The Clinton Campaign Notices the Sanders Campaign, or How to Read the Media
Bernie Sanders draws nearly 10,000 people in Madison, Wisconsin (source). Click to enlarge; it looks pretty good full size.
by Gaius Publius
The 2016 primary contest won't begin until early next year (schedule here), with the Iowa Democratic caucus on February 1 and the New Hampshire primary on February 9. On the one hand, that's a still half a year away. On the other hand, that's only half a year away. So poll numbers and crowd sizes are beginning to be significant.
As for the polls, Clinton appears to have peaked, though at a pretty high level, while Sanders is steadily gaining, as you'll read below. But the biggest indicator — and certainly the most visibly convincing — are crowd sizes. Above you can see the surprising turnout for a recent Bernie Sanders event in Madison, Wisconsin. By all accounts, the stadium was full or nearly so:
Bernie Sanders has been running for president for two months, but Wednesday night in Madison, Wisconsin, his long-shot campaign got real.I'm among those who didn't think this was a long-shot campaign. The "ready for Warren" frenzy that has gripped active and "paying early attention" Democrats made it obvious there was room for someone serious about overturning what I call "rule by the rich" and what Sanders calls control by the "billionaire class." But I'm glad to see others, including the Clinton campaign, catching on.
When Sanders walked on stage at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, he was greeted by a raucous, howling crowd of 9,600 people, according to Sanders' campaign aides and arena staff.
A clearly energized Sanders, who late last year was speaking to crowds of 50 people in Iowa classrooms, appeared taken aback by the reception he received.
"Whoa," he said. "In case you haven't noticed, there are a lot of people here."
Taking Apart the Insider Game
The most important thing to consider when thinking about the Sanders campaign is this. Everyone else who's running, on both sides, is an insider playing within — and supporting — the "insider game," the one that keeps insiders wealthy and outsiders struggling, the one where the wealthy and their retainers operate government for their benefit only. What sets Sanders apart is his determination to dismantle that game, to take it apart and send its players home (back to the private sector) or to jail.
Two examples should make this clear. One is Fast Track and the "trade" agreements being forced upon us. The pressure to pass these agreements is coming equally from mainstream Democrats like Barack Obama, a "liberal," and from mainstream Republicans, supposed "conservatives." They may differ on "rights" policy, like abortion rights, but not on money matters. Trade agreements are wealth-serving policies promoted by people in both parties who serve wealth, which means most of them. People like Sanders, Warren and others, by contrast, would neuter these agreement as job-killing profit protection schemes and turn them into something else.
A second example involves Wall Street banks, in particular, a policy of breaking them up, reinstating Glass-Steagall, and prosecuting Wall Street fraud. Can you imagine any announced candidate doing any of these things, save Bernie Sanders?
In both of these cases, Sanders would aggressively challenge the insider profit-protection racket, not just give lip service to challenging it. Which tells you why he is so popular. Many of us in the bleachers have noticed the insider game — after all, it's been happening in front of us for decades— and most of us are done with it. Ask any Tea Party Republican voter, for example, what she thinks of the bank bailout of 2008-09. She'll tell you she hated it, whether she explains it in our terms or not.
And that's why Sanders, like Warren before him, draws such enthusiastic crowds. The pendulum has swung so far in the direction of wealth that the nation may well change permanently, and people know it. People are ready, just as they were in 2008, prior to eight years of betrayal. People have been discouraged about the chance for change lately, but they're ready for the real thing if they see it.
The Clinton Campaign Notices Sanders
There's been an attempt to downplay the Sanders candidacy since the beginning, to sink his campaign beneath a wave of silence. That ended a bit ago, and the press has begun to take notice, if snippily. Now the Clinton campaign is noticing, if the New York Times is to be believed. I found the following fascinating, for a number of reasons.
The piece first along with some news, then a little exegesis (my emphasis):
Hillary Clinton’s Team Is Wary as Bernie Sanders Finds Footing in IowaI don't want to quote the whole thing (well, I do, but I can't). So I encourage you to read it. There's much there worth noticing.
The ample crowds and unexpectedly strong showing by Senator Bernie Sanders are setting off worry among advisers and allies of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who believe the Vermont senator could overtake her in Iowa polls by the fall and even defeat her in the nation’s first nominating contest there.
The enthusiasm that Mr. Sanders has generated — including a rally attended by 2,500 people in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Friday — has called into question Mrs. Clinton’s early strategy of focusing on a listening tour of small group gatherings and wooing big donors in private settings. In May, Mrs. Clinton led with 60 percent support to Mr. Sanders’ 15 percent in a Quinnipiac poll. Last week the same poll showed Mrs. Clinton at 52 percent to Mr. Sanders’s 33 percent.
