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Can the Mainstream Media See Elizabeth Warren Clearly?

On August 27th, Senator Bernie Sanders put forth a plan to reform the media, protect independent journalism, and safeguard the free press. This is very much in line with his critique of media concentration going back to his time as mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the 1980s. He was also one of only 16 House members who opposed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which helped to rapidly increase media consolidation. 

The presentation of this plan to save journalism followed a back-and-forth between his campaign and journalists at several mainstream media outlets over his suggestion that the viewpoints and interests of the owner of The Washington Post (and those of the owners of other mainstream media outlets) might affect their coverage of his campaign. The executive editor of The Washington Post called Sanders’ suggestion a conspiracy theory. Sanders responded by clarifying that he wasn’t saying that Bezos directly controlled every editorial decision at the Post, just that writers and editors are influenced by the owner of the newspaper in what they cover, and especially in what they don’t. 

An illustration of a key absence in media, for instance, is that while every major newspaper has a business section, none have a labor section. In essence, Sanders made the same critique that Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky made in their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent. In that seminal work, they propose that the media in the U.S.:

 “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion.”

Writing for Salon, Jeff Cohen, founder of media watch organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, wrote of his working experience:

“I worked in and around mainstream TV news for years, including at corporate centrist outlets CNN and MSNBC. Unlike at Fox News (where I’d also been a paid contributor), there’s almost never a memo or direct order from top management to cover or not cover certain stories or viewpoints…

It happens because of groupthink. It happens because top editors and producers know — without being told — which issues and sources are off limits. No orders need be given, for example, for rank-and-file journalists to understand that the business of the corporate boss or top advertisers is off-limits, short of criminal indictments.”

In response to the criticism that he was pushing a conspiracy theory, instead of clarifying what he meant, Sanders could have simply pointed to a 2015 Bloomberg article, which explained that:

“Every two weeks, Jeff Bezos holds an hour-long conference call with executives at the Washington Post. Twice a year, the managers fly to Seattle for day-long strategy sessions with the Amazon.com Inc. founder. And every so often, they find a reader complaint in their inbox forwarded without comment from Jeff@amazon.com.” 

He also could have mentioned such glaring examples of executive editorial control as retaliation against a Washington Post journalist over a Bezos op-ed, 16 stories in 16 hours, limitations placed on Post employees, Phil Donohue, Ed Shultz, Rupert Murdoch, or even Citizen Kane. The idea that a billionaire would buy a newspaper in the nation’s capital to influence the editorial direction for their own financial interests is hardly controversial.

But, really, arguing over what constitutes concrete evidence of editorial coercion is relatively uninteresting. 

However, looking in good faith at the pushback on Sanders from some mainstream journalists does yield worthwhile insights about their mindset and their understanding of what constitutes progressivism. Dave Weigel, Washington Post reporter, is one of the journalists who’s been pushing back on the notion that media ownership might impact some coverage of the Sanders campaign. The reasoning behind his incredulity provides a lens into his understanding of another presidential candidate, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. 

Weigel said on Twitter:

 “the argument about corporate media suppressing left-wing ideas doesn’t scan with the positive coverage Warren’s been getting.” 

Essentially, his premise seems to be that Warren and Sanders are so similar that if their coverage is different, it must be for reasons unrelated to their politics. Previously, I had been thinking that the conflation of their politics by people in the media was conscious and deliberate, but now I’m beginning to see it as a more unconscious form of manufactured consent, a la Herman and Chomsky. 

Krystal Ball, of the Hill’s The Rising, recently quoted Naomi Klein, who called mainstream journalists view of Warren identity politics for journalists. She conceives of Warren as a political mirror who reflects the aspirations and self-conceptions of journalists, academics, and the rest of the professional managerial class. They take her at her word about what her politics are because they see themselves in her. 

Even as Weigel walks to the edge of credulity regarding slanted coverage of Sanders, he’s unable to consider that perhaps Warren is not exactly who she portrays herself to be. In this light, Warren’s rise as a critic of corporate power—Amazon in particular—makes the “Bezos is trying to suppress a political threat” stuff confusing, unless you go all-in and insist that Warren doesn’t mean and/or wouldn’t implement the agenda.” Essentially, Weigel never engages that possibility in relation to facts that contradict her self-portrayal.  

The only interview in which I’ve seen Elizabeth Warren receive any follow-up questions regarding publicized aspects of her biography was on hip-hop morning show, The Breakfast Club. The hosts asked Warren both about her lengthy history as a Republican and the 20 years during which she claimed to be Native American. During the questioning, she is visibly uncomfortable, folds her arms against her chest while unconsciously shaking her head, no. These topics are the most obvious ‘difficult areas’ for Warren’s candidacy. 

