Bernie Sanders was covered somewhat less on television compared to the other frontrunners than his polling would justify, according to Real Clear Politics and TV News Archive data available so far in 2019. When mentions of Warren, Sanders, and Biden are plotted against their polling performance, the plots make a V-shape: Bernie gets fewer mentions for his support by all TV programming and by the top three cable news channels. He was mentioned less than Warren on Fox and MSNBC, despite outpolling her most of the year.
Before I clarify the data, let me take the “I’m not the crazy one” victory lap that’s become ritual for Bernie supporters, whose persecution complexes are as warranted as they are overwrought.
It’s difficult to tell how much anti-Sanders media bias is real and how much is an impression created by the online Bernie bubble. And I could entertain a debate over whether news media’s disapproval of his candidacy is a reasonable reaction to a misfit in the race, or a smear campaign explained by the class interests of news corporations and those they hire (it’s that one.) But wholesale dismissals of our criticisms about anti-Bernie media preference are bad faith or delusional (and offensively boring when paired with an “absolutely Trumpian!” remark.)
There seems to be a change of strategy since the 2016 cycle, which gave us the Washington Post’s often-cited “16 negative stories in 16 hours.” Better to go with a “Bernie blackout” in a crowded field — just pretend he isn’t there. His events and achievements were under-covered in 2016 as well. Another common grievance is airtime for empty podiums during his speeches. But now examples of headlines and highlights bizarrely omitting Bernie’s name keep coming in, even when he outperforms the subject(s) by the exact metric or in the exact poll being discussed. The most recent example, when The Hill described a poll that showed him beating Trump in Iowa as “Trump edging out Warren and Biden,” led me to investigate.
These charts show the candidates arranged by their polling performance (the average of Real Clear Politics polling scores each month from January to October 2019) and their coverage (mentions of their full name in TV captions from 1/1/19 to 10/18–19, tracked by the TV News Archive). There are a number of points to keep in mind:
- While Bernie does get cheated in the Warren-Sanders-Biden comparison, he’s closer to the trendlines among the top five candidates, which reveal more of a pro-Warren bias than an anti-Bernie one. This fits the theory just fine: Warren, palatable enough to an uneasy corporate establishment, is offered as an alternative to Bernie, while a fumbling and anti-charismatic Biden can coast on name recognition. Including Harris and Buttigieg makes for a more representative trendline, one that looks better for Bernie mostly because of how ignored Buttigieg is. But you may expect them to get less proportional coverage in a fair election cycle given that only Warren, Sanders, and Biden are competitive.
2. Not all coverage is good coverage. When research is done on this cycle’s reporting on Bernie, it will surely uncover a negative skew as it did after 2016. And the number of mentions of a candidate’s full name won’t perfectly indicate their share of coverage, but it does so well enough with no false positives.
3. Polls don’t measure performance. We might say they don’t even capture snapshots if we take 2016 to heart. In my view, Bernie should be over-covered proportional to his polling given his accomplishments such as cash on hand, unique donors, and his astounding Bernie’s Back Rally draw; his leadership on the litmus tests and most interesting ideas in the primary; and his unique fitness to beat Trump.
4. Biden does worse than Bernie in coverage-to-polling ratio, but like I said above, that probably works in his electoral favor.
5. Bernie is treated more fairly on television overall than by the big three networks, suggesting that less influential programs are picking up the slack.
Hopefully someone will do more complete research soon, but I wanted to have something to point to. Frustratingly, Bernie is more harmed by news media’s influence on primary voters who aren’t obsessed with politics, which is most of them, than he benefits from his base’s hardened resolve in the face of the news media’s hostility. Our anger may be justified, but as we make the case that Bernie’s more competitive than he gets credit for, let’s try to do it with the cool confidence of an overpaid cable pundit.