The division of newsroom labor into beats is a venerable practice. They’re often fairly broad in scope—police, city hall, the legislature—but the specialty of New York Times’ Sydney Ember is oddly specific: she’s working the anti-Bernie beat.
Technically, her domain is the 2020 elections, but her major focus is undermining the campaign of the democratic socialist senator from Vermont. Her reporting on Sanders goes far beyond the implicit bias that creeps into all journalism—there’s an undercurrent of hostility that’s hard to miss.
Her recent piece on Sanders’ trip to the Iowa State Fair was perhaps the most brazen to date. The New York Times pulled a clever bait-and-switch with a seemingly positive headline—“Why Bernie Sanders Stood Out at the Iowa State Fair”—that was revealed to be ironic in the first paragraph:
Bernie Sanders examined the butter cow. He power-walked by the Ferris wheel. He gobbled a corn dog.
He spoke to almost no one.
Citing unnamed local officials and “discussions with dozens of voters,” Ember erroneously suggests that Sanders is “struggling to gain traction in the state that fueled his rise.” (Note: A poll of Iowa voters released the day before her piece went to press had him tied with Biden at 17 percent.) She implies that the problem could be his “lectern-pounding, impersonal campaign style.”
Mr. Sanders’s approach to the event on Sunday — stride briskly, wave occasionally, converse infrequently — underscored how he has grounded his campaign in championing ideas rather than establishing human connections.
Sanders’ campaign staff called her out. His speechwriter David Sirota took to Twitter to point out the various grassroots efforts Sanders undertook in Iowa, including town halls as well as meetings with activist and volunteer groups. He also toured poisoned wells at family farms in rural areas.
When Sanders decried this poor treatment by the media, his critics seized on these comments to draw comparisons to Trump. Commentators attempted to debunk his remarks about Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post by pointing out that the paper is independent and often publishes pieces critical of his company.
But it doesn’t have to be some big conspiracy. It’s in the nature of mainstream papers to defend the status quo even without any direct marching orders from billionaires.
The New York Times’ editors probably aren’t sitting Ember down and telling her that Bernie needs to be taken down at all costs. The mechanism at work here is subtler but no less pernicious.
In Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s groundbreaking leftwing critique of corporate media, the authors observed that “the ‘societal purpose’ of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state.”
The media is a tool for maintaining what Antonio Gramsci referred to as “cultural hegemony.” Individual members of the media are products of this hegemony who collectively work to preserve and reproduce it.
When Chomsky was interviewed in 1995 for a BBC2 program called The Big Idea, the host Andrew Marr had a hard time wrapping his head around Chomsky’s thesis that the mainstream media largely acts a propaganda arm for the powerful.
In disbelief, Marr says he was brought up to believe that journalism was a “crusading craft” with an adversarial relationship to power.
Chomsky tells Marr: “I’m not saying your self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
The same can be said of Sydney Ember or just about any reporter who works in a prestigious media outlet, which are increasingly becoming dominated by members of the upper class.
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Reporters and editors at The New York Times are about as likely to have a degree from an elite university as Forbes billionaires. Ember and reporters like her don’t really need to be instructed to protect the interests of the ruling class—they are the ruling class.
From Wall Street to 41st Street
The left has heaped a lot of invective on Sydney Ember. However, her bias against Sanders isn’t so much rooted in a personal antipathy toward him as it is the natural outcome of her internalizing the worldview of the elite to which she belongs.
Her career trajectory has been unusually charmed. While at Brown she had the rare opportunity to be personally mentored by David Carr, a fact she mentions in her bio and also in a post on Medium, where she states that he helped her meet her husband, who happens to be the son of Bain Capital’s CEO.
She transitioned from a Wall Street job as a financial analyst for BlackRock into a position at New York Times’ DealBook advertising vertical in 2014. While it’s somewhat strange for someone whose only experience is writing for a college newspaper to be hired at the “paper of record,” it’s practically unheard of for a person like that to be begin covering national elections after only a few years blogging about finance.
One plausible explanation for her meteoric rise in the journalism world: She was promoted for her fidelity to the ideology of the ruling class rather than her skill. In other words, she wouldn’t be where she was, “if she believed something different,” as Chomsky said of Marr.
Self-described “female Bernie Bro” and podcast host Katie Halper did excellent work demonstrating Ember’s bias and overreliance on corporate or otherwise hostile sources. It’s tempting to look at this as deliberate, but there’s an alternative theory that’s worth pondering.
What if Ember just has a hard time differentiating between a biased source and an unbiased one because her worldview, i.e. the view of the ruling class, is the default?
The ideology of financiers, billionaires, Ivy League grads, Davos attendees, etc. is dominant and therefore regarded as neutral, so the Third Way, a fiscally conservative, socially liberal think tank might seem like a reasonable source for someone like Ember.
Ember chooses the label that Third Way uses for itself, because if she accurately identified its corporatist mission and positions, she could not use one of its leaders as an objective authority on the efficacy of Bernie Sanders’ proposal of free healthcare for all. It would be obvious that Third Way’s healthcare plan was in no way as ambitious as Sanders’, and that it was using the term “universal” to undermine single payer.
Halper argues that this is all intentional, but there’s something guileless about the way Ember covers Sanders, like in her own mind she feels she’s doing the work that journalists are called upon to do but she just doesn’t know how to do it right because she’s blinded by the ideology she lives and breathes.
It’s a combination of her inexperience covering politics and her unquestioning acceptance of all the basic assumptions of the upper class that she’s been inundated with her entire life.
Take her story about Sanders’ trip to Nicaragua in the 1980s, for instance. No doubt she thought she was asking the “tough questions” of Sanders when she obtusely grilled him about whether he noticed the anti-American chants at the Sandinista rally.
When the frustrated Sanders told her that she didn’t know what she was talking about, the commentariat closed ranks and defended her for “just doing her job.”
She’s not off the hook per se, but it’s not really entirely her fault, either. The way she covers Sanders is neither malicious nor completely innocent. Sanders is attacking her team, so from her perspective, it’s an act of self-defense.