Briahna Gray: Media. The fourth estate. The watchdog of democracy. Our tool for understanding not only what is happening in the world, but why it matters. You probably don’t need someone to tell you that U.S. media outlets are in a deep crisis. According to the Pew Research Center, circulation for daily newspapers has been on the decline for the past three decades. In 2016 ad revenue for the industry was just one third of what it was a decade earlier.
While high profile outlets like New York Times and The Washington Post have posted about soaring subscriptions in the age of Trump, the story for the industry as a whole has been one of consolidation, layoffs, buyouts, and decline. The winners in this new media climate, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, which are the new primary targets for ad revenue.
Ari Rabin-Havt: Look. The reporting industry, it’s terrible right now.
Briahna Gray: That’s Ari Rabin-Havt, our Chief of Staff talking on a recent episode of our live streaming show for the campaign called the 99.
Ari Rabin-Havt: When I traveled in 2004, during the general election with John Kerry’s campaign in 2004, there were reporters for the magazines who would go out on the road and have to file once a week stories. There were photographers who were shooting on Leica cameras on film, who would leave the road to develop their film to get the cover shots for the magazines. Now, first off reporters are filing… They have to tweet. They have to file three or four stories a day, who are traveling. Photographers are filing every five minutes with photos.
So reporters are looking for fast, simple narratives. It’s a bias towards easy because, look, in a lot of cases, these are people who are just trying to do their jobs.
Briahna Gray: Perhaps not coincidentally. The public trust in the media has plummeted too. According to Gallup, it dropped from 72% in the late ’70s to a low of a 32% in 2016. And while that number has improved a bit in the last few years, 68% still say that the media is biased. Just 21% of Americans say that they trust the media a lot.
Now, some of that distrust is rooted in the convenient anti-media rhetoric of Donald Trump, who famously called for literal attacks on members of the media establishment during his 2016 run.
Donald Trump: But I had heard that he body slammed a reporter. Any guy that could do a body slam, he’s my kind of guy.
Briahna Gray: But some media critique, I would argue, is well founded.
Katie Halper: The other day, this was hilarious, Politico, I think it was, had a headline that said, “Biden stays at number one, Warren and Harris are competing over three.” And it’s like, wait, there is a number between one and three, right? Is there are a number? Yeah. It was Harris/Warren tied for third place in new 2020 Dem poll, but Biden still leads. Where’s Bernie?
Briahna Gray: This is Hear the Bern, a podcast about the people, ideas and politics that are driving the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign and the movement to secure a dignified life for everyone living in this country. My name is Briahna Joy Gray. And I’m coming to you from campaign headquarters in Washington DC.
Bernie supporters have long complained about negative and unfair media coverage of their preferred candidate. And frankly, there are a lot of examples to point to. So for this episode, we are documenting our least favorite media, oh, let’s call them anti-Bernie tendencies. With the help of Sam Seder of The Majority Report. And Katie Halper of the Katie Halper Show.
Katie Halper: I think that there’s a media bias that, of course, like Fox News and Donald Trump will call things fake news, or what do they call CNN? Clinton News Network. And they’re coming from a right-wing perspective. And Trump is inconsistent, and he’s not honest. And he’s a hypocrite. But anyone who’s progressive and who fights for any kind of justice, economic, racial, gender-based, knows that the media is very unrepresentative. It’s been that way historically. It doesn’t ask the important questions.
Briahna Gray: That was Katie Halper, host of a progressive podcast and radio show, and a comedian who injects some levity into left politics. She did a nice job of distinguishing between right-wing attacks in the media, which are often personalized and threaten actual harm to journalists, and leftist critiques on the substance of what’s covered.
Katie Halper: A lot of people will say, Trump and Sanders both speak to a certain group of people who feel disaffected and angry and like the system isn’t working. And they use that to try to discredit Sanders and make him Trumpian, right?
News Clip: Their styles are similar, shouting and unsmiling, anti-establishment and anti-media, absolutely convinced of their own correctness, attacking boogeymen, the 1%, CEOs in Sanders’ case, instead of immigrants and minorities, offering impractical promises with vague details, lacking nuance and nostalgic for the past.
Katie Halper: Of course, Sanders speaks to multiple audiences, but one of them, one of the ones he does speak to effectively, I think, are the disaffected, kind of angry people who feel left behind. And there’s a big difference, though, between speaking to these people and saying, as Trump does, “I feel your pain or I see your pain. You’re hurting, and you have every right to be angry and blame Muslims and Mexicans,” and saying, “I see your pain. I feel your pain. You’re hurting. And don’t blame Mexicans and Muslims. Don’t blame people who have been oppressed and marginalized with less power. Blame institutions. Blame corporations or the 1%. Or blame structural things.” That’s a really important distinction to make. And in fact, it’s a much more effective way to battle the former is with the latter.
