A nation unsettled and on the brink
Why the media dislike Andrew, Tulsi, Bernie and Marianne
CNN recently displayed a curious graphic. It looked ordinary enough, a listing of top Democratic presidential candidates in a new national poll, but with a glaring omission. The graphic listed what appeared to be the top six candidates, except that it didn't quite get it right. Rather than listing the sixth-place candidate, Andrew Yang, who was polling at 3 percent, it skipped right over him and instead included former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), who had garnered only 1 percent in the poll. Yang was left off entirely.
Now this may have been chalked up to a simple error if it seemingly weren't part of a persistent pattern of ignoring Yang's candidacy. One of Yang's supporters, Scott Santens, has been keeping track of the apparent slights via Twitter: an MSNBC graphic with other candidates polling at 2 percent but not Yang, oddly unbalanced graphics that seem to include just enough candidates to get in the media favorites but exclude Yang. As Axios recently pointed out, Yang is sixth in the polling average yet 14th in terms of the number of articles written about his candidacy.
Clearly, something is going on here. But what I've noticed is that Yang is not alone in facing media contempt. Without fail, every candidate who has come from outside the Democratic establishment, or who has dared to question the Democratic establishment, has been smeared, dismissed or ignored by most media.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who resigned from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in protest of its treatment of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and dares to challenge the bipartisan pro-war foreign policy consensus, has been smeared as "unpatriotic." This despite the fact that she is an Iraq War veteran who, to this day, serves in the Hawaii Army National Guard. The Daily Beast published an absurd article titled "Tulsi Gabbard's Campaign is Being Boosted By Putin Apologists" about how three of her donors, among tens of thousands, had tangential connections to Russia. NBC News published a piece on how Russian bots were boosting Gabbard's campaign. It cited one expert, a group that reportedly faked Russian bot activity in an Alabama election.
Gabbard had the distinction of being the most-Googled candidate in both of the first two debates. The media, however, have shown little interest in understanding why her pro-peace message might hold appeal.
I've talked quite a bit about media bias against Sanders. The latest, most egregious case involved a Washington Post "fact check" that found Sanders accurately cited academic research - but managed to give him three Pinocchios anyway.
Marianne Williamson, an author and activist, is definitely off the beaten path for a candidate, but she is an incredibly accomplished woman, with seven New York Times bestsellers to her name and decades of activism under her belt. Perhaps it would be interesting to hear more of her thoughts on national healing and reconciliation rather than just casting her as a weirdo and mocking her for a tweet about the power of prayer, something to which many, if not most, Americans subscribe.
These candidates occupy much different poll positions and have wildly different approaches, styles and philosophies. Yang, the cheerful prophet of doom; Williamson, the spiritual healer; Gabbard, the teller of hard truths about American imperialism; and Sanders, well, he's just Bernie. But they have something important in common: They don't fit the mold. They aren't in the club. They defy the rules.
Asian techies are supposed to develop the latest AI, not lead the revolution to put humanity first. Democratic female veterans are supposed to burnish the party's hawkish cred, not doggedly pursue diplomacy and engagement and call out the American war machine. Spirituality is not supposed to be mixed with politics on the left, even though religion is fully weaponized by the right. And septuagenarian democratic socialists who are not fashionable in any way are not supposed to be rock stars with youths or be top-polling presidential contenders.
Rather than deal with these contradictions - which, by the way, clearly fascinate the public, judging by Google and Twitter trends - it's easier for many in the media to mock, smear or ignore.
Not only do these candidates not fit the mold; they also in their own ways represent threats to the current holders of power. Williamson and Yang didn't come up through politics, so they owe absolutely nothing to the Washington or Democratic Party elite.
Gabbard is a fascinating example. As a young veteran and woman of color, she checked all the boxes to be an up-and-coming star of the party. And she was. By 2016, at age 34, she was a DNC vice chairwoman. But she blew all of that up in protest of the DNC's treatment of Sanders at a time when it was much more likely than not that Hillary Clinton would become the Democratic nominee. If Gabbard had just kept her mouth shut and stayed in line, she could have been considered for a position in a Hillary Clinton administration. But she refused to play by the rules and refused to back down from her convictions about the horrors of war.
And if you're not a "team player," then of course you're a threat. Sanders, though, is obviously the ultimate threat to the Washington neoliberal establishment. I asked him recently whether he represented an existential threat to the Democratic Party, and he acknowledged that he did. He matches his critique of their corporatism and business-as-usual approach with an unmatched grassroots army and fundraising base. He has his own base of power that requires nothing from a D.C. cocktail party.
When you are a threat to the political establishment, you are inherently a threat to the careers of journalists who rely on access to that political establishment. There may not be an edict coming down from on high to "destroy" those candidates who threaten the system, but there are natural defense mechanisms that kick in. And so, strange graphics are made that just happen to exclude you, fact checks are written that don't seem to arrive at the facts at all, coverage vacillates from total blackout to wild smears.
Candidates who don't conform may be exactly what the country needs, but they are precisely what the media scorns.
Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of "Rising," Hill.TV's bipartisan morning news show. She is president of The People's House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.