Vermont's junior senator, Bernie Sanders, recently got himself in a bit of hot water in unlikely quarters — the alt press. Specifically, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, of which Seven Days is a member. In an August 10 press release (on the Huffington Post) about his new online mini show, "Senator Sanders Unfiltered," he excoriated the consolidation of media ownership and the resulting decline of "robust debate" on critical issues. Not to mention the right-wing monopoly of AM radio airwaves and a certain cable news channel.
Fair enough. But Sanders (or whoever actually wrote this release) went too far when he said: "Even the alternative weekly newspapers, traditionally a bastion of progressive thought and analysis, have been bought by a monopoly franchise and made a predictable shift to the right in their coverage of local news."
Sure, there has been some "chaining" within the alt-weekly biz over the past decade or so, but a "monopoly franchise"? Hardly. Nor has there been a clamp-down on editorial independence at individual alt weeklies that I'm aware of. (In case you're wondering, Seven Days is independent and locally owned. In 2007, Bernie invited my partner Paula Routly to participate on a panel discussion in Burlington about media consolidation — noting that Seven Days is an exception to the rule.) From what we've seen, the alties are still pretty damn feisty, and concerned about the same kinds of issues Sanders is. To be lumped in with mainstream media was simply insulting.
And AAN didn't take it lying down. Board Chair Mark Zusman (editor of Willamette Week in Portland, Ore.), along with AAN Executive Director Richard Karpel, quickly issued a letter on the organization's website "correcting" Sanders' comment. According to Karpel, someone from Sanders' office got in touch with him, but there was no communication from the senator himself.
Until Friday, when I sent an email to Bernie via communications director Michael Briggs. Within the hour, I got a call from Sanders' Vermont-based outreach director Phil Fiermonte in Burlington, saying, "The Senator can talk to you at 1:15. Will that work for you?"
You betcha! (And that is the last time I'm going to quote Sarah Palin.)
The good senator started out with "You know I love you guys, don't you? You do great work over there."
I told him that I had thought he "loved" us, and that was why I was so surprised and dismayed to see such a negative, blanket statement about the alternative press in a release attributed to him.
Bernie let me know that his office sends out "hundreds" of releases every day and that "I don't always read them carefully." In our ensuing conversation he had lots of praise for alternative media, though he was just a teensy bit defensive. It wasn't like he'd come out with a big statement against the alt press; it was just a remark in passing, etc., and furthermore, in his view AAN was making too much of it. And he is, after all, truly concerned about the consolidation of media.
I agreed with him on that point, acknowledging that he has a great many battles to fight in the Senate and that, oh, say, health care reform might be a tad more pressing. But I just wanted him to know that his published opinion did mean something to us — and that, frankly, it was ill-informed at best. It was clear Bernie wasn't going to provide a written apology to AAN, but he did offer this: "If I have offended anyone in the alternative media, I'm sorry for that."
He also said I was welcome to write up whatever I wanted from our conversation and share it "with your people in Washington." And so I did.