“We are worried about him, sure. He will be a serious force for the campaign, and I don’t think that will diminish,” Jennifer Palmieri, the Clinton campaign’s communications director, said Monday in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Some of Mrs. Clinton’s advisers acknowledged that they were surprised by Mr. Sanders’ momentum and said there were enough liberal voters in Iowa, including many who supported Barack Obama or John Edwards in 2008, to create problems for her there.
“I think we underestimated that Sanders would quickly attract so many Democrats in Iowa who weren’t likely to support Hillary,” said one Clinton adviser, who like several others spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly share views about the race. “It’s too early to change strategy because no one knows if Sanders will be able to hold on to these voters in the months ahead. We’re working hard to win them over, but yeah, it’s a real competition there.”
What to Look at When the Times Reports on Clinton
Now, some exegesis, meta-reading of the media, especially corporate media like the Times. My three main points are bulleted below.
■ First, when you expose yourself to any of the "liberal" U.S. outlets (as opposed to, say, The Guardian) be aware that because they are owned by establishment corporations they're already pro-Clinton. Subtly, not blatantly, but certainly.
That sounds like prejudice, so let me explain. For one thing, neither the outlets nor their owning corporation can afford not to prepare their seat at the Clinton White House table. It's just a fact. Media want access and corporations want government to smile on their profit schemes. At this point, currying favor with Sanders is on no one's mind, and the Clintons are known to "have long memories ... they punish their enemies and help their friends" (quoted here). The incentives are all aligned.
But also, mainstream insider corporations are completely aligned with the insider game for the obvious reason — they're part of it. No one inside the game wants to see it damaged. Hayes and Maddow, as people, may or may not prefer Sanders over Clinton, but MSNBC has a clear favorite and if you listen carefully and consistently, it shows. Their owners, and all of the other big media owners, can't afford (literally afford, as in, there's major money at stake) to play this one straight. You may find some unskewed reporting, but not a lot of it.
In the present instance, for example, I read the story above (click through for all of it) as being pro-Clinton, and in fact, most stories like these will be painted that way, with a light brush or a heavy one, for some time to come. If you don't spot this bias where present, you're not reading the story as written.
In the same way that every New York Times story I read in the last two months, literally every one, used the inaccurate and propagandistic phrase "pro-trade Democrats" to describe Ron Wyden, Earl Blumenauer and the small handful of other Dems who defied their voters to support the White House and the wealthy — in that same way you'll have a hard time finding mainstream Sanders or Clinton coverage that doesn't in some way sell Clinton. If that's not a fact, I'll be eager to be proven wrong.
■ Second, be aware that much so-called reporting is the result of "placement," a term from advertising. Ad placement is when you buy space in a publication or media program into which you can put your message. Campaigns, among other entities, frequently do the same with reporters. The reporter offers space, a container, into which the campaign can put its message. (The reward is usually "access.")
It's certainly true that many reporters and writers openly advocate; I'm often one of them and I'm not alone. But no one suspects open advocates of trickery. It's much more subtle, and dangerous for readers, when the advocacy is hidden, as it is in supposed "straight news" articles.
In cases like these — certainly not all cases of reporting, but far too many — the reporter doesn't "get" the news. The news "gets" the reporter. A campaign's messenger comes to the reporter, offers the message, and the reporter builds a genuine and frequently interesting news story around it, including research from other sources, but always starting with the seed provided by the campaign or public official.
In the present instance, the article above, you should therefore ask:
- Is it really true that the Clinton campaign just now discovered Sanders' popularity and that he may be a threat?
- Or could the following be true? That the Clinton campaign always knew a Warren-like opponent could gain ground but were publicly ignoring it; now, however, it's time to appear to be noticing, so they approached a reporter with their take on the Sanders surge.
The ample crowds and unexpectedly strong showing by Senator Bernie Sanders are setting off worry among advisers and allies of Hillary Rodham Clinton ...I don't have an answer to the bulleted questions above. Either could be correct. I'm a little suspicious though. First, by the obvious but subtle bias in the story — similar to the constant bias in all of the Times Fast Track reporting. Second, by the plurals above: "among advisers and allies of Hillary Rodham Clinton." This isn't one person speaking, but a coordinated effort by staffers and surrogates ("allies") to say a coordinated single thing to the Times reporters.
