared and factually dubious speech about the candidates’ electoral histories. At a time of extraordinary political division, the incident was notable for uniting everyone from the National Review to NPR to Morning Joe to Hill.TV’s Rising in condemnation of the lack of professionalism involved.
As footage circulated of a post-debate altercation between Warren and Sanders, the surrounding discourse only became more unhinged. The LA Times published a piece attacking Sanders’s rejected outstretched hand as a master class in handling sexism, accusing Sanders of “gaslighting” Warren. Sanders’s liberal enemies began weaponizing the language of sexual assault, insisting that Warren — a politician with a history of incorrect claims about her own past and currently trying to win an election — should be “believed” as we would an assault survivor. Even Bush-era apparatchiks could now leverage their newfound feminist bona fides to join in the pile-on: Matthew Dowd — who once helped run a campaign for a guy accused by several women of sexual harassment — seemed to suggest that the only way Sanders could now prove he wasn’t sexist was to simply step aside and let Warren win the nomination.
Meanwhile, MSNBC’s Joy Reid brought on a “body language expert” who moonlights as an anti-vaccine conspiracist to tell us how Sanders’s hand gestures and posture proved he was definitely lying about the Warren allegation. At this rate, it won’t be long before Brian Williams invites a psychic to tell viewers that Sanders’s parents actually oppose Medicare for All from beyond the grave.
But somehow none of this even qualifies as the low point of the week — a week that has seen a series of newspaper pundits and other interested parties condemn Sanders and his campaign for the crime of criticizing Biden for his very real history of trying to cut entitlements like Social Security.
As with every media-manufactured controversy, this one requires a prohibitively large amount of context. As my colleague Meagan Day has documented, Sanders speechwriter David Sirota has lately been leading the criticism of Biden’s long, well-documented record of trying to cut entitlements like Social Security, a fact that was, mystifyingly, not once broached by anyone during the final debate before voting. Though Sirota listed several examples of Biden’s position on the issue, the offending passage concerned a 2018 speech Biden delivered at the Brookings Institution as he laid the groundwork for his presidential run. According to Sirota, “Biden lauded Paul Ryan for proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare” in the speech.
Because political journalists dislike the combative Sirota; because the establishment media harbors a deep, sometimes absurd emotional ambivalence regarding Sanders’s campaign; and because they suffer from what Politico’s editor in chief has described as “centrist bias,” the fact-checking brigade immediately rushed to rubbish this claim. In keeping with how things have gone this election — where professional “fact-checkers” have started declaring that even admittedly factual statements are untrue simply because they personally disagree with the point being made — Politifact deemed Sirota’s statement “false.” The Sanders campaign, they charged, had omitted the wider context of what Biden was saying and — here they parroted the Biden campaign’s claim that he had actually been “mocking” Ryan in the speech — missed the fact that he was actually being sarcastic.
With Politifact’s imprimatur on the claim that Sirota’s criticism was not a Genuine Fact, the floodgates opened. Biden claimed the Sanders camp was spreading around a “doctored video” that purported to show him “wanting to privatize Social Security,” before claiming “they doctored the photo, they doctored the piece and it’s acknowledged that it’s a fake.” To say none of these statements are true is an understatement; Biden seemed to be talking about something that happened in a completely different reality.
Figures like Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler and (in a now deleted tweet) Obama’s former Russia ambassador Michael McFaul shared the Politifact story. Marc Goldwein of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget — one of those Washington deficit-scold organizations that has long advocated for cuts to Social Security and other critical programs — referred to a “dishonest splice of a video clip where Biden said something in sarcasm.”
But perhaps no one leaned into this crusade harder than award-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Though Krugman has an admirable history of criticizing Biden and Obama’s attempts to cut Social Security, he also has a tendency during election campaigns to modulate his positions to align with whichever ones his favored candidate — or, in Sanders’s case, his disfavored candidate — adopts.
So Krugman now claims that the Sanders campaign “has flat-out lied about things Biden said in 2018 about Social Security, and it has refused to admit the falsehood,” something he labels “bad” and even “almost Trumpian.” Demanding an apology from Sanders, Krugman assured readers there was “nothing in [Biden’s 2018] remarks that should bother progressives,” claimed that Biden never called for cuts to Social Security, and that there is merely “some truth” to the Sanders campaign “going around claiming that Biden has a long record of trying to cut Social Security.” Krugman informs readers these “dishonest smears” are “coming from the top of the Sanders campaign” and that they say “uncomfortable things about his character.” You will be shocked to learn that Krugman’s source for this information is that same Politifact fact-check.