Briahna Gray: Indeed, we would be remiss this episode, if we didn’t stress Donald Trump’s own habit of criticizing his media coverage. The President’s assault on the media has been unrelenting from the earliest days of his 2015 campaign. It’s his standard deflection for literally any negative coverage of his seemingly endless litany of shady and outrageous misdeeds.
So, as Bernie often says, “Let us be clear.” Journalism is vitally important work that has the potential to hold the powerful to account. We just want to see it fulfill that promise, rather than run interference for the country’s entrenched elites. Here’s Katie, again.
Katie Halper: It’s very easy to think, oh, this person says the media is dishonest. This person says the media is dishonest. Therefore, they’re making the same exact argument.
News Clip: Stylistically, Sanders and Trump, very similar, right? They sort of both thrive off of that conflict, that negativity.
Katie Halper: And they’re not. They’re coming at it from very different places. And their perspective is different. Trump will never say the media is dishonest because corporations own the stations and channels, right? He’ll say that they’re dishonest because they are being unfair to him. Obviously, people on the left, and there’s a long progressive tradition of liberals and progressives and leftists who tried to speak truth to power and take on the powers that be. And probably one of the most important places that shows up is in the media, because that’s how everything else gets discussed and framed.
If we could work on one problem, I mean, even when it comes to climate change, racism, anything, really any issue, if we don’t have a more honest, robust media, we can’t really solve any of those things.
Briahna Gray: This is a striking point. One that really landed with me because it relates to why I felt somewhat empty after watching the coverage of the last debates. The questions that get asked, the answers that get the most attention just weren’t the issues that most affect the lives of everyday Americans.
Busing and school segregation are huge issues. But the question of school segregation was personalized, rather than attached to the needs of voters. Schools are more segregated today than they were 30 years ago. But that wasn’t said on the debate stage, and there was no conversation about any specific candidate’s desegregation plan.
Bernie Sanders’s Thurgood Marshall education plan has been described as, “The most progressive education platform in modern American history.” But pundits seem less worried about candidates’ plans to desegregate schools than personal conflicts, which are, yes, admittedly spicy.
A 2013 study showed that less than 1% of all news covered the poor. And if it’s more today, I think Bernie deserves credit. Three years ago, a $15 minimum wage was attacked by the Democratic establishment as a pipe dream. Hillary Clinton described Medicare for All as akin to wanting a pony. And nearly all of the candidates currently running on the Democratic ticket agreed explicitly, or implicitly through their support for the party’s chosen candidate.
The fact that stories relevant to everyday Americans aren’t generally covered, is exactly why this campaign has launched the 99 and this podcast. But that doesn’t mean that the bias of the mainstream media, with its millions of viewers and billions in backing isn’t a problem.
Sam Seder is somewhat of an expert when it comes to left media. In 2004, he became the co-host of Air America, a progressive radio station with Janeane Garofalo. Air America went off the air in 2010. But Sam’s show The Majority Report continues to air on YouTube, and was the birthplace of the Michael Brooks Show, hosted by last week’s guest, Michael Brooks.
Sam is also an MSNBC correspondent, and a friend of Chris Hayes, perhaps the most progressive of all mainstream media pundits. In fact, I first met Sam on the Chris Hayes Show last year. So, I wanted to ask him how he would explain media bias to the average American who likely perceives the differences between Fox News and MSNBC, but may not see the tension between left media and more moderate liberal media sources.
Sam Seder: Well, Fox has more than a bias, right? Fox has an agenda that is very, very explicit. And this is a sort of a nuanced difference. But I would say that there are definitively biases at CNN and MSNBC at all other outlets. Fox has a very aggressive agenda. I don’t think there’s as strong of an agenda, politically speaking, at CNN and MSNBC. I think there’s a bias against things that they perceive as too left, but I don’t even think that it’s that conscious of a decision. I think that ultimately is what happens. And I think it’s more a function of the nature of the people who work in that realm.
Briahna Gray: In other words, for profit media tends to reflect the class interests of the people who own it, operate it and consume it. Behind outlets like Bloomberg, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal are billionaire owners such as Michael Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos, and Rupert Murdoch. Entire cable networks like MSNBC, are owned by some of the biggest companies on Earth, like Comcast, and shaky revenue throughout the industry has led to consolidation to the point that one company, the pro-Trump Sinclair Broadcast Group, controls 173 local TV news stations.
Ari Rabin-Havt: This is just a factual statement. The elite media, the media that’s at the top, the cable nets, the lead editors, the reporters, they tend to live in Washington, DC, and New York. They tend to be upper middle class or wealthy. They work for companies worth billions. It’s billions of dollars. On TV, you have millionaires paid by billionaires to present information.
Katie Halper: The Washington Post has almost like a problem. They go into withdrawal if they don’t write or publish an anti-Bernie piece.
