Inside the Corporate Media’s ‘Blackout’ of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 Presidential Campaign
The new documentary “Bernie Blackout” explores how the mainstream media allegedly helped bring Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign to an end.
Bernie Blackout, a new VICE TV documentary directed by Pat McGee examining the mainstream media’s alleged bias against the Sanders campaign, is rooted in independent and alternative journalism instead of the corporate cable news outlets like MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN. While McGee’s film straightforwardly breaks down the cynical function of corporate media (that is, to turn a profit, not to tell the truth), the documentary unfortunately does not reach beyond the 24-hour news cycle and into the centuries of knowledge produced around spin, propaganda, and political manipulation that came before today’s U.S.-based podcasters, vloggers, and other digital writers (including me) began brandishing their takes. As a result, Bernie Blackout’s insights come off as more myopic than revelatory.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you,” goes the documentary’s main critique as spoken by Common Dreams journalist Jeff Cohen. It’s an undeniable one. This past year, as Bernie became more of a threat to the established order of the Democratic Party, the mainstream media often shifted the goalposts for what makes a strong candidate, concocting self-defined and highly variable ideas such as electability, achievability, competence, which states are important, and what is politically kosher in the U.S. This maneuvering revealed corporate media and the U.S. project itself to be highly reactionary: Fidel Castro was the devil, socialism was anti-freedom, people loved their private healthcare, Joe Biden was a no-nonsense civil rights activist and electing him would unite America—all projections spun into fact by mainstream pundits on the left and right.
It was almost as if Biden was the underdog in need of a nuanced second look instead of a former vice president with a huge advantage based on the dynastic tendencies in the party. Bernie Blackout’s various pro-Bernie alternative media talking heads admit that a Bernie primary win was always unlikely, but as it became more possible, the mainstream media’s corporate engine did what it did best: Charted a new course toward their own best interests. The documentary draws parallels for this behavior to the mainstream media’s coalescing around the Iraq War: Because General Electric, not just a producer of household appliances but also a defense contractor, owned a majority stake in MSNBC, the network worked to suppress anti-war voices on the network. MSNBC, specifically, has continued this legacy into the Bernie era, running coverage of him only when there’s a negative angle to strike.
Throughout Bernie Blackout, David Sirota, senior advisor and speechwriter for Bernie 2020, admits that the campaign made mistakes, particularly by refusing to draw enough contrast between Bernie and Biden early on. Still, Sirota ultimately calls out the demonstrable ways in which mainstream media downplayed Bernie’s victories and emphasized the senator’s difficulties while giving much more favorable coverage to all the moderate candidates. And data shows this evaluation to be not merely convenient, but likely true. Harvard computational social scientist Jeff Winchell has shown through statistical studies that the Bernie Bro phenomenon is manufactured—every other major competitor in the primary race had the same percentage of online trolls as the Bernie campaign did, which is reportedly two percent. Any sense of disproportion might be attributed to frequency illusion, or in other words, how much cable news pundits’ talking about Bernie Bros as a troubling pattern led to individuals seeing that so-called pattern everywhere.
Just a few months ago, having secured the support of former candidates Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke right before Super Tuesday, Biden’s campaign was able to more forcefully push the narrative that their candidate was the safe choice. And even though he’d only won one primary election to that point, the campaign had no trouble galvanizing their message—they had the media. The second the endorsements came in, pundits got to work positioning Biden’s South Carolina win as the most crucial of any candidate victories in the primary. The nationwide coronavirus threat and subsequent lockdowns further cemented Biden’s win with the assistance of mainstream media. Then, on April 8, just a month after Super Tuesday if you can believe it, Bernie suspended his campaign and, a week later, endorsed Biden, setting all hopes aflame. Eventually, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—who did his own masterful job of media manipulation after botching New York City’s coronavirus response—announced that the presidential primary was cancelled. In the blink of an eye, Bernie 2020 was officially over.
This triumph of the U.S. corporate order brings up a major question that Bernie Blackout never properly addresses: Where do young and working class Bernie voters and organizers go now that they’ve been bullied by the Chris Matthews’ and Jennifer Rubins of the world? And what does it mean that Bernie himself is backing up Biden, who has been credibly accused of sexual assault and harassment?
Throughout the documentary, talking head Meagan Day, a Jacobin magazine writer and former Bernie campaigner, insists that the democratic socialist movement must be “bigger than Bernie” (as goes the title of her recent book co-written with Jacobin co-editor Micah Uetricht). But what this really means is never made clear—Bernie is still the referent, both for the documentary itself, which includes plenty of wistful on-the-road campaign footage, and for the DSA, which redirected all of its organizing efforts toward the campaign in 2019 and early 2020 (Day, Uetricht, and much of the Jacobin’s staff are card-carrying DSA members). Would “bigger than Bernie” signal an internationalist struggle for health and justice? An anti-racist one? If so, where is the evidence that the Bernie core is prepared to be at the forefront of these movements?
Day, The Hill journalist and popular lefty pundit Krystal Ball, and the documentary itself each seem to think that some kind of new party, and thus a renewed focus on U.S.-centric politics, is the way forward. If not Bernie, then another maneuver within the system ought to do, they all appear to agree. This is not a novel idea—there are plenty of “progressive” parties with considerable grassroots followings that unfortunately see their campaigns blocked by voting laws that disincentivize those who fall outside of the two-party system. Instead, what this particular group of alternative pundits seems to offer is a feeble and nationalist political mandate based on woefully under-cited analysis—certainly less ghoulish than what the MSNBCs and Fox Newses of the world are cooking up, but no more inspiring.
Yes, mainstream media swiftly manufactured consent around Joe Biden the second it looked like Bernie could win, but it’s not a given that the response of those who care about free universal healthcare, free public college, and climate justice should be to double down on placing their hopes in the U.S. electoral system. There were already movements “bigger than Bernie” decades before the senator became a politician, movements he was involved in and which live on today in new forms and with bolder and more radical and global intentions. It remains clear the work and wins of these movements, from Critical Resistance to Ni una menos to BDS, and more, will never receive the media attention that even Bernie managed to scrounge up—not even on VICE TV. Those made despondent by Bernie’s latest loss should take note.