By Adam Johnson
Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting May 25th, 2016
As Donald Trump caught up with Hillary Clinton in the polls over the past two weeks, the Bernie Sanders campaign has reiterated its last-ditch argument to win over superdelegates and secure the nomination: The Vermont senator is walloping Trump in the polls by over ten points, in contrast to Clinton’s dead heat. To counter this increasingly messy fact, several Clinton boosters in the media have dusted off an old talking point: that Sanders hasn’t been properly “vetted”—thoroughly examined for political faults—rendering the polls meaningless. Should Sanders become the nominee, the idea is, the scrutiny that he would get in the general election would devastate him.
This line of argument has been advanced by, for example, everyone from Slate’s Michelle Goldberg to the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky to MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid. The problem is this Beltway dogma is based entirely on rhetorical sleight-of-hand, conventional wisdom and unfalsifiable assumptions.
The refrain that the Clinton campaign hasn’t run a negative attack on Sanders, thus protecting him from the sort of criticism that lies ahead, is just a lie — one that normally reserved PolitiFact (5/22/16) deemed Clinton’s claim to this effect “false.” This argument has been repeated by several pundits, notably Goldberg (5/2/16), who wrote, “Clinton has not hit Sanders with a single negative ad.” Tomasky (5/24/16) added, “While [Sanders] all but called Clinton a harlot, she’s barely said a word about him.”
As FAIR noted two weeks ago, the Clinton campaign directly coordinates online media with its Super PAC Correct the Record which has been attacking Sanders with an online troll army, text messages, videos, infographics and talking points for months. So even if one accepts the libertarian myth that Super PACs are somehow separate from campaigns, this cannot be said about this Super PAC, which freely admits it works with Clinton. Using TV appearances and social media, Clinton herself linked Sanders to the Sandy Hook massacre and the far-right Minutemen militia.
The core of the argument is that Sanders has never been asked about his “socialist ties” from the ‘70s and ‘80s. From Goldberg’s May 2 polemic:
Right now there’s no way of knowing, because there’s been only scattered excavation of Sanders’ radical connections. He has never been asked to account for his relationship with the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, for which he served as a presidential elector in 1980. At the time, the party’s platform called for abolishing the US military budget and proclaimed “solidarity” with revolutionary Iran. (This was in the middle of the Iranian hostage crisis.) There’s been little cable news chatter about Sanders’ 1985 trip to Nicaragua, where he reportedly joined a Sandinista rally with a crowd chanting, “Here, there, everywhere/The Yankee will die.”
Tomasky piled on:
I don’t think they’d even have to go into his radical past, although they surely would. Michelle Goldberg of Slate has written good pieces on this. He took some very hard-left and plainly anti-American positions.
But this isn’t true. In nine debates, Sanders has been asked questions about his socialism a total of ten times (roughly the amount of questions asked about Russia). In the very first debate, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, after bringing up Sanders “honeymooning in the Soviet Union” and support for the Sandinistas, pushed Sanders to pledge his loyalty to capitalism with three consecutive follow-up questions. Keep in mind these were the first four questions in the very first debate—the first impression millions of Americans had of the largely unknown senator:
COOPER: Senator Sanders. A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?
COOPER: The Republican attack ad against you in a general election — it writes itself. You supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. You honeymooned in the Soviet Union. And just this weekend, you said you’re not a capitalist.
COOPER: You don’t consider yourself a capitalist, though?
COOPER: Just let me just be clear. Is there anybody else on the stage who is not a capitalist?
From the beginning of the campaign, the socialist label was leveled against Sanders, with “self-described socialist” attached to his name like a Greek apostrophe. In the first two months after he announced, the Washington Post, Guardian, National Review and Politico all explored Sanders’ ties to socialist governments in depth, some focusing on the Trotskyist past Goldberg insists “the media” ignored.
Since then, there’s been too many socialist scare stories to count. Just to sample a few redbaiting gems:
- Don’t Be Fooled by Bernie Sanders — He’s a Diehard Communist (New York Post, 1/16/16)
- Bernie’s Past With the Far Far Far Left (Daily Beast, 1/30/16)
- Why Democrats Should Beware Sanders’ Socialism (Politico, 2/22/16)
- When Bernie Sanders Thought Castro and the Sandinistas Could Teach America a Lesson (Daily Beast, 2/28/16)
- Bernie Sanders Has a Big Problem: Why His Decades-Old Statements About Castro & Sandinistas Are Trouble (Salon, 3/11/16)
- Millennials Like Socialism — Until They Get Jobs (Washington Post, 3/24/16)
- New York’s Doped-Up Beatniks, Hippies and Freaks Love Bernie Sanders (Daily Beast, 4/14/16)
Sanders was again grilled in the Disney/Univision debate in March by the unapologetically anti-communist panel:
MARIA ELENA SALINAS: In 1985, you praised the Sandinista government and you said that Daniel Ortega was an impressive guy. This is what you said about Fidel Castro. Let’s listen.
After the moderators played a surprise clip of Sanders saying positive things about Cuba’s Castro and Nicaragua’s Ortega:
SALINAS: In South Florida there are still open wounds among some exiles regarding socialism and communism. So please explain what is the difference between the socialism that you profess and the socialism in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela.
SALINAS: Senator, in retrospect, have you ever regretted the characterizations that you made of Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro that way?
