Media’s Anti-Sanders Bias on Full Display in L.A. Debate
Tonight’s Democratic presidential debate will be sponsored by Politico and PBS, simulcast by CNN, and moderated by Politico chief political correspondent Tim Alberta, along with PBS NewsHour’s anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff, senior national correspondent Amna Nawaz and White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor.
Politico and CNN have demonstrated time and time again their systemic and institutional anti-Sanders bias. Who can forget Politico’s piece (5/24/19) showing Sanders standing next to a tree with dollars for leaves, or CNN (3/15/16; FAIR.org, 3/16/16) cutting away from a Sanders speech to show an empty podium with the chyron “Standing By for Trump to Speak”?
But as an individual, PBS’s Alcindor has a long and documented history of hostile, unfair coverage of Sanders. Earlier this month, in fact, NewsHour and Alcindor were criticized for their rather stunning omission of Sanders from a campaign story (12/2/19) that mentioned and showed images of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Sestak and Steve Bullock. Somehow there was no time or space for Sanders, who has generally been the No. 2 candidate, behind Biden, in polls of Democratic primary voters. The panel Alcindor hosted following the report mentioned Biden, Buttigieg, Warren and Michael Bloomberg, but, again, not Sanders.
This is far from an isolated incident; Alcindor has repeatedly used her articles, tweets and media appearances to portray Sanders in an unflattering light. She has used innuendo to suggest Sanders is too old to run for president or, shockingly, was partly responsible for a mass shooting. She has asked loaded questions to suggest that Sanders’ refusal to drop out of the race was sexist, perpetuated the evidence-free “Bernie Bro” narrative, presented Sanders’ supporters as “idol” worshipers and sanitized antisemitic tropes used against Sanders.
It should be noted from the outset that Alcindor is an experienced, accomplished and award-winning journalist, who did exceptional reporting on Trayvon Martin and the Ferguson protests at USA Today before being hired by the New York Times in 2015. (She left the Times for PBS NewsHour in 2018.) This stellar overall record makes her heavily slanted Sanders reporting all the more jarring.
In June 2017, in Alexandria, Virginia, a lone gunman shot and injured five members of the Republican congressional baseball team, including Rep. Steve Scalise. The shooter—James T. Hodgkinson, who was killed by police in a shootout—turned out to be one of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers for Bernie Sanders. Alcindor used this to link the shooting to Sanders and his supporters in general, in an article that claimed, in headline and body, that the “Attack Tests Movement Sanders Founded” (6/14/17).
FAIR responded with an Action Alert: “With Sleazy Innuendo, NYT Lays Virginia Attack at Bernie Sanders’ Feet” (6/15/17), and encouraged its readers to contact the New York Times and “ask for more responsible coverage of the Virginia shooting incident.” Media critic and FAIR contributor Adam Johnson explained:
New York Times reporter Yamiche Alcindor (6/14/17) started with a false premise and patched together a dodgy piece of innuendo and guilt-by-association in order to place the blame for a shooting in Virginia on “the most ardent supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders.” We learned…that the shooter, James T. Hodgkinson…had been a Sanders campaign volunteer, and that his social media featured pictures of the Vermont senator and his brand of progressive, anti-Republican language. This was enough for Alcindor to build a piece based on the premise that Sanders’ “movement” had been somehow responsible for the attacks, and was thus “tested” by them.
Johnson was not exaggerating when he called out the “innuendo” in the article, which suggested that violence was the natural result of the dangerous messages Sanders’ supporters get from “their idol”:
The most ardent supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders have long been outspoken about their anger toward Republicans — and in some cases toward Democrats. Their idol, the senator from Vermont, has called President Trump a “demagogue” and said recently that he was “perhaps the worst and most dangerous president in the history of our country.”
Now, in Mr. Sanders’ world, his fans have something concrete to grapple with: James T. Hodgkinson, a former volunteer for Mr. Sanders’s presidential campaign, is suspected of opening fire on Republican lawmakers practicing baseball in Alexandria, Va.
That shooting on Wednesday… may prove to be an unexpected test for a movement born out of Mr. Sanders’ left-wing, populist politics and a moment for liberals to figure out how to balance anger at Mr. Trump with inciting violence.
Alcindor also suggests that Sanders’ rhetoric is as hate-mongering and “dangerous” as Trump’s. Never mind that Sanders practices and preaches a philosophy of nonviolence, while Trump regularly engages in dehumanizing language, praised a member of Congress who attacked a reporter, and had his name invoked in at least nine physical attacks. What mattered for Alcindor was that “some of Mr. Sanders’s supporters had earned a belligerent reputation for their criticism of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party and others who they believed disagreed with their ideas.”
To support her point, Alcindor even quotes Michael Savage, an Islamophobic, homophobic, Trump-supporting shock jock, whom she sanitized as “a radio host” “on the political right”: “I warned America the Dems constant drumbeat of hatred would lead to violence!” And she quotes Bill Mitchell, whom the Weekly Standard (10/18/16) has called Trump’s “unofficial Twitter mascot”: “The Left in this country is ushering in a new #CultureOfViolence where violent hate is the new normal.”
