Bernie Sanders gave calm, reasonable answers to the questions he faced on the Today Show this morning, explaining the fundamentals of his campaign. His responses were quiet and measured. He even failed to take a bait on whether Hillary Clinton is “expedient” for suddenly accepting a range of issues she’s opposed (gay marriage, peace, criminal justice reform, death penalty abolition and so on) for decades–issues that Sanders has supported all along.
Then came the big question.
Senator Sanders, you have all of us reaching into our high school textbooks to look up the definition of socialism, versus ‘democratic socialism’, versus capitalism. You call yourself a democratic socialist. In our last poll, 60% of our respondents said they were comfortable or very comfortable with capitalism. I see those signs at your rallies. They say ‘join the revolution’. What about those voters who don’t think a revolution sounds exciting, they think it sounds scary?
On the one hand, asking this question is understandable. Revolutions vary greatly in scope and meaning. The term can be used for anything from the American War of Independence, to the non-violent Civil Rights Movement; from Robespierre to Napoleon; from industrialization to the internet. The word “revolution” inspires feelings of warmth or revulsion across the political spectrum, but much like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Ode to Joy), has no distinct ideological flavor.
The question is, why do media outlets repeatedly plant the idea that Sanders is calling for something violent or destructive in his campaign (“scary”), when he’s repeatedly explained that the “revolution” is an electoral one involving–gasp–free public college tuition and universal healthcare?
The media have a responsibility not to support Bernie Sanders politics, but to help voters understand what his politics are, so that they can either accept or reject him at the polls. Asking such leading questions when, by the questioner’s own admission, many people are “reaching into textbooks” to try to understand basic economic concepts is irresponsible.
Being the resident transportation writer, I wanted to offer some examples of “revolution” that have been less outrageously received by our media.
U.S. auto maker Chevrolet was not the only car company to use the metaphor of “revolution” to describe their product. Fiat, complete with Halloween-ready sexy-Betsy Ross*, reminded us in 2014 that “The Italians are coming!” in its revolutionary ad:
Though the most touching to me when used as a promotional accessory to cars, “revolution” is used to sell other things that we all find non-threatening. Steve Jobs “kicked off 2010” by introducing “a truly magical and revolutionary product.” He was referring to the IPad.
I’m not even suggesting that the use of the word revolution for these products is a bad thing. It seems a bit overwrought for my tastes, but on the other hand, IPads are kinda’ cool.
The largest blind spot for media outlets is not necessarily ideological. It may be that some journalists or news outlets actively disagree with Sanders’ program, or want to red-bait him. But more often, I would suspect that the bias is totally outside of the political spectrum. What it’s really about is sound bites. Media outlets are most successful with their audiences when they can instigate a short-term buzz over an issue, with relatively little effort into depth or clarity of thought. If the political buzz suddenly said Sanders was twenty points ahead, the media would oblige with a scattering of stories about how Hillary Clinton is in free-fall. It would sell. It also sells to constantly follow the drool trail of Donald Trump as he wallops his way across the country saying absurdly racist things (Extra! Extra!). The bias is in offering a poor platform for ideas, whatever their ideological origin.
Whatever the coverage of Sanders’ politics, sharp questions about “revolution” should not be part of the package. It would be perfectly acceptable, as some have, to launch into detailed analyses of Sanders’ platform and whether he’s the best choice. Picking on the candidate for using a metaphor that is common in American parlance is shallow, thoughtless journalism. You would expect that when so many of the advertisements on television refer to “revolution”, that this would be an easier lesson to learn.
*Although, it’s probably not Betsy Ross if she’s hanging out with Paul Revere, but then again, I don’t think that would be the most historically inaccurate thing in this commercial. Where are the hand-stitched bunny ears we all read about in elementary school?