Will Bunch is feeling the Bern.
The 20-year staffer at the Philadelphia Daily News has long been interested in politics. He was one of the site’s earliest adapters to digital journalism, an early adapter to blogging, and a frequent voice on Twitter.
He’s also written an e-book for Amazon about Bernie Sanders, the Democratic candidate for President not named Hillary who’s shown some success in the polls. Billy Penn talked to Bunch about why he wrote The Bern Identity, the appeal of Sanders to millennials, and what’s been happening in his day job at the suddenly smaller Daily News.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Why Bernie Sanders?
I was born in 1959, went to grade school in ‘60s, came of age in the ‘70s. I had this idea in my head… The Baby Boomer generation believed they would save the world. I believed them at first. (But) I’d kind of given up on this idea that something was going to come out of the ‘60s that was gonna change the world… And then out of the blue, this summer, here comes Bernie Sanders. He’s got white hair, he talks like Larry David… but he still has the values of that generation. He believed in political revolution 50 years ago… but his overall worldview hasn’t changed.
People thought he was going to be the protest candidate, and get a small percentage of the vote… instead he’s started getting huge crowds, he’s pulled ahead in New Hampshire, he’s close to even in Iowa, he had more support than Joe Biden… other people with credibility like Martin O’Malley weren’t gaining traction.
I just thought it was a great story and I wanted to tell it… to tell his life story, and find out where this force of nature come from. In politics, we get caught up in the ‘what,’ but I’m always fascinated with the ‘why.’ He’s got these unusual, strong beliefs…. why did it turn out that way? And I wanted to hit the road. So the project that emerged is those things. How he got that way, and how people have fallen in love with this 74-year-old, cranky candidate.
How did the book come about?
Back in 2011, I was looking for new creative outlets. I’d written a couple of conventional books, and had this strong feeling that my main area — current events, current politics — wasn’t working out in the book world. In the Internet age, so much information on current events you can get for free online… And books had this lead time, and the $20 expense… I’d just done a book about the Tea Party that got good reviews but hadn’t sold part well.
And I’d heard about Kindle Singles. They’re shorter, the turnaround time is practically zero. I decided to check it out. What I wanted to write about in part was Occupy Wall Street, in fall of 2011. My instincts were right. People were intensely interested for a couple months, going forward not so interested.
You traveled to report on this right? What was that process like?
I’m not the kind of person who can drop out of society for three months. I try to figure what’d be the best way to tell this story. The first Bernie Sanders rally I went to was in Virginia, because it’s the closest they ever came to Philly in the fall. It was four hours away in Manassas.
A couple weeks later, he did a weekend thing through Massachusetts which was perfect for me. So I followed him around Massachusetts…. There was the debate in Vegas. A lot of candidates, particularly someone like Bernie, get hundreds of supporters to show up, and rally outside… they make a several-day thing about it.
I did spend a couple days in Vermont, trying to get that side of the story, to look for and find the sugar shack up in the woods that he lived in in the mid-’60s. … I talked to old friends and family. I did a lot of reading and research to fill in the autobiography.
What’s the most surprising thing you found out in the course of this reporting?
To be able to find out about the events in his youth and his teenage years that shaped who he became.
The 1950s in Brooklyn was this cultural tsunami: Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Carole King, politicias like Chuck Schumer… a lot (not all) were Jewish-Americans. There was this whole post-World War 2, Baby Boom wave of achievement he was a part of. But he was disillusioned by a couple things. He loved baseball as a kid, played it, saw his beloved Dodgers win the WS… and then they left (for Los Angeles). His first experience with millionaires screwing people over.
Life was a struggle for his dad, a paint salesman, never successful. I went to the place he grew up, this old-timey Art Deco apartment on Kings Highway in central Brooklyn, this cramped second story apartment. This moved him as a kid to see Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It made him dread a bourgeois career.
Polls have shown that millennials tend to prefer Bernie over Hillary — why do you think that is?
All the people I spoke to, at Bernie’s rallies … obviously my first question is “why do you support him?” The first word I heard about two-thirds of the time is he’s authentic. Authenticity. For millennials coming of age… with social media and the Internet where nothing seems real… there’s this guy, who is just so real. He’s got a record, you can look it up. He’s been consistent for over 50 years. And also the way he presents himself. When you go to these rallies, it’s just him on a spartan stage with a podium. He might bring notes with him, but I swear he never uses them. I don’t know why. No props, no gimmicks. I think that’s a big part of the appeal. Millennials can smell a phony and they say this guy is not a phony.
