What media like best about Elizabeth Warren: She’s not Bernie Sanders


When the Washington Post‘s Paul Waldman (9/18/19) recently attempted to explain Elizabeth Warren’s rise in the Democratic primary polls, he attributed it in part to media:

Reporters on the campaign trail have said for some time that she is the one who generates the most enthusiastic response among voters on the ground. A rise in her poll standing inevitably produces stories about what she’s doing right, stories that get filled with the impressions those reporters have accumulated.

The resulting positive news coverage encourages more Democrats to feel favorably toward her, or at the very least give her a careful look. Which leads to poll numbers that continue to improve, which leads to more positive press coverage, and the cycle goes on.

It’s a logical path from enthusiastic crowds and rising poll numbers to news coverage about what a candidate is doing right. But it’s certainly not an inevitable one; media coverage is a product of editorial decisions, not laws of nature. And four years ago, when another Democratic primary candidate was drawing enthusiastic crowds and rising in the polls, it prompted a very different kind of coverage (e.g., FAIR.org, 7/1/15, 8/20/15, 8/21/15).

Why has Warren—who has positioned herself as Bernie Sanders’ closest ideological competitor, and a vocal crusader against corporate control over the political system—so far escaped the scathing and skeptical coverage Sanders has received? The answer has to do with both the differences in how the two candidates frame themselves, and the way major media cover elections.

As FAIR has shown over and over, corporate journalists’ rolodexes skew heavily toward establishment sources: party officials, strategists and operatives (Extra!, 7–8/14FAIR.org, 6/1/17), and centrist and right-leaning think tank analysts (FAIR.org, 7/1/13).

Those sources are almost uniformly and vehemently anti-Sanders, and have been at least since his run against Hillary Clinton in the last election provoked their deepest antipathy (FAIR.org, 6/28/19, 8/15/19). But—no doubt in part because Sanders has helped shift the center of the party so much in recent years—many see Warren as a more acceptable alternative.

Even Third Way, the pro-corporate think tank that in 2013 warned in the Wall Street Journal (12/2/13) that Warren was leading Democrats “off a populist cliff,”  has warmed up a bit to her (Politico, 6/19/19). Politico quoted an attendee at a Third Way conference—who says he likes Warren’s consumer protection policies and infrastructure plan—describing the shift: “People are taking a second look at her and saying, ‘Hmm. Some of her policies are good. Maybe she isn’t like Bernie.’”

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