Briahna Gray: Who owns the Washington Post?
Katie Halper: Oh, Jeff Bezos. You may have heard of Jeff Bezos. He and Bernie don’t have that great a relationship. And of course, Bernie Sanders and Ro Khanna helped pressure Bezos to raise the minimum wage that he paid. And The Washington Post famously once published 16 anti-Sanders stories in 16 hours. But don’t worry, because Callum Borchers, who was a Washington Post journalist at the time, he took care of it. He took a look and found out it wasn’t bias. I mean, it was pretty meta. They didn’t even bother with a public editor or anything.
Briahna Gray: Here’s Sam again.
Sam Seder: I mean, first off, you look at the pedigree of the outlets. I mean, MSNBC in the run up to the Iraq War, and then they were not in any way, a left network at all. I mean, they were right. That’s where Pat Buchanan was at that time. Tucker Carlson, Joe Scarborough. And then they may be tried to do stuff that was sort of down the middle-ish. And Frank Luntz was there in the run up to the Iraq War.
And I knew people at that time who were contributors there. And there was a definitive sense that they wanted to get behind the war, that they did not want dissent about what was happening. Now part of that was a function of… They were owned at that time. Majority of their ownership was one of the largest weapons manufacturers in the world. So that’s where there’s sort of… You get those sort of like narrow agendas, that are sort of ad hoc.
Briahna Gray: And below the owners, these outfits are staffed, especially at the editorial level, by people with vastly more wealth and access to power than average Americans.
Katie Halper: There are people… With Sanders, this comes up a lot. The media and the political elites are invested in a world that Sanders’s presidency would rightfully challenge, right? One of them is the think tank class, which is very allied with the media, and it’s very incestuous. And lots of people in the media are pundits. And pundits work at think tanks.
And a lot of these think tank people take positions that are anti-‘Medicare for All’. They really try to kind of take the wind out of the sails of really progressive positions, not by being on the right, or not embracing that they’re on the right, but by pretending they’re more reasonable, leftist position, right? They’re the ones who will get it done. They’re the pragmatists.
And then you have Sanders who is making these unapologetic demands that really highlight people’s hypocrisy, and really shift the conversation to the left. And what’s interesting is with the media, you’ll never hear the media say, the corporate media, you’ll never hear them say, “How are you going to pay for this war? How are you going to pay for this tax cut?” We’ll only hear them say, “How are you going to pay for this Medicare for All idea?”
News Clip: This is so many trillions of dollars. And the thing about a very crowded primary is that he will be asked very specifically at times where those trillions of dollars are coming from.
Katie Halper: Sounds great on paper. But how are you going to pay for it? How are you going to pay for anything that really benefits the majority of people? No one ever asks how you’re going to pay for that. But people will ask how you pay for things that serve the arms industry or the rich in terms of tax cuts.
Briahna Gray: Sam echoed that point. Who is telling you the news matters.
Sam Seder: Broadly speaking, I think the bias against the left is one that’s not terribly different from the mainstream corporate media, which is, we are people who have succeeded in the context of a structure that is, politically speaking, center-right, I would say.
And center-right people, in terms of their perspective, tend to do better in a center-right context. I think that many of the biases are not so much because there’s somebody at the top thinking, “I’m concerned about this policy or that policy.” It’s more like, when people identify as being of the left or when they espouse political perspectives of the left, they are immediately considered marginal by these people, because that’s just their worldview. And I think in a place like CNN and MSNBC, and I think there’s some difference between the two, but those who are similarly situated away from the center on the right, although I would say even further away from the center on the right, are so alien to these people, in some respects that they feel obligated to have them on more.
Briahna Gray: It’s worth pausing on this observation, because it’s spot on. A recent poll from Media Matters found that right leaning guests surpassed left leaning guests on every major Sunday talk show, not just on Fox. NBC’s Meet the Press was the most ideologically imbalanced show in the study featuring right leaning panels 63% of the time, and left leaning panels just 8% of the time. Only 50% of Fox News Sunday panels tilted right. A tendency to prop up never Trump conservatives and virtually no genuinely left voices has an effect. For example, a recent Morning Consult poll found that, among potential primary voters, regular MSNCB viewers are the least likely to support Bernie compared to numerous other major outlets, including Fox News.
Katie Halper: It’s like a rehabilitation program from working for George Bush to being on MSNBC. I don’t know why they have this Head Start but from middle age or something. But I don’t know what’s going on with that. That’s weird and scary, and you have all these war hawks and warmongers who are part of the Resistance.
I don’t want to see David Frum on MSNBC. Remember him? He’s a conservative who backed the war in Iraq. Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post, another total hawk, right winger, who said terrible things about Obama. Who said things that were so Islamophobic, Andrew Sullivan, called them out. This is maybe a little inside baseball. But this is not… Being anti-Trump is not enough. That does not make you a progressive. That does not make you for the people. That does not mean you’re not part of this elite or not a right winger.
