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Podcast #173: Batya Ungar-Sargon on the Growing Gulf Between Ordinary Americans and the Progressive Journalists Who Cover Them

The culture war and the fight over liberal media bias.

· 21 min read
Podcast #173: Batya Ungar-Sargon on the Growing Gulf Between Ordinary Americans and the Progressive Journalists Who Cover Them

Quillette podcast host Jonathan Kay talks to Newsweek editor Batya Ungar-Sargon about her new book, Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy—and her political voyage from doctrinaire progressive to self-described “left-wing populist.”


Jonathan Kay: This episode is dedicated to the culture war. And not just the culture war in general, but its most intensely contested war zone, the fight over liberal media bias. If your Thanksgiving dinner was ruined by a political argument last week, there's a good chance that this subject is what you were arguing about.

My guest this week is Batya Ungar-Sargon, author of the newly published book, Bad News, How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy.

And from the title, you'd think that she was either a host at Fox News, or at least someone eager for the job. Batya Ungar-Sargon has a more nuanced backstory. She's an editor at Newsweek. And in her book she expresses a strong nostalgic streak for old-school socialists, including the kind Bernie Sanders used to be before he began playing to the ultra-progressive campus crowd in the run-up to the 2020 election. As Ungar-Sargon sees it, in fact, the problem with American media elites isn't that they've betrayed conservatives or even centrists.

Rather, they've betrayed the poor and the working class, including the people of colour they claim to champion. Her analysis is rooted in questions of class, an issue that progressives often seem to forget about amid their land acknowledgements, carbon offsets, pronoun checks, and Black Lives Matter kneebends.

I spoke to Batya Ungar-Sargon last week over Skype, just after Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted in regard to the fatal shooting of two men at a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which, as you'll see, is one of the subjects we discuss. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

JK: The Dust Jacket to your book and the title, Bad News How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy, like the very use of the word woke might give people the impression that you're looking to get on Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson or something like that. But when I read the book, what was interesting is you're really not what I would call a conservative. Is that right?

Batya Ungar-Sargon: I'm a left-wing populist.

JK: Okay. Does that mean you're a, you're a Bernie Sanders supporter?

BUS: Well, you know, Bernie got pretty woke, so. And unfortunately for me, I was pretty woke when Bernie was less woke and when he was all about class. So I do have a little bit of guilt about that. I sort of missed the Bernie train when he was doing what I now consider to be extremely important, which is focusing on class and creating a, you know, multiracial working-class coalition. He did seem to lean pretty heavily into a lot of the sort of woke academic ease in 2020.

I do consider myself a socialist, but I don't mean by that what a lot of socialists mean today. I think that a lot of what passes for, quote unquote, socialism in America is not really socialism. There's a lot of talk about expanding the welfare state, and now it includes a lot of environmental policy that to me is— very anathema to a working class agenda. So when I say I'm a socialist, I mean, I think the government should be doing a lot of what Donald Trump did actually, which is prioritizing the working class in terms of how we think about trade, in terms of how we think about industry, in terms of how we think about production. Yeah, so definitely I'm coming at this from the left. When I use the word woke, I use it the way sociologists do when they talk about the Great Awokening, which was something that happened in 2015 when white liberals became more extreme in their views on race than black and Latino Americans.

JK: Where were you professionally and ideologically around the time that shift took place?

BUS: I was definitely a victim of it. I was, I was not woke and then I became woke.

JK: Were you in your house? Like what, what does it feel like? Did you start speaking in tongues or something? Like what happened when you became woke?

BUS: You know, it's funny. Because I remember the steps of becoming unwoke a lot more clearly. I think with wokeness, it's like you suddenly find yourself in it. I wouldn't say speaking in tongues, but talking about things that are very clearly from the academy, and bringing that into your sort of mainstream conversations in a way that anybody who doesn't have that elite degree will think is really weird and foreign and not really understand what you're saying.

So a little bit is like speaking in tongues, right? Speaking in academic tongues about things like race and gender. I can tell you something that I read about, I learned about while I was still woke, that very much started my path away from it, which was the 2018 Yale study that found that there's a difference between how white liberals and white conservatives talk to black and Latino Americans. So the study found that white liberals, when they speak to blacks and Latinos, they dumb down their vocabulary. They use smaller words.

JK: You speak English very well. Exactly. And white conservatives do not do this. And I remember reading that and thinking to myself, this is an indictment of my whole worldview because I instantly recognized my entire milieu and the thing that produces wokeness, that's what that is. It's that instinct to dumb down your speech based on somebody's skin color. And I remember thinking to myself, put this away because I'm not ready to confront what this means about everything that I think. And I remember thinking so clearly like, "And we call them the racists, right?"

