Bernie Sanders recently announced his Workplace Democracy Plan, a sweeping labor platform that would double union membership, ban “right to work” laws, give federal workers the right to strike, and institute sectoral-wide bargaining, to name just a few highlights. It’s possibly the boldest, most comprehensive labor platform ever released by a US presidential candidate.
But if you rely on the Washington Post for your news, you wouldn’t know any of this.
The headline of their sole report on the platform: “Sen. Bernie Sanders Changes Medicare-for-All Plan in Face of Opposition by Organized Labor.” To justify such a spin, the paper seized on just one detail from the plan — a mandate that employers raise employee wages with savings from Sanders’s separate Medicare-for-All bill — and framed it as a flip-flop on Medicare for All, rather than what it actually was: a clear win for the labor movement that’s in line with everything Sanders has argued for his entire political life.
The headline (which has since been slightly edited) was a blatant lie. Sanders didn’t alter a word of his health-care plan, on which he’s campaigned consistently for years. His labor platform simply concretized the labor-friendly side effects of Medicare for All, which has always been far better for workers than any competing proposal.
As a stand-alone occurrence, this would have been an upsetting, but forgettable, case of biased reporting. But it continues a disturbing trend in the Washington Post’s 2020 coverage. Here are some of the worst examples.
Shortly following the release of his labor platform, Sanders unveiled his fourteen-thousand-word Green New Deal plan — far and away the most comprehensive climate change platform of any presidential candidate. The Post published four negative opinion pieces about the plan (including one from the editorial board claiming “Sanders’s climate plan will take us nowhere,” and another calling it, incredibly, worse than Trump’s border wall promise). To counter this, the paper published only one positive opinion piece.
When Kamala Harris actually flip-flopped on health care by abandoning Sanders’s Medicare-for-All bill in favor of a plan to permanently preserve private insurance, the Post rewarded her with an editorial board op-ed framing her proposal as a favorable alternative to Sanders’s. They claimed Sanders’s bill is “disruptive, expensive,” and “unrealistic,” while baselessly claiming Harris’s plan is “equally, if not more, serious” about achieving universal coverage. (To clarify the facts: Sanders has an actual legislative bill that would guarantee universal coverage in four years. Harris has a Medium post that aims to get there in ten.)
To support the counterfactual narrative that unions are opposed to Medicare for All, the Post gathered quotes from union leaders who oppose the policy. Among those quoted was Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “When we’re able to hang on to the health plan we have, that’s considered a massive win,” she said. The Post cut her quote here, suggesting that she was speaking out against Medicare for All. The problem: Nelson and her union strongly support the single-payer policy, as would have been made clear had the Post included the rest of her quote: “But it’s a huge drag on our bargaining. So our message is: Get it off the table.” (The article has since been corrected.)
The Post’s “fact-checker” Glenn Kessler has repeatedly lied about Medicare for All while presenting himself as the arbiter of objectivity. In a particularly bad example, he made three false claims in a single article while arguing that it was dishonest for Sanders to claim that Medicare for All would save the United States $2 trillion. (In fact, Sanders was correctly citing a conservative study on his bill. More recent studies have shown it would save over $5 trillion.)
Back in early 2016, the Post infamously ran sixteen stories in sixteen hours criticizing Sanders, with headlines like “Bernie Sanders doesn’t know how to talk about black people,” and “Here’s something Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders have in common.” If this demonstrates anything, it’s that the paper’s hostility toward Sanders has been prevalent since he first became a serious presidential contender.
It would take a novel to list every instance of Washington Post bias against Sanders. Suffice to say, their coverage has been anything but balanced.
Sanders has strongly criticized the unfair treatment, pointing out that Jeff Bezos — the richest man on earth and an enemy of Sanders’s class-struggle campaign — owns the paper, and thus his own corporate interests might hold some influence over its coverage. The suggestion deeply offended Washington Post higher-ups: Martin Baron, executive editor of the paper, even suggested that Sanders was peddling conspiracy theories.
But it’s not a conspiracy theory to suggest that a billionaire-owned media outlet will reflect billionaire interests — it’s a common-sense observation.
Bezos’s largest claim to wealth, Amazon, paid zero federal income taxes last year and even led an effort to halt a small tax that would have alleviated homelessness in Seattle. The continuation of their free ride depends on public policy that allows them not to pay anything, and the Washington Post holds a lot of power in US politics. As Bezos himself said, “it’s the newspaper in the capital city in the most important country in the world.”
This is not to say that Bezos makes direct editorial decisions, or that he plays any active role at all in the paper’s publication. Sanders himself never argued this, and clarified that he doesn’t believe it in recent interviews. But Bezos does hold ultimate authority over the Post, and if he takes a hands-off approach as owner, it’s because he’s generally happy with the job Baron is doing as executive editor. And if Bezos is happy with the job Baron’s doing, it’s because Baron is editing a newspaper that satisfies billionaires like Bezos.
Just look at the paper’s structure. The Post has a robust business section healthily staffed with reporters and columnists, the target audience of which is not exactly working class. Meanwhile, the paper has no labor section, no labor reporters, and very little coverage of genuine working-class issues.
When the Post covers Medicare for All, free college, the Green New Deal, or similarly expansive proposals designed for the benefit of the working class, it tends to focus on cost rather than social impact. Yet the working class represents the overwhelming majority of the US population. A news source seeking to report objectively on society would cover working-class issues commensurate to the class’s scale.
The Post centers its coverage on the wealthy for two possible reasons: political motive, or profit. Either way, it plays in Bezos’s favor and will continue to do so: he has the wealth to publish the paper indefinitely, even at a loss.
The Post does, of course, employ talented writers who don’t reflect Bezos’s worldview — Elizabeth Bruenig for instance, has written multiple Sanders-friendly columns for the paper, while reporters like Jeff Stein routinely produce solid, objective analysis. And it’s not just the Post — the New York Times, the Atlantic, MSNBC, and other major media sources are guilty of the same biases and unfair coverage.
But Sanders’s critique has never been of individual journalists or a specific news source. Instead, he has always aimed to highlight the inherently biased nature of corporate- and billionaire-owned media. As he told John Nichols of the Nation: “I think what we have to be concerned about . . . is that you have a small number of very, very large corporate interests who control a lot of what the people in this country see, hear, and read. And they have their agenda.”
That agenda — without exception — directly contradicts the interests of the working class. As long as Sanders stands with workers in opposition to bosses and billionaires, he can expect more of the same treatment.