Media coverage of the first Democratic Presidential debate skewed reality to fit the narratives of the Two-Party system, in which Republicans and Democrats are the establishment. Each party thinks that they are half of the country because in the federal government they are fairly evenly matched. They discount the Independents, and forget that Independents can register as Democrats to vote for Bernie Sanders, so they didn’t even consider the reality of their audience when portraying the first Democratic debate.
Forty percent of the country is Independent, with about thirty percent for Democrats and Republicans. The way the government is structured is so that Independents decide every election. Candidates must be able to win over the undecided voters, but in the mass media narrative, there are no undecided voters in the Democratic primaries. Everyone has accepted Hillary Clinton because she so strongly wants to be President. This means Clinton cooked up her own narrative of inevitability. The media thinks that if they say that the race is decided then people won’t have to worry about making a decision. They can magically cause the undecided voters to disappear, and media pundits are constantly trying to justify their behavior by repeating, “You know, young people don’t vote anyways.” The corporations that run the media are politically affiliated with the Two-Party establishment, so the narrative they provide ignores the independence of the American public.
This collusion between the mass media and the government hasn’t always existed. PBS was all there used to be, but with the Citizen’s United ruling, under which corporations can donate unlimited money to political candidates. Now most of the Presidential candidates are representing their sponsors, and the agreement is that the corporations will receive favors if their candidate wins the election. Bernie Sanders called our system “casino capitalism,” and that is a very apt description, with billionaires gambling on our political system.
What this means is that the corporations that run the mass media have money riding on this election, and the executives didn’t get where they were from playing nice. Even though the media has an ethical bond with the public, bound by an obligation to serve the public good by accurately and fairly representing our national reality, the media is not run by the people who developed the ethics of broadcast journalism. Time Warner is often referred to as evil, or is used as the butt of a joke, and they are a major donor to Hillary Clinton. Their company CNN hosted the first Democratic debate, and the way they portrayed Bernie Sanders was like he was speaking a different language that they couldn’t understand.
One of the most memorable parts of the debate coverage was the part of the debate when Bernie Sanders said that “the public is tired of hearing about Clinton’s damn emails.” Sanders said this after speaking at length about a number of issues that we are facing as a nation, and his point was that the media was obsessing over Clinton’s emails as a way to distract the public from the real issues. The argument that Senator Sanders made moved the audience into roaring applause, and CNN saw an excellent opportunity to make Senator Sanders’s argument about Hillary Clinton.
The counterargument is that editing footage to condense a statement is common practice and doesn’t mean anything. The counterargument actually argues for the censorship of Senator Sanders. The mass media has a civic obligation to accurately portray what people say, and during a Presidential campaign there is nothing more important than the media helping the public hear what the candidates are saying. In the coverage of the debate, CNN edited Senator Sanders’s argument about how the email scandal was a distraction to keep the public ignorant of the real issues that we need to be talking about. In editing his argument, they cut out his argument; his response starts, “Now, I know it’s not good politics for me to do this, but we need to stop talking about the emails. . .” and then it cuts out when Senator Sanders started developing his argument. And of course that last little soundbite was nice: “We’re sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!” And the applause afterward made it sound like everyone in the audience agreed that the emails didn’t matter.
People were applauding the argument that the media’s obsession with Clinton’s emails was a way to distract the public from the real issues facing our nation—corrupt campaign finance laws at the top, and even the state of mass media. In the face of this argument against the establishment, CNN cut it out of their footage so they could make the whole argument about Clinton’s emails.
I think this one example highlights the complicity between the government and mass media. I’ve taken to calling it the government-media establishment. The reason why this is happening right now is because of the internet. At its core, this is a conflict between the fourth estate and the fifth estate. While mass media was being established, their ethical principles allowed the public to accept that as the purveyors of information and “the truth.” After accepting mass media, people developed trust for journalists’ perspective on reality. As a result, the older generations may choose not to watch the debates and instead rely on the journalists who know what happened.
The civic responsibility of the media in covering politics is enormous. These news channels, newspapers and magazines are trusted with mediating the democratic process. Over the years, politicians mingled extensively with the media, and they learned how to use the media to their advantage—helping to further their agendas, to promote propaganda, and especially as a way of making money. It seems that the government is so entangled with the media that they have difficulty understanding anything that doesn’t fit with their narrative (thus, acting like Sanders was speaking a foreign language: “I just don’t understand…”).
Numerous factors contribute to the state of the media, but it comes down to the internet. A big part of the controversy over the first debate was that the audience polls that CNN conducted were quickly removed from their website after airing. All the polls had Senator Sanders winning in a landslide, and the focus groups after the debate all said Sanders won. CNN showed the poll for a moment after the debate, and the pundits mumbled and then moved onto another topic. CNN deleted the poll from their website, but that didn’t stop people from seeing the poll. The day after the debate, all the pundits agreed that Hillary Clinton won the debate and in fact they thought there was no debate and that they should just go ahead and nominate Clinton then and there since she was so brilliant.