We on the Left call the conservatives racist, but they are the ones who don't do this. They don't have that instinct to dumb down their vocabulary when they see a person of color. It was...It was definitely a moment of cognitive dissonance that would later end up having a deep impact on me.

JK: I love the way you name-checked Thomas Frank's 2005 book, What's the Matter with Kansas? Which, at the time, was a very influential book in regard to leftists. What you do, though, is you take a lot of what Frank said and you flip it around. There's a great line you have here:
For a culture war to succeed, Frank noted, it needs to be waged against a problem that can never be solved.

Tell us how that applies to the current environment.

BUS: Yeah. So when I was writing this book, I was thinking about it as, you know, his book was called What's the Matter with Kansas? And I was calling my book What's the Matter with Liberals? Because I was trying to get at a very similar thing, which was why did liberals abandon a focus on economic inequality to wage?

A culture war around racism at the time when Americans have never been less racist, right? At a time when there's never been more unity in America about the evils of racism and the importance of combating things like police brutality, right? Which is something you see on both sides now. You know, mass incarceration, right? Republicans are at the forefront of prisoner releases. You know, Donald Trump released 5,000 black men from prison.

So there's culture wars around the remaining places where we have systemic racism are no longer wars, right? The left won that cultural battle, but instead of sort of laying down arms, they moved the goalpost and redefined what counts as racism. Frank noted that about what he called backlash culture, but his work, the reason it got so popular in my mind was because it told liberals what they wanted to hear, which was that their political opponents were not just stupid, but evil and racist, right, and that they had been sort of co-opted by a mass hysteria that was being promulgated by the right, by conservative media. And this whole idea of why are they voting against their economic interests?

It's so facetious. And honestly, I feel bad because Frank himself noticed that. Like he wrote a second book called Listen Liberal, in which he pointed out a lot of these things. But of course that book didn't spend 18 weeks on the bestseller list, right? Because it wasn't telling liberals what they wanted to hear, which was that their opponents had been taken for a ride. And honestly, I think that something I tried to get at in the book is that what he was missing was this framing of why are they abandoning their economic interests for this culture war?

He asked us about the white working class and sort of missed the point that it was the Democrats who had started all of the economic policies that resulted in globalization and the outsourcing of these good factory jobs to places like Mexico and China. And that what the liberals were offering that Frank called their economic interests was expanded welfare.

But that's not really a working class agenda. Working class people are kind of offended by that idea. They don't want a universal basic income. They don't want to be paid off to not work. They want jobs that give them dignity. And the truth of the matter is, is neither side is offering that. So I think that it really does come together around this question of race and class. And today what you're seeing is a liberal elite using the real pain of Black Americans and turning it to their advantage to distract from sort of a class divide that they have benefited from.

JK: I happen to live in a nice neighborhood and you see someone driving around in a Macan GTS with a Black Lives Matter sticker. A lot of these people are morbidly conscious about how lucky they are.

And it's very attractive, the idea that I'm going to anoint myself as a prophet of some kind of race or gender-based idea that having done so, I can then sort of sleep eight hours at night knowing that I'm on the side of angels.

Unfortunately, it's only really accessible to people who really live insulated and privileged lives. Some of the people I meet these days whose words really resonate with me, they're from outside that bubble. I'm curious to know a little bit about your background.

BUS: I was raised Orthodox Jewish and there's a huge premium placed on debate and discourse and argumentation and being disputatious. And in 2016, Trump got 55 percent of Orthodox votes.

So what that means is that at many Jewish Shabbat tables across the nation, you would have people who voted for Trump and people who voted against him breaking bread together. That is really one of the few places left in America that I know of, apart from a few evangelical communities where half the community is black and half the community is white, where you really had that. You had people breaking bread and debating politics.

Of course, you know, humans are tribal and religious people tend to value their communities and so forth. But in terms of how that maps onto American politics, you don't have the same sorting between red and blue. You don't have the same sorting between people with a college education and people without a college education. You know, people who get a college education in the Orthodox community stay in the Orthodox community and they don't then look down on their fellow Jews or community members as a result of having had that education in the same way that you see in America. There just isn't this great sorting.

When communities are built around a sort of higher purpose, a higher power, not answerable to Twitter, but you're answerable to something else in a different way. You don't fall into the same kinds of the contempt that the elites and the educated have for the uneducated in America today.

My book is about contempt. It's about the contempt that the journalist class has allowed itself to develop in the name of social justice.