Sam Seder: I remember early on when I started to do this, on Air America, we had the first Majority Report and Janeane Garofalo and I were just sort of getting introduced to this world. And we had a guy on a named Michael Massey, I think his name was, and he was at the Columbia Journalism Review. And he was talking about this dynamic where many reporters and people in media basically perceive of themselves as center-left. And as such, there’s a lot of overcompensating that happens. They don’t want to exhibit that, their personal attributes.
Now, they perceive themselves as center-left, and I suspect to a certain extent, the way that we would identify those people now, would be neoliberal. From an economic standpoint, they’re actually probably closer to center-right. But they have… And we’re talking 15 years ago, 16 years ago, when the President of the United States wanted to make an amendment to make sure that we couldn’t have marriage equality. I think they perceive their social issue set to be of the left and they compensate by bringing on the hard right. And they just are allergic to the idea of an economic politics that is more egalitarian.
Briahna Gray: So why don’t we see this kind of overcompensation from folks on the right? I mean, you will see a Tucker Carlson bring on a Katie Halper or someone else from the left, usually in an attempt to use them as a punching bag, and that often backfires. But really, you don’t see the same kind of commitment to fairness and balance if you were, like both siderism, on the right, as you do on these left outlets.
And it seems clear to me that it’s very rare that you see someone who represents a genuine left view on these shows, even as much as you see people who represent the right.
Sam Seder: I mean, I think that’s unequivocally true. I mean, I think that happens, because to succeed in that world, I don’t think it’s a world where people go in there and for the most part, there’s… I mean, I imagine this happens occasionally. But I don’t think it’s a situation where people go in there and they’re genuinely situated on the left, and they get corrupted there. I think it’s just simply… It’s more of like a filter. And your tendencies to be a center-left, for lack of a better description, or center-right person, you slide through the filter. And that’s where you get that measure of success.
Briahna Gray: Are you saying that, basically, that there is… Is there a push in the network to say, this kind of news doesn’t sell, this kind of news isn’t sexy enough? Does part of this has to do with the commodification of the news, and the fact that there are kind of market incentives to show things that are either new or so radical or insane, that they get clicks and views? There’s an argument that someone like Bernie Sanders, who gets knocked for saying the same thing for 30 years, because the same material conditions haven’t changed for 30 years, isn’t just as an exciting enough for network news. So, they’ll show Trump’s empty podium, because that will keep more eyes on it, than talking about the fight for $15 minimum wage.
I want to interrupt myself here, to point out that after this interview was recorded, the LA Times put out an article with the Twitter subhead, “In a crowded presidential field, is Bernie Sanders old news?” I’d argue that it takes a good deal of privilege to characterize the fight for enormous structural changes, like universal healthcare and free public education, fights we haven’t yet won, as old news. Anyway.
Sam Seder: There’s not a lot of imagination that happens in the production room of most newsrooms. There’s just not. There’s a lot of, looking to your left and looking to your right, seeing what they’re doing and emulating it, because that’s just a safe space. That dynamic, I don’t think it’s terribly different from most corporate settings. There’s just a lot of risk averseness. You’re putting out of product every day. There’s just not a lot of thinking about it.
And I go back to that conversation that I had had with this guy, Michael Massey, 15 years ago, I remember him specifically saying, “You got to imagine you’re a reporter for The New York Times.” And you get 3000 letters, saying, “You’re not covering this correctly.” That’s going to impact your coverage. Every time you put paper to pen or start to type something, that’s going to be in the back of your mind. Working of the refs, I think is what Eric Altman coined that phrase. I think that there’s a lot to that.
I also think within the corporate structure, there’s a lot of times where they don’t want to just… they just don’t want to make waves. And so, people who get hired don’t make waves. I mean, that’s what I mean by filter.
Briahna Gray: I want to push back a little bit, Sam, because it does feel like there is a definite market for left news. And you’ve seen it in the extent to which alternative media has blossomed in the last, let’s say, five to 10 years into… And there’s been a proliferation of left news outlets. So, you have The Young Turks. You have magazines like Jacobin, and the explosion of DSA membership and magazines like Current Affairs. And suddenly there is a desire to have left coverage.
If there is some kind of click incentive for these organizations, and if there is a thirst, I think, genuinely for news and exchanges on these programs that is exciting, then there’s definitely… I mean, I understand what you’re saying that there’s a risk averseness, but there also is a need to get eyes on your programming and being too staid and not original in your coverage leads to low…
So, this is where you get a focus, let’s say, on Russia. Things that are relevant, perhaps not as relevant to the lives of everyday Americans as some of these economic issues, but are sexy and political and get a lot of coverage. Or you’ll get wall to wall coverage of the Jussie Smollett case, things that are sexy and exciting, but that doesn’t seem to correspond to a sexy, exciting movement, like the progressive movement where you have these huge crowds that were driven by Bernie Sanders, then and now, that just don’t get covered. So, there does seem to be an inconsistency with what kinds of incentives are driving what kind of coverage.
