Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Newsworthiness of Bernie Sanders

Ironically, the consistency of message that makes Bernie Sanders a great candidate for President of the United States could also be the biggest barrier to his actually getting there.

Bernie Sanders supporters like me are frustrated. We’re frustrated because we finally have a candidate who is passionately and consistently unabashed in his determination to lift the covers off of decades of lies and obfuscations, to expose a system that has decimated the middle class and left young people saddled with crushing student debt, to attack policies that have all but destroyed any hope America has of being competitive in the world—we finally have such a candidate, and yet the national media has chosen to ignore him. We know Senators Sanders’ message is based in truth, we know it is resonating, and we know there are thousands of us out here desperate to be heard beyond the encouraging Facebook posts we share with each other, but all we see on our TV screens and in our newspapers are a bunch of empty-suited Republicans bent on dragging America into a base-level politics where no one can thrive but a worm-eater.

The ultimate low came last week when all three major American news networks showed their viewers an empty podium even as Senator Sanders was delivering a speech to another of the throngs of thousands who have come out every time he has taken a stage.

I was therefore delighted today to see Reuters posting not one but two significant reports on Senator Sanders’ thrashing of Hillary Clinton in Saturday’s Democratic caucuses in Alaska, Washington, and Hawaii. Beyond just reporting on the horse race in the Democratic primary, Reuters even provided a reasonable synopsis of the Sanders message and how it has resonated:

[Sanders] has energized the party's liberal base and young voters with his calls to rein in Wall Street and fight income inequality, a message that resonated in liberal Washington and other Western states. Sanders won in Utah and Idaho this week.

So why is the media ignoring this guy? Recently, once I had finished pounding my fists at the injustice of this infuriating fact of the 2016 campaign, I found myself looking back, as I often do when the media is involved, to my years in journalism school. En route to the Journalism degree I earned in 1983, one of the foundational lessons we learned was around the concept of newsworthiness, the central question being, What makes a story newsworthy? That is, What makes one story more worthy of the air time or ink it will get than any of the other stories one could broadcast or publish? You can Google this now (“newsworthiness factors” were the terms I used), and you’ll come up with some combination of the lessons I was taught back in journalism school: Newsworthiness is based on factors like timeliness, proximity, significance, conflict, and human interest. Various practitioners use varying terms, but the general ideas are the same, and some of these factors appear on virtually every journalism teacher’s list. But the one that I always recall first—and, perhaps not coincidentally, the one that appears first on every list I found on Google—is timeliness.

So what is timeliness? I found this super succinct definition that I think captures it well:

News is what's new. An afternoon raid on a rock cocaine house may warrant a live report during the 6 p.m. news. However, tomorrow, unless there are major new developments, the same story will probably not be important enough to mention.

Some of you know where I’m going with this. How can the media’s penchant for timeliness work against a candidate who draws tens of thousands to his rallies every day? Well, that’s the problem. He draws huge, adoring crowds every day. Now, if suddenly a fight broke out in one of those crowds, boom, now you’ve got a story! Even more than that, though: Bernie Sanders is perhaps the most consistent politician in the history of our democracy in terms of the issues he has pursued and the message he has been promoting. He has been calling out corporate greed and a two-party system that shamelessly disenfranchises its own citizens ever since he was elected Mayor of Burlington, VT, in 1981. In a recent report, Rachel Maddow not only shows viewers the remarkable consistency of the Sanders message, she also shows how the national news media went to Burlington and sought out Mayor Sanders twice in the 1980s, when he was a relative unknown, and his message was therefore new and noteworthy.
Without question, you can go down the various lists of newsworthiness factors and find others that should send the media in droves to tirelessly cover Senator Sanders. And that can and should drive a larger conversation about the performance of the American news media (shameful), and the question of whether the media is actually serving our democracy (it isn’t). But leave that for another post and just draw the obvious conclusion: If there’s any lesson we can take away from the 2016 campaign so far, it’s that timeliness is king, and the practical result of that is that American journalism is designed for little more than gimmickry, outrageousness, and extremes. Thoughtful critiques of what ails the nation and serious proposals for solving the nation’s problems have no place here, whether it be CNN, MSNBC, or the “channel” that shall not be named.