JK: Well, you have a line in here says: "While I myself did not vote for Trump, many of the people I love did." For all the talk about social justice, it often is a curiously joyless and sometimes even sadistic way of looking at the world that if you're not in my group, you're not deserving of a baseline level of respect.

BUS: There's even something worse happening, which is you have people who won't be friends with people who have different politics in them, which is to me just so, there's something so sordid about that.

What it speaks to is how our elected officials who are supposed to represent us and supposed to be working for us have become these kind of avatars who demand fealty, and this is on both sides, right? Whose followers, who are people in need of representation, end up feeling like they are the foot soldiers on behalf of essentially these elite figures, right?Going to battle for them.

And I find that to be very upsetting, the emptying out of what it means to be in a community, what it means to have a spiritual existence, what it means to belong to a nation that you put above whatever team you happen to be on. And I think that the elite liberal media has very much led the way on our side of that in a way that's really disappointing, especially because it has involved the abandonment and the silencing of many of the people that they claim to be representing. And I'm speaking here specifically of communities of color who are working class.

JK: Your book is about the media. Although this is a tangent, a lot of this sort of infects just the way ordinary people act. Since we're talking about Jewish ritual, one of the reasons I don't get invited to a lot of Passover Seders anymore is I just became kind of became exasperated because on the seder plate, they kept adding new fruit and vegetables. So like one year it was, well, this apple is the Palestinians. I'm like, okay, fine. And then it was like, and this orange is for indigenous people. I'm like, okay, whatever. And then, you know, there was, I don't know, an eggplant. I'm rolling my eyes because, you know, I'm not going to have a Conservative Seder where I say "this pear represents the lost freedoms we've suffered under Democrats." I would never do that.

Just before we get into the media, which is the subject of your book, like this happens with ordinary people too. Everyone's become a performer.

BUS: I mean, the ordinary people that you're describing, I assume, are probably very, very highly educated and relatively affluent. That's not ordinary people that, you know, do you know a percentage of Americans call themselves progressive? 6%. All of your Jewish friends are in this 6%. Like that's not ordinary people. That's not how ordinary people behave.

JK: Toronto actually has a very large Russian Jewish population, which a lot of it is, last time I checked, was fairly poor.

BUS: Yeah, but Jonathan, they're not putting eggplants on their Seder plates, okay?

JK: By the way, it makes the Seder plate super heavy. I would choose a much lighter vegetable...

So I don't mean ordinary people, I'm talking about people who aren't in the media.

BUS: Right, so the media, what happened to the media is what happened to the Democratic parties, what happened to the progressives overall, which is that this is all being creative and catering to the top 10%, 6%, whatever it is, right?

JK: You've got this great chapter which starts off, I think for a lot of people, a shocking statistic. In 1937, 127 Washington correspondents, less than half of them had finished college. And in those days, being a journalist, it was like kind of being a watchmaker. It was a trade, not a priesthood. And when did that start to change?

BUS: So, you know, gradually and then all at once, right, as the saying goes. So, yeah, you're absolutely right. In that same study, he found that a whole bunch of journalists in the elite Washington cohort had not even gone to high school.

JK: Wow. How do they even know what pronouns they have?

BUS: You're trying to get me in trouble here, huh?

JK: Later on, let's talk about the sensitivities of writing a book like this when you're at Newsweek. Newsweek is not like super woke place, but still, you know, mainstream media, it's, this is the kind of class of people you're describing.

BUS: I have to say Newsweek's mission statement right now is we oppose cancel culture. And so I'm quite safe. And they really leaned into this idea that a newspaper has to have both sides. And I think we're one of the few left. So I'm very blessed and lucky.

JK: I even read something at Newsweek that defended J.K. Rowling. You might as well goose step into the rainbow center. Crazy. Was that your doing?

BUS: That was probably Josh Hammer's doing. But I would, I would have, I would run something like that. Sure. We are encouraged to, I run a lot of working class people and working class people, as you know, are less enamored of the, of the new pieties around race and gender. You know, we really do run across the spectrum. We're very lucky. But it's sad that that's, you know, that one feels extremely lucky to have this.

JK: Tell us about when this transition happened. So first of all, the New York Times was always known for having a sort of tweedy or more highly educated journalist working for it. So it's not like it was across the spectrum. It was a working class trade before really the 60s and the 70s. It was considered to be a job that really did not have a lot of glory or glamour attached to it.

