For all the talk of cord-cutting and the rise of the digital campaign, cable television remains central to politics. Donald Trump rode billions of dollars in free media to the White House in 2016. Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer are running a political science experiment of sorts, blanketing the country with TV spots—and seeing their poll numbers rise accordingly. (Polling at 3 percent when he first entered the race, Bloomberg has since shot up to 15 percent—at a cost of about $30 million per percentage point.) Old people watch a lot of television. Old people vote. The best way to reach these voters is to get on TV and stay there.
Bernie Sanders’s campaign is different. Although Sanders is spending money on television and radio ads—$5 million in February alone—his campaign is built on grassroots energy and a near-monopoly on young voters. His polling with senior citizens is anemic. A recent Morning Consult poll found that Sanders led millennial voters with 43 percent support; the next highest candidate, Joe Biden, was at 16 percent. The same poll found that only 13 percent of Baby Boomers supported Sanders—half the number supporting Biden.
Sanders has framed himself as an outsider, taking on the political establishment as a democratic socialist. But as he has surged in the polls—he now leads Biden with all voters—he is increasingly running up against another establishment: the media, and particularly cable news.
Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party was aided by a coup at Fox News. After some early turbulence, Fox quickly got in line and has become something like state TV, an echo chamber for the president’s point of view. Sanders has fewer natural allies in cable TV. In fact, the supposedly liberal network, MSNBC, has become a serious obstacle, pumping out Republican anti-Sanders talking points with increasing frequency.
After last Friday’s Democratic debate, Chris Matthews waxed apoplectic about what electing a socialist could mean for America. “I have an attitude towards [Fidel] Castro,” he said. “I believe if Castro and the Reds had won the Cold War there would have been executions in Central Park, and I might have been one of the ones getting executed. And certain other people would be there cheering, OK?” Matthews’s colleagues pointed out that Sanders was more of a Danish type of socialist than a Castro type of socialist, but to little avail.
Two days later, James Carville, Bill Clinton’s former campaign guru, went on Morning Joe to rant about how a Sanders nomination would bring about the apocalypse. Literally. “The only thing between the United States and the abyss is the Democratic Party,” he said. “That’s it. If we go the way of the British Labour Party, if we nominate Jeremy Corbyn, it’s going to be the end of days.” The same day, Chuck Todd, who also hosts NBC’s Meet the Press, read from an article from the right-wing website The Bulwark comparing supporters of Sanders, who is Jewish, to “brownshirts.”
And in the lead-up to Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, Lawrence O’Donnell argued that the real story was that Bernie was losing momentum because his poll numbers were down from the last Democratic primary—even though he is now facing more than a half-dozen opponents, compared to 2016, when he faced one. “The story of the Sanders campaign so far this year is how much ground he’s lost from four years ago,” O’Donnell said. He also ignored the fact that Sanders is leading nationally, which wasn’t the case in 2016.
This is not a new phenomenon. An analysis by In These Times found that Sanders “received not only the least total coverage (less than one-third of Biden’s), but the most negative” coverage on MSNBC’s prime-time programming. MSNBC’s hostility to Sanders presents a sharp contrast to Fox News’s treatment of Trump. “Fox sycophancy dominates its prime-time hours, as Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity praise Dear Leader, and the morning shift, when the hosts of Fox & Friends supply him with ample supplication,” Jack Shafer wrote in 2017. “Trump completes this unvirtuous circle by tweeting back his approval. The ensuing feedback loop serves both the man and the network, making both seem larger than they really are.”
That is not to say that MSNBC, or any journalistic entity, should attempt to replicate Fox’s propagandistic approach to “news” programming. But the antipathy toward Sanders points to larger issues at the network.
While other media outlets, particularly in print, have grappled with the rise of leftists such as Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in recent years, MSNBC’s prime-time shows have invested heavily in coverage of the president’s war with the “deep state” and his ties to Russia. MSNBC has become increasingly filled with talking heads with national security experience—not exactly the type of people who can speak to the rise of democratic socialism in the Democratic Party. With some exceptions, such as All In With Chris Hayes, MSNBC has been obsessed with unraveling Dan Brown-ish ties between Trump and foreign leaders, often letting the issues that Sanders talks about, like health care and income inequality, fall by the wayside.
MSNBC is also a prominent stage for the Democratic elites that Sanders has bashed for his entire political career. His primary strategy is built around ignoring more traditional paths to the nomination, snubbing party mandarins who appear on Morning Joe in favor of turning out new voters. Indeed there is some anecdotal evidence that MSNBC’s distaste for him is helping—a New Hampshire voter told the network on Tuesday that she was voting for Sanders because of the network’s negative coverage of the candidate. “It made me angry, and I said, ‘OK, Bernie has my vote,’” she said.
Sanders’s problems reaching older voters certainly go beyond cable news—socialism is viewed more negatively by those who grew up during the Cold War, for instance—but at the moment, he’s facing a wall of bad coverage across networks that reinforces doubts about his candidacy. Tune in to CNN or Fox News or the Sunday shows, and you hear the same questions about Sanders’s political beliefs, his electability, and his age. Sanders has been surging in spite of these questions, but there are growing signs that the resistance to his campaign will be led by cable news anchors.