In a recent article boldly titled “Bernie has a problem,” Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-Large, wrote that he doesn’t think Bernie Sanders is a “top-tier” presidential contender and “a co-favorite with former Vice President Joe Biden.”
What makes Bernie Sanders, who in the 2016 campaign won more votes among those under age 30 than Clinton and Trump combined, less relevant today, than in 2016? Cillizza explained:
On Wednesday night, Sanders was asked by Anderson Cooper whether he was aware, during the 2016 campaign, of the allegations — recently published by The New York Times — of sexism and sexual harassment within his operation. ‘I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case,’ said Sanders.
That is not a good answer. At all. Ever. And especially not amid the ongoing impact of the #MeToo movement on the culture and political world.
Cillizza was referring to a New York Times article titled “Sexism Claims From Bernie Sanders’s 2016 Run: Paid Less, Treated Worse,” which was published a day before Cillizza’s “Bernie has a problem” piece. The article suggested that “Mr. Sanders is no longer an outsider, but an established leader who will be held to a higher standard. And regarding the treatment of women, he must now grapple with the effects of the #MeToo movement.”
The piece weaved first-person narratives from staffers Bernie’s campaign, who experienced sexual harassment and were unfairly treated, with the argument that Sanders must grapple with a new reality should he run for president in 2020. “Now, as the Vermont senator tries to build support for a second run at the White House, his perceived failure to address this issue has damaged his progressive bona fides,” wrote Sydney Ember and Katie Benner in their piece.
“And it has raised questions among them about whether he can adequately fight for the interests of women, who have increasingly defined the Democratic Party in the Trump era, if he runs again for the presidential nomination in 2020,” the article continued.
Using a national platform to insinuate that someone can’t “adequately fight for the interests of women” and has a damaged reputation as a progressive is serious business. Nevertheless, while lifting the voices of marginalized people is the right thing to do, turning their stories into a political attack against Sanders 2020 is as low as any media can get in their attacks against the democratic socialist.
But as 2016 showed us, such media spins are expected from establishment political and media circles. Those familiar with the 2016 DNC Leaks saw a glimpse of how Democratic National Committee operatives conspired among themselves, and worked directly with journalists, to insert anti-Bernie talking points into the mainstream news cycle. As The New York Times themselves pointed out at the time of Wikileaks’s publication of the leaks on July 22, 2016:
The breach of the Democratic committee’s emails, made public on Friday by WikiLeaks, offered undeniable evidence of what Mr. Sanders’s supporters had complained about for much of the senator’s contentious primary contest with Mrs. Clinton: that the party was effectively an arm of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. The messages showed members of the committee’s communications team musing about pushing the narrative that the Sanders campaign was inept and trying to raise questions publicly about whether he was an atheist.
“Bernie Smear Fest” 2019 is not that different from the Democratic Party’s propagandist shenanigans during the 2016 elections. The major difference now is that — lo and behold — Sanders’s huge problem is not socialism, idealism, racism, religion, or his opinion of Clinton and corporate Democrats, but the “sexism and sexual harassment within his operation.”
Faced with these accusations, Sanders had to go on national TV to set the record straight. But as this article illustrates, instead of doing so, he gave more material for CNN, NBC, and other outlets to further the talking point that he is not as viable of a candidate as he was in 2016. This is what happens when corporate media is judge, jury, and executioner of how the public perceives political matters and leaders.
Out of his seven minute interview with Anderson Cooper, Bernie was allowed only the last minute to address the allegations published in the Times. Here’s what Sanders actually said in his “infamous” interview with Anderson Cooper on January 2:
I am not going to sit here and tell you that we did everything right in terms of human resources, in terms of addressing the needs that I’m hearing from now, that women felt they were disrespected, that there was sexual harassment which was not dealt with as effectively as possible.
What I will tell you is that when I ran for reelection in 2018 in Vermont, we put forward the strongest set of principles in terms of mandatory training, in terms of women, if they felt harassed, having an independent firm that they can go to.
I certainly apologize to any woman who felt that she was not treated appropriately, and of course if I run, we will do better next time.
Unfortunately, this response wasn’t good enough for CNN, so they lifted selected parts of the exchange as further “evidence” for Bernie’s “problem” and blasted them into multiple articles that instilled doubt about Sanders’s 2020 chances. Just a couple of hours before Cillizza’s initial article was published, CNN ran another piece on what Bernie said in the last minute of the interview, titled “What Bernie Sanders should have done about sexism in his campaign.” The piece was written by Sally Kohn, a CNN political commentator.
“I’m not saying Sanders and his senior team similarly turned a blind eye to sexual harassment within his campaign, but a pattern of denying responsibility while problems persist is emerging,” Kohn wrote.
