George H.W. Bush has endured laughter and defeat for the quality that most commends him: prudence.
Over the course of my career at three magazines, two newspapers, a financial wire, and my present job as an investigative reporter, I have taken a particular interest in media criticism. It’s not remotely an exaggeration to say that through an assortment of columns, editorials, magazine features, and books, I have written several hundred thousand words on the topic. There is much to be said for why the media is terrible, and believe me, I’ve tried to say it, mostly to frustrating ends.
The few worthwhile media critics that don’t reflexively blame the death of the industry on readers who have the temerity to vote the wrong way often do little more than bash the media for their relentless partisanship. That’s a valid complaint, yes, but pointing out that The New York Times is essentially just a Democratic super PAC that sells ads has been done ad nauseam and gets us no further in solving the problem.
I have a shelf of books on the media that can be divided evenly into these camps, and so I had ample reason to approach Batya Ungar-Sargon’s book, Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy, with trepidation. So it is very relieving that Bad News is something different and far more penetrating—the book’s key insight is that the media’s problems stem largely from issues of class, even if the problems are outwardly manifested as political and cultural extremism in the news. Journalism used to be written primarily by the working class for the working class, but as the industry shrinks, it has become ensconced in an elitist bubble that serves the interests of its corporate owners and distribution channels controlled by Big Tech. This renders it incapable of accurately describing, much less diagnosing, the problems faced by working-class readers, leaving the news business in a death spiral as ordinary Americans reject the media in growing numbers.
Almost any journalist old enough to remember when their profession wasn’t a wasteland of listicle sweatshops will acknowledge there’s been a massive cultural shift in newsrooms in recent decades that rarely gets commented on. I started in journalism in the late 1990s. Back then prominent members of the newsroom’s old guard still drank at lunch and smoked in the office—but they were more transgressive in an important regard: They were all working class, or at a minimum, possessed working-class sympathies. An editor I was lucky to work with early in my career, John Corry, started his multi-decade career at the New York Times as a copyboy on the sports desk where he made $25 a week on the side by supplying bookies with the scores of late ballgames by phone, before working his way up the Times’ masthead. “Mild raffishness, moderate dissoluteness, and minor deviancy were tolerated and tacitly encouraged at the Times, and this fact helped breed allegiance to the newsroom,” Corry writes in his memoir, My Times.
But by the time I was working with Corry at the tail end of his career, it was increasingly obvious the industry had no way to put a price tag on experience and working-class solidarity, at least not when a swarm of high achieving, independently wealthy, second-generation yuppies with master’s degrees in “creative nonfiction” were vying for journalism jobs. This was made explicit by a new breed of editors who were more valued for their business acumen than their newsroom experience and editorial abilities. The flipside of my experience with the old guard was working at a major daily under an impeccably organized editor who took great pride in relations with corporate management. While placating the suits is a useful skill, when it came to day-to-day responsibilities that same editor also thought “pogrom” was a misspelling of “program.”
To that end, Ungar-Sargon introduces the book with a number of anecdotes and observations about the media’s current fealty to wokeism, which is astutely defined as a kind of left-wing prestidigitation. By swapping class concerns for narrower and politically correct concerns of race, this allows major media to preserve their existing business models—which hinge on catering to increasingly smaller and wealthier audiences and advertisers—while still keeping up the self-serving illusion that elite media are holding power to account rather than catering to the ruling class.
Once you acknowledge the truth of this observation, the contradiction is everywhere you look. “T magazine, the fashion magazine of the New York Times, recently showcased Angela Davis on the front cover and an ad for a Cartier watch on the back cover; these are not in tension with each other, but rather two sides of the same coin,” Ungar-Sargon dryly notes.
But the hypocrisy isn’t merely a matter of unfortunate juxtaposition. Who the media establishment ultimately serves has a profound impact on how newsrooms go about addressing fundamental questions. Instead of presenting real solutions that require reporting uncomfortable truths, woke media frames the issue so that any changes to the system don’t threaten existing liberal power structures. We only see performative posturing designed to assuage elite guilt. According to Ungar-Sargon, this explains the media’s current obsession with race—it’s a way for the media, and the wealthy white liberals whose priorities they most reflect, to not have to explain, let alone do something, about economic inequality. “A moral panic around race was the perfect solution: It took the guilt that they should have felt around their economic good fortune and political power—which they could have shared with the less fortunate had they cared to—and displaced it onto their whiteness, an immutable characteristic that they could do absolutely nothing to change,” she writes.
It doesn’t take much to see how this frame distorts the coverage of important issues. On the question of education, Ungar-Sargon observes, “instead of asking why New York City’s public school system is more segregated than Alabama’s, white liberals demanded diversity, equity, and inclusion training in their children’s exorbitantly priced prep schools.”
She also cleverly draws this back to a prominent school of thought in American liberalism, that while not that old, has been largely abandoned. Throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, the left, prompted by Thomas Frank’s popular book What’s The Matter With Kansas?, was constantly pointing out that Republicans were exploiting culture war issues to get middle America to vote for the GOP, even though the Republicans pro-corporate economic agenda was supposedly outsourcing jobs and putting the hurt on middle-class pocketbooks. Suffice to say, the left broadly, and the press specifically, never imagined that a resurgent strain of populism would come from within the GOP—much less that the Republican who would politically exploit this tension point all this out would be billionaire reality TV host.
“You do not have to support Trump to acknowledge that he exposed something dark about American journalism that was already underway when he surprised everyone by winning the presidency in 2016,” observes Ungar-Sargon.
