Democratic contenders unload on news media

The Democratic presidential contenders are letting loose with a barrage of attacks against the news media, ripping national outlets for what they view as biased coverage of their campaigns or unfair double standards in covering President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHickenlooper day-old Senate bid faces pushback from progressives Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Andrew Yang: News coverage of Trump a 'microcosm' of issues facing country MORE (I-Vt.) is leading the way, making his grievances with “corporate media” central to his anti-establishment campaign.

The Sanders campaign took it up a notch this week, calling out CNN and NBC by name and making the case that The Washington Post is covering him negatively because he’s been critical of the newspaper’s billionaire owner, Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosThe Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape Making space exploration cool again Sanders campaign to launch own 'newsletter with scoops' MORE.

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Top media personalities are firing back at Sanders and accusing him of taking a page from Trump, who routinely attacks major outlets such as The New York Times and CNN as "fake news." 

But Sanders is far from the only Democratic candidate to vent frustration with the media’s campaign coverage.

A top surrogate for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden evokes 1968, asks voters to imagine if Obama had been assassinated Biden blasts Trump's 'embarrassing' actions heading into G-7 summit Steyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates MORE’s campaign lashed out at reporters this week for giving outsized coverage to the former vice president’s recent verbal gaffes

And former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro (D) have both blasted the press for what they describe as applying too light of a touch with Trump on issues pertaining to race.

The criticism of the media comes after Democrats have spent years warning that Trump’s attacks against the press have undermined trust in an institution they describe as a pillar of a functioning democracy.

But Democrats say their own critiques don’t remotely approach the president’s “enemy of the people” rhetoric. Rather, they say it’s the result of frustration from individual candidates that their messages are not cutting through the noise of a 24-person field. 

“Democrats are not trying to completely tear down the Fourth Estate and they’re not putting journalists in danger, like the president is doing,” said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist with a focus on media relations. “But the ultimate goal for a campaign is to get their message across, and it can be very frustrating when that doesn’t happen.”

The Sanders campaign stands apart for its direct attacks on individual outlets and for making its grievances against the press a core component of its election strategy.

Sanders’s allies have long believed that the elite news organizations hate both the candidate and his anti-establishment message. The campaign has sought out alternative media platforms, such as the popular podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience,” to get around the mainstream media and to allow Sanders to speak at length about his policy proposals.

Recently, the Sanders campaign accused the press of burying polls that show Sanders doing well and amplifying those in which he struggles.

“The better Bernie’s standing in the poll, the less coverage it receives, and the worse he does, the more he receives,” Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver said in a phone call with reporters on Monday.

Weaver also rattled off a slew of negative headlines about Sanders that he said were biased, and he pointed to the chyrons that CNN and MSNBNC run at the bottom of the screen as intentionally worded to ensure voters don’t take Sanders seriously.

But Sanders’s attack against Bezos and The Washington Post struck a nerve in Washington and was met with blowback from members of the press.

“Contrary to the conspiracy theory the senator seems to favor, Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest,” Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron said in a statement.

CNN anchor Dana BashDana BashDemocratic contenders unload on news media CNN roasted over debate production, format: 'A disservice to serious people' The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time for 2020 Democrats in Detroit debate MORE went further, calling Sanders’s attacks “dangerous.”

“It is very similar to what Donald Trump is doing ... [Sanders] is continuing to undermine the institution of the press by suggesting to people that we can’t make editorial decisions for ourselves because the corporate leaders, owners dictate for us,” Bash said Tuesday on CNN. “It is incredibly dangerous.”

Democrats say the strategy will energize Sanders’s base of supporters, many of whom view themselves as outsiders who have been shunned by the establishment.

Republican strategist Andy Surabian said he was sympathetic to Sanders’s claims, calling him “consistent and sincere” in his grievances against the press.

But the direct hits against the media have angered some Democrats.

“The Sanders campaign has become a paranoid phantasmagoria,” said Democratic strategist Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist. “They’re running second only to Trump in trafficking in conspiracy theories and it reeks of desperation.”

Team Biden, meanwhile, is beating back at the notion that the former vice president is prone to embarrassing misstatements as it seeks to tamp down questions about whether he is the strongest candidate to take on Trump.

There was an avalanche of coverage over the weekend of two verbal gaffes Biden made at the Iowa State Fair, such as mistakenly saying he was still vice president when he met with survivors from a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last year.

Biden’s allies are frustrated by the media coverage, believing the press is creating a false equivalence between run-of-the-mill misstatements and Trump’s myriad scandals.

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Biden spokeswoman Symone SandersSymone SandersDemocratic contenders unload on news media Biden's gaffes pile up, worrying some supporters Sanders campaign official praises Harris over clash with Biden on civil rights record MORE, a former CNN contributor, chastised the national media in a testy exchange on CNN over what she described as an obsession with minor miscues.

"I want to be very clear — this is a press narrative, not a voter narrative,” Sanders said about coverage of Biden’s gaffes. "If you were to look at the coverage in Iowa this weekend and juxtapose the local newspapers and local television coverage to national media coverage, you would have thought these reporters were at two different events.”

Meanwhile, O’Rourke and Castro are pressuring the media to be more aggressive with Trump after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that appears to have been racially motivated.

Democrats have blamed Trump’s rhetoric on immigration for inspiring the alleged shooter, and some candidates, such as O'Rourke, have pushed news organizations to explicitly call Trump "a racist."

“Members of the press, what the f---?” O’Rourke said in a gaggle with reporters last week. “Connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country, he’s not tolerating racism, he’s promoting racism.”

The criticism has sparked conversations in newsrooms over how to cover Trump’s racial controversies, particularly after The New York Times was criticized for a front-page headline that described a speech by Trump as an attempt to heal racial divisions after the El Paso mass shooting and a separate one in Dayton, Ohio, the same weekend.

“American journalism and American journalists are so steeped in a ‘both sides’ dynamic that they find it difficult, I think, to address this moment,” Castro said in Iowa over the weekend. “It’s especially hard for news reporters who feel like they can’t break out of character.”

Republicans are rolling their eyes, believing that the media is snapping to attention to respond to criticism from Democrats, who they see as softened by the expectation of favorable coverage, compared to what they believe conservatives endure.

“If they had to withstand what Trump goes through with the media on a daily basis they’d probably have to go find a safe space to sit in,” Surabian said.