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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

What Sanders Misses When He ‘Berns’ the Media

The day after Bernie Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981 by a tenuous margin of 10 votes, he told his colleagues, “We can’t survive. We’re going to have to develop our own media.” As a somewhat ridiculed far-left candidate, Sanders was not receiving the policy-driven coverage he had sought. Instead, he took office feeling scorned by reports he saw as bombastic “junk” from mainstream Vermont news outlets. 

As promised, a few years into his run as mayor, Sanders began his own television show called “Bernie Speaks with the Community,” his way of taking over the narrative surrounding his anomalous socialist ideology. By controlling his own unilateral platform, his messages could no longer get lost in translation in two-minute news bites and offhanded articles.

Three decades later in 2015, Sanders saw these same messages bring him national fame as Democrats across the country sang his praises and policy-makers began paying attention. Although “Bernie Speaks with the Community” has long-since been discontinued, his cynical let-me-drive attitude toward the media has proven unremitting.

Most of Senator Sanders’s public rhetoric on the matter now focuses on deriding corporate media for propagating useless, corrupt political narratives. He is also known among reporters for decrying negative stories and shying away from difficult questions, but nothing demonstrates his unabashed media spurn like his neglect for Vermont newspapers.

Last week marked four years since he last granted an interview to Seven Days, a Burlington-based weekly that is the most circulated local press in Vermont. Contradicting his own stance on corporate media, he dismisses Seven Days and other local papers like the VTDigger as “political gossip” and instead grants interviews to large news outlets like ABC, Time and CBS.

Seven Days Political Editor Paul Heintz is among those most shut out by Sanders.

“I find it ironic when he goes out of his way to talk to corporate media but refuses to speak to his home-state independent press,” said Heintz in an interview with The Campus. “If he really wanted to support the independent media, he could just talk to us.”

Unlike President Trump, Senator Sanders does not threaten the freedom of the press or challenge its autonomy. But it seems he may misunderstand its role -- not for himself, but for Vermonters.

“His ideal coverage is essentially for us to reprint his press releases and to just quote verbatim his policy proposals,” Heintz said.

VTDigger Senior Editor Mark Johnson agrees. “He uses the media to further his agenda,” he said, adding that Sanders’s ideal reporter would serve as a simple stenographer. 

On a timeline of Senator Sanders’s career history with the press, this makes sense. Even through years of criticizing Vermont media as mayor and senator, Sanders granted local interviews and held press conferences to communicate his policies to his constituents. This practice ended abruptly when he stepped onto the national stage with the announcement of his first run for president on April 30, 2015, which was the very last day he spoke to Seven Days.

Nowadays, Sanders knows he’s not in any position to lose support among Vermonters. He swept the state in the 2016 Democratic primary with 16 delegates to Clinton’s zero, and he won re-election to the Senate in 2018 without breaking a sweat. On the other hand, since his constituents know and support his ideology, Sanders sees the local news as having exhausted its utility. 

“He doesn’t need the Vermont press, but it’s not a question of what he needs. It’s a question of what the people of Vermont need,” Heintz said. “A reporter from CNN is not going to be asking him about what he is doing in the Senate to support the Vermont dairy industry. That’s our job.”

Mark Johnson expressed a similar sentiment. “There’s not really much up-side for him to talk to the Vermont media at this point,” Johnson said. “Vermont readers are losing out.”

By lack of cooperation with Vermont press since entering the national spotlight, Sanders is impassively disconnecting himself from the loyal home base that elected him as their senator. Even before his run for president, however, Sanders was quick to shut down topics he didn’t want to discuss. While serving as mayor in 1985, he accredited President Reagan’s popularity to his avoidance of difficult questions. Adopting this policy himself, Sanders frequently dismissed even substantive, policy-based inquiries from reporters if they weren’t on the topic he wanted to discuss that day. 

After the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, for example, when Sanders was criticized for his resistance to extensive gun legislation, he refused to grant Seven Days an interview for two-and-a-half months. When he finally spoke to them, he moved quickly past the topic of gun reform.

This treatment from Sanders is not always just a simple disregard for these outlets. It has sometimes verged on outright animosity. Seven Days and VTDigger both reported on the long-term federal investigation of Jane Sanders, the senator’s wife and one of his top political advisers, after a seemingly fraudulent $10 million land deal she made during her time as president of the now-defunct Burlington College. Although the investigation was closed last year without charges, Sanders vehemently opposed news coverage of the story and dismissed it as “gossip.”

Paul Heintz disagrees with that label. “That’s not reporters probing into salacious details of their personal lives,” he said of Seven Days’ reporting on the investigation. “That’s asking reasonable questions about the legality of people who pay a very prominent role in a senator’s political operations.”

The rejection of this coverage encapsulates the break between Sanders’s perceived role of the press and its real purpose. He lauds the hypothetical concept of the media for its democratic service yet pushes back hard against stories that report anything beyond cut-and-dry policy. Although the press serves an important role in truthfully reporting politicians’ messages, equally important is its role in pressing tough issues, asking uncomfortable questions and telling the whole story.  

“Reporters are essentially a stand-in for the public,” said Heintz. When Senator Sanders ignores local reporters, he ignores his local base. He may not need Vermont leading up to his bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination, but he’s still our senator, and we still need him. 

Correction Nov. 1, 2020: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sanders sought self-published media in 2015. It has since been amended.