Let’s give Krugman the benefit of the doubt and assume his critical faculties have just been momentarily impaired by his intense antipathy to Sanders. Both Krugman and the Politifact article that he and Biden and so many others are clinging to are wrong. Watch the video for yourself, read the transcript, or read any of the fine journalists who have taken on the tedious task of explaining Biden’s 2018 words for those mysteriously struggling with basic reading comprehension. If Biden was truly being “sarcastic” about agreeing with Paul Ryan, why would his next sentence hint at the desirability of means-testing Social Security (“I don’t know a whole lot of people in the top one-tenth of 1 percent or the top 1 percent relying on Social Security when they retire”)? Why would he repeat, moments later, in a tone that cannot remotely be construed as “mocking” or “sarcastic,” that these major entitlements “still needs [sic] adjustments” to “stay”?
But the fact that it’s Paul Krugman specifically who’s now trying to play down Biden’s history of efforts to cut Social Security suggests that something else is going on here. Far from these charges containing a mere “element of truth” about a politician who supported such policies “in the more distant past,” for Joe Biden, cutting Social Security is inarguably one of the running themes of his political career, as even the Washington Post acknowledges. With barely any effort, I just found Biden advocating in 1996 for raising the retirement age and lopping off one percentage point every year from the program’s cost-of-living adjustments. Speaking as someone who has looked through more of Biden’s history than is probably healthy, I can attest that it is impossible to wade through the man’s record without constantly tripping over calls to sacrifice the Big Three entitlement programs and a host of other vital government programs on the altar of deficit reduction.
Krugman’s column has served its purpose, however. Just yesterday, the Biden campaign released a campaign ad about the controversy, claiming he’s “been fighting to protect — and expand — Social Security for [his] whole career.” Accusing Sanders of launching “dishonest attacks,” the Biden ad cites Krugman’s column to lend itself legitimacy and denies that Biden supported Social Security privatization, a claim that no one has made. This is how misinformation spreads: not from shadowy foreign hackers and sinister overseas governments, but from within the Washington establishment, with politicians, their staff, and the well-placed media figures that support them turning a lie into truth by sheer force of repetition.
In fact, if there is a Trump-like figure in the Democratic field, it’s Biden himself, who together with his campaign has shown a casual willingness to lie through his teeth when confronted with his disastrous record. Biden has alternated between pretending he was a civil rights and antiwar activist in the 1980s — a lie he’s now repeating again, even though it partly led to his embarrassing exit from the 1988 Democratic contest — and repeatedly lying about his role in pushing the Iraq War, to the frustration of contemporary fact-checkers.
It’s been barely a month since Biden insulted a voter by calling him fat, which his campaign vainly tried to spin as the former vice president saying “facts.” And yet the likes of Politifact and Krugman are determined to play the Superintendent Chalmers to Biden’s Principal Skinner, accepting Biden and his campaign’s lame excuses and explanations on what is a matter of life and death for many. And that’s not even to go into Biden’s history of corruption.
Oops — wouldn’t you know it, that too is now off-limits. Because with this last manufactured controversy having run its course, Krugman and other self-appointed arbiters of reasonable campaign discourse are now outraged that Zephyr Teachout, a Sanders endorser and longtime anti-corruption campaigner, penned an op-ed arguing that Biden’s history of corruption makes him a poor choice to face Trump. This isn’t because the piece contained any factual inaccuracies, of course — indeed, Politico just last year published a well-regarded longform piece examining how Biden’s family members have long cashed in on his political career. It’s because it’s “a really bad look” before Trump’s impeachment trial.
Of course, none of this is about Biden; it’s about Sanders. I’ve written before about how establishment Democrats, who used to love Sanders when he seemed just a harmless nonentity in Congress, have in recent years adopted exactly the same kind of rabid, dishonest hatred toward him that the Right harbored toward Hillary Clinton. Just as right-wing hyperventilation about the Clintons and Barack Obama was intended to snuff out any progressive instincts they may have had, anti-Sanders liberals go histrionic about every minor thing his campaign does to cow it into submission, letting his opponents continue taking potshots without any pushback. And it’s worked: Sanders has now needlessly apologized to Biden over both the Social Security and corruption matters — not that it will stop the attacks.
Why is this happening? The simple answer is that these quarters have belatedly realized Sanders has a real shot at winning, and the anti-Sanders attack machine is now revving up into overdrive to stop him. From December onward, it started with bogus antisemitism accusations, dipped back into the well of misogyny accusations, and now the new line — for the moment, at least — is that Sanders is a Trump-like demagogue. Here’s former Republican aide and Breitbart spokesperson and sometime contributor Kurt Bardella — fresh off his own conveniently timed rebranding as a woke Democrat — solemnly warning that Trump’s and Sanders’s supporters share the same aggressive intolerance. Just yesterday, Hillary Clinton amplified these voices for the umpteenth time.
Establishment media may have an unconscious centrist bias, but most of the people involved aren’t actively dishonest. Still, if the last four years or even weeks should tell us anything, it’s that there are some prominent people in political and media circles who will cheerfully say whatever they need to — and even bend their own perception of reality — if that’s what it takes to ensure that another corrupt, corporate-funded Democrat who will play patsy to the far right makes it to the White House. And if there’s one lesson to be learned from the Jeremy Corbyn experiment, it’s that lying down and taking it is a surefire way to lose.