Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager said in an interview that the political press has a “personal bias” against the senator and that its members find his supporters “annoying,” in what is the latest volley from the Democratic-Socialist’s campaign directed at the fourth estate.
“I wish I could check at the outset of every reporter’s ‘story’ about Bernie Sanders, I would love to ask them, ‘What do you personally think of Bernie Sanders?’” campaign manager Faiz Shakir said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “For whatever reason, he gets under their skin. He draws an emotional chord in a different way that ends up impacting and affecting the bias, I think, or at least the way in which stories are crafted and written about him in particular is different.”
Shakir’s remarks don’t appear derived from any direct conversations; merely a hunch about the ideological leanings of the political press corps. But they illustrate the level of distrust with which Bernie’s team has increasingly come to view those covering their campaign.
Criticizing the media has been a rite of passage for virtually every presidential candidate, well before Donald Trump turned it into a pernicious political art form. But among the Democrats running for the White House, Sanders stands alone in his sense of aggrievement.
In recent weeks, the senator repeatedly criticized the Washington Post, insinuating that billionaire owner Jeff Bezos was negatively influencing coverage of him in the paper. He also chided a New York Times reporter during an interview about his appearance at a protest in Nicaragua during the '80s, saying the reporter did not understand the point he was attempting to make.
The senator and his team recently extended an olive branch of sorts, inviting members of the media to play in a softball game at the famed Field of Dreams field in Iowa. But even as the professional relationship remains intact, a sense of bitterness appears to linger.
In a lengthy interview with The Daily Beast, Shakir expressed frustration with the press for covering polls that reflect negatively on Sanders more than those with positive results, and for obsessing over horse race aspects more than policy. Those are fairly standard complaints. But in making them, Shakir—who once served as the editor of ThinkProgress, a progressive news site—did so in almost personal terms. While only citing a few examples, he said that media outlets had been “conditioned” against Sanders and the kind of topics he wished they cover.
“There’s a discounting of him in particular,” he said. “I would argue some of that comes from a personal bias of how media think of him as an individual or find his supporters, movement annoying; that they sometimes are carrying personal baggage into these conversations about, you know, the candidate who doesn't do off the record conversations with me, doesn't make himself as accessible, has particular viewpoints I may not agree with.”
The media has long been a favorite target for Sanders. During the 2016 campaign, he occasionally alluded to the “corporate media” as one of the causes of inequality and corruption in the U.S. and wryly joked about not having time for “idiot reporters.”
The criticism, although colorful, was fairly shallow. This time around, however, Sanders and his campaign have gone a step further, making the press a focus of the campaign, tying it into his anti-big business message, and planning how he’d try to influence media outlets if he wins the election.
When a top speechwriter for the campaign released a newsletter for supporters, the first edition was dedicated to criticizing mainstream reporters by saying their coverage was influenced by advertisers and owners. Top advisor Jeff Weaver admonished the media during a recent press call. And during an interview with a Wall Street Journal reporter about the media, his campaign sent out a fundraising email blasting the press.
No outlet has endured more derision at the hands of the Sanders campaign than MSNBC.
When The Daily Beast asked what evidence the campaign had that reporters had been “conditioned” against them, Shakir pointed to MSNBC contributor (and occasional Daily Beast columnist) Mimi Rocah’s offhand comment declaring that Sanders was not a “pro-woman” candidate, and a segment in which 11 p.m. anchor Brian Williams shared an erroneous tweet critical of Sanders on his show.
“Your classic pundit who goes on to MSNBC or CNN—I would argue nine times out of ten isn't someone who supports [Sanders’] ideas,” he said. “These are the pundits they've always used so they're just going to continue to use them despite the fact that the politics have shifted under their feet.”
As tensions between the Sanders campaign and MSNBC boiled, the two sides tried to meet up to discuss matters. But that merely prompted more suspicion.
Shakir said he was “frustrated” that MSNBC chief Phil Griffin had gone silent after initially being open to a meeting with the campaign, telling The Daily Beast that multiple texts he sent went unreturned. The network, Shakir added, “doesn't seem like they're interested in having a thoughtful conversation about this, sadly.”
But an MSNBC spokesperson pushed back on Shakir’s account, saying not only had the network offered the campaign a chance to set up a meeting but that Griffin had reached out repeatedly to Shakir and had not received a response.
Sanders’ and this team’s criticism of the media comes even as the senator has regularly made himself available to many of the major media outlets he criticizes. The senator’s team has also not taken the drastic steps the Trump campaign has employed, including blocking reporters from campaign events and singling out individual reporters for ridicule and disparagement.
This hasn’t stopped political reporters from drawing comparisons between the two. CBS and MSNBC both said that Sanders echoed Trump, while CNN political talking-head Chris Cillizza said Sanders’ jab at the Washington Post was “absolutely no different than what Trump does.”
The comparisons infuriated the campaign.
“It's been an immediate rush and overwhelming rush to try to suggest ‘Oh he’s just like Donald Trump’ and then to put words into his mouth to caricature him,” Shakir said. “That's why we’re concerned with a lot of the way Bernie Sanders gets documented in a lot of elite media is they build a caricature of the man and then work off of the caricature rather than appreciate him as a three dimensional human being.”
Shakir was short on immediate answers for the solutions to the issues he sees with media coverage. But he did note that the Sanders campaign is coming up with ideas for how to change the way campaigns and even a potential president could interact with the press.
Over the past several years, Sanders has expanded his internal media operation, releasing a newsletter, a podcast, and counterprogramming major media events. The senator also engaged with non-traditional media sources, appearing on Pod Save America and the Joe Rogan podcast, and posting an interview with Cardi B on the senator's Instagram.
Shakir said that although he had not discussed it with the senator, a Sanders administration would likely look skeptically at major media mergers (the senator in the past has opposed major mergers, including the scuttled Comcast-Time Warner venture). And to make journalism easier, a Sanders administration would attempt to increase the release of data from government agencies for journalists to work with.
But some of the problems that the Sanders campaign believes it faces now could be—they surmise—easily resolved should he win.
“If you have a president who gets elected despite all of those obstacles and barriers it will necessarily change how people think and view all of these policies and how they cover them,” he said. “His whole campaign is built around having that be the genesis of not only changing policy, but also a lot of media coverage and norms and values in society itself.”