“Look, I don’t know what actually went on in Sanders’ campaign. Few of us truly do,” she added later on. “But I know that if Sanders took these allegations seriously, not just for the sake of optics but because he genuinely cares about the culture and climate his leadership creates, he would have been less defensive and would have given a clear, emphatic and heartfelt apology,” she continued.
In her previous articles from 2016, Kohn called Jill Stein “a blasphemous powder keg of progressive self-immolation” and claimed that “conspiracy theories, not facts” were behind people’s discontent with Clinton in 2016. Given such takes, Kohn’s thoughts on Bernie’s “pattern of denying responsibility,” right after Sanders acknowledged the issue and apologized for what happened, shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Clearly, instances of sexism and sexual harassment have to be cut at the root. But that has little to do with Bernie’s 2020’s run. Yet, virtually all articles about Bernie’s “problem” have insinuated that his potential 2020 presidential bid is somehow threatened by staffers’ 2016 experiences, without bothering to present their case in terms of policy proposals or Bernie’s voting record.
But there’s a twist! An earlier CNN article on the matter (yes, there was at least one more), published a day before Kohn and Cillizza’s, presented a much more neutral account of Sanders’s conversation with Cooper:
“I am not going to sit here and tell you that we did everything right in terms of human resources, in terms of addressing the needs that I’m hearing from now, that women felt they were disrespected, that there was sexual harassment which was not dealt with as effectively as possible,” Sanders initially said to Cooper.
The former Democratic candidate stressed that his 2018 Senate re-election campaign had established new protocols for handling sexual harassment allegations.
“We put forward the strongest set of principles in terms of mandatory training, in terms of women, if they felt harassed, having an independent firm that they can go to,” Sanders said. “And I think that that’s kind of the gold standard of what we should be doing.”
“Of course, if I run, we will do better next time,” he added of a potential 2020 campaign.
Does that sound like a pattern of denying responsibility? If not, then you have to ask yourself why CNN decided to spin a fact-based narrative into “Bernie has a problem, deal with it” in a matter of hours.
The Russian Conspiracy
The 2019 “Bernie Sanders Smear Fest” is not limited to a selective use of data that aims to portray Bernie’s “operation” as sexist, or even to mainstream publications. A featured Medium story, which was also published on January 3, suggested that Sanders has “received support from Russia” and that he “has not yet learned to push his advantage in any other way than going negative.”
The piece is titled “Bernie Sanders’ Ugly Campaigning Is Bad for Democrats — and Great for Trump.”
As I pointed out in my comment to the story, there’s no conclusive evidence for the claim that Sanders received support from Russia. In fact, according to Aaron Maté, who has been tracking “Russiagate” developments for the past two years at The Nation, Russian social media activity was “mostly unrelated to the 2016 election; microscopic in reach, engagement, and spending; and juvenile or absurd in its content.”
As far as the other claim in the article — that Bernie Sanders “pushes his advantage through negativity”— the facts speak for themselves. Sanders is not the one who has an army of trolls online. He didn’t shield a “senior adviser who was accused of repeatedly sexually harassing a young subordinate,” as Hillary Clinton did in 2008. Sanders also didn’t manufacture the “Bernie Bro” narrative which polarized and divided the democratic base, even though there were literally millions of women who supported Sanders over Clinton in the 2016 elections, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out at the time.
Last but not least, Bernie Sanders is not the 2020 contender who has been filmed being alarmingly creepy around kids and blatantly dismissing millennials. Failure to bring such obvious “Biden 2020” disqualifiers (not to mention Biden’s voting record) speaks volumes about the intentions of those who not only smear Sanders, but also lift up “uncle Joe.”
Efforts to paint Sanders as aloof and inauthentic — and his base as poisonous, militant, sexist, and highly susceptible to brainwashing— are nothing but an experiment in self-projection and propaganda. Nevertheless, as we learned from the 2016 elections and the DNC leaks, those who approve, filter, publish, and defend manipulative content about progressive politicians in the U.S don’t care much for nuance or subtlety. They do it out in the open.
Bernie Supporters Suck, too! Because they criticize Beto.
The “Bernie Smear Fast” wouldn’t be complete without sending some gaslighting action to his followers, courtesy of NBC’s perfectly fitting “thought experiment” section. This time, it was the liberal troll lord David Brock who used the opportunity to advance the talking point that “Sanders’ fans can’t be allowed to poison another Democratic primary with personal attacks.”
In the context of obvious attempts to smear Sanders, and Brock’s own history of dirty campaigning, this article (also published on January 3, 2019) reads like it was written by a self-censoring Breitbart writer, which is coincidentally what I think of Brock in general.