In response to Trump’s relentless trolling over her claims to be Native American, Warren took a DNA test to prove her heritage. This, despite having no lived cultural experience to justify claiming to be Cherokee. One would expect her to have strong answers that put these questions to rest, but her answers beg further questions. 

For instance, she points to a Boston Globe article which she says proves that she didn’t receive any professional benefit from declaring herself a minority in the period of Affirmative Action. I’d suggest that it doesn’t prove that at all. The article she highlights doesn’t mention the designation on her Texas bar registration as American Indian and, while the piece does talk about Harvard using her to represent racial diversity in the Law School, her peers are less than convincing when they declare that her claimed heritage had nothing to do with her hiring and that the only relevant thing was her gender.

Much of the mainstream media now act as if her explanations have put to rest all questions about her heritage. The degree to which those explanations matter seems to decrease in proportion to how much one identifies with Warren. Conversely, powerful elements within the Native American community are not nearly as satisfied. 

The same is true of how dubious one finds her explanations for leaving the Republican party. This is complicated by her offering more than one reason for her change in party registration. 

On the Breakfast Club, she declares that she just wasn’t political while registered as a Republican. This explanation contradicts her advocacy for deregulation in speeches she delivered before conservative groups like the Federalist Society. It also presents questions, largely unasked, about what she voted for prior to her party change in 1996. Her usual explanation for that change is that her research into bankruptcy helped make clear that the Democrats had become better stewards of the market. 

I guess she missed larger issues such as Reagan’s negligence of the AIDS epidemic, the racist Republican response to the crack epidemic, the war crimes of Iran Contra, and responsibility for Central American death squads. No, it was her understanding of bankruptcy that moved her to change party. What does that suggest about her predictive ability—that policies she advocated for turned out to be so damaging that she was forced to switch to the party ostensibly advocating the opposite? 

The only explanation for her switch that doesn’t prompt further questions is that she changed parties after the Democrats under Clinton became the other party of deregulation, as well as passing the conservative Crime bill and “welfare reform”, which reflected her politics at the time.

One could theorize that Warren’s rise in the polls shows a degree of apathy on the part of Democratic voters about Warren’s claims to be a racial minority and her former Republican registration. I’d suggest, rather, that it reflects apathy on the part of the specific demographic offering her the strongest support, well-off white college grads, which just so happens to be the demographic most represented by our media. 

To go even further, one aspect of this that has received little inspection is the degree to which Warren’s rise in the polls may be completely dependent on the media acting as PR for her campaign. “I have a plan for that,” her campaign’s marketing pitch, has been breathlessly shared by a media that never seems to investigate whether all these plans will work. 

For instance, looking at Warren’s approach to maternal mortality suggests a deep cynicism in her attempt to avoid centering universal healthcare as a solution. Her fixation on bad individual actors and means-tested policy in response to the issue, single-point prescriptions which she oddly calls systemic and universal, indicates that she may not understand the concepts. And even a cursory look at her plan to offer monetary rewards or exact penalties from hospitals for the wide-ranging complications that result in deaths in a mere .000225% of births, makes it clear that her policy will have no direct impact on maternal mortality—systemically. The media doesn’t even begin to consider the obvious disconnect.

For Warren, it would seem that offering workable plans are less the point than presenting the idea that she’s actively engaged in all of these topics (for which she never advocated prior to running for president or bothered to support by co-sponsoring related legislation proposed by her colleagues). For example, Warren is now offering plans to end for-profit prisons and decrease incarceration, but she never co-sponsored similar legislation offered by Sanders in the Senate. In fact, a video recently surfaced of Warren meeting with criminal justice activists. When asked how she would deal with decarceration, Warren offered nothing on criminal justice reform, but rather her housing ideas! Interestingly, she released her criminal justice plan three days after that meeting.

These red flags point to yet another example of the ways in which people in the media may identify so completely with Warren that they become inordinately credulous about her stated politics. It seems as if many journalists are incapable of viewing her with even slight skepticism. As when, at Jacobin, Meagan Day writes:

A capitalist respects the superior wisdom of capitalist markets and tries to restore them to optimal functionality, which can help explain why Warren is so frustratingly noncommittal on Medicare for All.” 

In this observation, Day seems reticent to go further and point out that Warren’s lack of commitment to Medicare for All—a bill she co-sponsored in the Senate—is only frustrating if one fails to see that she doesn’t actually support it. 

There’s a “what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg” quality to Warren’s coverage in the press. However, one Twitter thread looking at coverage, which repeatedly declared a surge in support for her despite a lack of corresponding data, makes a strong case for her numbers hatching from the support of journalists. If that’s true, it suggests that potentially dangerous information and questions are more likely to rise when they will have a more damaging effect on her campaign. 

