Bernie Sanders and Chuck Todd's 'Meet the Press' fiasco: 50 shades of bad

Bernie Sanders deftly refused to engage in media-generated controversy and expressed hope that 'the media will allow us to have a serious debate in this campaign.'

Jim Cole/Ap
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont speaks at a town hall style meeting, in Concord, N.H., on Jim Cole May 27, 2015. Sanders said Sunday, May 31 on on NBC's 'Meet the Press' that the Democratic campaign debates should begin as soon as July and, in a twist, some Republicans should be in the mix.

Is it time to take Sen. Bernie Sanders’s candidacy seriously? Apparently not – at least that’s the impression one might get based on Chuck Todd’s disturbing interview of Sanders on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. 

Rather than provide any evidence on which to evaluate Sanders’s candidacy, Todd instead reminded us why, as political scientist Tom Patterson documents in his very fine book, "Out of Order," the media remains ill-suited for covering presidential campaigns. Writing in 1994, Patterson argued that in the post-1972 primary-centered nominating era, the media had anointed itself as the main intermediary between voters and presidential candidates. The problem, Patterson argued, is that the incentives driving media coverage, including the need to draw an audience, maintain ratings and earn advertising revenue, are not conducive to providing the information that can help voters determine whether candidates are qualified for the presidency. Rather than examining the details of candidates’ policy views and qualifications, journalists instead cover the presidential campaign as a horse race, focusing in particular on candidates’ campaign strategy and personalities. And rather than allow candidates to speak for themselves, journalists substitute their own interpretation of candidate statements in the context of the horse race, with a focus on negative reporting and (often media-created) controversy.

Although now two decades old, Patterson’s argument is perhaps even more relevant in today’s era in which the mainstream media finds their election coverage dominance challenged by cable news and social media. As evidence, one need look no further than yesterday’s "Meet the Press" fiasco of an interview. As one of Sanders’s first nationwide appearances as a presidential candidate, you might think that Todd would take the opportunity to probe more deeply into the senator’s not uncontroversial policy proposals, such as providing free tuition to students attending public colleges, or raising the marginal tax rates, or how he might deal with ISIS. But you would be wrong. To begin, Todd spend the first part of the program discussing the unfolding Dennis Hastert scandal in a not-so-subtle effort to tell us what it says about Congress as a whole. (Answer: nothing, but that’s not newsworthy, so….) When Sanders finally made his appearance about midway through the program, Todd begin with one useful question regarding whether the senator would support the House bill to extend the USA Patriot Act, then under debate in the Senate. Sanders said he likely would, reluctantly, although he expressed concern about protecting civil liberties.

At that point, the interview degenerated into full horse-race, candidate-personality mode.  Specifically, Todd  sought Sanders’s views on a topic arguably of far less relevance to the senator’s qualifications to be president: Hillary Clinton. He began indirectly by asking Sanders to weigh the relative merits of Bill Clinton’s presidency versus Barack Obama’s. When Sanders appeared to praise Obama more than Clinton, Todd pressed further: “You singled out President Obama for praise but not President Clinton. Why?” You might wonder why Todd raised this issue, since Bill is not a candidate for higher office, but Todd’s intention soon became clear when he asked Sanders to comment on Hillary Clinton’s apparent leftward movement on a number of issues, including “same-sex marriage, on immigration … on NAFTA, on trade, on the Iraq War, on Cuba. She has moved from a position, basically, in disagreement with you, to a position that comes closer to your view. So I guess is, do you take her at her word?”

Cue the horse race! To his credit, Sanders refused to take the bait. Instead, he expressed hope that “the media will allow us to have a serious debate in this campaign on the enormous issues facing the American people” and tried to move the conversation to his policy views. Todd, however, had no interest in having a serious debate on the issues; he followed up with: “Do you trust these changes that Hillary Clinton has made? Or do you think she’s been doing it just for primary politics?”

When Sanders again refused to engage Todd in a discussion of Clinton’s motives, the MTP moderator closed with his zinger: Sanders’s 43-year-old essay discussing women’s “rape fantasy.” Naturally, Todd chose to highlight the most controversial portion of the essay, while disingenuously implying it was the only portion he was comfortable reading on air: “I’ll be honest with you, Senator Sanders, it’s uncomfortable to read. The only excerpt I’m going to put up is, you wrote this in February of ’72, was sort of a fantasy of men and women, you said, ‘A woman enjoys intercourse with her man as she fantasizes being raped by three men simultaneously.’ Your campaign described it as satire. Can you explain this essay?”

Sanders explained that it was a poorly written attempt to discuss gender roles in the 1970’s, and likened portions of it to Fifty Shades of Grey (who says the 73-year-old Bernie is not hip?!) Here is his full response.

Frankly, having read the essay, I still have no idea what Sanders’ was trying to say. (You can read it here.) But I am persuaded, Todd’s questioning notwithstanding, that it is far less relevant to Sanders’s candidacy than are his policy views or his voting record from almost three decades serving in Congress – none of which Todd deemed worthy of asking about during the entire interview, save for the opening query about the Patriot Act.

Of course, one needs to be careful about generalizing to the entire mainstream media based on Chuck Todd’s abysmal performance yesterday. To date, Todd has not distinguished himself as moderator of MTP, although he may get better as he gains more experience in this format. And Sanders, unlike former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, showed that he could handle himself on the national stage, which perhaps should not surprise us given his years in public office at the national level. Still, as we begin another lengthy campaign season, Todd’s performance does not give me confidence that the mainstream media is any more qualified to cover a presidential campaign today than it was two decades ago, when Patterson concluded that for “an institution that asks so much of others, the press has become remarkably derelict in the discharge of its public duty.” Amen.

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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