It’s pretty clear now that the mainstream media underestimated Bernie Sanders.

Myself included.

I had thought the Vermont senator would be a colorful character in the campaign, but that if anyone was going to break out against Hillary, it would be former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley.

After all, how could a 73-year-old self-described socialist, who hasn’t even been a member of the Democratic Party, be a viable contender?

Yet the signs of Bernie-mentum are forcing the press to treat him with more respect: the huge crowds, the sense of excitement, the fact that in the last quarter he raised $15 million, a third of Hillary’s haul.

Sanders’ status was codified when the New York Times ran this piece:

“The ample crowds and unexpectedly strong showing garnered by Senator Bernie Sanders are setting off worry among advisers and allies of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who believe the Vermont senator could overtake her in Iowa polls by the fall and even defeat her in the nation’s first nominating contest there.”

Fox’s Joe Trippi, who of course managed the campaign of insurgent Howard Dean, was quoted as saying: “Certainly she could lose Iowa.” If that happened, “mostly they’d just have to ride out the punditry and people with their hair on fire” and still win the nomination.

Even the Hillary campaign is sending signals that Iowa will be a dogfight, thereby lowering expectations in case she loses the caucuses, as she did in 2008.

Hillary’s personal strategy seems to be to ignore Sanders. When she was asked about him in the CNN interview and in an Iowa press gaggle, she deflected the questions and didn’t mention Bernie by name. Claire McCaskill, a Hillary supporter, may have gone off the reservation when she recently told MSNBC: "I think the media is giving Bernie a pass right now. I very rarely read in any coverage of Bernie that he's a socialist. I think everybody wants a fight and I think they are not really giving the same scrutiny to Bernie Sanders that they're giving certainly to Hillary Clinton and the other candidates."

Politico conveys a tone of mild shock: “Democratic primaries have always featured liberal insurgent candidates, but perhaps none quite so liberal or insurgent as the socialist senator from Vermont. Sanders’ comments are a reminder of just how far the second-place Democratic presidential candidate stands from the American mainstream on some issues, and the looming reckoning Democrats face with their party’s leftward drift.

“Never mind whether Sanders can crack 40 percent in any primary against Hillary Clinton — he has already established himself as her de facto challenger and a standard-bearer of a party that was, until this year, too far to the right for his liking.”
That’s because Sanders wants to break up the big banks, move to single-payer health care and provide free tuition at four-year colleges and universities.

But I contend the media aren’t really taking Sanders seriously. He is, instead, a very useful foil against Hillary.

Otherwise, news organizations would be pounding the senator over claiming in a freelance article in the early 1970s (as reported by the New York Times) that cancer could be caused by psychological factors such as unresolved hostility toward one’s mother, a tendency to bury aggression beneath a “façade of pleasantness” and having too few orgasms: “Sexual adjustment seemed to be very poor in those with cancer of the cervix.”

And there was this 1972 piece in the same paper, the Vermont Freeman: “A woman enjoys intercourse with her man — as she fantasizes being raped by 3 men simultaneously.”

Okay, that was a long time ago. But imagine the explosion of coverage if another presidential candidate was found to have written about women’s gang-rape fantasies and to suggest that a lack of orgasms helps cause cancer.

I talked to the aforementioned Mr. Trippi, who reminded me that African-Americans compose as much as half the Democratic primary electorate in some states, and that Hillary will dominate that demographic. As the Times noted, but most of the media ignored, Sanders, representing a nearly all-white state, has little black support or black involvement in his campaign.

There’s another scenario being floated by political insiders, that Sanders is Gene McCarthy taking on LBJ in 1968. In this telling, he’ll wound Hillary enough in Iowa and New Hampshire to draw in another candidate who could win the nomination. But everyone struggles to say just who that might be.

For the moment, Bernie Sanders is a political phenomenon. But the media aren’t holding him to any kind of standard, because that would ruin the narrative for a profession that desperately wants a Democratic race.

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.