The mounting tension between a leading progressive presidential campaign and a leading progressive cable news network has reached a new peak.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and MSNBC have always had a complicated relationship. Sanders, a top-tier contender for the Democratic nomination, has long questioned the news media’s biases, while pundits have taken fresh shots at the Vermont senator this cycle. But officials in Sanders’ campaign contend that leading up to the 2020 election, the network is one of several cable news outlets directly contributing to a media climate where false claims go unchecked and requests for progressive voices on-air are frequently turned down.
“More often than not these commentators are injecting their opinion without any policy discussions,” Nina Turner, the national co-chair of Sanders’ campaign, told The Daily Beast. “They’re not there to tell the gospel truth.”
The backlash from Sanders-world reached a new high on Sunday, when MSNBC analyst Mimi Rocah, a former assistant U.S attorney for the Southern District of New York and occasional contributor to The Daily Beast, launched a personal critique of Sanders during a segment with host David Gura, saying that he makes her “skin crawl” and that he’s not a “pro-woman candidate.”
“Bernie Sanders makes my skin crawl,” Rocah started when discussing the lineup for the upcoming Democratic debate in Detroit, where Sanders will share a stage with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). “I can’t even identify for you what exactly it is. But I see him as sort of a not pro-woman candidate,” she continued. "So, having the two of them there—like, I don’t understand young women who support him. And I’m hoping having him next to her will help highlight that.”
Rocah’s comments—which multiple campaign officials contended went too far—were part of a larger issue they see brewing, where the fact-checking process appears to be largely removed from the day-to-day political discourse among some commentators and hosts.
“It takes a certain kind of woman to ignore that education, healthcare, and the economy are women’s issues too. #privilegedmuch? This is not what intersectional feminism looks like. It’s corporate feminism at its finest. Full stop,” Sanders’ national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray wrote on Twitter.
“Here we go again.. It is so belittling to constantly tell young women that they HAVE TO vote for someone JUST BECAUSE THEY'RE A WOMAN. Mam, we have brains, we're voting on policy and a candidates vision + work, not their sex. This is #WhiteFeminism at its finest,” Belén Sisa, Sanders’ Latino press secretary, tweeted.
A senior campaign aide said the campaign believes there are possible biases in the network, but instead of shunning MSNBC they’ve been aggressive in getting their people booked. Sanders has been on the network at least nine times this cycle, granting multiple interviews to hosts Chris Hayes, Ali Velshi and Stephanie Ruhle, and Al Sharpton, among others. He has done at least the same amount of appearances on the network as he did in the first six months of the 2016 election.
Still, a separate campaign official said there’s only a small handful of guests closely aligned with Sanders who regularly appear on the network, and that while they’re hopeful more will be added as the field narrows, their suggestions thus far have been largely turned down.
To help supplement that, his campaign has taken steps to create new chances for independent public exposure, including creating a live-streamed show, “The 99,” that runs twice per week and a new podcast called “Hear the Bern” produced by Gray.
Officials agreed that the more Sanders appears on major news networks, the better chance he has to make his case to the public. But that increased exposure also comes with a perceived bias among hosts and commentators, officials cautioned.
“It doesn’t even have to be ‘rah rah rah, Bernie Sanders!’” Turner said, pointing to Zerlina Maxwell, an MSNBC political analyst and former official on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign who shared the segment with Rocah. “Just someone who would push back.”
After the segment aired, Turner personally asked women to share stories detailing why they support Sanders, saying that while she wasn’t surprised in the volume of responses she received, the depth of personal accounts women chose to divulge connected to Sanders’ policy platform was compelling.
“Their voices matter just as much as Mimi’s,” Turner said. “They may not have a platform on MSNBC, but their voices matter.”
A spokesperson for MSNBC seemed to dismiss the campaign’s claims, without mentioning Sanders by name. “A presidential campaign complaining about tough questions and commentary speaks for itself,” the spokesperson said. “Our anchors and analysts are doing their jobs: discussing day-to-day developments that have an impact on the race.”
But Sanders’ campaign argues the incident was not isolated. “There’s no effort to push for fact-based analysis,” one campaign official told The Daily Beast. “Cable news allows that sort of spin to exist in the world in a way that doesn’t get checked.”
The official said that when contributors on the network engage in more robust policy discussions, including shortly after Sanders gave a speech on Medicare-for-all, the campaign reached out to the network to push for several fact-based corrections, a standard practice among presidential campaigns.
“It’s a full-time job,” the official said of the back-and-forth dialogue with the network.
For all the campaign’s gripes with the left-leaning news network, there’s early indication that his message is going over better with an ideologically opposite cable news network. A recent Morning Consult poll found that Fox News viewers are more likely to support Sanders than those who prefer to watch MSNBC. According to the survey, 22 percent of Fox News viewers who identified as possible Democratic primary voters said they would back Sanders, as opposed to 13 percent of MSNBC viewers. That statistic was bolstered further by Sanders’ ratings during his own town hall appearance on Fox News, where more than 2.5 million viewers tuned in to hear Sanders make his case, according to Nielsen data.
A source with direct knowledge told The Daily Beast that Sanders recently called Morning Joe co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski to have an off-the-record talk.
This comes as the top MSNBC hosts said Sanders’ Democratic socialist platform would give Trump an upper hand in a possible match-up.
“My God if you’re afraid to say you’re a capitalist,” Scarborough, who recently criticized Sanders’ general tone and temperament, said. “Let me let you in on a little secret. If that is a crisis for your party, you’re gonna lose in 2020.”
Addressing Scarborough’s comments directly, frequent MSNBC guest Donny Deutsch said he wanted to “take it one step further” with his own hypothesis: “A socialist candidate is more dangerous to this country as far as the strength and wellbeing of our country than Donald Trump,” he said.
—Additional reporting by Lloyd Grove and Maxwell Tani.