'Bernie Bias' In The News? NPR's Media Correspondent Responds To Your Critiques

Apr 1, 2016

This chaotic political year is marked by deep disagreements and resentment, both within and across party lines. But regardless of one’s political stance, many people seem to agree on one thing: The media is failing in its coverage of the 2016 election.

Here at VPR, we've been receiving a slew of e-mail and messages from people dissatisfied with both VPR and NPR’s coverage.

We’ve heard all the arguments: A) There's been too much coverage of Donald Trump. B) But there hasn't been enough coverage of Bernie Sanders. C) What coverage there is of Sanders is slanted negatively to favor Hillary Clinton. And, D) VPR is in the bag for Sanders because he's from Vermont and is liberal. Or lastly, some variation on all of the above.

Much of the negative mail has also critiqued NPR’s national coverage of the candidates, so we turned to NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik to take a critical look at both NPR and other media coverage of the presidential race.

Folkenflik began by clarifying that he is both the media reporter and media critic for NPR. He’s paid by NPR, but he doesn’t speak for the network. “I critique the media writ large and sometimes I critique NPR, too. But I also get to analyze how this plays out," he says.

A look at NPR’s Democratic coverage

One Vermont listener wrote to VPR, saying, “I am so sick of the fact that you have become just like the rest of the media, covering the election as though Hillary Clinton is the only Democratic candidate to mention.”  

Folkenflik points out that Sen. Bernie Sanders has been interviewed on NPR three times in the course of this presidential campaign, whereas Hillary Clinton has come on once. That reality likely stems more from a candidate's scheduling than intent, he notes.

“I would say NPR, as with a lot of major outlets, initially saw Bernie Sanders very much as a long shot. People looked at Hillary Clinton's acquisition of money up front, her almost blanket name recognition throughout the country, the familiarity with her over [her] decades-long presence in public life. People looked at that and said, ‘That's formidable,’" says Folkenflik.

"NPR, as with a lot of major outlets, initially saw Bernie Sanders very much as a long shot." - David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent

He continues: “They ... said, ‘Gosh, this guy Sanders, he's from a small population state, very much on the left of the Democratic caucus in Congress — this guy isn't going to go anywhere. And in the early outset, the press tended to minimize what his potential could be. I think over time people have reported on that the surge of support that he's gotten from voters: the small donations and also just the boisterous, enthusiastic crowds.”

But, Folkenflik says, "Let's be clear. Right now even with all the support and all the votes and all the donations that Bernie Sanders has gotten in recent months, it still seems very strongly — perhaps not prohibitively, but very strongly — in Hillary Clinton's favor to secure this nomination.”

On ‘Hillary running against herself’

VPR received some angry feedback after an interview with one of NPR’s political correspondents, Mara Liasson, made a comment to the effect of, "Hillary Clinton is essentially running against herself."

Many took that to mean that Bernie Sanders wasn’t really considered a viable candidate. There has also been other criticism about the way NPR and other media outlets have talked about Sanders.

“Mara is very sharp," Folkenflik says. "I don't want to speak for her, but what I took from that ... it wasn't language saying, ‘Hillary Clinton is running against herself,’ to diminish Sanders. But she was suggesting — whether or not you agree with it — that is in a sense that the vote, at least early on, was a referendum on Hillary Clinton herself.”

"I also think these things are not static ... What might have been true in June might be a little different now."

Folkenflik concedes that Liasson may have been wrong about that. "But I don't think she was saying that Bernie Sanders was nothing, but just that Hillary Clinton was such a known figure, that for many people they would vote for her and many people would vote against her — as opposed to for the other candidates," he says.

“Now, I think that time has borne that out not to be the case. I think there are people who are genuinely, deeply excited about Bernie Sanders," Folkenflik says. "And I think that the campaign has shown that. I also think these things are not static, that is, what might have been true in June might be a little different now.”

On how media covers the delegate counts

Hillary Clinton has a big lead in delegates, and she certainly has won more and bigger states than Bernie Sanders has up to this point.

But people have critiqued the way commentators or political analysts talk about Clinton’s lead, saying they’re not mentioning the superdelegates. Superdelegates are free to pledge to whomever they want at the convention this June. Some listeners have pointed out that if you take away that superdelegate factor, Clinton’s lead over Sanders isn't quite so large.

"There's truth to this. You could argue that we should be reporting on only the delegates, and not who wins this state or that, because many of the states are not winner take all," Folkenflik says.

"Really what you're talking about are people arguing for their own side. I've seen Clinton supporters do this ... when things cut one way. I've seen Sanders supporters do it when they cut another way. And I've seen this race after race, cycle after cycle."

“All of that said, really what you're talking about are people arguing for their own side," he adds. "I've seen Clinton supporters do this … when things cut one way. I've seen Sanders supporters do it when they cut another way. And I've seen this race after race, cycle after cycle."

Folkenflik calls the phenomenon "working the refs."

"‘Oh my gosh, you're not calling offsides.’ You know, in a football game you say that to a ref long enough and suddenly the ref is really looking at offsides," he says. “Hillary Clinton is clearly getting the lion's share of the coverage, but not exclusively. And I think the press has struggled with Sanders because he's an unconventional figure.”

On the media ‘creating’ Donald Trump

VPR gets a lot of mail about the Donald Trump phenomenon, saying, "You, the media, have created this candidate. You keep giving him the attention, and that's why he's become this larger-than-life candidate."   

"I quarrel less with the amount of attention ... although it is just galactically disproportionate to Trump than for any other candidate in the race."

Folkenflik's take on this: “I quarrel less with the amount of attention — although it is just galactically disproportionate to Trump than for any other candidate in the race. There was one study showing that he had gotten more coverage on the major broadcast evening networks than all of the other political candidates combined for the first three months of this year. That's extraordinary.

“On the other hand, he's clearly the most newsworthy. He knows how to make news, he knows how to own it. He does things outside of the news cycle and social media. He creates controversies that just completely undermine the ability of other candidates to get their footing.”

On the media failing to vet Trump   

CNN recently elected to broadcast an empty podium on a stage where Donald Trump was going to speak, and they kept it there for quite some time, rather than covering a speech to Bernie Sanders was making at the same time.

“I sure wouldn’t defend [that decision]," Folkenflik says. "The way it's defensible is by virtue of the fact that I think that CNN is going to enjoy a real surge in profits.”

It's not hard to see how people would become cynical about the media.  

“I have all kinds of problems with the way in which this played out," Folkenflik says. "I think that the media has helped to enable [Trump]. And the reason they helped to enable him is by these live, long, lingering shots of just him talking at will.”

"I think that the media has helped to enable [Trump]. And the reason they helped to enable him is by these live, long, lingering shots of just him talking at will."

Folkenflik appreciates the way Trump makes himself available to the press. "In other ways, he simply talks over the press. He doesn't really listen to the questions; he certainly barely answers them," he says.

“If you're going to treat him seriously, you need to cover — early on and frequently — the question of how workers were treated on his project; the question of those four bankruptcies which he dismisses as, ‘Hey, that's the way business is done,'" Folkenflik says. "I want to really understand the details, how he took advantage of the law, what he was doing, what that reflected about his business judgment, what that reflected about his willingness to let people he owed money to walk away with, you know, dimes on the dollar, if that."

Because at the end of the day, Folkenflik says, "this guy's never been elected anything. So we don't have that record to vet.”