He exposed the contempt the media has for middle America and for religion, the use of racism as a cudgel to protect class interests, the obfuscation of American unity on questions of equality, the elevation of a set of taste and class markers to the status of absolute truth, and the cultivation and mainstreaming of a moral panic about America as an enduring white-supremacist country, while corporate America was bending over backward to appropriate the ‘Black lives matter’ slogan.
The result is that mainstream liberalism has much more tension between its radical cultural stances and the wealthy power structures that undergird it than the post-Trump right. Ungar-Sargon notes that papering over this contradiction is “impossible without the media. Once a tool to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, today American journalism comforts the comfortable, speaks power to truth, and insists on an orthodoxy that protects the interests of the elites in the language of a culture war whose burden is given to the working class to bear.”
Of course, it’s one thing to make these observations about the class divide in journalism. But Ungar-Sargon does something far more useful. In subsequent chapters, she delves deeply into the history of New York newspapers, a story which she efficiently tells with an eye for obscure and fascinating details.
Essentially, the rise of American mass media largely began as a result of Joseph Pulitzer and other publishers discovering a large untapped market for papers that catered to New York’s working class in the middle of the nineteenth century. Too often, this advent of newspapers for the masses is defined historically by its culmination in the “yellow journalism” around the turn of the twentieth century, a result of Pulitzer’s war for readers with competitor William Randolph Hearst.
However, it’s often forgotten that prior to Pulitzer, newspapers erred too far in the other direction. Subscriptions had traditionally been expensive luxury goods that catered only to the wealthy. Ungar-Sargon details how the New York Times, New Yorker, and other publications defined by their present-day business models of serving the wealthy were doing much the same thing over a century ago.
This elitism culminates with Watergate, which ultimately sounded a death knell for journalism as a working-class profession. Woodward and Bernstein, fairly or not, were turned into such romantic and charismatic crusaders for the public interest—journalists could take down a president!—that the profession became seen as powerful and attractive to the upper classes who had previously looked down at ink-stained wretches. Soon the most prestigious newsrooms didn’t just serve the elite; they were staffed by their children.
And on a practical level, Ungar-Sargon notes that one reason why working-class kids have been shut out of newsrooms is that recent college graduates need to have wealthy families that can sustain them so they can afford New York and D.C.’s exorbitant cost of living while doing internships or trying to get by on entry-level salaries. The result is that newsrooms get better-credentialed employees more affordably, but this comes at a cost. Newsrooms may be diverse in terms of skin tone, but they are staffed by people who have never been inside a mobile home or had to drink powdered milk as a child. And their relative lack of experience with how the other half lives is not accompanied by any humility regarding lots of inchoate ideas about fixing America they are not afraid to express loudly.
Once it has established this general framework for understanding the media in terms of class, Ungar-Sargon’s book splinters into a bunch of different directions, nearly all of them provocative and interesting. On the question of conservative media and its growing influence, she observes that the rise of Fox News is, again, as much about class as it is about politics.
“But though the New York Times may claim that ‘Talk Radio Is Turning Millions of Americans into Conservatives,’ the truth is almost certainly the opposite: Conservative media is conservative because it caters to the working class, and not the other way around,” she writes. Indeed, this, in particular, is an example of how the medium is the message—most people who had jobs affording them the opportunity to listen to Rush Limbaugh for three hours in the middle of the day were either on the job in cars or working on shop floors.
Conversely, the legacy media haven’t just abandoned the working class, they’ve embraced full-on snobbery. Ungar-Sargon quotes Nick Williams, the editor in chief of the L.A. Times saying the quiet part loud: “Newspaper prestige, not always but usually, is a function of liberal estimation. Most intellectuals are liberal, and editorial prestige depends on what intellectuals judge it to be.” Ungar later makes the astute observation that this desire to rebuff the working classes “signaled that not through circulation but through content.” No matter how big a story is—the opioid crisis is the prime example—if it doesn’t appeal to affluent liberals who fancy themselves “intellectuals,” it won’t get the coverage it merits.
There are too many worthy explications of the media’s structural problems in the book to recount them all, though I confess I am surprised that Bad News doesn’t have more to say about the role of big tech in the general decline of media. It enables widespread censorship, which would have been anathema to the working-class journalists of yesteryear, and it has disrupted traditional subscription business models in ways that led to further polarization. But Ungar-Sargon, to her credit, doesn’t ignore the topic by any means and has a nice explication of how the insular world of Twitter and social media clout of individual reporters has undermined media organizations.
If there is a problem with Bad News—and this is not the author’s fault—it is that it feels like too little too late. The credibility of the corporate press has been obliterated in the last five years, thanks to the enthusiastic endorsement of the baseless Trump-Russia scandal, “mostly peaceful protests,” and the present COVID hysteria, among numerous other failures. And the media is in nearly complete denial these failures happened in the first place.
I don’t doubt Ungar-Sargon’s sincerity, it’s just that when we get to the end of the book, we get a whirlwind tour of platitudes such as, “Journalists must do better and not just in the name of fighting inequality or journalistic values like speaking truth to power and objectively reporting a shared reality.” I agree that America’s political system needs a better media establishment, but that’s a matter of what can be salvaged. Where Ungar-Sargon speaks of reforming the media, the counteroffer from much of America is to raze CNN and The New York Times and salt the earth.
In fairness, rekindling the kind of populist, working-class solidarity that would Make Journalism Great Again is a big cultural and political project that goes well beyond improving the media. Making sense of what comes next in a media landscape where the most influential journalist in America is a podcaster who freely admits to getting high during interviews is perhaps too much to ask here. As it is, Ungar-Sargon’s diagnoses are accurate, damning, and persuasive—and Bad News is a very valuable contribution to a topic on which much has been written, but little of lasting import has been said.