A review of Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy by Batya Ungar-Sargon. Encounter, 312 pages. (October 2021)
In Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy, Batya Ungar-Sargon, the deputy opinion editor of Newsweek (where, full disclosure, she has published two of my essays), argues that elite left-wing journalists have embraced a race-based view of American inequality and abandoned any sort of class-based analysis. They’ve done this, she explains, because it largely absolves them of having to apologize for their own elite lifestyles. “The fact is,” she writes, “journalism has become a profession of astonishing privilege over the past century, metamorphosing from a blue-collar trade into one of the occupations with the most highly educated workforces in the United States. And along with this status revolution has come the radicalization of the profession on questions of identity, leaving in the dust anything commensurate to a similar concern with economic inequality…”
“What’s interesting about it,” African American filmmaker Eli Steele tells Ungar-Sargon, “is that we’re further away from segregation and slavery than ever before. Racism on almost every metric is lower.” Among a mountain of evidence marshalled in support of this claim, Ungar-Sargon cites an article Rav Arora wrote for Quillette in which he noted that American women of Iranian, Turkish, and Asian descent all out-earn white American males. So why do America’s elite journalists see racism everywhere? Liberal and left-wing journalists and media outlets accuse working class people of racism, says Ungar-Sargon, “not for actual racism, but for things that have increasingly been lumped under the ever expanding category of what counts as racism.” These include opposition to immigration, opposition to affirmative action, and criticism of any black person.
Curiously, many African-Americans, particularly of the working class, wouldn’t fare very well in a study of racial animus. More often than not, she writes, “what they measure is insufficient liberalism on questions of race. For example, to measure the alleged racism of Trump supporters, one study determined people’s racism according to whether they support affirmative action or not, even though over half of black Americans don’t. Can something that splits the black community down the middle really measure racism?” Likewise, she cites a Harvard CAPS-Harris poll which found that 85 percent of black Americans want less immigration. “This shouldn’t surprise us,” she writes, “a 2010 study concluded that when it comes to immigration, ‘no racial or ethnic group has benefited less or been harmed more than the nation’s African-American community.’ Illegal immigration has been tied to a massive decrease in black working-class wages, and up to a 10 percent increase in the mass incarceration of black Americans.”
Opposition to immigration was a mainstream—nay, a left-wing—stance just a few years ago. In 2016, Democratic Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders campaigned for the presidency by denouncing the idea of open borders, deeming it “a Koch Brothers proposal” that “would make everybody in America poorer.” Today, if a member of the white working class were to express such sentiments to a reporter for the Atlantic, the Times, or NPR, he would almost certainly be branded a racist.
Ungar-Sargon reminds us that America once had a vibrant populist press which spoke up on behalf of the working class. The first chapter of Bad News focuses on the way that two crusading newspaper publishers—Benjamin Day and Joseph Pulitzer—created and then expanded the so-called “penny press” in order to illuminate issues and causes near and dear to the poor and the downtrodden, regardless of race. In 1829, when Day arrived in New York City as an itinerant printer, economic inequality was intractable. Four percent of New Yorkers owned half of the city’s assets. The city was full of financially struggling laborers, but “they rarely went on strike, in large part because the press would uniformly condemn such actions and cast them as criminals.”
It was Day’s idea to create a paper that cost only a penny per issue, a price that most working people could afford. With that in mind, he created the New York Sun and filled each issue with stories that the working poor cared deeply about, primarily crime stories. The elites who lived in exclusive neighborhoods didn’t need to worry much about street crime. But poor people had to live with it every day, and so they took a close interest in it. Day’s experiment proved so successful that soon even upscale New Yorkers were reading the Sun, usually in the privacy of their own homes, where no one could catch them at it. “Once he had the attention of the employers as well as the employees,” Ungar-Sargon writes, “Day advocated vigorously for higher wages and shorter working hours. In 1834, he printed in full a manifesto entitled ‘Union Is Power,’ written by a group of girls who went on strike at the Lowell Mill. And when New York’s seamstresses went on strike, they had his full support, too.”
