Covering Bernie Sanders

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is not leading, except in New Hampshire, in the opinion polls nor among the political commentary class in the race to become the 2016 presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton, at this time, remains the odds-on favorite. But Sanders is a serious challenger. In most polls of Democratic voters he gets around 30 percent of the responders.

Here’s how syndicated columnist Mark Shields put it during Friday night’s regular news analysis segment on the PBS NewsHour: “Bernie Sanders, 2 million donors. Average contribution is $30. Nobody else is even remotely close to that. It’s a remarkable campaign. It’s gotten bigger crowds [than] the Republican frontrunner. I mean…it’s a remarkable candidacy.”

So Sanders—who is 74 and who focuses relentlessly on a social-democrat style agenda that attacks gross income and wealth inequality and Wall Street and supports higher standard of living programs for workers and middle-class families—and who said in announcing his campaign last April, “I don't believe that the men and women who defended American democracy fought to create a situation where billionaires own the political process,” appears to have a resonance with at least a significant section of the American electorate. And that demands coverage in the news media.

But Sanders, setting aside the most recent Democratic debate that was held—ridiculously, in my opinion—on a Saturday night less than a week before Christmas, has received very little  coverage on network television news, especially.

Not Much from the Big Three

A recent widely-used media accounting by the Tyndall Report showed that in the first 11 months of 2015, the presidential nominating campaigns had logged more than 14 hours of coverage on the nightly broadcast network news programs, meaning ABC, NBC and CBS combined, through Nov. 30. Donald Trump, alone, accounted for more than a quarter of that, or 234 minutes. Sanders got 10 minutes. Sen. Ted Cruz got only seven minutes during the period studied. I asked about PBS, but Tyndall said he only collects data on the nightly newscasts of the three broadcast networks.

Media analyst Howard Kurtz of Fox News, reporting about complaints from Sanders’ campaign about the paucity of network coverage, wrote: “The Sanders camp has some numbers on its side. ABC’s 'World News Tonight' has devoted 81 minutes to Trump through the end of November, compared to 20 seconds on Sanders. He didn’t fare much better on 'NBC Nightly News' (2.9 minutes) or the 'CBS Evening News' (6.4 minutes).That’s a huge imbalance, given that the socialist lawmaker is drawing huge crowds and grass-roots excitement. But the media refuse to believe he has a real shot at the nomination.”

How Has PBS Done?

In the past three months or so, I have also received a few dozen emails and phone calls from viewers complaining that the PBS NewsHour has not done enough coverage of Sanders. I have included a representative sampling of those letters at the end of this column.

NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just rejects such criticism, saying: “The NewsHour is covering Sen. Sanders and all of the candidates with the same journalistic rigor and fairness. In fact, he is the only candidate in the race who has thus far done three interviews on the NewsHour.”

There was, indeed, a drop-off in NewsHour coverage from mid-November until early December, which was when most of the mail arrived in my mailbox. But by and large the NewsHour, since Sanders started his campaign last spring, has devoted substantially more air time to him than any of the major broadcast networks, according to statistics that my able deputy, Marcia Apperson, put together. The NewsHour is, of course, a one-hour program five nights a week, and a half-hour on weekend evenings, in contrast to the 30-minute network programs. But the NewsHour still comes off quite well.

Here’s Our Rundown

The NewsHour has done two lengthy interviews, each about seven and a half minutes, with Sanders. The first one was in May when Judy Woodruff interviewed Sanders after he announced his candidacy for president. Gwen Ifill interviewed Sanders last month about refugees and combatting terrorism. A report Ifill did from the Iowa State Fair in August included shorter excerpts of an interview with Sanders there, for a total of about two and a half minutes of coverage.

Throughout October, the NewsHour mentioned Sanders in five different reports for a total of nearly seven minutes. Most of the coverage was about the first Democratic debate on Oct. 13. The NewsHour had done a report earlier in the month about Sanders' gun rights record. Then they did reports the day before the debate as well as the day after. Mark Shields and David Brooks talked about Sanders for two and a half minutes during their discussion the Friday after the debate. And then, on Oct. 30, Sanders was mentioned for 28 seconds during a report about how the Democratic candidates are courting labor support.

In November, the NewsHour devoted 14 and a half minutes of time to Sanders. Half of that was the lengthy, sit-down interview with Ifill on Nov. 17. The other seven minutes came the week before. On Nov. 13, Sanders received five minutes of time. Some of that came during a Mark Shields and Michael Gerson Friday discussion. But most of the time spent on Sanders that evening came during a report about how his campaign is changing by Lisa Desjardins, the NewsHour's political director. And on Nov. 15, two minutes of a fact-check report about the second Democratic debate were focused on Sanders.

After Ifill's interview with Sanders in mid-November, there was not any coverage of the candidate, according to our search, until the NewsHour spent 25 seconds on his climate plan during the news summary on Dec. 7.

My Thoughts

So, while some viewers are understandably sensitive to periods of absence, the NewsHour has, indeed, probably spent more time on Sanders than anyone else. But the reason for this column is not just to evaluate the NewsHour or to assess the frequency of Sander’s coverage. Rather it is to make a couple of broader points about television news coverage of campaigns, of other factors that affect news decisions, of the obligation to the public to present views and not just political horse-race news, and to record the views of some PBS watchers as a reflection of at least one segment of the public.

