Bernie Sanders is running a presidential campaign rooted in the belief that the country can be better than President Donald Trump – and that he is the person who can bring about that change for the better.
Which makes what Sanders did on Monday in New Hampshire all the more disappointing.
Sanders, speaking at a town hall, started in on his now-familiar riff on how Amazon pays no taxes. And then he said this:
“See, I talk about that all of the time. And then I wonder why The Washington Post — which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon — doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why. But I guess maybe there’s a connection.”
Well, no, there isn’t. And what Sanders is doing there is absolutely no different than what Trump does – both in his attacks on the media generally and his specific hits on The Washington Post.
Don’t believe me? Tell me what’s different between what Sanders said, and this 2017 tweet from Trump: “It’s hard to read the Failing New York Times or the Amazon Washington Post because every story/opinion, even if should be positive, is bad!”
The sentiments expressed in both those comments are the same: Because Bezos, a billionaire and founder of Amazon, also owns the Post, the newspaper is hopelessly biased against anyone who has negative things to say about Amazon. What Sanders said and what Trump has long maintained is that there is a corporate cabal out to get them because they had the temerity to speak out.
“Sen. Sanders is a member of a large club of politicians – of every ideology – who complain about their coverage,” the Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron, said in a statement following Sanders’ unfounded allegation. “Contrary to the conspiracy theory the senator seems to favor, Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest.”
I am one of those reporters Marty mentions. I worked at The Washington Post for a decade prior to coming to CNN in early 2017. For the last three of my years at the Post, Bezos owned the company. Not once in all of that time – and I wrote multiple pieces a day about politics and politicians (including Sanders and Trump) over that time – was there ever even a whiff of Bezos’ influence in the newsroom.
What’s truly appalling about Sanders’ statement Monday is that he knows all of that. He’s been in politics for a very long time. He knows that the job of the Post – and CNN and every other major media organization – is not to just provide him (or any other candidate running for president) with “good articles” about his candidacy. The job of the media is to hold politicians accountable, to fact check the claims they make and to educate the public. Not to make politicians happy.
Sanders even admitted that Tuesday when asked to explain his comments.
“Do I think Jeff Bezos is on the phone, telling the editor of The Washington Post what to do? Absolutely not. It doesn’t work that way,” he said. Then he continued his attack: “But what I think is in media, in general, there is a framework, New York Times operates under, The Washington Post operates under, CNN operates under, for example, I’ve been in politics for a few years. You know what? Not one reporter has ever asked me, ‘Bernie? What are you going to do about the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality?’ “
Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, added, “The critique has been building. Senator Sanders has always been frustrated with the role of corporate media and its role in politics. That is not a specific criticism of any one journalist or newsroom but of the culture that can be dismissive of the things the senator believes are important.”
Now. It’s important to note that as ridiculous as what Sanders said about the Post on Monday is, it pales in comparison to the damage done by Trump’s dishonest and extended attacks against the media over the past four years. One comment by Sanders does not equal the mountain of falsehoods and innuendo pushed by Trump.
But the standard for Democrats shouldn’t be some version of “well, Trump did the same stuff – and worse!” There’s no debate that Trump’s had eroded, if not entirely destroyed, the notion of the presidency as a beacon of moral leadership. But traveling the low road, even occasionally, with Trump isn’t a recipe to show the country the necessary change that Democrats believe they represent.
And again: Sanders knows better. (As does Trump, of course.) He said what he said to get a cheap applause line at a town hall packed with supporters. The problem for Sanders, Trump and politics more generally is that many of the people who hear things like this from them don’t know better. They actually believe there is some sort of conspiracy between corporate America and the news media. And when politicians – whether they are Sanders, Trump or anyone else in either party – stoke that sentiment, that’s dangerous. And bad for democracy. Full stop.