Third, I'm made suspicious by this, a little further down:
“I think we underestimated that Sanders would quickly attract so many Democrats in Iowa who weren’t likely to support Hillary,” said one Clinton adviser, who like several others spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly share views about the race. “It’s too early to change strategy because no one knows if Sanders will be able to hold on to these voters in the months ahead. We’re working hard to win them over, but yeah, it’s a real competition there.”There's obvious messaging, especially in the last part of the paragraph. But look at the bolded part. Of those in the campaign, the only ones quoted in the article by name are Clinton herself and Jennifer Palmieri, who spoke, not to the reporters, but to "Morning Joe." Everyone else is off the record, speaking to these reporters "on the condition of anonymity to candidly share views about the race."
"Candidly" implies leaking, not messaging or spin, and here's where the deception seems more clear. Have these reporters really found a minor army of leakers? If these are truly leakers, expect them to be fired soon.
So, scenario one: Sanders is surging, the Clinton campaign is caught by surprise, and two Times reporters find a bunch of anonymous campaign leakers who say (paraphrasing), "Sure, Sanders caught us by surprise. We're aiming for one type of Democrat and he's getting the other type. It's too early to change strategy — the man could trip and fall — but yes, there's now competition."
(Did you notice that part about two kinds of Democrat? The actual quote says: "We underestimated that Sanders would quickly attract so many Democrats in Iowa who weren’t likely to support Hillary." I think the campaign knows exactly what kind of Democrat they were ignoring, and if you think about it carefully, you will too.)
Or, scenario two: The Clinton campaign is ignoring the Warren wing, giving them nothing but platitudes and (as in the case of Fast Track) avoidance. Now the "Sanders surge" is in the news and the campaign has to respond. They get their message together — "Yes, we're surprised, and we have to admit that out loud. But it's early days, and if we keep getting reporters to say 'socialist' and 'anathema,' we won't have to counter his specifics with our specifics. So let's round up some reporters and get 'Morning Joe' on the phone."
Did the reference to "socialist" and "anathema" surprise you? Read on.
■ Finally, because of the two points above, you'll find that in many cases the story supports the campaign, while justifying itself as "reporting." Both bolded pieces are important.
Let's look at each element above. First, "the story supports the campaign":
Those who see Mrs. Clinton as being at risk in Iowa say she is still far better positioned to win the nomination than Mr. Sanders, who lags by double digits in Iowa polling. He also has far less money than she does, and his socialist leanings are anathema to many Americans.In the first sentence the campaign is being subtly and indirectly quoted. But the bolded phrases above are pretty strong language in a sentence that isn't necessarily an indirect quote, and echoes open Clinton surrogates like Claire McCaskill. Even "leanings" lends an unsavory color, since it echoes the phrase "communist leanings."
(The alternative to the last sentence above, by the way, and much more honestly sourced, would be something like this: "The anonymous campaign adviser also said, 'Frankly, we think if we just keep saying 'socialist' whenever we can, we won't have to change our strategy of being vague on the economic issues. At least we're sticking with that for now.'" I would buy that as excellent honest reporting.)
Second, "justifying itself as reporting": Once you present the core message as provided by the messengers, the reporter can then call around for other, non-Clinton-sourced comment. Thus the quotes, much further down from Joe Trippi, Carter Eskew and the Sanders campaign.
Add in a little of the reporters' own analysis, much of it good:
"The enthusiasm that Mr. Sanders has generated — including a rally attended by 2,500 people in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Friday — has called into question Mrs. Clinton’s early strategy of focusing on a listening tour of small group gatherings and wooing big donors in private settings."and you have the makings of a news story friendly to Clinton built around a news hook and potentially "placed" elements. The hook, the "placed" elements (if they were placed), and some original analysis go at the top, and the rest of the story is built to follow that.
If you like this exercise in reading behind the media, please read the article again with the above thoughts in mind. Is this original reporting (i.e., reporters starting a conversation), or did the campaign make the first approach? Does the article carry Clinton water, subtly support the campaign? Are any opposing viewpoints featured at the top, or are they buried below the point where most people stop reading?
This Times story may be a completely honest exercise in independent journalism. There certainly is a Sanders phenomenon, and it's detailed honestly and factually, so there's value in reading it. But there's an obvious bias toward Clinton messaging in the reporters' own prose, so I'm suspicious, and you should be as well.
I'll also say that most stories about campaigns operate this way, as do many other news stories involving public figures. What will make reporting the Sanders campaign different is what I wrote above — Sanders wants to take apart the insider game. What major media outlet will help Sanders do that, will shut the door to corporate favors, media access and other prizes from a future Clinton administration, in order to be even-handed?
My guess is few or none.