Senator Bernie Sanders accused the Washington Post of bias against his campaign and attributed the disdain to the fact that the Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, which Sanders has heavily criticized for mistreating their low-wage workers and not paying their fair share in taxes.
The Washington Post’s executive editor and various media pundits immediately responded melodramatically, suggesting the Democratic presidential contender sounded like President Donald Trump and was promoting a “conspiracy theory.”
“We have pointed out over and over again that Amazon made $10 billion in profits last year. You know how much they paid in taxes? You got it, zero!” Sanders exclaimed at a rally in New Hampshire on August 12. “Any wonder why the Washington Post is not one of my great supporters, I wonder why?”
The same day, at another rally in New Hampshire, Sanders said, “I talk about [Amazon not paying taxes] all of the time,” Sanders said. “And then I wonder why the Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why.”
“Sen. Sanders is a member of a large club of politicians — of every ideology — who complain about their coverage,” Post executive editor Marty Baron stated. “Contrary to the conspiracy theory the senator seems to favor, Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest.”
CNN seemed eager to fuel an uproar over Sanders’ remarks. Senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny tweeted, “Bernie Sanders sounds a lot like President Donald Trump as he trashes Amazon.” Senior media reporter Oliver Darcy reported Baron’s reaction to Sanders. The following day, CNN aired two segments in the morning that scolded Sanders over what he said.
“This seems like a really dangerous line, continued accusations against the media with no basis in fact or evidence provided,” CNN anchor Poppy Harlow declared.
Kirsten Powers, a columnist for USA Today, agreed and argued Sanders was moving into “conspiracy theories” about why certain media coverage is different. She contended the Sanders campaign was using the “same playbook” of attacking media organizations as “fake news and not trustworthy.”
CNN politics reporter Chris Cillizza, a former Washington Post employee, appeared in a later segment. “Yes. It’s a ridiculous claim. If you condemn Donald Trump for saying that Amazon, Washington Post, you need to condemn Bernie Sanders for basically saying the exact same thing.”
Part of what drove CNN to enthusiastically defend the Washington Post was the fact that Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir similarly accused CNN of corporate bias on August 11, when he appeared on “Reliable Sources,” a Sunday show hosted by Brian Stelter.
“In about, you know, a minute or so or two minutes or so you’re going to cut to commercial breaks and you’re going to see some pharmaceutical ads. You’re going to see a lot of ads that are basically paying your bills and the bills of the entire media enterprise,” Shakir said. “And what that ends up doing is incentivizing you and others to make sure that you’re asking the questions and driving the conversations in certain areas and not in certain areas.”
Critiques Commonly Dismissed as ‘Conspiracy Theories’
The on-air pundits viscerally reacted to Shakir’s assessment as if it was a brazen attack on the institution of the free press.
In Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s seminal work, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which was published in 1988, “Institutional critiques such as we present in this book are commonly dismissed by establishment commentators as ‘conspiracy theories,’ but this is merely an evasion.”
It is not a conspiracy theory to point out that media coverage is driven by market forces. Particularly, in the United States, there is no significant system of public funding for journalism. Media organizations are dependent and largely have depended on advertising to sustain operations.
Herman and Chomsky’s analysis revolved around the “free market.” As they put it, “Most biased choices in the media arise from the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power.”
They maintained, “Censorship is largely self-censorship, by reporters and commentators who adjust to the realities of source and media organizational requirements, and by people at higher levels within media organizations, who are chosen to implement, and have usually internalized, the constraints imposed by proprietary and other market and governmental centers of power.”
While the cited remarks of Sanders and his campaign manager may come off as oversimple, they fall within the framework of the “propaganda model” that Herman and Chomsky outline well before Trump was doing anything more than losing money as a failing real estate tycoon.
A day after his remarks prompted a backlash among the pundit class, Sanders insisted this was not a “conspiracy theory.”
“We are taking on corporate America. Large corporations own the media in America, by and large, and I think there is a framework, about how the corporate media focuses on politics. That is my concern. It’s not that Jeff Bezos is on the phone every day; he’s not,” Sanders clarified.
Dozens Of Examples Of Corporate Media Bias
During the 2016 presidential election and the 2020 presidential primary, the Washington Post has published plenty of articles that feature bias against Sanders.
On July 1, Washington Post journalist Glenn Kessler “fact checked” Sanders when he said three families in the United States control more wealth than the bottom 50 percent. He claimed the “comparison” was not “especially meaningful” because many of those people were too poor to have any wealth. (Which prompted one Deadspin writer to label Kessler “an appalling assbrain.”)
The Washington Post editorial board published a column at the end of June that misconstrued Sanders’ plan for student loan debt forgiveness as a “bailout” for “rich kids.”
It was the Washington Post that exaggerated a non-scandal in June by reporting a disagreement among unionized staff within the Sanders campaign, even though campaign management were bargaining in good faith with staff.
During a Washington Post event in July that was partly sponsored by Bank Of America (as Sanders called out), the moderator asked Sanders about a statement he made in 1974 about busing policies being “well-meaning in theory” but sometimes they result in “racial hostility.”
“What else did I say in there?” Sanders asked.
“Tell me,” Robert Costa replied.
“No, you’ve got it there. Read it. Read the whole quote,” Sanders insisted.
“I don’t have it,” Costa claimed.
“The whole quote is the federal government doesn’t give a shit about African Americans,” Sanders said.
“That is true. That’s why I didn’t include it,” Costa quickly added, as the dodgy effort that made Sanders seem racially insensitive instantly fell apart.
In March, Kessler awarded Sanders “two Pinocchios” when he said Wall Street banks got a trillion dollar bailout because Sanders included loans from the Federal Reserve board to banks. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy and Research responded, “Sanders seems on pretty solid ground here when including the Fed loans.”