Before the advent of the Sun, one in every 16 New Yorkers bought a paper daily. By 1850, one in every four New Yorkers was buying a daily paper. So, when Joseph Pulitzer—an immigrant from Hungary—arrived in New York City in 1864, he found himself in one of the most literate places on Earth, thanks in part to the proliferation of cheap news. It took him until 1880, but eventually he realized his dream of owning a New York City newspaper. That newspaper, the New York World, was also written for ordinary people. “Pulitzer hated big words and long sentences, the trappings of the educated ‘snobocracy’ and hallmarks of a college education far beyond the means of his readers. … The World exposed the misdeeds of wealthy robber barons like … William H. Vanderbilt, who avoided paying any taxes on his $200 million fortune by claiming he was in debt. Pulitzer covered police brutality and tracked down tainted milk and sausage made of horse meat, going to war against anyone who took advantage of the poor from a position of power.”
Alas, this model of journalism wouldn’t last, and this is where one of the villains of Ungar-Sargon’s story appears: the New York Times. She spends an entire chapter detailing how the Times, since its inception in 1851, has largely eschewed the concerns of common people in order to court deep-pocketed subscribers. The financial model of the Times has always been reliant on selling expensive advertising space to corporations that produce luxury brands. To do this, the Times has had to convince those corporations that its subscribers are, for the most part, much wealthier than the average American.
In 1896, the Times was purchased by Adolph Ochs, whose heirs still control it. In 1930, when Joseph Pulitzer’s sons offered to sell the New York World to Ochs at a bargain-basement rate, he demurred. “It was important,” Ungar-Sargon notes, “for Ochs to make sure the right people were purchasing the Times; but it was even more important to make sure the wrong people were not reading it. Getting high-class advertisers to pay for space in the New York Times depended on reassuring them that not a dime of their fee would be wasted on the eyeballs of someone who might enjoy Pulitzer’s World.”
Another villain in Ungar-Sargon’s tale is Walter Lippmann (1889–1974), a Harvard-educated journalist and media critic who deplored the fact that so many of the professional journalists of his day lacked an elite education. He called these reporters “accidental witnesses” to the events of the world and complained that they were men of “small caliber,” who couldn’t be trusted to report the truth. He wanted only highly educated men to cover the news, and he wanted to make a degree in journalism from an elite institution a “necessary condition for the practice of reporting.” Lippmann, Ungar-Sargon writes, “would soon get his wish. Today, 92 percent of journalists are college educated, thanks to an extreme class chasm that has opened in America. And yet it would be a mistake to view this in the context of journalistic ethics. While the labor of distinguishing truth from fiction is a crucial part of the job of a journalist, there is absolutely no evidence that having a college degree makes one better at this…”
Ungar-Sargon cites a study from the 1930s showing that only about 40 percent of American journalists at that time possessed a college degree, and nearly 10 percent of journalists hadn’t even attended high school. She supplies a quote from Richard Harwood, a long-time reporter for the Washington Post: “In the early times, we were not only describing the life of normal people, we were participating in it. Most of the reporters came from the lower middle class, which is where the readers and most of the subjects came from too. We were more or less on the same level with the people we dealt with. We lived in the same neighborhood. Reporters regarded themselves as working class.” Ironically, the quote comes from a book by Atlantic journalist James Fallows, who these days travels the country in his own private plane in order to write about how ordinary working folk live. The days when reporters were mostly just working-class drudges themselves are long gone.
As radio, and then television, made journalism a trade that could bring national recognition to its practitioners, it began to attract a more affluent and educated workforce. “But,” writes Ungar-Sargon, “the thing that really jump-started the status revolution in journalism was the Watergate scandal, and—just as importantly—its treatment in the Hollywood film All the President’s Men. The movie suddenly made journalism seem like a very glamorous endeavor, at its peak a David and Goliath tale where plucky sexpots, played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, could bring down the most powerful—and most unpopular—man on the planet. … It created a feedback loop where better educated people became reporters, and demanded more money, whereupon even more educated people applied.”
