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Is woke media undermining democracy? Batya Ungar-Sargon discusses the state of journalism and her own intellectual journey

Podcast & Video

Today’s Hub Dialogues episode features Sean Speer in conversation with journalist and author Batya Ungar-Sargon on the changing media landscape, why journalists are so much more “woke” than they used to be, and why she believes prioritizing class over race is a much more productive discussion in our politics.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Batya Ungar-Sargon who’s the deputy opinion editor of Newsweek and author of the provocative new book, Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy. Batya’s book has received tremendous attention for its honest and thoughtful critique of the modern media ecosystem. I’m grateful to be able to speak with her today about it, including its key insights, and her thoughts about the extraordinary reaction since its release. Batya, congratulations on the book and thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

BATYA UNGAR-SARGON: Thank you so much for having me, I’m so pleased to be here with you.

SEAN SPEER: At its core, your book argues that modern media has lost its connection to the interests, tastes, and perspectives of working-class populations in our societies. How did this happen? What factors led to the media’s alienation from working-class citizens?

BATYA UNGAR-SARGON: So, there were a number of factors. Like so many things in this world, it happened very slowly, and then all at once. So, this story of 20th-century American journalism is essentially the story of a status revolution. Journalism used to be a blue-collar trade; it was a working-class job that you didn’t go to college in order to learn how to do. You picked it up on the job, and it was considered a sort of low-status job. And journalists very much saw themselves as outside of power on behalf of the little guy; fighting for the little guy whenever they could, whenever they got a chance to speak to the powerful. Essentially, today journalists are part of the powerful. They are part of the American elite. 

Throughout the course of the 20th century, American journalists became extremely highly educated. It’s one of the most highly educated industries in America. They became quite affluent; they’re part of the top 10 percent now. And as they became part of the elites. As they ascended to the elites, they abandoned the working class from an economic point of view, from a cultural point of view, just like you said, from a geographic point of view. Journalists now live in the most expensive American cities, by and large in the most blue cities, the most blue counties. And essentially, their coverage is now produced for and by elites, as opposed to what it always was for American history, which was produced for and by the working class. 

So, we really saw that shift happen, and it happened for a number of reasons. Some of them more forgivable than others. For example, in 1964, that was the first year that the majority of Americans said that they got their news from television. Now, what happened then was not really journalists’ fault. You know, if you have TV giving you a very immediate, from a sensory point of view, version of what happened during the day, for newspapers to be viable they had to have something that they added to the news. 

And so, by 1970, for about 10 years, by then the majority of newspaper cover stories were more interpretive than descriptive. And because they now had to give an interpretation to add something to just the “what” because TV was doing a better job at the “what”, there started to be more of a premium placed on being able to write, which meant that suddenly having a college degree really gave you a value add. 

Now, what really skyrocketed this status revolution, though, was the Watergate scandal, and as importantly, the movie about it “All the President’s Men.” Because suddenly journalism went from being this low-status job to being this very glamorous endeavour where you could bring down a president who was very unpopular, and you could be played by sexpots in a movie version. It started to have glamour attached to it. So when, for example, John F. Kennedy was in college, when he was at Harvard, he worked at the Harvard Crimson. But he would never have dreamed of becoming a journalist because he was a meritocratic elite, right? He was on the rise and it didn’t present itself as a job that would give you that glamour and fame. 

But you know, 10 years later, 20 years later, suddenly it did appeal to people who were in the elites who were social climbers, right? Who wanted to sort of rise even further. And so, journalists started to increasingly go to universities and have that sort of highly educated degree and then started to have that fame and that status associated with it. 

But it didn’t really become quite as lucrative as it is now until the collapse of local journalism. At that point, because journalism jobs became much more associated with digital journalism, they became much more coastal, and they also became much more lucrative for people who could stick through it. So, you start out at like a very low starting salary of $35,000 a year and you’re living in New York City—that’s very little money. But essentially, what that means is you have to come from money in order to become a journalist. 

So, you’re going to make very little money, have your parents support you for the first 10-20 years, but by the time you’re in your 40s or 50s, you’re going to be making over $100,000 a year, which is putting you in the top 10 percent. It became extremely lucrative. People became very highly educated. And like so many other jobs in the knowledge industry in America, the economy is working very well for the highly educated and very poorly for the working class, who journalists left in their dust.