Everyone was confused because all of the quantitative measures said that Sanders had the better debate performance, and so people used the internet to level the playing field and participate in the media’s discourse, bringing attention to the reality of the debate and the public consensus. I don’t know if the public has had quite a facedown with the mass media before, though Howard Dean’s and Ron Paul’s supporters had to face slander from the media as well. Back in 2004 and 2008, we were still trying to learn how the internet fit into our world, and these candidates tried to use the internet to create a grassroots movement. Since the internet was new, the establishment didn’t trust it, and they worried about what kinds of whackos were plotting on the internet.
The natural ad hominem was to call these first-wave digital campaigners crazy. That’s a pretty good label to use because when you’re calling someone irrational, there is no reason. People who don’t think critically will accept the label and spread the propaganda. Howard Dean famously lost his race when he screamed during a debate. The “crazy” label stuck and the establishment shunted him off to the side. Ron Paul supporters received the same treatment, but I don’t think much of us ended up voting.
Barack Obama was the next candidate to use the internet to campaign. He built momentum online which translated into votes and he has been President ever since. Even though Obama showed that the internet could decide elections, the establishment has returned to their “crazy” talking point. The mass media responded to the criticism about skewing the debate coverage by calling all of Bernie Sanders’s supporters crazy. It was really sad to watch all of these Sanders supporters actually think that the media was telling the truth and that they were acting crazy. That shows how deeply the media has conditioned us, to be passive receivers of information.
The problem with all of this controversy is that Bernie Sanders said in the debate that the media was part of the problem, and we had to clean them up. These journalists and pundits knew they couldn’t go after Sanders for criticizing them, because he has a flawless record, but they could go after all the unknown voters around the country. The argument the media pushed after attacking their detractors was that their polls were done online and that the internet wasn’t real life so it didn’t represent reality. Even though they invited the viewers live on CNN to vote in the polls.
CNN told the story like the only people who voted in the online polls were those creepy people who spend all their time on the internet and so of course they would vote in an online poll. Normal voters weren’t comfortable enough with the internet to use that technology, so the polls just show what internet voters picked, not what the general electorate would have picked. They conveniently ignored the focus groups.
If the poll results had been close, then this argument might have merit, but Sanders won in the poll with 81% of the votes. Essentially, what CNN decided to do in response to the claims of corruption was to describe Bernie Sanders’s supporters as subhumans, by calling them crazy and saying they don’t live in the real world, to justify the superiority of the in-group—the establishment Democrats—as reason to ignore the poll, and go ahead saying that everyone clearly though that Hillary Clinton won the debate. This is the psychological process known as “othering,” and it is practiced by any oppressive organization, and has been the go-to strategy to make sure the poor whites didn’t join the minorities in rebellion.
So in this case study about CNN’s coverage of Bernie Sanders at the first Democratic debate, I’ve gotten at the heart of racism. While this tactic isn’t being used with a racist agenda, it is still very much classist. The establishment still wants to keep the poor whites from joining the poor minorities in rebellion because they understand the size of our country. However, if they can use the media to directly connect to individuals, so that they can manipulate the public’s thinking so that no one is aware of how bad things really are in our country. The upper class is all in the establishment because they want to make sure things stay just as good as they are. The lower class is then kept in ignorance by this media coverage, and they aren’t informed to know which candidate would best represent them.
An increasingly more prevalent diagnosis of our government is that we are an oligarchy, and that Citizen’s United was the final nail in the coffin for democracy. As is clear in CNN’s coverage of the first Democratic debate, the financial marriage of government and the mass media makes it clear that there are strong forces working in our nation’s establishment to prevent democracy. The media forgot their sworn oath to promote civic welfare after the internet was released to the public because people could gather information for themselves; twenty-four hour news channels became concerned with entertainment value to promote their ratings, but their ratings keep plummeting as people get rid of cable and switch to Netflix. They know they have lost their former power, and with this recognition we can regulate the media to enforce the sense of ethics and civic duty that is so important to the media’s relationship with the public.
In the end, plutocrats took over these institutions that were started by journalists and turned it into a money-making venture. Because the mass media stopped working for the public good, people are abandoning the media in droves in favor of the internet. Perhaps the mass media corporations could reform through the internet. I think the grassroots power of the internet can also enable a truer form of democracy, but before we can start improving on democracy, we must reinstate democracy in our nation. In order to do this there must be a public takeover of the information trade and the media must be forced to report on reality. It is a pathetic state of affairs.