Since then, journalists have become an elite caste. Almost all of them have at least a bachelor’s degree, whereas only about a third of Americans do. “Back in the day, Ungar-Sargon writes, “when national media outlets were dwarfed by the number of local television and radio stations, papers, and magazines, you could count on a sizable number of journalists to still be living in smaller American cities, some of them attending church and synagogue alongside their readers, viewers, and listeners. Not so today.” She writes that 73 percent of today’s internet publishing jobs are in places that voted for Hilary Clinton for president in 2016. “Those digital media jobs,” she remarks, “located in the most expensive cities in America, pay entry-level wages of $35,000–$40,000 a year. Because that’s not a living wage in these cities, more often than not, someone else is paying the rent for these young journalists. In other words, journalism is now a rich kid’s job.”
Whereas the Times used to boast about how exclusive its readership was, it now boasts about how exclusive its newsroom is. Theodore Kim, the man in charge of newsroom internships and fellowships there, boasted in a (since deleted) tweet a few years ago that he drew his interns and fellows mostly from just four universities: Columbia, Northwestern, Yale, and UC Berkeley. “In listing these schools that ‘churn out’ the ‘most consistently productive candidates,’ Kim said the quiet part out loud: He, as the gatekeeper to the internship program at the New York Times—the most desirable pathway to success in an ever more competitive field—was admitting that unless you come from the kind of background that can pay $70,000 for a vanity degree, you need not apply,” writes Ungar-Sargon (who holds a doctorate from UC Berkeley).
When I was growing up, NBC newsman Chet Huntley was among the nation’s elite journalists. His slender memoir, The Generous Years, published in 1968 towards the end of his career, describes his family’s hardscrabble life on a vast and unpromising stretch of Montana range land early in the 20th century. “One of my first childhood chores,” he wrote, “was to take a team and the wagon, drive through the range land, and return with tremendous loads of what we called ‘cow chips.’” Without those chips, they’d have had nothing to burn in the wood stove. In 2013, Buzz Bissinger (real name Harry Gerard Bissinger III, educated at Philips Academy Andover, UPenn), wrote a 6,700-word essay for GQ about why he spent $638,412.97 on designer clothing over the course of two years.
New York Times columnist and co-founder of Vox, Ezra Klein, is a minor villain in Bad News. “If you’ve never heard of Vox,” writes Ungar-Sargon, “that’s probably because it’s not for you; from its inception, the site had a very specific audience in mind: young, affluent, and highly educated. … Vox’s trademark style would be a cheeky, barely concealed smugness that flatters its readers into believing that by reading the website—which, not coincidentally, would sustain all of the liberal opinions that young, affluent, educated people already hold—they can rest assured that they are among the ranks of the correct, the informed, rather than one of the stupids.” Klein and his wife, Atlantic reporter Annie Lowrey, both write frequently about the poor and the working class without evincing much understanding of either. Lowrey was one of the first elite journalists to produce an article defending the activist slogan, “Defund The Police”—a position few poor and working-class people actually support. As Ungar-Sargon notes, “[T]he abandonment of objectivity in favor of a woke moral panic isn’t really about representing black people but about pandering to white readers. It is they who are clicking on stories calling for defunding the police—a view rejected by 81 percent of black respondents in a Gallup poll.”
At the New York Times, the problem worsened during the great recession. As Ungar-Sargon writes:
Between 2008 and 2015, there were a series of buyouts at the paper, sometimes leading to hundreds of reporters at a time leaving or retiring. These reductions disproportionately cleared out senior ranks of reporters who had a more traditional view of journalism, in which a big part of the mandate, the meaning, and the fun of being a journalist was exposing yourself and your readers to other cultures and other people, and helping others to understand them. In the buyouts, these reporters were replaced by a younger generation of digital natives, some journalists, some in ancillary digital roles, who were educated at elite institutions and viewed their roles less as understanding their subjects and more as sitting in judgment over those they disagreed with.
At a 2019 meeting, one of the paper’s young reporters asked its executive editor, Dean Baquet, “I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? Like these conversations about what is racist, what isn’t racist. I just feel like racism is everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting.” Needless to say, Baquet heartily agreed with this sentiment, and Ungar-Sargon’s book provides a graph which charts the recent exponential proliferation of the words “racist” and “racism” in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Post, and on National Public Radio. Another graph illustrates a similar recent increase in references to the pre-Civil War slave trade in those same media venues, despite the fact that said trade ended about 170 years ago.