Sam Seder: Yeah. No, I agree with that. Again, I’m going off of public reports. I don’t have the inside scoop at MSNBC. But I think there was a real sense in the run up to the 2016 election, from press reports, and even after that, that the sort of liberal, left hosts, were going to get axed. And on some level, they were prevented from being axed because of the ratings explosion. And I’m phrasing that specifically, it wasn’t like, “Oh, great. Wait a second, the ratings have exploded. This is great for us.” I think there was a quality of like, “Oh, we’re jammed up now.” So, I definitely think that there is… it reflects management’s perspective at times.
I also think you have to factor in the idea of incompetence. Cable has a real problem. I mean, in many respects, Donald Trump saved cable TV. I don’t know how long of a reprieve it got, but you have a lot of people in this industry who do not get what’s going on in the country, both from an ideological perspective, or even just sort of as a media consumer culture. I think it’s a… Let me put it this way. I think it’s a little bit of both.
I would also add that you do not get to be the head of a news division in a major corporate structure if you are someone who has, throughout their career, been committed to stories that aren’t necessarily always sexy. If you have a perspective on the news that isn’t necessarily profit driven, you’re just not going to get to that position of power.
Ari Rabin-Havt: There is an institutional bias in the media for something new, for something exciting, for something salacious.
Briahna Gray: That’s our chief of staff, Ari, again.
Ari Rabin-Havt: We have an institutional bias that we’ve seen somewhat this week. There was a… Bernie tweeted and there was a… And he said… He was tweeting in response to something that happened on a media show where somebody said, “I want Bernie not to give the same speech anymore.” And I’m paraphrasing what Bernie tweeted out, “Well, I’ll stop giving the same speech when we’ve reached full justice. Then I’ll write some new speeches.”
Briahna Gray: During that recent episode of the 99, Ari went on to argue that even well, meaning reporters have a tendency to cast electoral contests as sports games with the lack of nuance and specificity that that entails.
Ari Rabin-Havt: Have you ever read an AP sports report? It’s really simple. An AP sports report is the Knicks played the Nets. The Knicks scored 90 points and the Nets scored 80 points. Quote from Knicks player. Quote from Nets player. Quote from something else. Interesting color that happened in the game. Concluding paragraph. That’s an AP sports report. That’s how they want to cover politics.
Oh, I was with some reporters as we are traveling. We did this trip in Iowa, and Texas and Nevada over the weekend. And the reporter who was with us, he’s a good reporter, by the way, was talking about the NEA form. They’re like, “Who do you think put points on the board?” That was a question the reporter asked me.
Briahna Gray: It’s NEA, not NBA.
But that’s not how politics works. It’s not about picking a team and playing a position. It’s about, or at least it should be about, assessing the needs of constituents and advancing policies that best meet those needs. And the job of pundits should be to help us make accurate assessments about what candidates are offering and how able they are to follow through on their promises. But unfortunately, that’s often not what we get.
Sam, what’s going on. What’s your read on this? What’s going on when I go on Steve Kornacki? And it’s me, I consider myself to be a leftist, a center-left representative and Republican. And Kornacki asked me, “Don’t you think it’s risky for… In the midst of last fall’s midterms, don’t you think it’s risky for candidates to run on Medicare for All?” To which I reply, “Given recent polls that show a majority of Americans, an overwhelmingly majority of Americans and a slim majority of Republicans actually support Medicare for All, I think it’s risky not to run on Medicare for All.”
And then the conversation between the ostensible liberal and the right-wing person is all about how… they are in complete agreement about how those polls aren’t tested, they don’t show anything, that they don’t really know what Medicare for All means, and so we can’t believe that. And then the studio throws up an outdated poll on the screen, which shows that only 52% of Americans support Medicare for All, when the reality was 72% at the time. What is going on there? Is that something that’s coming from a top, is that people’s unassessed personal bias? Is it structural, and the fact of just having chosen who appears on these kinds of shows?
Because that’s the kind of bias I think that bothers me the most, because it goes largely unseen. I didn’t notice the graphic was out of date until after I watched the show back later. But that kind of framing even, and you see this at the debates. The questions are framed as though they were written by a conservative viewer. Why is it that an outlet like MSNBC, which has the reputation at least of being so progressive, continually frames things in a way that seems most advantageous to a conservative worldview?
