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Is the media biased against Bernie Sanders?

Democratic Presidential Candidates Hold First Debate In Las Vegas Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Is the media biased against Bernie Sanders?

His supporters certainly think so. Hundreds of them recently picketed CNN, and I'm regularly deluged by emails from Bernie backers who feel the press — including Vox — is biased against their candidate.

I think there are ways in which the media tilts against Sanders, and that some of the reasons for that bias exist primarily as subtext, rather than text, which makes coverage of the candidate confusing for anyone reading it. That said, there are also important ways in which the media tilts toward Sanders and against Hillary Clinton.

The past few days offered good examples of all these dynamics. But they also spoke to deeper realities — realities that we don't often discuss — about the way the media covers all presidential candidates, and how the models that shape media narratives are often invisible to the public.

The media's bias for Sanders

There are a few ways in which the media is biased toward writing about Sanders.

One is that Bernie Sanders content performs well on social media. More than that, positive Bernie Sanders content performs well on social media. Responsible members of the press try to keep that from influencing their stories, but I don't think there's any doubt that these incentives have led to more Bernie coverage, and more positive framing of that coverage, on the margin.

That coincides with the media's broad desire for exciting campaigns. As my colleague Matt Yglesias writes, "The media has a systematic self-interested bias toward exaggerating how close the race is. Sanders supporters are a minority of Democrats, but they are still a large number of people, and they avidly read and share content about Sanders's big fundraising hauls and his wins in low-population states."

Bernie Sanders Holds Campaign Rally In Milwaukee Before State Primary Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

I do think this has made recent coverage of Sanders a bit confusing. Right now there are many positive stories for the Sanders campaign that all feed into a negative story. On Tuesday, Sanders won Wisconsin by 13 points — that is, without doubt, a big win. But Sanders's win in Wisconsin, given the state's demographics, didn't imply that the race has changed in ways that put him on track for the nomination. If anything, Tuesday was a night when he fell a bit further behind in the delegate race.

And this is one place the dynamics of Sanders coverage collide. It's easy to frame Wisconsin as a positive story for Sanders — it's accurate to say that winning is better than losing, and it leads to traffic. So the stories about Sanders's win in Wisconsin look really positive. But then you read into them, and the story is rather less positive for Sanders than the topline framing. This can be jarring, particularly for Sanders's supporters.

One more place the media is biased toward Sanders is that, in my experience, a lot of journalists simply like and believe Sanders. That doesn't mean they support him, but when Sanders says something, the broad view is that he means it — he's not positioning himself, he's not following the polls, he's not just trying to win votes. Sanders receives an assumption of good faith that most politicians simply don't. If he gets something wrong, it tends to get covered as him not having enough information or perhaps making a mistake, not as a lie. This gets talked about in terms of "authenticity," but it's actually a more fundamental form of trust — and it's a form of trust that is not routinely extended to, say, Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz.

The media's bias against Sanders

On Tuesday, the New York Daily News released a transcript of its editorial board's interview with Sanders. The paper pressed the senator hard for specifics across a variety of issues — particularly breaking up the banks — and he didn't deliver a particularly impressive performance. This was treated by many in the media as a definitional disaster for Sanders, but I agree with the Huffington Post's Ryan Grim, who argues that the transcript reveals otherwise.

Sanders's answers aren't very detailed or thorough, but they're not obviously wrong or uninformed (though I think his position on trade, which is that America should only engage with nations that have roughly our wage structure, would be disastrous for developing countries).

But as Grim wrote, the reason the interview was treated as such a disaster for Sanders is that many in the media already believed what the interview purported to show about Sanders — that he's a single-issue candidate who doesn't even know his single issue all that well.

Something that makes Sanders a bit of an unusual insurgent candidate is that his relationship with the national political press corps goes back a long way. He's been in Congress for decades, and he's an unusually interesting, accessible member of the body, so many of the reporters covering him now have developed opinions of him going back a long time.

Congressional Budget Office Director Keith Hall Testifies On Office's Long Term Fiscal Outlook Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

These hardened perceptions protect Sanders from certain kinds of criticism. The Clinton campaign, for instance, has repeatedly tried to accuse Sanders of being a hypocrite on campaign finance, or being willing to take people's health insurance away. Anyone who has covered Sanders knows the depths of his commitment to his progressivism, and so these attacks have mostly been met with derision.

On the other hand, Sanders has a reputation as a candidate who produces lots of messaging bills but doesn't dive too deep into the details of legislation. He's excellent at raising issues but not as tenacious at building the coalitions or working through the process to pass legislation on those issues. As a candidate, the fact that he seemed so much more comfortable talking through high-level questions of unfairness in American economic life and so at sea on the details of foreign policy wasn't a huge surprise. The result is that stories that speak to those perceptions get taken unusually seriously by the press — stories like, for instance, the New York Daily News interview.