SEAN SPEER: One of the things I like so much about the book is it operates at so many different levels. So, you’ve just described a kind of sociological explanation for some of the trends outlined in the book. There are other ways in which you carry out this analysis. One, of course, is ideological. You argue that the left-wing politics that permeates most media organizations have come to de-emphasize traditional ideas about class and instead preference issues of race and gender, and rapidly adopt notions of white privilege, social justice, systemic racism, and so on. 

Why do you think modern progressivism in general, and media progressivism in particular, has moved in this direction? Why has it abandoned notions of social democracy and embraced the ideas of Ibram X. Kendi? 

BATYA UNGAR-SARGON: Well, put simply, it’s because liberals have benefited from the class divide in a very real economic, material way. So, what we have in America is a huge class chasm that separates the college-educated from those without a college degree. The economy is working very well for the highly educated and very poorly for labour, and put simply, liberals have benefited from that inequality; they have risen to the top 10 percent. Highly educated Americans are on the right side of that great class divide. 

Now, to talk about the class divide will be to imperil their own economic interests, and so instead what they did was they chose a different site for their outrage. They could continue to see themselves as the heroes of the social justice war, a Manichaean war between good and evil, while not sacrificing any of the economic benefits that came to them as a result of this new knowledge age industry. 

However, I do want to point out, I don’t think that this is a conscious decision. I mean, I do think that they are literally lining their pockets with the proceeds of the “woke” point of view—immigration is a really good example of this. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s cynical. I mean, it would be easier if it were cynical, because you could be like, “Look, none of us are buying this, you know, like this is your economic agenda, stop dressing this up as like some kind of”—but they truly believe that they, that you know, that America is still white supremacy, for example. They’ve convinced themselves of this. So, on the one hand, I think they truly believe it. On the other hand, I don’t think they would believe it quite as strongly if it wasn’t very much in their economic interests to believe it.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s pick up that point a bit further before we move on to some of the research and analysis in the book. One of the most fascinating insights, as you say, is that this move isn’t merely about ideology, that there are also financial incentives at play. How has the rise of the subscription model of the New York Times and other outlets influenced the rise of so-called wokism in the media?

BATYA UNGAR-SARGON: Right, so let’s do a compare and contrast. For much of the 20th century, it was before the great sorting, so you had many towns across America where there were Republicans and Democrats. You had many towns across America that were one-newspaper towns, so the publisher could make a decision. He could either let his journalists follow their crusading impulses and report the news from a lefty point of view and get 50 percent of the town’s readership who were Democrats. Or, they could report the news from the right, which probably would have satisfied the publisher’s own ideology more, because they tended to be the owners of corporations and Republicans, and get the 50 percent of the town who were Republicans. Or they could report the news straight and get 100 percent of the town’s residents, right? And that’s what they tended to do. 

And even at elite places, like The New York Times, there was a sense that it was provincial to be too partisan. There was a sense that there was something lame and lower class to not be able to stand the viewpoints of people you disagreed with. So, even The New York Times reported the news very straight and was very proud of its bipartisan readership. A lot of readers were conservatives as well, even though it’s always been a liberal paper. And they would publish op-eds from across the political spectrum. 

Now, what happened was the digital revolution meant that the standard whereby we measure success in journalism shifted very radically. Up until the digital revolution you had a lot of journalists who were sort of lefties. They were crusaders, but their bosses were Republicans. And there was a financial incentive, the business model, which was based on reporting the news straight and hearing opinions from both sides. 

What happened with digital media is that we no longer measure success in terms of breadth of the reach. The way we measure success is by a unit called engagement, meaning how many people retweeted your article? How many people commented on it? How many people posted it on Facebook? How many people angrily shared it with a scathing commentary? And of course, the secret of digital media is that the most extreme readers and viewers are always going to be the most engaged, meaning that you had all of these outlets starting to cater to their most extreme readership. 

And across the liberal spectrum, what ended up happening was you had all of these outlets that used to have their own audience? The Atlantic and The New Republic, and NPR and The New York Times, and CNN, MSNBC. Now they are all going for the same eight, nine, ten million highly educated, very affluent liberals. And they can do that because we know how to target our readership, because engagement is very easy to measure on the back end, and those are the people whose engagement matters: rich people. 

Before, you had a countervailing force pulling the crusading liberal journalists back to the centre, whereas now what you have is the business model is pulling in the same direction as these now highly educated journalists who go to these fancy schools, where they learn things like critical race theory nonsense and bring it back into their newsroom. They used to have a boss who was working-class who was like, “What are you talking about? It’s racist to want a colourblind society? That’s literally the whole goal of Dr. King’s entire oeuvre and the entire purpose of this country, right?” Instead, what you now have is editors who are terrified to cross their younger, very highly educated, fancy educated, younger employees. 