Sam Seder: I think it may have been a different situation, seven years ago, five years ago, eight years ago. I think it’s a function, sometimes, of the host, because I think that some hosts are more allergic to the left than others there. Again, incompetence plays a big role in it.
Back, almost 10 years ago now, I filled in for Olbermann for a couple weeks. I remember being sort of shocked that I knew a little bit more about what was going on with Social Security than the producer who was writing the piece about Social Security. That’s because I feel very strongly about Social Security. If you don’t feel, if you’re not engaged in politics, I think sometimes your ideology and where you sit on the ideological spectrum, dictates how deeply you look into these issues. I am a producer. I don’t feel terribly strongly about Medicare for All. Maybe I’m for it, maybe I’m against, maybe I have no opinion. I come across an old poll. All right, there’s the pole. I don’t like… It’s conceivable to me that they said, “Oh, we’ve got these two polls. One is this recent one. One’s the not. Let’s go with the one that says that they’re lowest.”
I mean, that doesn’t seem impossible for me to imagine that would happen. But it’s far more likely that what happened was like, “I don’t know much about this. I don’t really care that deeply about it. I am going to go with that poll. I don’t even see the two polls. I’m just going to go with the most recent one that I found, because I’m not really up on this topic. So, it doesn’t even occur to me that it’s wrong.”
I think there’s some bias too. I mean, look, at one point, there were people on the outside of Air America who would look at what was going on, because we were having problems there, and say like… I mean, there were listeners who were like… who would write and go, “You must have some type of secret mole.” And it was a perfectly rational response to some of the things that were happening there. But it really largely was a function of incompetence. And people who were just sort of like, “This is a business.” And so, I’m not paying too much attention to the politics. And that disposition almost is definitional about having center-right politics.
Briahna Gray: That’s a really good argument for having not just hosts but staff whose class interests are more aligned with those of the average American, because it takes a certain kind of person to maintain an indifference to something like Medicare for All.
Sam Seder: And then you think about the system on how people get to be… Certainly, there are exceptions to this rule. But the way that people get that job is more often than not like I was able to do a summer internship from my Ivy League school, and I built this relationship. And there’s so much that’s structural that leads… It’s like one of those like Pachinko things where you drop the marble down, and it lands in a certain area. Well, it’s all those different nails on the trip down that lead to a certain place. And so, it’s not any given specific nail, it’s just sort of a systemic issue.
Briahna Gray: Now, sometimes that bias might be systemic, but at other times, it definitely seems conscious. This gets at a point that I think many Americans have also picked up on. There really is no such thing as a nonpartisan news source. Even choosing what counts as a story, or what goes on the front page, is an inescapably political process. If you call yourself a centrist, or attempt to split representation between establishment right and establishment left voices, then you’re simply biased in favor of the status quo. And if you work for a major cable network, chances are the status quo works in your favor.
I asked Sam, whether there were any specific narratives to look out for, to flag for folks who might not have an intuitive sense of the type of subtle, but meaningful bias we’re pointing out here.
Sam Seder: The narratives are sort of a little bit more fractured than they used to be. But you’d hear things like Social Security is going bankrupt. Now, we never hear that anymore. Paul Ryan’s not in the House and the Republicans are just playing a different game. But things like, back in the day, like the certain size of the deficit is problematic. And Social Security is going bankrupt. Things like, well, how are you going to displace a million workers in healthcare, if you have Medicare for All? The reality is, you’re talking about 500,000 people who work in this industry, many of whom will find a similar job just with a different pay master. In fact, maybe the same pay master, but just getting that funding not from people’s premiums, but from a government contract.
I mean, I would just encourage people to read multiple sources about any given story. You cannot discount the laziness of the media, and their willingness to just accept things that are conventional wisdom, because they are dispositionally and ideologically ready to accept those things, right? So, they’re not looking at certain things critically. And they do that for the right to a certain extent, because these are, I think, largely center-left people, maybe center-right people. They accept what the far right says, because they feel like, I’m not in a position to judge. They perceive themselves as being liberal. And so, they’re in a position to just make a broad blanket assessment of some assertions about the left that are not true. So I think if you’re someone who is looking for more justice in society, economic justice in particular, you got to be very critical about what premises you’re accepting from the mainstream press.
Briahna Gray: We were on MSNBC together on Chris Hayes Show last year. And Chris Hayes is, I would say, probably the most progressive mainstream news host. People commented to me after that panel, and I think there was even like a Splinter story written up that was like, “This is the most progressive panel I’ve ever seen on the mainstream news.” And it was you, me, Michelle Goldberg and obviously, Chris Hayes. And it strikes me as kind of wild that that moment was remarkable enough to merit any notice, because the overwhelming pattern of hosts in the composition of these panels is usually so much farther to the center or center-right than that one was. I mean, what did you make of that panel?