Is this going to be a question for Pennsylvania voters? Eight years ago, there was a contested Democratic primary… will it be that way again?
2008 was incredible, I’ve been in Pennsylvania since the start of the ’90s… I never thought we’d see a contested primary in Pennsylvania. When we had one it was awesome. But… It’s going to be hard. I see some of these other people out there online who write about Bernie Sanders, so swept up, they write about how Bernie’s definitely going to win… I’m a little more… I love Bernie Sanders, and I love his story, but I’m a lot more realistic about it. Certain key voting groups in the Democratic party, he has enormous obstacles breaking through — of his own fault and making… the African American vote is huge in Democratic primaries, especially in key voting states.
It’s ironic because here’s a guy… his commitment to civil rights goes all the way back… the first time he went to Washington in his life was the Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have A Dream” speech. His first arrest was in Chicago for public schools. And he was protesting police brutality 50 years before Black Lives Matter.
Despite what happened in 2008 with Obama, the Clinton family still has this enormous reservoir of goodwill with African Americans, Latinos, older voters. All these groups like Hillary, they like Bill, and there’s this sense that Hillary has earned this no matter what happened.
… So he’s in a hole. It’s amazing what he’s achieved so far. He’s gonna win New Hampshire. If he can get young people out to the caucuses, he’ll be competitive in Iowa. That’s incredible.
I’ve been doing this for 35 years and I’ve told a lot of stories. This is my favorite. The reason for that is it’s a story about passion, commitment, and maybe part of it is myself. I’m middle-aged, turning 57 next year. You often confront “How do I stay true to my original dreams? How do I not sell out? How do I not give up?” And here’s a guy who did it.
So much of the writing about politics in the 21st century is so cynical. Books like Game Change are a litany of backroom deals, strategies by consultants. But this is a political love story about one man who was convinced that if he just stayed true… these people who were out there, they’d lost hope they would find a politician they could believe in. Unexpectedly, out of the blue, this 74-year-old guy shows up.
Let’s talk about the Daily News for a minute. What’s it like over there these days, in the wake of the layoffs?
I felt the layoffs weren’t done in the most humane way. Generally, in corporate America… workers are not treated humanely in this country. The way this went down was no exception. We’re still mourning the loss of some of our coworkers and what’s happened.
We’re trying to adjust to this new reality. We’ve still found a way for the skeletal Daily News crew that still remains… people are still doing their thing. The thing about journalism is, it’s kind of like baseball as a sport. It can be very individualistic. Your team may be having problems but you as a batter can still be batting .400. Your news organization can have massive trouble swirling around you but can still do a kickass story, and that’s what the people at the Daily News are doing so far. That will hopefully continue.
How has the Daily News changed during your time there?
There’s just no comparison. The deadline for copy was three or four hours later, people would stay in the newsroom until 2 in the morning. Now things are done by 10 o’clock.
There’s been this gradual evolution over my 20 years, in the way we cover stories. I started in 1995. If there was a murder somewhere in Philadelphia that was not special… we would flood the zone, send two, three, four reporters. There was something in the 1990s called “house-ends,” just going door-to-door in a neighborhood when something happened. We’d try to get every neighbor.
In 2015, that’s another planet. That’s like talking in the 19th century of people covering stories on bicycles. We had someone to cover transportation, health care, public housing. And we had reporters assigned to individual clusters of neighborhoods. Almost all that is a dim memory. We cover the core beats: Crime, city hall, education, and we have GA (general assignment) reporters to try to fill in the rest. We do what we can.
Stories we couldn’t have imagined five, 10 years ago not covering… we can imagine it now. We learned to let go. We only have the resource to cover so much, we cover what we can try to cover well.
Any predictions for the Philadelphia Media Network?
Over the last 10 years, if you asked me to make a prediction, whatever I’ve said would have been wildly wrong. At this point… no. I don’t think you’re gonna see dramatic changes in the immediate short term. We’ll try to figure out how to redeploy our smaller staff to make the most sense. The process going to take some time.
I’m certainly glad the Daily News still exists as a newspaper right now. We’re committed to try to make it work, as long as we can.