“Once a tool to comfort the afflicted and to 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,” writes Batya Ungar-Sargon in her new book.
On a recent episode of “American Thought Leaders,” host Jan Jekielek discussed race, class, and our elite media’s abandonment of U.S. workers with Batya Ungar-Sargon, deputy opinion editor at Newsweek and author of the book, “Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy.”
Jan Jekielek: I’m reading your book, which is fantastic. So let’s start with this question: What happened to journalism?
Batya Ungar-Sargon: American journalism really began in the 19th century. Benjamin Day and Joseph Pulitzer were two journalists who showed up when America was deeply divided along income lines.
They noticed that the vast majority of working-class and poor Americans were literate, so they started the Penny Press. They started selling newspapers for one penny apiece, and they got rich because so many poor and working-class people were hungry for news. This was really the birth of American journalism.
Then, in the course of the 20th century, journalists underwent a status revolution. In 1937, the vast majority of American journalists didn’t have a college degree. Journalism was considered a blue-collar job that you picked up as you did it.
Fast forward to 2015 and 92 percent of American journalists now have a college degree. Along with this status revolution from a blue-collar trade to a highly educated caste, you saw journalists shift their ideas of who journalism was for and what it should be about.
The “woke” revolution we’re seeing is essentially the last stage in this status revolution among journalists.
That obsession masks the real class divide in America and the skyrocketing income inequality while allowing liberal journalists to feel like heroes, even as they contribute to the class chasm in America.
Mr. Jekielek: I think you’ve just explained to me why The Epoch Times has been so successful lately.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: Explain.
Mr. Jekielek: I think we’re doing what these two illustrious penny-charging individuals did, because our media isn’t for the elites, although certainly some elites follow it. We’re just doing what journalism is supposed to do, which is reporting.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: What’s interesting is that very often it’s the conservative press that has the working-class audience these days, whereas the vast majority of liberal media is being produced for an ever-smaller elite.
The Democrats used to be the party of the lineman and the factory worker, but today they’re the party asking those people to pay off the student loans of dentists and accountants to the tune of $50,000. Or they’re pushing to defund the police. Who needs the police? It’s the working-class people, people of color, and the victims of skyrocketing murder.
So I argue that the woke language is an abandonment of the most vulnerable Americans who literally put money in the pockets of liberal elites. And I’m saying this from the left. I’m a left-wing populist.
Mr. Jekielek: So how exactly did journalism take on the woke agenda?
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: We have a deep class chasm in America. Especially over the past 20 years, the economy has rewarded those who work in knowledge industries much more than it once did. And it’s started to be punitive toward the working class.
There’s been this class shift. The intelligentsia today is very affluent compared to those without a college degree.
We’ve ended up in a place where all of the journalists are coming out of the same few schools with the same ideology. It’s sort of pulling in the same direction of a real monoculture that’s enforced through shaming campaigns.
Mr. Jekielek: You dedicate a whole chapter to moral panic. What is moral panic?
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: For moral panic to succeed, there has to be consensus in the population. Because if you don’t have that consensus, you just have a culture war.
Some Americans today think abortion is evil, and others think it’s a civil right. That’s a culture war. You can’t have a moral panic around abortion because half of the population doesn’t recognize it as evil. In order to have a moral panic, you have to have some level of consensus.
In our current moment, we’re in a moral panic around racism.
When you have a moral panic, people start hunting for malefactors, and that’s what you’re seeing in the media today. You’re seeing the hunt for people who are racist or who are insufficiently anti-racist, in order to run them out of polite society and run them out of their jobs.
The problem is that every single day, they change what counts as racism. For example, today “racist” references anyone who voted for Donald Trump, the man who won the vote of 67 percent of the people who don’t have college degrees. So, you see how tightly connected to class it is.
Today, it’s racist to think we should have a national border that we enforce. Again, who pays for open borders? It’s the working class whose jobs are most threatened by an incoming wave of people willing to work for less than minimum wage.
Increasingly, we’re seeing a moral panic around race and gender being used to silence the people we disagree with and to silence the working class, who tend to be more conservative, whether they vote for Republicans or Democrats. Their views have become essentially taboo.
It’s important to keep in mind that the biggest malefactors in my book, the people I criticize the most harshly, honestly believe they’re doing the right thing.
Someone once asked me, what was the hardest part of writing your book? It was keeping in mind that the people who are harming black Americans and working-class Americans actually think they’re helping them.
Mr. Jekielek: You focus on journalism. But this philosophy, or some people call it a pseudo-religion or even a religion, is why so many people genuinely believe, perhaps hubristically, that they’re helping.
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: I’m religious, so I hate when people say wokeness is a religion, because religion is the opposite. It’s all about grace and forgiveness and holding yourself to a higher standard than you hold others. There’s not a lot of that on the left these days. But as a religious person, I think the media isn’t going to fix itself because it’s making money off of this.
We don’t have to hate our fellow Americans so that some journalist or some media company can make money.
We have to be the ones who stand up and say no to that. We have to protect spaces in our lives where we’re no longer allowing politics to invade and we’re remembering what it means to be an American.
Mr. Jekielek: In a nutshell, what can people get out of your book that you think is valuable to them?
Ms. Ungar-Sargon: They can learn about how we got here. If you’re a lefty like me or a liberal or a centrist or a conservative and you want to understand why the media is so terrible, if you’ve noticed a class divide and you want to know why Americans are increasingly looking at each other like enemies when the polling shows that much less divides us than ever before in our history, my book is for you. It ends with a plea that we each become a soldier in the war against the dehumanization of our brothers and sisters.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.