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Black voters and the 2016 primaries, Part 2: The establishment firewall

This is the second part of a three-part series on the role of black voters in the 2016 Democratic primaries; the first part is here.

In my last post in this series, I analyzed six months of biweekly crosstabs and teased out three key indicators of black support for Democratic candidates: name recognition, favorability, and preference. I concluded that while black preference for Clinton is somewhat variable - it is generally deteriorating, and was only boosted when Joe Biden dropped out of the race - black preference for Sanders is significantly correlated with name recognition:

From here, the point I would make is simple: the name recognition gap is almost entirely explained by national media coverage. This is obviously how Americans almost always learn about national figures. While candidates often make a show of their retail politicking - glad-handing constituents at the local diner, or talking policy with concerned parents at the kitchen table - even this is largely a spectacle staged for dissemination to a national audience. As David Paul Kuhn put it, "All presidential politics is wholesale."

And here is where narratives of Clinton running "against the establishment" and representing a populist groundswell of black support run aground, because national media exposure is a privilege.

Institutional media racism

The overwhelming domination of the national media by wealthy, powerful, white patriarchal interests has been a standing left critique for decades. Even on the internet, most Americans get their news from major media outlets - and today, over 90% of them are controlled by just a handful of giant corporations. And as Chomsky and Hermann note in their seminal Manufacturing Consent, "It is this top tier...that defines the news agenda and supplies much of the national and international news to the lower tiers of the media, and thus for the general public."

Consider what this means in terms of race. In Race After the Internet, Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White report on diversity in media ownership:

A second major (and particularly relevant) contributor to media bias is sourcing. Here, Chomsky and Hermann are worth quoting again, at length:
The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity...[which] dictates that they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs...The White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department in Washington, D.C., are central nodes of such news activity...The magnitude of public-information operations of large government and corporate bureaucracies that constitute the primary news sources is vast and ensures special access to the media...[Meanwhile] Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.
This dynamic should be utterly familiar to any black American or comrade to black Americans who has had to fight for even minimal media coverage. The media typically conceptualizes the concerns of black Americans as "special interest issues" and allocates proportionally minimal resources to them. Newsrooms invest relatively little time and energy into cultivating and maintaining contacts with black leaders and activists - particularly at the local level, where much of black activism is relatively concentrated - because they are busy prioritizing their relationships with major government institutions. Meanwhile, black Americans and organizations are dramatically under-resourced compared with major government and corporate institutions, which often have press offices exclusively dedicated to media publicity.

Collateral damage

These are just two of a whole plethora of factors that institutionalize bias in the media against black Americans. They are what we talk about when we talk about systematic and structural racism - the kind of racism that has less to do with interpersonal bigotry than with large-scale socioeconomic arrangements. One could, of course, imagine an ultra-concentrated corporate media that just-so-happens to be dominated by black owners - but there are obvious historical reasons why this has not actually happened, and they're all complicit in racism. The organization of corporate power amplifies that, and a major project of white supremacy is to maintain and defend this media concentration so that rich white men can stay in control.

This is, again, all standard left analysis of the way that corporate hierarchy and consolidation and capitalist resource allocation practices all work together to facilitate and amplify privilege - including white privilege, male privilege, class privilege, and so on. But I am spelling it out because left analysis of this election has consistently (but inexplicably) failed to take the next step, which is to recognize how these systems have also been made to work for Hillary Clinton and against Bernie Sanders. 

Consider, for example, the role of media concentration. If you believe that representation among media ownership and management matters, and that it can have systematic effects that can proliferate into even subsidiary media coverage - a standard and relatively uncontroversial argument in progressive media analysis - then it follows trivially that the politics of the ownership and management would be of interest. This is of course precisely the concern the left always raises whenever News Corp. buys out another media outlet - so consider how the so-called "big six" media companies are currently aligned:

This table doesn't even include Clinton's largest media contributors, such as Saban Capital Group ($2.5m) and Dreamworks ($2m). In total, the media gives more money to Clinton than any other industry except finance, topping more than $11m so far. By way of comparison, donors working in the media have given about $219k to Bernie Sanders - about fifty times less.