And that started to change with Watergate really was when it sort of the real shift happened. So before that you would have someone like JFK who would write for the Harvard Crimson, right? While he was an undergrad, but he would never dream of becoming a journalist, right? That would never be something that he would consider as a career path because, you know, for elites, that would never be a satisfying job because it was considered a working class trade, just like being a cop or a watchmaker, like you said.

After Watergate, you know, especially the movie, right, which really portrayed journalism as this extremely glamorous endeavor where, you know, you could be like the sex pot who's out there like gathering intel on the most unpopular president most Americans knew, right?

JK: We're talking about Al Pacino here, right?

BUS: We're actually talking about Robert Redford. And you know, suddenly people from this kind of meritocratic elite at elite universities started to think, oh, maybe this is a job that I could consider. You could become famous, you could have glory, right?

And that meant that people who have worked at the Harvard Crimson would start to become journalists and they started to demand more money because they were from the elites and that brought in an even more elite crowd, right? And so that was really when you started to see the generational shift and the educational shift.

And then with digital media, with digital journalism, with the death of local news and the local newspaper industry, with the industry collapsing so rapidly on itself, places like the New York Times and the Washington Post and NPR could afford now to only take their interns from the top 1% of universities, right? And at that point, you know, journalism started to become much more coastal, something like three quarters of all journalists' jobs are on the coast, are not only in blue districts and blue states, but in the most blue districts and the most blue states.

What you ended up with is a situation where to become a journalist today, you have to go and get a $70,000 vanity degree where you don't actually learn how to do journalism because you learn how to do journalism by doing journalism. And then you have to take a job that pays maybe $35,000 a year in one of the most expensive cities in America, which means that only the scions of the rich can really do this job anymore. And so what you end up with is a class of journalists who have all gone to elite Ivy League universities, have only lived in blue states, only know other highly educated people who have gone to the same universities. And that's where you get this kind of monoculture that's really, you know, has as a central component a moral panic around race and gender that does not in any way reflect where Americans are at overall.

JK: Well, it's kind of shock you call post-colonial film studies a vanity degree. So page 89, you have income profile of news audiences, right? These are the, how much money people make, they consume. And so you have the economist on top, followed by NPR, New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, no surprise there.

Some of these, it's what you might call tote bag media. And then at the bottom, you have Hannity, Hardball, more like bumper sticker media. What's interesting here though is the outlets you're talking about here at the bottom, Rush Limbaugh gets a ton of listeners. I don't think he's at his peak now, but he gets millions.

The media hasn't entirely been captured by the left. Is it right to talk about a progressive capture of the media when some of these media, primarily consumed by working class people, get millions and in some cases, tens of millions of eyeballs?

BUS: So the conservative media has a lock on the working class audience because they have completely been abandoned by the liberal media. That's another problem with Frank's work, right? He talks about how these conservatives have been hoodwinked by conservative media, right?

Working class people have been hoodwinked by conservative media when the truth is the exact opposite. Fox News is conservative because it is catering to the working class, and working class Americans tend to be more conservative, and they have all been abandoned by the liberal media. So yes, you're 100% correct.

What looks like political polarization in our media is actually class polarization in our media, right? All of the liberal outlets now, all of the mainstream outlets that are not explicitly conservative are catering to the same 6% of progressive Americans, the same six, seven, eight million highly affluent, highly educated liberal elites, leaving an enormous, enormous lane open for any conservative media outlet to cater to. And that's exactly what they've done.

Look at Fox News, right? Like they have so many more viewers than CNN and MSNBC at this point. The conservative media is still using the old model of mass advertising, right? The numbers you get, right? You charge the advertiser for those numbers, whereas all of the liberal media is using the model that the New York Times actually started as a counterrevolution to mass media and mass circulation and the penny press, which is to convey to your advertisers that you have a higher class clientele, right?

JK: Gotta say, I'm a watch fanatic. I don't have a lot of expensive watches, but I like looking at watch porn. And late November, early December is fantastic in the New York Times. $15,000 IWC watches. And it'll be like sitting right beside an article that says, time to decolonize museum administration or something like that.

Quillette readers will be familiar with this question I'm gonna ask you because we ran an excerpt from your book about Ezra Klein, who's now at the New York Times. And the time that he left the Washington Post and then started Vox. Now Vox, the nominal mantra is explain the news. I think at one point you say they rake it in hand over fist by telling wealthy educated people what they think they already know.

BUS: That's a really good synopsis of what I've written there. I have to admit that was one of the few places in the book. I tried really hard not to commit the crime that I'm accusing them of which is to allow my contempt for the subject to overwhelm my writing. I think it's really important to bear in mind that all of these people who I criticize, they do really genuinely believe they're on the right side of history and that they're making America a more equitable society. But I think in the Vox section, I sort of a little bit lost my self-control because as you say, the magic trick that they do there is to take a class concern, a class issue, the highly educated liberal readers, their nostalgia for school, right? Vox was explicitly...