Grim, usefully, makes his own subtext text in his response to the NYDN transcript. "I have my own view," he writes, "that Sanders has shown himself to be a lousy manager of his staff on Capitol Hill over the years, which doesn’t bode well for a presidency, and has not shown much interest in organizing, or ability to organize coalitions within the House or the Senate to advance his agenda, outside of his audit-the-Fed legislation, and some improvements to Obamacare. That’s troubling, but it’s different than deciding he’s not serious and doesn’t know what he’s talking about."

My perception of Sanders is roughly similar to Grim's, though the specific concern I have about Sanders's management style is I don't think he likes to be challenged, and I don't think he's very open to people pushing back on his ideas. My experience is that he's an unusually decent and honest politician who is very clear and serious in his ideas but thin-skinned when it comes to the possible problems with those ideas — it's not so much that he's considered the counterarguments and rejected them but that he doesn't seek them out and, when he does hear them, often dismisses them out of hand. You can see these concerns animating my piece about Sanders and management.

This isn't only true for Sanders

This kind of coverage affects all candidates, particularly those who've long been in the public eye. Clinton, for instance, has a famously awful relationship with the press, and it manifests in almost exactly the opposite way that Sanders's does. No one doubts her comfort with the details of public policy or her tenacity in mastering bureaucratic systems and building coalitions. But much of the political press views her as a secretive political opportunist with a questionable sense of ethics.

The result is that the press takes accusations of hypocrisy, calculation, or scandal very, very seriously when it comes to Clinton — even though the scandals, in particular, often amount to very little. And more prosaically, the press believes Clinton is a stiff campaigner who tends to run chaotic campaigns riven by staff infighting, and while there's reason for both perceptions, the heightened attentiveness to stories that confirm those perceptions means Clinton receives worse procedural coverage than probably any candidate in the race.

For all that Sanders's supporters feel the press is biased against their candidate, Clinton's supporters (and Clinton herself) have long felt the press is biased against their candidate, and in important ways they're right. (For a good look at how toxic the relationship between Clinton and the political press is, read Jon Allen's piece on the Clinton Rules.)

Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton Campaigns In New York City Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Which all goes to a larger point about how the press covers politics. Whether reporters are trying to be "objective" or not, we all constantly have to make decisions about which stories to cover, which gaffes to take seriously, which storylines to follow. The way we do it is by building a mental model of the candidate and then absorbing new information into that model. Rick Perry's "oops" moment was devastating because the press (and many voters) had begun to develop a mental model of him as a bit of a dunce; if the exact same thing had happened to Mitt Romney, no one would have cared.

The problems with this approach are twofold. The first is the model could be wrong. This was true, I think, for the press's initial model of Bernie Sanders — because Sanders had never shown much ability to mobilize supporters during his time in Congress, the press missed how good he would be at it when he began running for president, and so didn't take his challenge seriously enough at the outset. By contrast, if Elizabeth Warren had run, the press already believed she was great at mobilizing supporters, and would have taken her challenge to Clinton very seriously from day one, even though the core set of issues she represented was nearly identical to Sanders's.

The second problem with this approach is that it leads to confusing coverage, because the model is, for the most part, hidden, and the accumulated inputs to the model are hard to explain or may not have been things an individual journalist was allowed to report on. The result is that coverage can feel confusing and biased, because the real rationale for the decisions being made about what to cover and how to cover it is obscured from the audience.

But having some kind of mental model of the candidates is important, and even necessary, for coverage. I've used the word "bias" a lot in this piece, but that too is a form of bias — as an industry, journalists tend to believe they should suppress their judgments, and so they've given those judgments the more negative term "bias." I'm skeptical of that argument, and have always believed that the conclusion we come to after considerable reporting and research are an integral part of our product and should be shared with the audience (who can, of course, disagree!). But a problem I need to think harder about is how to surface the underlying judgments that influence our coverage when they're not explicitly part of a particular story.

The Donald Trump exception

President Donald Trump. Isaac Brekken/Getty

This is a bit tangential, but if you've read this far, let's talk about Trump for a second.

An implicit premise of this post is that positive coverage is very important to presidential candidates, and that's why the media's quiet judgments and structural biases matter. But if you zoom out a bit from the Democratic race, I think even that assumption gets called into question.

The candidate who seems to have benefited most from press coverage this year is also the one the press is most biased against: Donald Trump. I've heard very smart observers argue that Trump proves it matters less how you're covered than that you're covered, and he's figured out a loophole by which he can get almost unlimited quantities of coverage so long as he's comfortable with that coverage being overwhelmingly hostile.

If that's true — and I'm not sure it is — then this discussion of what the media thinks of candidates will come to prove quaint, and the only biases that really matter will prove to be the ones towards ratings, conflict, and sensationalism.

The questions of how bias has influenced the Clinton-Sanders race are fairly traditional questions that the media is accustomed to wrestling with, even if imperfectly. The questions of how the media's coverage incentives have influenced Trump's rise are much harder, and much stranger, and will require a lot of soul-searching on the part of the press when this is all over.

How much do conservatives hate Donald Trump?