Alcindor’s concern about politicians inspiring violence in their adherents appears to be highly selective. She never wrote a piece, for instance, about how Hillary Clinton’s campaign was “tested” by the actions of actor Wendell Pierce, a Clinton supporter who was charged with battery after assaulting a female Sanders supporter in Atlanta. Nor did she write a piece on an incident in which a straight white male Clinton donor hit a young woman of color with his hand and cane.
The outcry over Alcindor’s article was not limited to the Bernie camp alone. Many Clinton supporters, and even veterans of the Clinton campaign themselves, have pushed back on Alcindor’s comments. Brian Fallon, Clinton’s national press secretary in 2016, replied to Alcindor’s article by tweeting: “A hideous act was carried out by someone who backed Sanders. That doesn’t mean Sanders incites/condones violence.”
The sentiment was retweeted by Jennifer Palmieri, director of communications for the Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign.
Alcindor also employed a variation of the“some say”/“people say” dodge—so popular with Fox News—asking Sanders during a press conference in June 2016: “What do you say to women who say that you staying in the race is sexist because you’re standing in the way of what could be the first female president?” Sanders responded:
Is that a serious question?… Your question implies that any woman…who is running for president is by definition the best candidate…. Is your point that it is sexist for any man to oppose her?
Alcindor followed up, “My point is that if she has more delegates than you tomorrow…that if you stay in the race, is it sexist?” At which point Sanders replied, “I don’t think it is sexist.”
One can forgive Sanders for questioning whether Alcindor’s question was serious. Presumably she would not have asked Clinton if she was being antisemitic by standing in the way of what could be the first Jewish president—though anti-Semitism, not just misogyny, was a factor in the 2016 race. Even accepting Alcindor’s arbitrary “more delegates” threshold, was Clinton racist in 2008 because she didn’t drop out immediately and endorse Barack Obama? There are several reasons a candidate would stay in a primary race, even after victory is mathematically impossible—including, notably, an interest in shaping the platform at their party convention. To suggest that not dropping out of the race was “sexist” diminishes the real fight against sexism.
But Alcindor stood by her question, tweeting, “Some women think @BernieSanders will be standing in way of history tomorrow if HRC wins and he doesn’t concede. He got testy when I asked; Oh well.”
Talking Points Memo (6/6/16) reported on the exchange with a headline that parroted Alcindor’s framing:
And the Washington Post (6/7/16) wrote, “Sanders himself got into a testy exchange with a female Times reporter,” even suggesting that Sanders’ sexism was responsible for his response to Alcindor:
We can’t assume that Alcindor’s gender was a factor here. It’s possible that Sanders is simply sick and tired of questions — from anyone — that suggest he is stubbornly clinging to a shot at the nomination that doesn’t really exist.
To make things worse, the Post article ran under the headline “The Bernie Bros Are Out in Full Force Harassing Female Reporters.” It was accompanied by a photo of a woman with egg dripping from her hair. A female reporter being harassed by Bernie Bros, as the headline suggests? No, it turned out to be a Trump supporter who was egged after giving the finger and reportedly making anti-Mexican remarks to a crowd of largely Latino Trump protesters, who had no particular connection to the Sanders campaign. Several days later, after the article and photo had been widely circulated, the Post replaced the image and added an editor’s note:
An image that originally accompanied this post on The Fix‘s main page and appeared in a video in the post depicted a woman being egged. Given the headline and context of this post, the photo could have been misconstrued as a reporter, which it was not. It was of a Trump supporter at a rally last week in California. The photo has been changed.
It’s hard to see how the photo could have been anything but misconstrued.
A few days after asking the senator from Vermont if his failure to drop out of the race was sexist, Alcindor tweeted that Sanders shouted “shun the nonbelievers,” “stay in the race” and “Bernie or bust” at a rally she was covering. To be fair, Alcindor did delete the tweet and issued a correction—hours after it had been pointed out that Sanders had not said any of these things:
CORRECTION: @BernieSanders SUPPORTERS shouted “Shun the nonbelievers,” “Stay in the race,” and “Bernie or bust,” at rally. Tweeting late.
It’s very plausible that a reporter could accidentally omit the word “supporters” from a tweet. But it’s noteworthy that Alcindor made the same mistake on another occasion, tweeting, “Rosario Dawson mentions @HillaryClinton’s name and @BernieSanders boo loudly.” She never corrected or deleted that tweet.
Alcindor’s New York Times article (6/9/16) likewise claimed that “many” at the rally shouted the same slogans cited in her tweet. Several attendees responded that they didn’t hear these chants. (Indeed, it seems unlikely that many people would chant the awkward phrase “shun the nonbelievers.”)