Over the span of two days in February, days after he announced his 2020 campaign, the Washington Post published four articles against Sanders: “Bernie Sanders is no big deal the second time around,” “Why Sanders’ money haul doesn’t matter very much,” “Bernie, your moment has come — and gone,” and “Bernie Sanders is probably just another one-hit wonder.”
In 2018, Matt Bruenig for Jacobin documented how Kessler was spreading disinformation about Bernie Sanders’ Medicare For All plan.
Progressive writer Thomas Frank assessed pieces on Sanders that were published between January and May during the 2016 primary season. He found “Sanders pieces took a negative tone by a ratio of 5 to 1, whereas opinion pieces on Clinton were about evenly split between favorable and unfavorable.”
“In Bernie Sanders and his ‘political revolution,’ Frank wrote, I believe the Post “saw something kind of horrifying: a throwback to the low-rent Democratic politics of many decades ago.” And to the “affluent white collar class, what he represented was atavism, a regression to a time when demagogues in rumpled jackets pandered to vulgar public prejudices against banks and capitalists and foreign factory owners.”
Infamously, from 10:20 PM ET on March 6 to around 4 PM ET on March 7, the Washington Post published a total of 16 negative stories in roughly 16 hours. Adam Johnson brought attention to this achievement in an article for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).
“All of these posts paint his candidacy in a negative light, mainly by advancing the narrative that he’s a clueless white man incapable of winning over people of color or speaking to women,” Johnson argued. “Even the one article about Sanders beating Trump implies this is somehow a surprise, despite the fact that Sanders consistently out-polls Hillary Clinton against the New York businessman.”
“While the headlines don’t necessarily reflect all the nuances of the text, as I’ve noted before, only 40 percent of the public reads past the headlines, so how a story is labeled is just as important, if not more so, than the substance of the story itself,” Johnson added.
A Review Of Headlines During The 2020 Primary
It is not like this animosity does not persist in headlines during the 2020 presidential primary.
Here is a list featuring several headlines at the Washington Post’s website:
Assessing the Washington Post’s Contempt-Filled Journalism
Let’s go back to the rubric of media analysis developed by Herman and Chomsky, which can help us assess why the Washington Post consistently publishes this contempt-filled journalism.
Herman and Chomsky argued the essential ingredients of media propaganda were: “the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass media firms,” “advertising as the primary income source of the mass media,” “the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and ‘experts’ funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power,” “‘flak’ as a means of disciplining the media,” ‘anticommunism’ as a national religion and control mechanism.”
While the Cold War officially ended decades ago, the Washington Post has invoked the present-day version of “anticommunism” by highlighting the Sanders campaign as a vector for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government to influence U.S. politics.
The Washington Post gave Sanders campaign speechwriter David Sirota flak when he joined the campaign. Sirota had conducted journalism on contributions to Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke when he ran for the Senate and was a congressman. The outlet joined other media outlets in spreading disinformation about Sirota “secretly advising” Sanders while he was still writing columns for media organizations.
The people who consistently pen anti-Sanders op-eds, as well as the sources for Kessler and other Post fact-checkers’ assessments of Sanders claims, come from a select group of approved individuals or groups. They identify with capitalism or fully support the American project in spite of its many flaws and defend institutions from calls for radical reforms that would bring justice to lower class Americans.
Arc Publishing is the Washington Post’s digital publishing platform. Its management claims the software-as-a-service platform has the potential to grow into a $100 million revenue stream for the media organization. It has made the newspaper’s continued dominance dependent on the potential of the advertising industry, which derives its exorbitant profits from multinational corporations that would be at war with a Sanders administration.
The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School published a paper, “The Bezos Effect,” that analyzed the ways Bezos transformed the Washington Post:
…invest in journalism and technology, understanding that a news organization’s consumers will not pay more for less; pursue both large-scale and elite audiences, a strategy that could be called mass and class; and maintain a relentless focus on building the size of the digital audience.
Bezos recognized the media organization needs to gear itself toward appealing to affluent consumers because those are the people with the most discretionary income available to subscribe to the newspaper. This partially explains the constant stream of class warfare both in defense of elites and on behalf of elites, who the Washington Post sees as part of the solutions and not the problems routinely emphasized by Sanders.
It is not as if journalists at the Washington Post have not run into issues due to Bezos owning the newspaper. Fredrick Kunkle, a staff writer and co-chair of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild’s collective bargaining unit, felt like he was being treated as expendable. He penned an op-ed which, as David Dayen described for In These Times, contrasted “Bezos’ attempts to focus on philanthropy with the experience[s] of those working beneath him.”
The newspaper declined to publish. Kunkle ran it for free at the Huffington Post in September 2017. He was disciplined and received a written warning for “freelancing for a competing publication without permission.” The National Labor Relations Board determined what management did was illegal because Kunkle was never paid for the article.
The same year, the Washington Post reportedly adopted a social media policy that prohibited conduct that “adversely affects the Post’s customers, advertisers, subscribers, vendors, suppliers or partners.” Management claimed the authority to take disciplinary action “up to and including termination of employment.” (The Post’s Guild objected.)
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos breathed new life into a legacy media organization. The Business Insider noted how he made the newspaper “more tech-focused” and helped the media organization “recruit engineers.”
His $250 million investment allowed the paper to grow to 700 staff members by 2016. They were able to publish 1,200 articles a day in order to drive eyeballs constantly to the website.
The paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron, may insist not a penny from Amazon goes to the Washington Post, but this kind of deluded statement ignores the pervasive influence of Bezos over the paper’s very existence.
Like Jack Shafer wrote for POLITICO, “If Amazon didn’t exist, it’s unlikely the Washington Post would exist in its current form.”