How are Sanders’s “fans” poisoning the primary, you might ask? By investigating outlandish things like corporate donations and voting records. According to Brock, investigative journalists such as David Sirota have “made questionable claims about contributions to O’Rourke from the oil and gas industry, as well as his support for certain Republican-sponsored House bills — but neglect to mention that the oil and gas money came mostly from low-level industry employees.”
“The real problem for Sanders’ supporters,” Brock writes, ready to deploy the next talking point, “seems to be that this ‘Kennedyesque golden boy’ … seems perfectly poised to steal Sanders’ thunder among millennials and white liberals with his fresh energy and personal charisma.”
What Brock failed to acknowledge is that, first, he has no actual data to prove his claims and, second, as Alex Kotch reported in Sludge last December, Beto had signed a no fossil fuel money pledge, which he subsequently broke by accepting money from fossil fuel executives. The petition stated that “a politician and their campaign will adopt a policy to not knowingly accept any contributions over $200 from the PACs, executives, or front groups of fossil fuel companies — companies whose primary business is the extraction, processing, distribution, or sale of oil, gas, or coal.”
In an update to his report, Kotch wrote: “I have confirmed that according to the latest campaign finance report, which covers the period from Oct. 17 through Nov. 26, the O’Rourke campaign had not returned 29 ‘large donations’ of over $200 from oil and gas executives, violating the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge O’Rourke signed.”
One could disagree about the importance of Beto’s breaking of the pledge, or the significance of him taking money from oil and gas industry executives.
What’s hard to defend, however, is the zeal with which simply bringing up these facts and Beto’s voting record caused the Democratic Establishment media (and its blue-checked Twitter henchmen) to attack progressives and investigative journalists like Sirota. In his typical fashion, Brock accused writers and journalists for “attacking” Rourke:
The reason for these pre-emptive attacks (which has the markings of a coordinated effort)…is obvious enough,” Brock concludes, “After losing the Texas Senate race to incumbent Ted Cruz, O’Rourke nonetheless has shot to the top.
To summarize — according to Brock, the reason why investigative journalists and progressives are criticizing Beto for breaking a fossil fuel pledge is because … he has shot to the top. Not only that, but the articles critical of Beto— published in progressive outlets like Current Affairs and Jacobin, are somehow evidence of a “coordinated effort” from the Bernie camp.
The propaganda in Brock’s article is as glaring as CNN’s double smear feature. He fails to mention the most basic thing that is required when providing an alternative take on an issue — the actual analysis that has caused many to question Beto. Brock doesn’t even mention Current Affairs and Jacobin’s names, and instead links to them as “news and opinion.”
This is no surprise to those who follow Brock’s work. He accuses others of making personal attacks, because he himself is an expert in political spin. For example, during the 2016 Democratic primary, he declared that “black lives don’t matter to Bernie Sanders” and called on Sanders to release his medical records in order to cast aspersions on his health.
The Sanders campaign called Brock’s stunt “a new, vile super PAC attack on Bernie.”
Brock “prides himself on being as ruthless and amoral as the operatives on the right,” according to an exposé on the operative written by as Robert L. Borosage for The Nation. In the piece, Borosage compares the Brock/Clinton Super Pac apparatus and Bernie’s supporters:
And while Brock’s weaponized politics are highly valued by political operatives, they have yielded mixed results. Sanders opposed Super Pacs and big-money politics. His campaign didn’t pay Internet trolls or run negative ads. He used his integrity to make the case for fundamental change, inspired the young, and came damn close to beating Clinton, who had locked up the big money, the endorsements, the party apparatus, and of course, Brock’s Super Pac apparatus. Trump won after a campaign of insult and outrage. He was supported by the right’s SuperPacs, but gained far more from manipulating the media than Clinton gained by funding Brock’s high-priced complex.
Brock is nobody’s fool. He gets the populist temper of the time. He preceded his confab by publishing a public apology to Bernie Sanders, entitled ‘Dear Senator Sanders, I’m with you.’ He apologized briefly for the ‘few moments when my drive to put Hillary in the White House led me to take too stiff a jab. I own up to that. I regret it, and I apologize to you and your supporters for it.’
As we see now, Brock’s apology didn’t last long. It’s 2019 and he continues to smear Sanders and his supporters — enabled, empowered, and promoted by the “liberal” media. If holding O’Rourke to a certain standard when it comes to Big Money in politics triggers such sensationalist responses from the Democratic media establishment and surrogates, imagine what’s in store for us as we approach the 2020 elections.
