Bias Against Progressive Candidates Evident in Corporate Media Coverage of Democratic Primary 

Interview with Jeff Cohen, media critic and co-founder of the online activist group, RootsAction.org, conducted by Scott Harris

Since Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, one of this year’s progressive candidates, ran a close second to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary campaign, many of the policy positions he advocated to address America’s stubborn economic and social problems have been embraced by the Democratic party, the public and many of the 2020 presidential candidates.

Establishing a Medicare For All universal health care program, enacting a $15 an hour minimum wage, tuition-free college and allocating substantial funds for a national Green New Deal to address climate change were among the progressive policy proposals that are now widely supported in public opinion polls.

Both Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who promote similar but not identical agendas, have been on the receiving end of what many on the left consider to be biased coverage from commercial media outlets – which often feature stories with a built-in pro-corporate, anti-progressive slant, and misrepresenting the candidates’ positions.

Now with Sanders leading in major polls a week before the Iowa caucuses and two weeks before the first primary in New Hampshire, the self-declared Democratic socialist candidate will likely be the focus of more intense media scrutiny. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jeff Cohen, founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and co-founder of the online activism group, RootsAction.org. Here, he explains why he believes the corporate media has engaged in biased media coverage of progressive Democratic party presidential candidates and their policy positions.

JEFF COHEN: While the corporate mainstream media is trying to drum into the heads – especially of Democratic voters – that a candidate like Bernie or even Elizabeth Warren is “too far left to win,” the reality is it’s mainstream media that’s doing the polling that shows the progressive domestic agenda are very popular items. So they keep drumming it into our heads that somehow Bernie couldn’t beat Trump, but their own polls show that taxing the rich is very, very popular. There’s a new Reuters poll that shows most Republicans support the wealth tax, Medicare for All is popular, free public college and canceling student debt is popular. The corporate mainstream media is freaked out, not just the corporate Democratic leaders, but the corporate media are freaked out. So they’re trying to drum it into our heads – even though these initiatives from a Bernie Sanders are very popular – that somehow, Bernie Sanders will not be able to beat Trump when he’s actually quite popular in the polls and has very big favorables.

The CNN debate that happened more than a week ago is just typical of all the Democratic debates, whether they’re run by CNN, ABC or MSNBC. You have certain tropes that keep reappearing. And one of them is this idea that “You mean Senator Sanders, you’re going to kick 150 million people off of the healthcare and the private health insurance that they like?” And the reality is, and I point it out in my recent column – is if you look at the data, the health insurance companies are some of the most hated companies in the country and that people are very concerned about all the time they spend fighting the health insurance companies. And yet you keep having that trope about the “satisfied customer.” Forbes magazine, not exactly the left-wing journal had a recent article, “The top five industries most hated by customers” and the fourth most hated industry was the private health insurance companies. So yeah, there’s a lot of distortion and you have the panelists asking the Democratic candidates these questions where they imply facts that are completely false.

SCOTT HARRIS: Hey Jeff, I did want to talk about electability. It’s very understandable that in this election coming up in November, 2020, that many people who are planning to vote in the Democratic primary have electability at the top of their list of priorities when they’re choosing a candidate – for good reason, of course. There’s a lot of fear out there what a second Trump administration, second Trump term in office would bring this country, what it would do to the Constitution and to human rights and social programs, not least of which (is) faith in our government. But Jeff, what can you say about concerns maybe rightfully stated or misplaced, that Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren with their progressive policy agenda would be less electable than some of these centrist candidates like Amy Klobuchar or Joe Biden or (Mayor Pete) Buttigieg. As you look at the corporate money that will be arrayed against any progressive candidate, whether it be Bernie or Elizabeth, is there not a legitimate concern that these companies will devote huge amounts of money to try to discredit them and paint them as socialists or radicals that will bring the country to ruin?

JEFF COHEN: Yeah, I think electability is important and the last place I would look for expertise on electability is the mainstream media. You remember it was the mainstream pundits who use the arguments you’re talking about, which is Bernie and Warren, their proposals are too far-reaching, too progressive. Let’s go with a moderate like Klobuchar. We did that already in 2016. It ended in disaster. The most unpopular candidate for a major party in history won: Donald Trump. And he beat someone who is not seen by any voter that I’m aware of “as too far left, too radical.” She was as too cozy with the establishment status quo. The only way you can beat, I believe, a faux populist like Trump is with proposals that will activate young people and energize them, activate people of color who realize, “Wow, Warren or Sanders have got these programs that are going to really make my life better and even bring back.”

And polls show, by the way, that people who voted for Obama and then flipped to Trump, they’re more likely to come back to Bernie than any other Democratic candidate. Will the corporations throw a lot of money against Bernie? Of course they will. Has any candidate raised more grassroots money than Bernie? No. And I mean the money’s going to flow into Bernie from middle class and working class people. He will be outspent, but he will have enough money to run a powerful campaign.

For more information, visit Jeff Cohen’s website at jeffcohen.org.

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