So, where did all this come from? Ungar-Sargon contends that it started in academia, and spends a chapter describing how American universities, beginning about five decades ago, underwent “a shift away from facts and grand narratives and toward relativism.” It took several decades for this new trend to take hold of American journalism. First, all of the older journalists, who took up the trade prior to the Vietnam War era, had to die or retire. Then, major journalistic venues such as the Times and the Post had to hire only those journalists who had been educated at expensive, elite universities. After that, according to Ungar-Sargon, “All roads led to a culture war around race.”
Just as New York newspapers of the early 19th century generally ignored street crime because it didn’t much interest their upscale readers, today’s progressive media largely ignore black-on-black crime, because it doesn’t interest theirs. In Bad News, Ungar-Sargon quotes journalist Zaid Jilani, who points out that massive amounts of blood were shed in black neighborhoods across America in the summer of 2020, but this was largely ignored by the left-wing media because it was caused by other black Americans not by violent white police officers.
Only about seven or eight percent of the people who get their news from the Times or NPR lack any college education at all, and this is by design. Media venues like to show their advertisers just how wealthy and educated their content consumers are. New York magazine boasts to its advertisers that it has 2,224,000 “affluent magazine readers monthly.” Likewise, Ungar-Sargon writes, “The Wall Street Journal reports in its media kit that four out of five readers have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and half are affluent, meaning they own liquid assets of $1 million or more. In a now-deleted media kit, the New York Times boasted a print readership who were ‘elite,’ ‘affluent,’ and ‘influential’; more likely to be millionaires, C-suite executives, or business decision makers than ‘the average affluent adult’; and claimed a median household income of $191,000, with digital readers coming in at $96,000.”
With the Times and its ilk focusing so much attention on wooing the wealthy, middle- and working-class Americans were left largely unrepresented. Into this vacuum stepped Rupert Murdoch and his minions. Alas, Murdoch is no Joseph Pulitzer. “With a captive working-class audience,” writes Ungar-Sargon, “Fox News could have created a real political constituency, one that demanded dignity in exchange for hard work and insisted that the downward mobility so many Americans face today is unacceptable. As we know, this did not happen. The channel went all in on the culture wars, abandoning the working-class’s economic interests entirely to unite rich and poor conservative Americans around the cultural front without threatening the status of its rich viewership.”
But half a loaf is better than what the liberal press has been offering working-class media consumers. As Ungar-Sargon puts it, “[I]f the working class in America is an amalgam of cultural and economic factors, the liberal media has abandoned both sides of this equation, while conservative media delivers on one of them; at least Fox News doesn’t sneer at working-class values while abandoning working-class viewers economically.”
It’s easy to understand why an upwardly mobile class of journalists might prefer to focus on race and gender issues rather than on the woes of the working class. What’s odd is that this even seems to trump solidarity with their own class of elite laborers. When Andrew Sullivan was run out of New York magazine for his heterodox views, none of his fellow writers stood up for him. In February of 2021, Donald McNeil, a longtime science reporter for the Times, was pressured to resign after it was discovered that, two years earlier, he had used a racial slur in a neutral way during a casual discussion about said slur. When McNeil took to Medium to write his side of the story, the Times covered it with a headline that read: “Ex-Times Reporter Who Used Racial Slur Publishes a Lengthy Defense.” That’s a rather cold description of a 45-year former colleague who had earned numerous awards for his reporting.
But Ungar-Sargon reminds us that McNeil was not only backstabbed by his former employer but also by the labor union whose job it was to defend him:
Instead of fighting for McNeil’s job, the NewsGuild observed that “there’s never a moment when harmful racist rhetoric is acceptable.” “We are not defense attorneys,” a Times reporter active in the union wrote on Twitter. … The Washington Free Beacon, reporting on the role the union played—or rather, failed to play—in saving McNeil’s job, noted how many Times staffers come from wealthy backgrounds and how few actually rely on the job security the union provides, and aptly concluded that “defending workers has given way to defenestrating them, especially when they violate the taboos of well-to-do progressives.” It wasn’t just a culture war anymore between antiracist woke-sters and what was left of old-school journalists committed to objectivity; it was a class war between highly educated young elites and their older, middle-class colleagues who offended their woke sensibilities and thus, they thought, deserved to be let go.