Democrats: Punching to the Left, working for the Right
If “democratic” oligarchs and “liberal” media executives are willing to use their platforms to smear supporters of Sanders — a vital constituency of the Democratic Party — then how are they different than their right-wing colleagues? In other words, who needs Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro when you have David Brock, David Brooks, and CNN’s Editors-at-Large stabbing working class people in the back on a daily basis?
Clearly, it is the Right that gains the most from media-driven hit jobs manufactured by the Democratic establishment. The anti-progressive sentiments that often follow personal attacks against Senders are a godsend to right-wing media networks, which use the perceived credibility of important liberal organizations like CNN and the The New York Times to further gaslight progressives.
Much of this twisted understanding of politics is driven by the ideology of people like Brock, who believe that the left needs to “weaponize” information to provide a viable alternative to Trump.
But you don’t need to weaponize truth, you just need to say it. When Democrats attack their opponents with tactics of the right and alt-right, they end up helping the conservative movement, because all right-wingers have to do to overpower such narratives is to rephrase liberals’ attacks on progressives in a way that paints the whole Democratic Party as a sham — which is essentially what they did in 2016.
“See,” Fox News can say to potential Bernie followers, “even his strongest supporters are doubting him.”
“Bernie Sanders under siege at critical 2020 moment: ‘The problem has to be dealt with’,” a Fox News article stated on January 7, 2019, essentially capitalizing on liberal media’s coordinated efforts against the democratic socialist in the days prior:
And while the 77-year-old Democratic socialist popularized Medicare-for-all and other big-government programs since espoused by a host of 2020 hopefuls, he is now one of many like-minded candidates — no longer the lone torch-bearer for the progressive cause.
“Sanders has been forced to grapple with lingering fallout from a sexual harassment controversy tied to his 2016 campaign. The allegations of harassment and sexism in Sanders’ 2016 campaign — which emerged in reports last week by The New York Times and Politico — are raising new questions even among some of Sanders’ strongest supporters.
When CNN, NBC, The New York Times, and even Medium, feature unsubstantiated narratives about Bernie and his followers, they fuel Fox News’s anti-progressive propaganda. Perhaps, then, it is time to recognize these efforts for what they are — attacks from liberal and right-wing media, and the corporate power and wealth they represent, against anyone who dares to be on the left of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
This strategy is beneficial for both establishments and vital for the survival of the duopoly, as addressing the demands of Bernie and those like him means that both Republicans and Democrats would have to reconsider their fealty to the donor class.
Here’s what David Sirota, whose article on Beto provoked the Democratic outrage apparatus, said about the threat Bernie Sanders presents to corporate Democrats (taken from a January 4, 2019, interview with Katie Halper):
The establishment media and the establishment wing of the Democratic Party is fundamentally threatened by Bernie Sanders’ agenda. And I’m being objective. This isn’t a value judgment. They don’t like his agenda for a couple of reasons. One: his agenda is built on challenging corporate power and wealth, that is corporate power and wealth the establishment media and the establishment wing of the democratic party is built upon. It is their foundation. And there’s a second tier of this which is that Bernie Sanders — beyond his ideology — also poses a fundamental threat to the career networks and relationships of people in The Establishment themselves especially within the Democratic Party circles.
A closer look at any of the articles mentioned above confirms Sirota’s perspective. The issues of out-of-control corporate power and wealth are nowhere to be found. To the contrary — those who bring up the issue of money in politics are the ones who are publicly ostracized by liberals, and further smeared by right-wingers, for daring to question the official narrative.
Where will “Bernie Smear Fest” go next?
Let’s summarize the biggest hits from mainstream media’s 2019 revamping of the “Bernie Smear Fest”:
- Instances of sexual harassment in his 2016 campaign mean Bernie’s 2020’s bid is threatened, there’s “a pattern of denying responsibility while problems persist is emerging” (NYT, CNN)
- Bernie’s campaign tactics are “dangerous” and “negative,” he has received “some assistance” from Russia (featured on Medium)
- Bernie’s fans could “poison another Democratic primary” (NBC)
- Bernie’s supporters are engaged in “pre-emptive coordinated attacks” against their Party (NBC)
- Sanders is no longer the lone torch-bearer for the progressive cause (Fox)
I wouldn’t be surprised if Democratic operatives have a similar list in mind when they “work on” journalists from the aforementioned news outlets. One could only guess what will be the next manufactured infatuation about Sanders and his campaign, and how that will be inevitably linked to him being unfit for a 2020 presidential bid. These days, there isn’t much of a divide between politics and media in the U.S. — a symptom of the steep, nation-wide decrease in newsroom employment and, dare I say, the influence of corporate and dark money in the public sector.
Wherever the “Smear Fest” heads next, we can rest assured that actual policy proposals and bottom-up representation won’t be on the agenda.