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How the News Got Woke—and Why It Matters

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books and culture

How the News Got Woke—and Why It Matters

A new book argues that the media’s moral panic about race has distracted Americans from the chasm of class. November 19, 2021
Politics and law
The Social Order

Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy, by Batya Ungar-Sargon (Encounter Books, 234 pp., $28.99)

As books go, 2020 was meritocracy’s annus horribilis. Daniel Markovits warned of The Meritocracy Trap, while The Tyranny of Merit earned Michael Sandel several book-of-the-year awards. Both books pointed to meritocracy’s potential to legitimize inequality beyond the point of tolerability. They overlooked, however, the media’s role in covering for this deepening inequality. In Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy (2021), Newsweek deputy opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon argues that “the identity culture war has allowed journalists to cast our nation as hopelessly divided along partisan and racial lines as a smoke screen for the actual impenetrable and devastating division that’s happening along class lines.”

Most of Ungar-Sargon’s book documents firsthand what she calls the “moral panic” currently gripping America’s mainstream media, brought to a fever pitch by the killing of George Floyd in May last year. This panic, she argues, is intertwined with a much older trend: the media’s drift away from the values and concerns of America’s working class. The book begins by tracing the rise of populism in the mid-nineteenth century, ignited by such journalistic luminaries as Benjamin Day and Joseph Pulitzer, who sought to sell newspapers with content relevant (if often sensationalistic) to working men’s lives. Despite the seemingly unbridgeable class divides of the Gilded Age, Day and Pulitzer’s so-called penny press, with its focus on labor, corruption, and crime, emerged as a knowledge equalizer and tool for empowerment. As the American economy moves toward comparable levels of inequality, today’s media are playing the opposite role—catering almost exclusively to the interests of urban, upper-class liberals.

Ungar-Sargon points to three major trends driving the transformation of once socially eclectic mass media into today’s class-skewed press. First, a “respectability counterrevolution” has stigmatized working-class culture as unworthy of media attention, pushing the urban press to cater to the tastes and interests of American sophisticates instead, as epitomized by The New Yorker. Second, a “status revolution” has turned journalism, once a primarily middle-class profession, into an upper-class one, with aspiring writers and reporters from humble backgrounds having to scramble through a succession of apprenticeships just to get their first job. Third, advertising has replaced subscriptions as the media’s main source of revenue, even as the industry consolidates into five major national conglomerates at the expense of a fast-disappearing local press. Combined, these trends have meant that increasingly upscale journalists cater to equivalently upscale and liberal-minded readers, while the remaining few outlets addressing the working class become conservative outliers.

The most decisive—and complex—factor in the media’s social and ideological stratification is the Internet. With its information bubbles, echo chambers, and the customer-engagement funnel, “social media has sacrificed the quality of journalism on the altar of the egotism of individual journalists.” Staff writers and reporters are caught in a battle for online likes and shares, leaving less time for the face-to-face reporting that was once journalism’s bread and butter. Then along came Donald Trump, with his branding of the press as “enemies of the people.” Ungar-Sargon writes that the 45th president gave the mainstream media license to push working-class whites even further away from their editorial lens. Because mainstream media saw Trump as a foe of the journalistic profession itself, they treated the policies advanced by his administration, such as stronger border security, as sinister—even as many of these policies won the approval of voters.

Generational change has also been a factor. Older cohorts of journalists understood that their trade thrived on diverse viewpoints and dogged reporting; the younger generation of digital natives view their role “less as understanding their subjects and more as sitting in judgement over those they disagreed with.” This woke cohort is intent on spreading its crusade to the wider society. “For all the talk about fighting for racial equality,” Ungar-Sargon writes, “the re-racialization of American life through a woke culture war was simply the next phase in the status revolution of journalists—and who they viewed as their readers.” Steeped in critical race theory and postmodernist thought, the younger journalists have brought to the newsroom an “obsession with race that elegantly papers over a truer chasm in American life—economic inequality.” Focusing on race thus deflects attention from the privilege many of these young journalists (regardless of their color) enjoyed on their way to professional success.

This generational turnover in personnel has in turn imperiled long-standing editorial practices. Editors once held ultimate power over what got published; today newsroom mobs often wield that power, as evidenced by the staff revolt after the New York Times published Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed calling for troops to quell the rioting and looting following the death of George Floyd. “What’s so shocking about this censorious development in American journalism,” Ungar-Sargon explains, “is not that online activists would try to use their power to enforce their views, but that an older generation of journalists—people who should, who do know better—would capitulate to the pressure.” Ungar-Sargon reckons that the onus for restoring sanity to our mediascape lies with all consumers of the news. By choosing wisely which outlets we read and keeping politics at arm’s length from the rest of our lives, we can push back against the media’s degeneration into a polarizing force in American life.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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