In a primary season littered with bad journalism, the California primary may take the cake. To recap: Bernie Sanders basically moved to the Golden State, campaigned there non-stop, received his typical fawning coverage based on campaign rallies he held almost exclusively on college campuses, benefitted from hours of TV time where pundits suggested he could win the state, and STILL lost to Hillary Clinton by 13 points. The morning after the election, you would barely know that the media had spent the preceding three weeks hyping his prospects or that he lost in a landslide.
Although awful, the media fail is of a piece with how they have covered the Clinton/Sanders primary race. Clinton fought Sanders with one hand tied behind her back while he swung away with both fists. Other than her (accurate) attacks on Sanders’s position on gun manufacturer liability, the Clinton team spent little time on negative campaigning against him; her Super PAC literally spent no money going after Sanders. Meanwhile, he dug in with gusto against her until the final day of the campaign.
The conventional wisdom was that Clinton supporters were not as enthusiastic as Sanders supporters. Not only was that demonstrably false, but in the place enthusiasm actually matters – the polling booth – her final margin of victory will end up being close to 4 million votes, a massive victory. That Hillary won 8 of the last 11 primaries and caucuses and 14 of the last 20 would suggest she has plenty of momentum and enthusiasm, but most of the coverage leading into California speculated about how damaging a loss there would be. When the media could not find any equivalency in delegates or votes, they tried to lean on “states won” – as if the Utah caucus was the same as prevailing in Pennsylvania, Florida or Texas – but even there, the Sanders team came up woefully short.
The kid gloves Sanders was treated with by Clinton were largely shared by a media horde that consistently drooled over his rallies but did little probing of his actual policies. What little negative press he received was of his own making – an awful editorial board meeting with the New York Daily News and his claim that Clinton was unqualified to be President – stemmed from his own lack of preparedness and tin ear. Meanwhile, in the run up to both the New York and California primaries, his campaign received oceans of positive coverage based on the size of his crowds, but when he lost each, there was little after action reporting on why that excitement did not translate into wins.
Bernie’s appeal was always based more on myth than fact. Of the 10 most populous states in the nation, Sanders only won one, and by less than two percent (Michigan). Clinton beat Sanders by more than 100,000 votes 15 times, while Sanders only bested Clinton by that margin once. Clinton’s domination was so complete there were some counties where she outpolled Sanders by a greater margin than entire states he won. In New Jersey, her margin of victory in Essex County (47,622 votes) was greater than Sanders’s victory margins in all but four states (one of which was Vermont).
But for all of this, Bernie Sanders is still getting the softball treatment. The editorial board of the New York Times thinks Hillary has to convince Bernie’s supporters she did not cheat to win and everyone in the press corps is in agreement that he deserves a wide berth to nurse his wounds even as he stubbornly claims he will soldier on, notwithstanding the clear defeat he suffered. It is fitting that the media is giving him one last parting gift – on a night when he could have shown statesmanship by conceding to Clinton, urging his supporters to vote for her, or even simply acknowledging the historic nature of her being the first woman to clinch a major party’s nomination for President, he was defiant and refused to shush his supporters who booed her name, not that you will hear much about this in the press, they are too busy hand wringing over the additional concessions that must be made to soothe his wounded ego.
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