In Bad News, Ungar-Sargon cites various journalists who date the current moral panic to roughly the middle of the Obama presidency, when it became clear that having a black man in the White House wasn’t going to be quite the panacea progressives hoped. Conor Friedersdorf, a reporter for the Atlantic, dates the “Great Awokening” to about 2014. He tells Ungar-Sargon, “I started writing about what people now call wokeness at least as early as 2014. It seemed to me that there was some new moral thing in the air that I did not recognize from when I was in college. I didn’t yet see it in journalism, at least not like it’s there today.” To Friedersdorf’s credit, when an outcry among the staff of the Atlantic led editor Jeffrey Goldberg to rescind a job offer he’d made to firebrand conservative writer Kevin Williamson, he objected publicly, and in the pages of the Atlantic itself.
But 2014 now seems like a long-gone era in American journalism. “Back in 2014,” writes Ungar-Sargon, “journalists were able to cover wokeness because it hadn’t yet become their own ideology.” Not any more. Thomas Chatterton Williams, a journalist who also dates the Great Awokening to the second Obama term, told Ungar-Sargon, “That’s when the idea that white supremacy is hard wired into the DNA of America began to be popularized by writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates. … I’m convinced part of why [it is happening] now is because things are better than they’ve ever been. You don’t get this level of complaint until much more fundamental concerns and obstacles have been taken care of.”
Ungar-Sargon cites the work of political scientist Zach Goldberg, who found that, from 2012 to 2016, “media outlets like the Times, the Huffington Post, and BuzzFeed began covering topics like white privilege, social justice, and institutional racism with exponential regularity…” This increase began right when the New York Times erected an online paywall to keep non-subscribers from reading its articles—a move sure to keep out lower-income readers. This meant that the Times, now more than ever, had to tailor its pages to a more educated, more affluent readership—exactly the kind of people likely to get excited by articles on intersectionality and systemic racism. “Goldberg further found that between 2013 and 2019, the frequency of words like ‘white’ and ‘racial privilege’ grew by an astonishing 1,200 percent in the Times, and by 1,500 percent in the Washington Post. The term ‘white supremacy’ was used fewer than seventy-five times in 2010 in the Washington Post and the New York Times, but over seven hundred times in 2020 alone; at NPR it was used 2,400 times,” or roughly 200 times per month!
The situation became much worse when Donald Trump entered the political arena. Executives at CBS, MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, and elsewhere realized that Trump was a veritable goldmine. Once upon a time, the newsrooms and advertising departments at most media outlets maintained at least a semblance of independence from each other. But Trump’s ascent made young journalists at elite outlets want to do nothing but publish negative stories about him all day long. And this was exactly what the advertising department wanted as well, because the name Trump in an online headline pretty much guaranteed millions of clicks. “With the incentives so aligned,” writes Ungar-Sargon, “there wasn’t even really a need to break down whatever was left of the wall between advertising and editorial; it happened on its own. … It can both be the case—indeed, it is both the case—that Trump made a lot of very real mistakes as a candidate and president and that the media’s obsession with him went beyond all proportion due to an unignorable profit motive. … Trump drove sales, so Trump drove editorial.”
She notes that if you type “Trump” and “Russia” into their search engines, the Times’s website will return over 15,000 results and the Post’s website will bring up more than 27,000, despite the fact that the Mueller investigation turned up no hard evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. If you enter the phrases “opioid crisis” or “homelessness” or “income inequality” into the search engines of the Times or the Post, you’ll get a tiny fraction of the number of hits that “Trump” and “Russia” bring up. Elite journalists leaned into Trump’s alleged (and actual) wrongdoings because it gave them an excuse to focus on him and not on the problems of the white working class, whom they have largely abandoned.
