Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy
by Batya Ungar-Sargon. Encounter Books. 2021. 312 pages
In Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy, the Newsweek journalist Batya Ungar-Sargon provides a timely overview of the problems plaguing American journalism.
The subject of media bias and misconduct is well-trodden ground in conservative circles, but Ungar-Sargon comes at this from a left-of-centre perspective.
While she takes issue with many media trends, her key criticism is that the heightened focus on issues of race – which she labels as “a moral panic” – has allowed journalists to overlook the serious economic division between America’s rich and poor.
“Not only is it a misrepresentation of what the facts show at every juncture, but this mistaken reading of America has allowed the national liberal news media to obscure from view and even perpetuate the rapacious economic inequality that is only growing in America, and which afflicts working-class and poor people of all races,” she writes.
Ungar-Sargon lays out the history of popular journalism in America, from when Benjamin Day began selling his New York Sun for a penny in the 1830s, thus bringing news to the masses of New York City.
Later in the 19th Century, the legendary Joseph Pulitzer built on this legacy after purchasing the New York World. Here was an affordable paper which covered the news which ordinary readers wanted to read about, and which prided itself on its tight and colourful writing.
It was also a crusading publication which challenged the financial elite at the height of the Gilded Age, with Pulitzer promising that it would “never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers [and] never lack sympathy with the poor.”
Freedom of the press combined with America’s high literacy rates provided the conditions for Pulitzer and others to have an enormous impact in democratising the media.
As Ungar-Sargon makes clear however, even at that point, a very different strategy was being pursued by newspapers like The New York Times, whose emphasis on respectability was from an early stage linked to its desire to maintain a high-income readership which would attract strong advertising revenue.
Ungar-Sargon lays out a number of key problems which together have contributed to today’s problems.
Firstly, there has been a massive change in the social background and educational levels of the average journalist.
Until recently, this was a blue collar profession which was learned on the job, but a dramatic change has occurred since the 1930s, when only three in ten journalists had finished college.
That rose to two-thirds by 1960, 82 percent by 1992 and reached over 90 percent by 2015. As importantly, many journalists now have to earn graduate degrees in the subject before being hired by a respectable media outlet.
Journalistic reformers like Walter Lippmann had believed that raising the standard of education within the profession would lead to higher standards more generally, but it has also had another effect.
Leading journalism schools like Columbia charge extortionate fees, but entry-level jobs within a profession where applicants outnumber vacancies do not pay nearly well enough to help journalism graduates support themselves in the early years while repaying their loans, and prospective reporters are often expected to do unpaid internships to improve their résumés.
This makes relying on family support essential, and therefore ensures that a disproportionate number of journalists in elite outlets come from privileged families. .
Another increasingly obvious barrier between journalists and those who they are supposed to serve is political ideology. Though she is politically progressive, Ungar-Sargon accepts that there has been a long-standing problem of bias in American media, which was partially kept in check by the fact that many newspaper owners were Republican-leaning.
In recent decades, media outlets have been bought out by enormous corporations, and journalists’ left-wing views have become more obvious. In 1984, just 26 percent of journalists voted for Ronald Reagan for president (he won 59 percent of the vote).
Partially thanks to left-wing indoctrination at college level, that conservative minority has since withered away: in 2015, 96 percent of journalists who made a donation to a political campaign contributed to Hillary Clinton.
In addition to being wealthier and more left-wing than those who watch their broadcasts or read their newspapers and magazines, a geographical distance between producers and consumers of media has emerged.
Local media in the States has collapsed — a third of the total workforce in American journalism was eliminated between 2006 and 2012 — and the reduced number of opportunities in the sector has again raised the cachet of those with degrees from elite colleges.
Yet national media outlets have not suffered to the same extent, and are based in large cities in America’s Northeast or the West coast: all of which are overwhelmingly Democratic.
This distance is made even greater by the growth of digital journalism, which means that an entire generation of young journalists rarely have to leave their well-off urban areas to report on issues which affect many Americans.
Meanwhile, the rise of Twitter and other social networks encourages journalists in their quest for adulation, while also allowing for instant and harsh discipline to be meted out against any professional who asks the wrong questions or expresses the wrong opinions.
Arguably the biggest shift though – and one which Ungar-Sargon focuses on throughout – has been the decline (clearly documented once more in statistical terms) in the belief that it is important to cater to a wide audience.
What makes this particularly interesting is how outlets like The New York Times have profited handsomely from digital strategies which involve focusing on stories which attract online engagement, whether they are newsworthy or not.
Herein lies the reason why Donald Trump captured the attention of the Times, CNN and other media giants and caused them to lose all perspective and to abandon virtually all standards of journalistic integrity.
There is no valid explanation for their Trump Derangement Syndrome. In all of 2009, for instance, President Obama was mentioned in The New York Times almost 48,000 times, yet in 2018 the paper published the word Trump over 93,000 times. During the election campaign, Trump was mentioned twice as often by the paper as his opponent Hillary Clinton (who had the paper’s wholehearted support).
Ungar-Sargon carefully documents just how lucrative this approach was: the paper boosted its online subscriptions enormously during the Trump years, and was able to dispense with the use of third-party data from 2020 onwards, due to the amount of information they had collected on their users, whose emotions were whipped up shamelessly.
Many observers suggest that the increased radicalism of the media was in reaction to Trump’s policies on immigration and other issues, but a careful analysis of the language used by leading outlets like the Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and others shows that articles about race, racism and slavery were multiplying across the boards for years before his campaign began.
For the author, this heightened focus on race is unnecessary, coming at a time of unprecedented diversity and tolerance. Moreover, it ignores important divisions within the black community and obscures the far more important issue of how to close the divide between rich and poor.
Instead of examining this issue and asking hard questions about crime, poverty and other issues, The New York Times and others choose to obsess about race, thus allowing themselves a thin veneer of radicalism which in no way threatens their own elevated position in the socio-economic structure. One neat example of this was seen a month before the presidential election.
“The October 2020 edition of the Times’s luxury magazine, T, had a picture of activist Angela Davis on the front cover- – and an ad for Cartier on the back cover. Because they are two sides of the same coin,” Ungar-Sargon writes.
Her book provides a succinct overview of what has gone wrong in American journalism, and though she does not look far beyond her own country — a recurring feature in otherwise interesting books by perceptive Americans — many of the trends can be seen throughout the West.
Her suggestions for how to counter this are wise ones. She encourages her readers not to become angry, to protect the non-political spaces in their lives, and to consider the connection between the working-class and conservatism.
Additional points could be added.
Media consumers should be sceptical of the claims coming from the well-heeled celebrities within the Fourth Estate, and even more sceptical of superfluous academic qualifications which have failed to teach a generation of reporters to behave professionally.
That said, people must resist the urge to switch off entirely.
Good journalism is of inestimable value in allowing us to play an informed part in our societies instead of retreating into echo chambers of our own making.
Read your local newspaper, and if its coverage warrants your support, purchase a subscription.
Look further, and ask yourself what outlets – be they national or international, or group or interest-based – make you think, rather than which ones make you nod your head. Then consider the budget at your disposal and make the best choices which those resources allow.
If a subscription must be ended due to repeated failures, then make sure to let the paper know why they are losing your custom: those who espouse left-liberal dogma do so for financial reasons more than ideological ones, and some will reconsider their policies if they are made to pay a price for them.
Bad news is a fact of life, just as bad newspapers are a constant irritant. Batya Ungar-Sargon has provided readers with a compelling explanation of what has gone wrong, but it is up to all of us to help set things right.