In May 2019, we received multiple emails from readers who were unsure about the authenticity of comments attributed to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The would-be 2020 Democrat presidential nominee was quoted as criticizing businessman Robert F. Smith as an "evil billionaire," after Smith pledged to pay off the student loan debt of the entire 2019 Morehouse College graduating class, at whose commencement he delivered a keynote address.
On 20 May, the satirical web site Babylon Bee published an article with the headline "Bernie Sanders Criticizes Billionaire for Giving Money to Students Instead of the Needy Federal Government," which read (in part):
Bernie Sanders's favorite pastime is calling out evil billionaires for their evilness. Sanders found the perfect opportunity to do this once again as billionaire Robert F. Smith announced he would be paying off the student debt of those who graduated from Morehouse College. Sanders pointed to the egregious waste of funds as a perfect example of what happens when billionaires are allowed to keep their money.
"Why does this evil billionaire think he knows what's best for his money when clearly the incredibly efficient federal government could put it to better use?" Sanders said at a rally Monday. "This is just another example of corrupt billionaires hoarding their money instead of using it for the greater good by giving it to the government." "We can't stand for it, we won't stand for it, and we will get this reversed if it's the last thing we do," Sanders said to cheers from the crowd. "His money is as good as ours."
Like everything published by the Babylon Bee, the article was intended to be satirical. Sanders never described Smith as an "evil billionaire," nor did he vow to "reverse" the pledged gift.
Although the Babylon Bee's web site contains a disclaimer that describes it as "Christian news satire," the article and quotations attributed to Sanders were republished elsewhere online without such a disclaimer. This is a common occurrence, which often causes readers to have reasonable and understandable questions about the authenticity of quotations or claims that, in their original, clearly labelled context, might not have prompted doubt or confusion.
For example, the headline and other sections of the article appeared in the online SoonerPolitics.org, the forum TigerDroppings.com and the website Right-Mind.us — all without any clear disclaimers as to the satirical intent behind the article.
Furthermore, while the use of terms such as "evil billionaire" and "needy federal government" may have been far-fetched, Sanders did make comments about Smith's Morehouse gift that were far from unequivocally supportive, telling a rally in Montgomery, Ala., that "private charity alone" was not an acceptable solution to the broader problem of student loan debt:
Bernie Sanders: "A very kind gentleman, a billionaire, forgave the debts of students at Morehouse. What he did was very generous, but the truth is that private charity alone is not going to solve a problem in which some 40 million Americans are struggling with right now." pic.twitter.com/4Ehq3sjiJ2
— The Hill (@thehill) May 20, 2019
More generally, Sanders has long advocated a policy of increasing taxes on financial institutions in order to defray the cost of lowering student debt obligations, and in 2017 he proposed legislation to eliminate tuition fees altogether at public colleges and universities.
So the notion that Sanders would call on a billionaire businessman to contribute more money to the federal government (by way of increased taxation) to be used "for the greater good," in the context of student loan debt — a position the Babylon Bee article attributed to him — is a somewhat crude but not entirely misleading representation of Sanders' actual policies in this area.
However, Sanders did not make the comments that the Babylon Bee attributed to him in its May 2019 article, and he certainly never described Smith as an "evil billionaire."