Alcindor wrote several other articles that presented anti-Sanders opinion as fact: “Inquiry Into Bernie Sanders’ Wife May Tarnish His Liberal Luster,” read one headline (7/15/17). “Is Bernie Sanders, 75, Too Old for 2020? His Fiercest Fans Say No,” read another (6/13/17), which insinuated that only Sanders’ most zealous supporters, and not his normal ones, were OK with his age.
One particularly negative article (6/8/16)—admittedly, a “news analysis” and not a reported piece—revealed Alcindor’s disdain for the senator. The article, headlined, “Hillary Clinton Made History, but Bernie Sanders Stubbornly Ignored It,” claimed that
despite the crushing California results that rolled in for him on Tuesday night, despite the insurmountable delegate math and the growing pleas that he end his quest for the White House, Sen. Bernie Sanders took to the stage in Santa Monica and basked, bragged and vowed to fight on.
In a speech of striking stubbornness, he ignored the history-making achievement of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, who became the first woman in American history to clinch the presidential nomination of a major political party.
The piece continued:
The raw math is brutal and indisputable….This would be the time, under normal circumstances, for a primary rival to acknowledge insurmountable odds, pay tribute to a prevailing opponent and begin the work of stitching together a divided political party…. That was the conciliatory message that a vanquished Mrs. Clinton delivered eight years ago to the day, on June 7, 2008, four days after Barack Obama had sealed his party’s nomination — a contest that was mathematically closer than the one with Mr. Sanders now…. Party unity, it seems, is the farthest thing from his mind at the moment.
Alcindor and her co-writer, Michael Barbaro, somehow forgot that before dropping out, Clinton said she did not “buy the party unity stuff,” and, in fact, justified staying in the race because Obama could be shot, warning, “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.” The New York Times (5/24/08), in fact, reported that these offensive comments “stir[red] uproar.” Yet eight years later, the 2008 Clinton campaign was recalled only as “conciliatory” and an exemplar of party unity.
Alcindor’s digs at Sanders ranged to the pettiest. She tweeted out a menu from Sanders’ chartered flight to the Vatican in April 2016, apparently to suggest that the rich fare offered made Sanders a hypocrite. It became enough of a narrative that Snopes weighed in on it, clarifying that “the menu was not any different from Delta’s commercial and charter flight offerings for Spring 2016.”
While Alcindor went out of her way to portray Sanders’ supporters unfavorably, she seemed to sanitize a Sanders critic who lobbed antisemitic tropes at the senator. In April 2016, while covering Sanders speaking at the Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, Alcindor tweeted a video of a man she identified as “John Prince, a community activist,” who “interrupted @BernieSanders to shout about gentrification.”
Alcindor left out some important context: As Real Clear Politics (4/10/16) and several other outlets reported, the man had been shouting questions at Sanders based on antisemitic stereotypes:
The Zionist Jews — and I don’t mean to offend anybody — they run the Federal Reserve, they run Wall Street, they run every campaign…. What is your affiliation to your Jewish community?
Her video captured only the tail end of the exchange, meaning that the “community activist” had already asked Sanders about the “Zionist Jews.”
If Alcindor’s first tweet ignored the antisemitic content of the rant, her followup tweet (accompanied by a more audible video) presented them without comment: “More of protester John Prince saying he wants to know about @BernieSanders’ ties to Jewish real estate owners,” she wrote, as Prince said:
The giant Zionist Jews… they’re buying real estate, and they’re selling it ten times the value. What is Bernie’s affiliation? Everything he says goes against Wall Street, the big banks and the federal reserves. Those are his family.
Alcindor’s uncritical framing of the protestor’s demands was condemned by several people on Twitter, Jews and non-Jews alike, including supporters of Hillary Clinton, one of whom tweeted, “#ImWithHer but I don’t want to give credence to these types of attacks.”
To be fair, Alcindor did refer to antisemitism in the article she wrote on the Apollo event, describing the “protester” as “interrupting the Vermont senator with antisemitic remarks.” And Twitter is different from journalism. But at the very least, a New York Times journalist should be expected to clarify.
One can hope that as a moderator Alcindor will treat Sanders with the fairness that all candidates deserve, but the prospects are dim. After the June Democratic debate, Alcindor approvingly tweeted an exchange between Sanders and moderator Rachel Maddow. After Maddow asked Sanders about his gun record, the senator responded, “No, that’s a mischaracterization of my thinking.” Maddow replied, “It’s a quote of you.”
As former Rhodes scholar Maddow no doubt understands, quoting someone and mischaracterizing them are not mutually exclusive. Sanders was not claiming that Maddow misquoted him, but rather that she took the quote out of context, which she did, by only citing part of it. Even PolitiFact (7/3/19) deemed Sanders’ assertion of mischaracterization to be “mostly true.” Unfortunately, but predictably, most corporate media reported on Maddow’s retort as a gotcha moment.
Alcindor, tweeting the exchange, wrote, “Journalism at work, folks.” Let’s hope this form of “journalism” doesn’t dominate tonight’s debate.Wait, before you go…
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