Sam Seder: It was my sense that that should be the panel 90% of the time, right? I mean, theoretically, if MSNBC is this outlet, that should be the panel 90% of the time. I mean, my expectations of MSNBC have been attenuated to what I know from just basically reading about it. The agenda has been there since, basically, like I said, 2015, 2016. I think it’s possible that I am the furthest left person who gets paid to go on that network. I don’t follow it that much. But as far as I can tell, that’s probably the case.
I can also tell you, I had an experience, where on the night that we bombed Syria, I was in to talk about something I can’t remember, something probably incredibly inconsequential. And I ended up sitting on the panel for about 45 minutes, because they had gotten word almost as I arrived that an attack was imminent. I believe that I was the only person within the prime time, the entire prime time from 8:00 to midnight, who was unequivocal saying that we should not bomb Syria. That’s nuts.
I think I was left on that panel for 45 minutes. They flipped in other people. But I think I was left on that panel for 45 minutes, because I was the only person who was saying that. And my understanding is that the 9 o’clock show and the 10 o’clock show and the 11 o’clock show, there was no one who was saying that. That’s a function of just like, who they’ve hired as contributors, who they have on their Rolodex, who’s available last minute. But it’s also ridiculous that I was the only person making that argument.
Just even from an analysis perspective, right? How can you really analyze the value of doing this if everyone has the exact same opinion, which varies between, we should definitely do this, and we should do it again, or we should do this, and then we need to come up with a plan, or we can do this, and the generals will really take care of it. I mean, it’s Donald Trump, and this is a network and everybody on that network, the day before, maybe hours before, was saying that Donald Trump is completely… you can’t trust him to do anything. When it comes to bombing, it’s something you could trust him.
We’re not getting the range of perspective. And, yeah, it was weird. It shouldn’t have been a cause for sort of like exclamation points that there were a range of people on the left, on the panel. That should not be a freakish event.
Briahna Gray: So, what should we be looking out for when we watch the news? What are the signposts that might indicate that we can’t take a point of view at face value?
Katie Halper: So, there are a couple of things in general that you should look out for that will tip you off as to whether or not the source you’re reading or watching on TV is reliable. And I should make it clear, it’s not like these people are terrible people. They’re just institutionalized biases, or implicit biases that you will have because, some people, if they come from a different ideology… Some of them are bad people. I’m going to be real. Jennifer Rubin, David Frum, not great people.
But some of them are conservative. And they’re neo cons, which means that they basically believed in Bush’s programs. They believe in tax cuts for the wealthy. They don’t believe in the safety net. They don’t believe in things like Social Security, Medicare. Some of them worked on campaigns, right? And that should be revealed, at the very least.
Briahna Gray: Ari actually had a really good measured example of this.
Ari Rabin-Havt: I remember once, when I was at Media Matters, one of the angriest phone calls I ever got was, there was a Democratic strategist on the panel. And the Democratic strategist was touting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We pointed out just there was an innocuous Media Matters posted. It said, “X network had X person on it, and they did not disclose that they receive money from…” “How dare you suggest that I take this position because I receive money.” I’m actually not suggesting that. What I’m suggesting is it just should be disclosed.
Katie Halper: So, if they worked for George Bush, if they worked for Hillary Clinton, they’re going to have biases. If they represent a think tank like Third Way, which is committed to cutting Social Security, and which won’t reveal how much of their money comes from Wall Street. But we do know that in 2013, I believe of their 29 trustees, I think 20 or 21 of them were investment bankers.
So, you want to look at who they’re associated with, what they say. If they say things like, “We have to move more to the center or be more moderate,” that means they have a certain ideology, that they’ll often present that ideology as the pragmatic, non-ideological position. And that’s very important to be aware of, because that’s in itself an ideology, right? It’s not true that the polls bear out the fact that we will be more effective against Trump if we move towards the center. But when people say that, and they present that as if it’s just reality, and not its own ideological slant, that’s something else you want to look out for and be careful of.
Briahna Gray: Another one of the examples that I saw recently is the new, “How are you going to pay for that?” that liberals like to use since there is the kind of awareness that, “how will you pay for that?” is kind of a conservative line is, “how are you going to get that passed with a conservative Senate?” And it’s not that that’s not a political question that’s arguably worth asking, but it’s selectively asked with respect to some of Bernie Sanders’ policies, as opposed to every other person’s policies in a way that suggests, every progressive, every left-leaning policy point on any candidate’s agenda is going to face the obstacle of getting through Congress. Is their point then that no Democrats should run on anything other than what is the Republican agenda? Should Jeb Bush run again? Should Mitt Romney throw his hat in the ring?
