If Bernie Sanders’ team had its way, every reporter covering the Vermont senator would put out a tweet disclosing their unvarnished, personal feelings about the candidate.
It’s not going to happen, but campaign manager Faiz Shakir thinks he knows what it would reveal anyway.
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“This isn’t intended to be a sweeping generalization of all journalists,” he told POLITICO, “but there are a healthy number who just find Bernie annoying, discount his seriousness, and wish his supporters and movement would just go away.”
In the 2016 Democratic primary, Sanders’ complaint about the media was that he was ignored, especially early in the campaign, while a phalanx of reporters trailed Hillary Clinton and cable networks turned live to Donald Trump’s raucous rallies.
Now, he’s not having trouble getting airtime, giving interviews in just the last week on ABC, NBC, MSNBC and CNN. Among the Democratic field, Sanders ranks behind only Vice President Joe Biden in mentions in traditional news outlets this year, according to an analysis by global media and intelligence company Meltwater.
In the 2020 campaign, his team’s frustration has morphed, centering on what they see as excessively negative stories and dismissive commentary. Even though he’s consistently near the top in the polls, Sanders’ staff thinks pundits write off his chances. And they’re unusually vocal in calling out coverage they dislike on Twitter and on the media channels they’ve created in-house, fueling frustration once again among the senator’s supporters about whether he’s getting a fair shot at the White House.
On Sanders’ live-streaming show “The 99,” three campaign staffers spent more than an hour last week discussing what they perceive as media bias, such as the tendency to focus on the shiny and salacious rather than Sanders’ decades-long advocacy for the poor and working class. “Standing up on these issues over 40 years is not new and exciting for people,” said chief of staff Ari Rabin-Havt.
Speechwriter David Sirota, a former journalist with more than 130,000 Twitter followers, took issue Tuesday with tweets from POLITICO and a CNN analyst that named some lower-polling Democrats but didn’t mention Sanders. “When we’re not being treated fairly,” Sirota said later in a Reddit Q&A, “we’re going to call it out and push back on it as much as possible.”
Some reporters, Shakir told POLITICO, “attempt to hide their disdain and masquerade their commentary behind purported straight pieces that amount to seeing everything as a ‘bad news for Bernie’ moment.”
The Sanders campaign is quick to distance itself from Trump’s claims that unfavorable stories are “fake news” and that the media is his “enemy.” Shakir said Sanders “appreciates and understands the role the media plays in a democratic system” and that the campaign tries to isolate examples of what they consider unfair coverage rather than making sweeping generalizations.
“Donald Trump goes on the assault against the entire news media simply for being, in his mind, a perceived slanderer of him,” said Shakir, “and facts don’t matter in that analysis.”
Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and a co-host of “Pod Save America,” told POLITICO he generally considers “it a good thing that the once-private arguments between campaigns and reporters are now happening in public,” though he said he questions the effectiveness of Sanders’ media critiques.
“The right has had unbelievable success working the refs by calling the mainstream media biased against them,” Pfeiffer said. “Unfortunately for the Sanders campaign, the press too often considers complaints from the left as validation of their objectivity and complaints from the right as something worth addressing to prove their objectivity.”
Journalists who cover Sanders, meanwhile, dispute many of those criticisms. They say if he gets less attention than other candidates, it’s because he’s often unwilling to address breaking news and shies away from impromptu question-and-answer sessions, or gaggles, after events.
Shakir calls Sanders a “news of the century kind of candidate,” focused on deep-rooted issues plaguing society rather than the daily churn. Still, the campaign says he’s taken questions from reporters after several campaign stops and had off-the-record meetings in some newsrooms. “We are always looking for opportunities to engage with press,” said deputy communications director Sarah Ford.
But Sanders is less accessible than competitors such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign says she has held 82 press gaggles and done 170 one-on-one interviews.
Sanders “wants to talk about what he wants to talk about, when he wants to talk about it,” said one reporter who covered the candidate in 2016 and 2019. “And he doesn’t see the value of talking to reporters about what they want to talk about because, in part, he thinks they’re going to talk about what he considers stupid stuff.”
He doesn’t hesitate to make that disdain known, either. The New York Times disclosed in May that Sanders declined an interview for a piece on his time as mayor of Burlington, Vt., including a 1985 meeting with Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua and a foe of the Reagan administration. After the story was published, Sanders requested a phone interview, eventually telling the reporter, “You don’t understand a word that I’m saying.”
Rabin-Havt told POLITICO there’s something akin to a language barrier between political journalists and the campaign.
“They just will never buy that we don’t think it’s a game,” he said.
Sanders hosted a cable access show in the 1980s, and many of his campaign staffers have backgrounds at progressive news outlets — Shakir was founding editor of ThinkProgress, Rabin-Havt served as executive vice president at Media Matters, Sirota wrote for The Guardian, and national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray was an editor at The Intercept.
They all share a skepticism of the “corporate media.” “The media work for huge multinational corporations,” Sanders told Rolling Stone last month, adding that “anyone with my agenda is going to attract a lot of opposition.”
He doesn’t have much patience for reporters who want him to talk about anything other than that agenda. “Good Morning America” host George Stephanopoulos kicked off an interview Thursday by telling Sanders that voters want to know more about him as a person.
Sanders didn’t take the bait. Americans “have a right” to know about a person running for president, Sanders acknowledged, but “sometimes the media goes overboard on that and does not pay enough attention to what you are trying to do to transform the country.”
On Sunday, he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he had no plans to change his approach.
“When the poor get richer and the rich get poorer, when all of our people have healthcare as a right, when we are leading the world in the fight against climate change, you know what? I will change what I am saying,” Sanders said.