JK: Because all of these people did amazing in school...

BUS: Exactly. You know, the Rebbe Chris Arnotti calls front row, right? Like the kid in the front row raising their hands, you know, and what they did was they took that smug optimism, the smugness of the Jon Stewart show, right?

JK: I like Jon Stewart, he's funny, or he was funny.

BUS: Oh my God.

JK: I'm older than you, I remember when he was funny.

BUS: That move of his of like, if only you had all the information, you too would believe what I believe, right? The evisceration of the idea that a healthy democracy should have people who disagree in it, right? Like that's the move is like to take a class concern, which is an aesthetic thing, right? Like to say, we're gonna build a whole website that's gonna remind you of being in school and of having a highlighter in your hand, right? They literally highlight, right? To clothe that as not just truth, but moral virtue, right? To clothe anybody who disagrees as a moral pervert and a racist while confirming the view that benefits economically the liberal elites, right? It's just a...

JK: Batya, we need a time out here because you're getting worked up. You contrast this with Buzzfeed, which you quote someone at Buzzfeed as saying it's the "bored at work" network. Because it has lots of cute videos and memes and listicles and stuff like that, you have a lot of people at the New York Times who probably read a lot of Buzzfeed just like they read a lot of Vox. And as a result, the New York Times uses places like Buzzfeed and Vox as a sort of farm team to staff themselves and the whole thing kind of replicates itself.

BUS: As an editor at Newsweek, how do you escape this thing? Like, where do you go for your talent? Well, I spent a lot of time trying to cultivate working class voices, so the kind of people that you wouldn't hear from at other publications. If you intentionally create a network that is not made up of the usual suspects, the same old people who went to your elite universities who are appearing on all the other liberal publications, it is very easy to find people with something to say.

JK: Let me talk about something that's ripped from the headlines and then I'll let you go, which is this Kyle Rittenhouse story.

I'm in Canada and I've actually been shocked by how obsessed Canadians are with this thing. I can only imagine what it's like in the United States. I remember a time when liberals were very focused on things like due process and the presumption of innocence. There's this sense of social panic that just erupts. Can you tell me about what happened in your media environment when the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict was announced?

BUS: Honestly, I think that we're starting to see a shift because when the thing first happened I remember seeing it quite soon after and thinking, oh, he's going to have a pretty good self-defense case. That was sort of like my initial reaction to it. Now during the trial coming back to it, I would be talking to liberals about it. And time after time, people would, they would be shocked to learn that he had shot white people. There was this sort of this sense that he had killed black people. Very few of the media outlets explicitly made that mistake. There were some that did. But it was more the sense that... this insistence on saying over and over at a Black Lives Matter rally, right?

You know, after the Jacob Blake shooting, there was an impression very much given that he had gone to the rally to shoot black people and he was called a white supremacist again and again by politicians, right? Joe Biden, you know, Cory Bush, et cetera. But the misreporting of the story, I think you really are seeing, even among liberals, a kind of like wait a minute, how did we get this so wrong? Like I do feel that we are sort of in the beginning stages of a correction.

I hope I'm not being Pollyannish in feeling that way, but I tweeted something along the lines of, the message here is that video evidence did seem to substantiate his self-defense claim. At the same time, it's very difficult to imagine a black 17 year old walking around with an AR style rifle past police officers over and over again and never having a negative encounter with them and then making it all the way to a jury trial without being coerced into a plea deal or something. And our goal should be to elevate every American to where they get a fair trial the way that it seems Kyle Rittenhouse did. It should not be to make sure that the people who are getting a fair trial don't get the fair trial, right?

And I did not get a lot of pushback. I got a lot of conservatives agreeing with me, which I knew they would because... Like I said, there is a lot of interest in these things on the right. But I felt like there was, when he got off, the worst malefactors in the liberal media did seem like they were trying to correct, you know, or they started saying things like, well, the real problem here is that he had the gun at all, which like we can all agree with that, right? Like it wasn't legal for him to have it. So I do think that we are sort of in correction mode. You know, the media did misreport this.

And it was very clear as soon as the verdict came in that it had been misreported from the beginning. So I feel very hopeful about things.

JK: Batya Ungar-Sargon's new book is called Bad News, How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy. Thanks so much for being on the Quillette podcast.

BUS: Thank you so much for having me.

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