Although conservative outlets like The National Review don’t play much of a role in the Democratic primary, media sources become somewhat less segregated along partisan lines during the general. Issues which seem to have been put to rest by a Democratic partisan media may suddenly flare up again. (see Comey announcement) From conservative coverage of Warren, it’s clear that her explanations for claiming to be a racial minority have not put their questions to rest.

Right-wing media can drive stories into the mainstream during the general that “the left” press has already dismissed during the primary. It also suggests that when mainstream Democratic Party-centric journalists say that Warren and Sanders are similar or want the same things, they are unconsciously projecting how they’d like to portray their own politics, rather than reflecting reality.

It’s not clear how Sanders, a lifetime socialist, and Warren, a self-described “capitalist to her bones” who was a Republican until she was 46 years old, can be considered similar. When journalists say that Warren and Sanders basically agree on everything, they’re implying that they share similar goals, which is inaccurate. While they may both focus on reducing the unequal concentration of wealth and power in the U.S., they attribute the reason for that unequal concentration to vastly different causes, and thus offer very different solutions. 

If Warren wavering on her commitment to Sander’s Medicare for All bill were not enough to make one skeptical of the idea that she and Sanders are similar, the fact that he’s consistently fought for the same economic policies over decades, a period during which Warren was advocating for the current economic order (which she only now finds problematic) demands greater examination of the premise.

Aimee Terese, co-host of the What’s Left podcast, has consistently made the case since December that there is an un-bridged ideological gulf between Warren and Sanders. Their political projects are intrinsically different. Terese has repeatedly argued that the role of the Warren campaign is to undercut Sanders and his political project. On her Twitter account, Terese has detailed the corporations that have donated to Warren’s senate campaign, and which have provided the initial funding for her presidential campaign, despite her pledge to avoid corporate and PAC money. 

These donations offer a possible explanation for Warren’s wavering support for Medicare for All and cast doubt on how progressive her goals actually are. In essence, Terese has looked at Warren’s history to offer a deeper explanation of what it means to be a capitalist to your bones that the mainstream media seems completely uninterested in exploring. In a recent episode of What’s Left, she explained what she finds wholly objectionable in the idea that Warren and Sanders are similar:

“Throughout her history in public life, Liz Warren has been one step ahead of her peers absorbing the popular zeitgeist, and then spitting back out a cheap replica for consumer consumption to her own benefit. 

She was issuing free market Chicago school papers in the 80s, she was a Republican during the Republican revolution, she was a Third-Way Democrat, Native American-exploiting Affirmative Action at Harvard during the 90s. 

She was a lawyer advising corporations in the peak of class action lawsuits. She was a consumer advocate regarding bankruptcy, but only after the reforms she’d cheered on began ruining lives…She was a finance guru on Dr. Phil in the peak of neoliberal self-help TV shows. She was yelling at bankers in the Senate following the financial crash; and that financial crash was the result of neoliberal restructuring and deregulation which she championed her entire public life; the very neoliberal brutality that allowed the role of a consumer advocate like her to seem like anything other than a legitimation of the status quo. 

And she’s now spitting out a counterfeit Bernie campaign in response to the desperate need for change she saw him ignite in 2016…This isn’t indicative of any left agenda, as per her entire history, she’s just reading the moment and leveraging it to her advantage, which is the internal logic of capitalism. Warren sees the opportunity for capital accumulation, this is what it means to be a capitalist to your bones, exploiting market demand and profiting from it.” 

The Warren campaign has yet to address any of this history, and only journalists for conservative outlets seem to care. When her work helping Dow Chemical lower its liability for faulty breast implants came to light, her defenders argued that Warren did nothing wrong by being paid a high hourly rate. All this to avoid discussing the problem of her working for a corporation to the detriment of consumers. It seems that the strategy among her supporters, including journalists, for dealing with potentially damaging information is to either ignore it or parse it away. Where Warren’s history or objectives contradict her progressive portrayal, they simply expand the concept of what progressivism is in order to more fully contain her within it. 

Ultimately, the problem here is less how Warren portrays herself (all politicians employ marketing, after all) than the media insistence that, no matter what, she is indeed a rose. The fourth estate carries an incredible responsibility for capturing the sleights of hand people in power use to distract the populace. It’s unfortunate that, in this case, they seem captivated by their own image in the Elizabeth Warren mirror. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they are incapable of seeing her as anything other than a progressive.

And this means they are incapable of seeing the danger in having yet another progressive-in-name-only ascend to be the Democratic nominee for president. 

J.L. Walden

J.L. Walden

J.L. Walden is a Boston-based educator and journalist who has become preoccupied with the ways in which moral idealism is being used to distract from a materialist political project that can benefit all people.
J.L. Walden

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