Or consider, again, the other source of media bias we noted: sourcing. Hillary Clinton has held a major leadership role in two out of the three "central nodes" of media sourcing that Chomsky and Herman identified: the White House, and the State Department. In both - as well in her multiple campaigns for public office - she had at her disposal massive budgets, resources and staff dedicated almost entirely to promoting her and her efforts in the media. They are both, of course, institutions that can typically command more national media attention than nearly any other due to their prominent roles in governance.

Even during Clinton's years in the Senate, when her media resources were comparable to Sanders', she had on top of that the multimillion dollar communications budgets of the Clinton Foundation. Sanders, meanwhile, has only had access to relatively small Congressional office and campaign media budgets, most targeted towards his constituents in Vermont.

The temptation here is to insist that Clinton media access advantages in these instances reflect her meritocratic ascension to prominent public offices - but that misses the point. Literally anyone who becomes a First Lady or a Secretary of State or runs a massive philanthropic corporation will have giant media access advantages over the rest of the world whether they have earned it or not, and whether they are competent or not. Media access does not reflect merit: it reflects one's role in our society's grossly inequitable economic hierarchies, which only quite incidentally ever has anything to do with merit.

Shut out of the media

At a minimum, the cumulative effect of all of these media concentration and access problems has been to enhance and maintain name recognition for Clinton while suppressing it for Sanders.

It is clear that Clinton had already achieved optimal name recognition well before any of her much-vaunted accomplishments as First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State. Contemporary polls show that within the first month of the Clinton Administration in 1993, around 95% of respondents already had opinions on whether she should use her family name, Rodham, or whether it even mattered. 

Meanwhile, Sanders began his campaign with a mere 50% name recognition among black Americans, and has struggled ever since to get his name in the media. In 2015, for instance, Sanders received only about 1/5 of the broadcast news coverage that Clinton did (20 mins vs. 121 mins), despite averaging nearly half her popular support and maintaining second place among declared candidates throughout his campaign. A more sophisticated analysis at concluded that "Sanders is being ignored by the mainstream media to a shocking degree" and that proportional to public interest Clinton has received ten times as much media coverage as Sanders.

The consequences have been direct, as American Urban Radio Networks Washington bureau chief April Ryan told CNN: "People did not pay much attention to him or take him seriously in the beginning because he is an older politician from a small state who they did not know much about."

Hillary Clinton's real firewall

As I noted at the beginning of this series, media analysis of the 2016 primaries has routinely invoked a "firewall" of support that Hillary Clinton will rely on to prevent Bernie Sanders from securing the Democratic nomination. Clinton's partisans, meanwhile, have celebrated that firewall as proof of her progressive credibility as demonstrated by her overwhelming support among voters of color.

If we care about what voters of color actually think, however, it is clear that their preference for Clinton is largely (though not completely) a simply matter of name recognition. When voters of color know who Sanders is, they are much more likely to support him.

And when it becomes clear that Clinton's name recognition advantage reflects above all the institutional biases of corporate media - biases born of hierarchy and concentrated power - then it becomes clear what her "firewall" really is: privilege. Clinton's fame stands on the same platform of elite media that passively (and often actively) refuses access to marginalized and dissident voices; Sanders, for all his advantages, still stands beneath it. Partisans for Clinton who want to laud her support among black Americans are actually celebrating an apparatus of oppression and control that necessarily operates at the expense of black Americans.

It is understandable why well-off white women in particular would enjoy this seeming opportunity to wield corporate media to their advantage - but this is a deeply reactionary impulse, and a profound political mistake. As black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde famously argued in her critique of elite white feminism, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to women who still define the master's house as their only source of support."