Cameras are raised in the air and aimed at Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (not pictured) as he is interviewed in the spin room after a presidential debate.
( Joe Raedle
BROOKE: This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB: And I’m Bob Garfield. For several months On the media has been working with the data journalism site 538.com to address a timely chicken or egg question. Namely whether a presidential contender’s media coverage is driven by the campaign’s polling numbers, or vice versa. Using 538’s data we’ve been overlaying metrics of the quantity of media coverage, not only with polling results with google searches, an indicator of the public’s unprompted interest and curiosity. One of the most vocal advocates of the ‘media drives polls’ view is democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders. Here’s Sanders several weeks ago on CNN when asked by host Chris Cuomo why he thought Donald Trump was continuing to poll well.
SANDERS: You are going to have to ask the media precisely why. Trump is a smart guy. He is a media guy. He knows that media is not so interested in the serious issues facing this country. So I think this is more an indictment of the media, actually, than it is of Trump.
BOB: It’s a claim that Sanders has been making his entire political life and it’s directly related to his other perennial complaint. That because the media only care about frivolous issues, serious candidates become victims of virtual media blackouts. Here’s sanders again on CNN
SANDERS: A recent study showed that on ABC evening news Trump got 81 minutes of time. Bernie Sanders got 20 seconds. Now you tell me why.
BOB: With us now is 538’s senior political writer Clare Malone to look at the ongoing question of Bernie Sanders and the media. Hello Clare.
MALONE: Hi Bob.
BOB: Let's start with, is there now, or has there ever been a media blackout of Bernie Sanders?
MALONE: There's not a media blackout. you know, maybe Hillary Clinton was getting a lot more attention. In the summer he was getting 20% of article coverage, compared to Hillary Clinton. And now he's sort of edged up into 30% of coverage. And people have been searching Bernie quite a bit, in the low 50-60 range, and they kind of plateaued into the following winter. So, maybe he's not getting super duper coverage, but he's not not there.
BOB: Nonetheless, the numbers are pretty striking. The Tyndall report did a study of airtime spent on the candidates and they found that Donald Trump, duh, is the most covered with 234 minutes during the time period that they measured. Clinton was next with 113 minutes. And Sanders got 10. 10! And yet, he is consistently one of the most highly searched on Google. What does that suggest?
MALONE: Well the Tyndall Report refers to network TV, it's sort of a more traditional media coverage, and this campaign more than others before is really a social media campaign. Bernie tends to skew younger, so maybe we're looking at more of a grassroots interest in Bernie Sanders. So, while he might not be getting the traditional airtime, maybe that doesn't matter as much this election.
BOB: It's not that the media haven't covered his ideas - they have. But Trump daily offers up fresh meat - fresh outrages. And the media just pile on. In other words, Trump understands how the media work, he exploits our tendencies. Sanders understands how media work, he has said so, and yet stubbornly ignores our tendencies. Am I oversimplifying?
MALONE: Well, I think that it is undeniable that Bernie Sanders wants us to eat our vegetables. And Donald Trump wants us to eat cocoa puffs, but I do think that there's something to be said of the fact that he's hammering away on these progressive economic issues, and the crowds are kind of eating it up because the seriousness rings as authenticity. And he's got a little anger going there. It's not the same kind of Donald Trump anger, but I think that we get closer to the election the Bernie Sanders persona is getting a bit more palatable.
BOB: And now that his candidacy has become a kind of insurgency, it's leading to actually much much more coverage than he ever would have gotten. He's now the beneficiary of the very thing he's been complaining abou.
MALONE: THat could definitely be true. i think the place where Sanders has a valid exposure complaint is from debates. That the Democratic National Committee purposefully put these debates on Saturday nights when no one's gonna watch the debate, or a holiday weekend where maybe people aren't going to be tuning in. But being out in Iowa last week, I was honestly surprised by how many people were very interested in Bernie Sanders, and pleasantly surprised to see that people were going against the grain of what I was seeing as the media narrative back on the east coast.
BOB: So what you're saying is, the behavior and the interest of actual human beings who get to vote may not track with any of these key performance indicators like polls and money raised and media coverage. Doesn't it upend the idea that the media with a capital M have the power to propel a candidate purely by deciding to give him or her more attention.
MALONE: I think you're right. I will also say though that if Bernie Sanders wins Iowa and wins New Hampshire which are very particular kind of states that are not like, say, South Carolina or you know places that Obama had big strongholds with a lot of black voters in the last couple elections. There is a way that the media moves the needle for a candidate in that they give them momentum, they give him headlines. So it's not just a grassroots effort after a while. You have to be taken seriously enough to eb ea factor in these first couple races. But again, I think the media does have a power in who are the headlines coming out of the first two primaries in February.
BOB: Would it be fair to say that a year ago someone said to you that Bernie Sanders the elderly Jewish socialist who's gonna be the next president and everyone would laugh laugh laugh laugh, in that same party now are they going' "huh"?
MALONE: That's the great thing about being proved wrong. People believe in the big machine rolling along and sort of crushing all opinions beside the one they're proffering, and I think the Bernie Sanders candidacy speaks to the idea that people think for themselves.
BOB: Clare, thank you very much.
MALONE: Thank you.
BACK ANNOUNCE: Clare Malone is Senior Political Writer for FiveThirtyEight dot com. You can see their political coverage at Fivethirtyeight dot com slash politics, and follow our collaboration at on the media dot org. You can also subscribe to Five Thirty Eight’s new election podcast at fivethirtyeight.com/podcast.