First, it is important to make the simple point that this is a very long political season, with both political conventions still some seven months away and the election 11 months down the road. So there is a lot more coverage to come.

Second it is not unusual to get mail from supporters of a candidate who feel, rightly or wrongly, that he or she is not getting a fair break. On the other hand, this kind of mail is important because it may, indeed, be the case and worth looking in to, and also because the less-well covered candidate may be saying some important things that are not being put in front of an audience because he or she is not being viewed as the likely nominee.

That is especially the case with Sanders, one could argue, because he is definitely running on a different platform yet is a strong runner-up in the polls thus far and the interest about him is basically substantive rather than his daily distance from Hillary Clinton in the polls.

Third, these are times that try editor’s souls. We are witnessing perhaps the most extraordinary political campaign in our modern history with the emergence of Donald Trump, a man in full and a story that must be told in full but that has sucked the air and the air-time out of traditional campaign season television coverage. And from October through early December, there have been mass shootings or terrorist attacks in Oregon, Paris and San Bernardino, a horrendous and continuing refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East, a continuing war against ISIS, a historic new climate change agreement, a new speaker of the House, and, as they annoyingly say a couple of times each night on the NewsHour, “much more.”

So…

So time and space are tight, and others—not me—have to wrestle with and take responsibility for what goes on the air and what does not. But I would argue that there are times like these when the interesting but long and non-perishable feature story or segment should give way to more prominent coverage by all the major television news organizations not just of where the candidates stand in the standings but what they are saying. For most of us, there is no other place to see or hear their prescriptions for America than on television.

Finally, it is not just the networks and editors into whose hands we all fall. In this odd season, the Democratic National Committee and its chairperson, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), also contributed to diminishing and suppressing what we know about the candidates by scheduling last week’s final Democratic debate at perhaps the worst viewing time for citizens who want to watch and learn.

As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne put it: “Above all, this debate should embarrass the Democratic National Committee for scheduling so few of them, and for shoving some into absurdly inconvenient time slots that confined their audiences to political hobbyists. Debates are a form of propaganda in the neutral sense of the word: They are occasions for parties to make their respective arguments. Given that the divide between the parties this year is so fundamental, it’s shameful that Democrats did not try to make their case to as many Americans as possible.”

But one benefit is that it gave rise to perhaps the best one-liner of the week when Sanders' campaign spokesman, Michael Briggs, said: “I guess Christmas Eve was booked.”

Here Are Some Letters

PBS is our only source of TV news. We have watched the News Hour for 25 years. We are delighted with the BBC America news. I am disturbed that the Bernie Sanders campaign for president is largely ignored while Trump and Clinton are given a great deal of coverage. Has it occurred to you that by reporting on the Sanders campaign you might be doing the public a service? Elevating the discussion above the gutter, even if only showing one candidate who can speak without name calling, could show the depth of the issues facing this country.

Brasstown, NC

~ ~ ~

At about the 8-minute mark [Nov. 5] the TPP [TransPacific Partnership] was discussed. At the end of the segment it was said that Clinton "and others" have opposed the TPP. Others? Clinton has only recently come out against the deal. Sanders has had a long-standing opposition. Yet his name was not mentioned. In my opinion failure to mention his name represents a kind of "news-blackout" wherein a viable candidate's position is to being reported to the listeners. I also note that there has been a marked decrease in coverage of the Sanders' campaign in general. Do you agree?

Stephen Mangion, Newbury, MA

~ ~ ~

PBS's coverage of the election campaign has all but ignored Bernie Sanders--even though he out-polls Clinton in some surveys. The prevailing view of him as "unelectable" is purely a creation of the media. Give him appropriate coverage, and voila!--he becomes as "electable" as anyone else!

Suzanne Hoover, Riverdale, NY

~ ~ ~

I consistently watch PBS because it generally gives balanced coverage to important issues. I am thoroughly disgusted that PBS does not give a balanced coverage to the Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders. Senator Sanders has earned the right to be heard and PBS's participation in the media blackout is unforgivable. There is no one more passionate in his plans to rebuild the values of the USA than Mr. Sanders. Consistently GOP candidates with lower poll numbers get air; why I am not sure. The contrast reeks of media bias and special interest influence. I hope that this changes.

Ronald Dudek, River Grove, IL

~ ~ ~

I was surprised to see that when Brooks and Shields were being interviewed [Nov. 21] doing the weekly wrap up last week not a single word was said about Senator Sanders' major foreign policy speech given in Georgetown University, your hometown Washington, D.C. It was a speech that offered both good ideas to solve problems in foreign countries and a fresh way to solve many lingering issues that the U.S. has not seen before. In short it was a refreshing out-of-the-box thinking. Why your station refuses to cover this once in lifetime candidate bothers me greatly.

Trappe, MD

Posted on Dec. 22, 2015 at 3:05 p.m.

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ABOUT THE OMBUDSMAN
As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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