In 1988, Bernie Sanders outlined the key problem with news media today
- Over his four-decade political career, Senator Bernie Sanders has been an outspoken critic of mass news media.
- In a 1988 speech, Sanders described how it's virtually impossible to meaningfully discuss substantial political issues in 30-second sound bites, and how the consolidation of news outlets makes it harder for alternative views to reach the public.
- Surveys show that America's trust in mass media has been declining for years.
No matter your stance on the Vermont senator, it’s hard to deny that Bernie Sanders has rightfully earned a reputation for not changing his politics over his four-decade career. In speeches and interviews, Sanders reliably returns to mantras about the one percent, voter turnout, and affordable healthcare and education, to name a few. These views have long been divisive, and it’s up for debate whether his unwavering politics is indeed a virtue.
But one of Sanders’ long-held views seems uniquely uncontroversial: that the structure of news media makes it hard, if not impossible, to discuss important political topics in a meaningful way. Speaking in 1988 at an event honoring the Vermont Vanguard, an independent newspaper, Sanders spoke about how hard it is to cram coherent ideas into TV-news soundbites.
“If you are a serious public official, how do you deal with the complex issues that your city faces or your state faces?” Sanders said. “And you look at that camera and you say, ‘Oh god, I got 30 seconds to do it.’ And then you understand why politicians become morons. It’s not necessarily their fault. You try it sometime. Try to deal about a complex and serious issue, and get it into the 24 seconds that you need to get it into to get it onto the tube. It drives you a little bit crazy.”
Echoing this idea in a 2019 interview with The Nation, Sanders said:
“This country faces enormous crises, and you can’t do it in 45 seconds or a minute. That’s just the simple reality. And I understand the problem of how many candidates are running. But we need a political structure in this country which allows serious debate about serious issues, and the structure of those debates makes it impossible I think for any candidate to do more than shout out a sound bite.”
This “politics by soundbite” nature of TV news has changed not only the media, but also the way politicians think, Sanders said in 1988.
“You have politicians who then think in 30-second tidbits, which leads you to Ronald Reagan,” he said. “The deep issues, the hard issues, are not as exciting as simplistic stuff.”
Sanders’ critiques of TV and corporate media extend further back than this speech. In a 1979 op-ed titled “Social Control and the Tube,” Sanders said control of TV should be considered a political issue, and that public ownership would enable “serious writers” and “people with all kinds of views” to produce better work for the public.
“What the owners of the TV industry want to do, and are doing, in my opinion, is use that medium to intentionally brainwash people into submission and helplessness,” Sanders wrote. “With considerable forethought they are attempting to create a nation of morons who will faithfully go out and buy this or that product, vote for this or that candidate, and faithfully work for their employers for as low a wage as possible.”
Still, in his 1988 speech, Sanders said he doesn’t support government control of the media, but that “corporate control over the media is equally dangerous, and that’s very clearly the trend to which we’re moving today.”
Three decades later, Sanders said: “In 1983, the largest 50 corporations controlled 90 percent of the media. Today, as a result of massive mergers and takeovers, six corporations control 90 percent of what we see, hear, and read […] These powerful corporations also have an agenda, and it would be naive not to believe that their views and needs impact coverage of issues important to them.”
The consolidation of media companies was accelerated by changes to the Federal Communications Commission, with two major deregulatory shifts that occurred under Reagan and then Clinton, whose administration passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act. That law raised the cap on the number of local news stations and newspapers media corporations could buy.
What also adds to the homogeneity of news media is shrinking revenues and a trend toward click-bait content. Big Think’s Reuben Jackson recently noted:
“One effect of the contraction of the news industry is that journalists are networking with fewer peers and sources. In one recently published study, “Sharing Knowledge and ‘Microbubbles’: Epistemic Communities and Insularity in US Political Journalism,” researchers from the University of Illinois explore the extent to which groupthink bias is increasingly being built into the content we consume.”
These factors may help explain why Americans’ trust in news media is declining. A 2020 Gallup survey found that six in 10 Americans have “not very much” trust (27 percent) or “none at all” (33 percent) trust in mass media. It’s not a new trend: Gallup notes that trust in mass media hovered just above the majority level until 2005, and since it hasn’t risen above 47 percent.