SALINAS: In retrospect, have you ever regretted the characterizations of Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro that you made in 1985…
RAMOS: On Facebook, by the way, this is the conversation that everybody is having, talking about Cuba. Senator Sanders.
This debate, and the one where Cooper cross-examined Sanders about his lack of allegiance to capitalism, were watched by 6 million and 16 million people respectively. If being asked about something multiple times on stage by moderators in front of millions of viewers doesn’t rise above “cable news chatter,” it’s difficult to say what would. But we can’t really know for sure, since Goldberg, like Tomasky, offers no firm standard of what would qualify for more than “little” and “scattered” attention.
The cynicism of articles that handwring over the lack of vetting of Sanders (including virtually the exact same piece Goldberg wrote back in February) is that the articles themselves are “the media.” The media are vetting Sanders with their repeated complaints of him not being vetted. A variation of this was tried in the New York Times in January with “Alarmed Clinton Supporters Begin Focusing on Sanders’s Socialist Edge” (1/19/16), in which Clinton staffers floated a series of redbaiting talking points about going after Sanders’ socialist past. Anyone familiar with the basics of public relations strategy could see that the front-page Times piece was the attack —only it was free, and had the appearance of actual news.
A similar process piece ran in the Times in April, with “Bernie Sanders May Hear the Word ‘Socialist’ More, From Democrats” (4/8/16). Both pieces detailed every one of the “potential attacks” Goldberg insisted hadn’t been addressed.
It’s possible Trump could trot out (pun intended) Sanders’ face on Stalin’s head and run ads on a loop, but given that Sanders has been repeatedly demagogued with the socialist label and his favorables have only gone up — in both parties — we have no reason to believe a more intensive version of redbaiting would work. Maybe it could, but without indicators, it’s simply an article of faith.
The Daily Beast’s Tomasky didn’t bother with any of this. The crux of his argument was based on conversations he had with some unnamed, unknown number of his buddies:
But I don’t know a single person whose opinions I really value, and I include here Sanders supporters I know, who takes these polls seriously.
That’s it. That’s all the expert opinion he offers: people whose opinion he really values. Who? Where? It’s unclear. Smuggling in vague assumptions by appealing to unknown parties who may or may not exist (also known as “The Thomas Friedman”) is a tell that what’s being argued here is little more than a gut feeling.
Not all vetting, of course, has to come from “the Republicans”; that’s a frame Clinton partisans evoke to obfuscate any corporate media bias against Sanders. First, he was largely ignored for months (having received on one-sixth as much nightly broadcast coverage as Clinton in 2015). And when he was covered, establishment media were virtually uniform in their editorial support for Clinton. The New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Daily News, LA Times, Las Vegas Sun, and Rolling Stone, among many other outlets, endorsed Clinton, and “vetted” Sanders in the process, each leveling criticisms of the Vermont senator ranging from his tax plans to his socialist label to his time in Congress.
The Washington Post, which didn’t officially endorse any candidate, has run editorial after editorial after editorial after editorial harshly critiquing Sanders. The paper infamously ran 16 negative stories on Sanders in as many hours on the eve of the critical Michigan primary. And a scathing critique of Sanders’s tax plan released by centrist Democratic think tank Urban Institute (this, by the way, also counts as vetting) called for four articles by the Post in one afternoon. The Daily Beast has run several negative stories on the senator, as have other web-only outlets, like Vox and particularly Slate, whose chief political correspondent has been one of Sanders’ most consistent critics.
One could say these publications have also been critical of Clinton (and they certainly have), but that’s not what these pundits are arguing. What’s being argued is that, unlike Clinton, Sanders hasn’t yet been “looked closely” at—and this, by any objective measure, is simply untrue.
Is there some undiscovered bombshell waiting to blow up about Sanders? Of course, it’s possible he murdered someone with his bare hands in a Calcutta bazaar in 1991—we can’t know for sure. What one has to believe in order to accept the entirely theoretical assumption that a damning piece of news about Sanders awaits to be revealed is that the Clinton team, armed with $186 million dollar warchest, either A) can’t find something the GOP will or B) found something but is just too darn nice to expose it. Neither of these scenarios seems plausible. And this argument would be more persuasive if it wasn’t already tried eight years ago on Obama in May 2008 (Reuters, 5/5/08):
Clinton has pushed the argument that the party elders and officials known as the “superdelegates” should rally around her as the nominee because, as a former first lady, she has been “vetted” and is better able to fend off attacks from Republicans in a general election.
The idea that Clinton’s unfavorable ratings have hit “their floor,” as Daily Kos founder and Clinton partisan Markos Moulitsas recently put it, is this talking point’s logical corollary. But Clinton also argued this back in January, when she insisted she was “vetted,” and since that time her unfavorable-to-favorable spread has widened by roughly 14 points. Since she announced her campaign, her favorable/unfavorable gap has increased by almost 20 points. One may argue this is due to increased attention by the GOP and Sanders, but at some point we have a boy-who-cried-wolf problem: Was Clinton fully “vetted” in May 2015, January 2016 or is she now?
The reality is no one knows for sure how a general campaign will play out for either candidate. Anything can happen between now and November. But dismissing a major indicator of popularity like polling—a key tool of campaign journalism in virtually all other contexts—due to vague, handwaving claims of unvettedness comes across as far more a convenient talking point than an earnestly arrived-at conclusion.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.
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