(Cliff Owen/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters during a campaign rally at Prince William Fairground in Manassas, Va., Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.

Bernie who? Why does TV media ignore Sanders even as he tops polls?

Bernie Sanders has faced a near-blackout from major TV news sources, even though he continues to rise in popularity and fundraising. 

If you’re still a little confused about who Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is, that makes sense – network TV news has largely ignored the Democratic presidential candidate from Vermont. With 23 candidates currently running for president, how could the media have time to cover everyone’s opinions and policies?  

But a recent poll has Senator Sanders only 7 points behind Hillary Clinton nationally, and in an average of recent New Hampshire primary polls, Sanders leads Mrs. Clinton by 9 points. In a hypothetical election between Republican candidate Donald Trump and Sanders, Real Clear Politics estimated at the end of Sept. that Sanders would win by 16 points. Even more impressive, only four of the 23 2016 presidential candidates have ever polled at 20 percent support: Mr. Trump, Ben Carson, Clinton, and you guessed it – Bernie Sanders.

So why aren't the major TV networks paying any attention? “A guy in his 70s filling stadiums? Who does he think he is? The Rolling Stones?” Stephen Colbert said on his show earlier this week.

Andrew Tyndall monitored broadcast news from ABC, NBC, and CBS and found that of the 504 minutes devoted thus far to the presidential race, Donald Trump has been given a staggering 145 minutes (nearly 30 percent) and Clinton’s campaign has been given 82 minutes. (Add another 83 minutes if you want to count the time exclusively given to the email scandal.)

How does Sanders compare? He has only gotten a shocking total of eight minutes on network news (about 1.5 percent). This is equivalent to the amount of time the news has devoted to Gov. Chris Christie (who is polling below four percent) and far less than the 43 minutes of coverage devoted to Jeb Bush, who is polling less than 10 percent.

Sanders has gotten just as much airtime as Mitt Romney got when he was considering a campaign earlier this year. And with the total broadcast TV coverage of 504 minutes greater at this point on the campaign calendar than in both 2007 and 2011, the media has had plenty of opportunities to talk about Bernie.   

So does Bernie have to leak secret emails or offend a major US demographic to get some media coverage?

With Bernie’s populist movement building throughout the country, it’s hard to predict how he will be treated on network TV news in the months ahead. But he might not have to look farther than the source of his campaign funds.

In the past three months, Sanders has raised about $26 million, comparable to Clinton’s $28 million in the same time period. The difference? The majority of Sanders’s funds have come from small donations online averaging $30, whereas Clinton has relied on big donors. Sanders’s funds have come from over 650,000 individual contributors – more than Barack Obama had raised at the same point in his 2008 campaign. 

“We don’t take money from billionaires, we don’t take money from corporations,” Sanders said during a speech in Los Angeles. “And we have raised the largest amount of any candidate from single donations.”

And Sanders’s “political revolution” against big corporations could be to blame for his TV news blackout. “When 3 giant corporations own the majority of the mainstream and easily accessible media, and the candidate they aren’t covering is calling out that type of corporate corruption … connect the dots,” a Sanders’s supporter said to the Huffington Post.

But the lack of coverage may reflect a view shared by many that Sanders may have a much harder time in the general election than Clinton. As the Washington Post's Aaron Blake wrote in August:

A June Monmouth poll showed 59 percent of Democratic voters said Sanders would have a worse chance than Clinton; only 13 percent thought he'd have a better chance. A CBS News poll last month, meanwhile, showed 78 percent of Democratic voters said Clinton was their most electable candidate, while just 5 percent said that of Sanders. That's even as 17 percent supported Sanders.

The Vermont Senator has also repeated the same core message throughout his campaign and he has so far refused to go negative against Clinton – two factors that don't help his nonexistent TV news presence. But the first Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13 could end the dearth of Sanders campaign coverage on network TV, who may be forced to address why so many Americans already "Feel the Bern."

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