Bad News is a valuable and timely book, but it isn’t without its faults. While Ungar-Sargon condemns progressive journalists for embracing sketchy evidence that Trump’s support was driven largely by racism, she mostly ignores rightwing journalists—like alleged serial fabulist Salena Zito—who have used sketchy evidence to argue that many of Trump’s voters were merely disenchanted former Democrats worried about trade and justifiably fed up with elite condescension. This may be true in some cases, but in Zito’s sympathetic dispatches from Trump country, the former Democrats often turned out to be Republican Party insiders. Some were also prone to conspiracist and inflammatory views which Zito tactfully omitted from the quotes she attributed to them, since they complicated her argument that these were simply noble people misunderstood by arrogant elites. That Trump had a deranging effect on progressive and liberal media outlets and journalists is beyond dispute at this point; that he had a deranging effect on his elite supporters is less remarked upon in polemics like Ungar-Sargon’s. (Zito, it should be noted, has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.)
The subtitle to Ungar-Sargon’s book mentions “woke media,” which probably explains why she largely ignores the sins of right-wing journalism. Being left-of-center herself, her book is probably intended part as a family squabble with other left-wingers. But surely at least some of the “anti-racism” that pervades contemporary journalism arose as a response to right-wing media race-baiting, from figures like Rush Limbaugh, to whom Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Back in 2007, Limbaugh liked to regale his millions of listeners with a song entitled “Barack the Magic Negro.” The same year, radio shock-jock Don Imus referred to the mostly-black Rutgers women’s basketball team as a bunch of “nappy-headed hoes.” Around the same time, many in right-wing journalism began to emphasize Obama’s middle name, Hussein, whenever they mentioned him, despite the fact that Obama himself didn’t use it.
Left unconsidered by Ungar-Sargon is the possibility that the racist response Obama’s campaign elicited from some prominent media conservatives is at least partly to blame for the illiberal Left’s current obsession with race. A journalist who graduated from college during that time might well have felt honor-bound to go on the offensive against things so … well, offensive. Many of the trends Ungar-Sargon identifies certainly deserve the scorn she heaps upon them. But polarization has produced corresponding problems of bias, hyperbole, and motivated reasoning in right-wing media ecosystems which are not examined. As a result, her critique of the lamentable state of contemporary media is necessarily incomplete.
A bigger problem with Bad News is that its thesis—that left-wing journalists have allowed themselves to be swept up in a moral panic over race and that this has caused them to almost entirely abandon class-based criticisms of American society—is really only half-true. Ungar-Sargon’s book is an excellent summary of how an obsession with postmodern doctrines of anti-racism has caused left-wing journalism to become a wholly unreliable source of information about the current, rapidly improving, state of race relations in America. But she’s far less effective at convincing the reader that prominent liberal venues such as the New York Times and the Atlantic have abandoned class issues. Annie Lowrey, among the wokest of woke journalists, writes regularly about class issues for the Atlantic. She is also the author of a book entitled Give People Money that forcefully argues for the implementation of a universal basic income.
Ungar-Sargon is right that the current moral panic over race distracts many journalists from much more serious stories. But she’s wrong when she writes that “the liberal mainstream news media has [sic] actively excluded the working class—even the idea of being working class—from its pages.” She’s also wrong when she writes that “Labor coverage, which used to be robust” has nearly vanished from mainstream journalism. I recently spent two fairly enjoyable years working at an Amazon warehouse, and I lost track of the number of times well-meaning friends contacted me to see if I was okay after they had seen yet another piece in the New York Times about how horrible the working conditions at these “sweatshops” are. The mainstream press’s coverage of working-class lives is often muddle-headed, sentimental, and occasionally downright wrong, which is a good reason to employ more writers from these backgrounds who know what they are talking about. But there is still plenty of it.
We should do what we can to end the current moral panic over race, not because it distracts us from a more important battle over class, but because moral panics are bad for us in their own right. But they can be difficult to resist because they provide the allure of engagement in righteous conflict which requires very little in the way of personal sacrifice, but contributes massively to societal discord. As Ungar-Sargon writes in one of her book's many perceptive passages: “When you define racism as an omnipresent white-supremacist framework baked into the heart of our nation that can never be solved or extracted, you give people a culture war they can hammer away at forever, a perpetual cudgel against those who disagree with them, even if those who disagree with them are less affluent and less fortunate—the losers of the economic and culture war.”
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.