Katie Halper: No, we should be running on their positions, I guess. We should be running on Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney’s positions. No, it’s a really important point. So right. I mean, one thing is that you have to demand more than you’re going to get, first of all. That’s just history. You go in there, demanding the most, and sometimes you won’t get it. But the idea that you won’t make the moral case for something until it’s viable is a self-fulfilling prophecy, first of all, because what you need to make it viable is you need to make the moral case. And even if it doesn’t succeed legislatively, the first time you’re laying the groundwork. I mean, you can’t get the other thing without doing that ahead of time. You just can’t. And so, it’s either an ill-informed or disingenuous argument.
And again, you need to be pushing, and you need to be making demands. And how do you think… At first, there are lots of things that people didn’t think would pass. And either did pass, they surprise people and did pass or if they didn’t, again, it made it that much easier for when there was a Democratic Congress or when there was a Democratic president. And of course, there’s a famous FDR story, apocryphal or not, where he says to A. Phillip Randolph , who was asking for… trying to push the president to do things for civil rights. And he goes, “Okay. Sounds great. Now, go out and make me do it.”
Presidents, politicians, they need to be pushed. They need to feel a political pressure to do something. They need to feel like it’s politically toxic not to do something. And we’ve seen this with Medicare for All. I mean, we have to be careful to make sure that people are actually following through and not just saying it as a slogan. But yeah, it’s a very dangerous argument.
And I think usually people who are making it don’t… Again, there’s a very disingenuous conflation of ideology and pragmatism. And often people just don’t want the more progressive thing, the more… I don’t want to say radical, because that suggests it doesn’t have mass support. And as Sanders points out, and his supporters will point out, his programs all have mass support, and are popular. They’re portrayed as radical and they are radical among the media and political elites, for obvious reasons.
Yeah, that’s a disingenuous argument that it’ll scare people away. That’s another one that you have to track center. You don’t defeat rightwing populism with moderate middle of the road policies. They don’t excite people. They don’t speak to the same things that the right-wing populism speaks to.
Oh, and then another thing, you have to look out for another argument, my gosh. Universal programs are unfair, because they disproportionately are paid for by the poor and the rich benefit from them. That is probably one of the most dangerous arguments out there, for a couple reasons.
There’s a reason that Newt Gingrich talked about welfare queens and not Social Security queens, which was a very dog whistle, racially coded thing to say. And he did that because it’s easy to portray people, even though we know that more white people are on welfare. But it’s easy when you have programs that are means tested and that aren’t universal. It’s much easier to stigmatize them, because literally not everyone is on them, right? It’s easier to stigmatize them. It’s easier to cut them, because you don’t have the wealthy invested in them, the powerful invested in them. You don’t see them as a right, you see them as charity, because if it’s the right, then it’s something that everyone should have.
And the narrative, you hear Klobuchar saying this and you hear tons of people in the media saying this, but if you think that, that’s okay, kind of, not really. But let’s say for argument’s sake, it’s okay. Then you should also say the same thing about Social Security. You should oppose Social Security because that’s the universal program too. Do you feel like the poor are unfairly paying into that?
Briahna Gray: Yeah. Or the police department or fire departments or roads or power plants.
Katie Halper: Yeah. That’s a very dangerous argument. And it’s so dangerous, because it’s almost refreshing when someone’s just like, “I don’t believe in a welfare state. I don’t really believe in anything but the meritocracy or bootstrapping.” But it’s scarier when people claim to be coming from a progressive economic social justice perspective, and are just making a right-wing argument that’s disguised as being progressive.
Briahna Gray: As you might be able to tell, Katie and I could go on for hours about media bias. And we had no problem filling an hour on the 99 talking about the same subject with relatively little overlap to this podcast. But the bottom line is this, it’s important to consider the interests of the people advancing a narrative and to assess that information with the context in mind. This, for example, is a podcast from the Bernie Sanders campaign. Obviously, we’re all big fans of Bernie here. But we don’t hide that fact. And you can and should make an independent assessment about what we talk about on this podcast.
What’s less obvious is the extent to which the corporate media is, well, run by corporations. This doesn’t mean that individual journalists or editors have bad intentions, or that they’re even aware of what they’re doing. It’s fully possible that The New York Times’s coverage of the NAACP presidential forum last week, which literally didn’t mention Bernie Sanders’ name once, despite him being the number two candidate in this race and one of the only candidates there to receive a standing ovation, omitted him completely by accident.
But it’s also fair to note that it’s an accident that would not likely have happened with more ideological diversity among writers and staff members. And by that, I think don’t mean adding more Republicans.
If there’s any takeaway here, it isn’t to hate the media, or to judge the media unfairly. It’s simply to bring your own judgment to bear because you are the best positioned to assess your own interests. And you’ll certainly do a better job of it than Jeff Bezos.
That’s it for this week. Let us know what you think at [email protected] or send us a tweet with the hashtag #hearthebern. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to rate, review or like us on Apple podcasts, SoundCloud or wherever you’re listening. Transcripts will be up soon. Till next time.