And at The New York Times, it explicitly became the mandate of the current publisher A.G. Sulzberger to allow Twitter to create these big followings, to allow Twitter to have a major say. Because of course, the affluent readership they wanted was all on Twitter ganging up on people who had said the wrong thing or whatever it was. It really was sort of the business model amping up the highly educated nature of the new set of journalists working in tandem to cater to people who really would rather think that America is white supremacy rather than have to share any of the bounty that this economy has given them.

SEAN SPEER: So, we have sociological factors, ideological factors, and financial factors all pushing in this direction. Before we talk a bit about some of the consequences, let me just ask you a question that I suspect critics might ask or critics might raise, which is, what would you say to those who say this trend is merely a correction to the media’s past failure to account for the experiences and stories of racial minorities in our societies? That this isn’t an ideological change so much as it is a correction to the failures of the media, historically?

BATYA UNGAR-SARGON: It’s such a great question; it’s such an important question. And the answer is that this is not how people of colour think about themselves at all. The whole woke point of view is a point of view that was developed by and for rich white liberals. It is all about them. I’m telling you this from my experience, from my relationships in different communities. But luckily, sociologists have—you don’t have to rely on me. 

So, when I use the word “woke,” I’m using it in the way that sociologists use it. I’m not using it in the way that the black community developed it in the 70s to refer to something extremely important, which is pointing out state-sponsored racism. We still have state-sponsored racism in four areas in American life. It is extremely important that we come together to fight that. And you are seeing that actually, and there’s been a seismic change on the right over the last 15 years. They’re now at the forefront of criminal justice reform. They’re the ones putting out police reform bills that are getting shut down by Democrats with the filibuster, which they then call a white supremacist artifact. Segregation in public schools, and I would say intergenerational poverty in about 20 to 30 percent of the descendants of slaves. Those are the four areas where we have systemic racism still. It is extremely important that every person raise their voice up against them.

I don’t think it’s woke to do that. President Trump was not being woke when he released 5000 Black men from prison, he was being a good American. That was really good legislation. The First Step Act, of course, has been memory-holed because it came from the “wrong” side. But so, when I say woke, I’m not talking about that. That stuff is all really important; it’s really important to Black Americans, it’s really important to Republicans, finally, thank God. 

When I say woke, I’m using it the way that these sociologists are using it. To point to a phenomenon that happened in 2015 where white liberals have become more extreme in their views on race than Black and Latino Americans. Their point of view on what constitutes the goals for America from a racial point of view. In 2015, white liberals started to say things that were just way to the left of what most people of colour in this country believe. Of course, there’s like an educational thing here going on, right? You go to college, you learn crazy, stupid things like that it’s racist to want a colourblind society, or that there’s no difference between men and women. You have to go to a fancy school for somebody to convince you of that.

Working-class people don’t go to college. Two-thirds of Americans don’t go to college, and so they don’t believe this nonsense, right? The majority of people who go to college in America happen to be white liberals. So what ended up happening is they have imbibed this absolute nonsense, this academic malarkey. They bring it into their newsrooms. It is completely alien in communities of colour across America. And then on behalf of these communities of colour, they start pushing this nonsense. Not just as “This is my opinion,” but as “It’s taboo to think anything else.”

And there are a million examples of ways in which these views do not represent the Black community, for example, who actually desperately need representation and actually desperately need people to stand up for their interests. But instead, what you have are white liberals standing up for their own economic interests and using the language of social justice to dress it up as though it were not their purely economic interests. There are just a lot of examples of this. 

I can start listing them, but so for example, the view that the majority of American institutions are so deeply racist that they need to be razed and rebuilt from the ground up. This is a view that represents about 90 percent of people who call themselves progressives. Just 6 percent of Americans are progressive and have this point of view, and just 6 percent of progressives are Black. Okay, so 94 percent of Black Americans are not in the category that is the main view that represents their point of view. Another example: defund the police. 

Okay. Defund the police is opposed by 81 percent of Black Americans, but it was the only view you would read in The New York Times, allegedly on their behalf. And anything that opposed that put the lives of black New York Times reporters at risk, right? So, ostensibly on behalf of Black Americans, the only view you could read in The New York Times was one that is opposed by 81 percent of Black Americans. Okay, this is how it works. 

Immigration: open borders as a view—it’s basically the only view you can now have on the left. It’s racist to believe that we should have a national border; it’s racist to believe that that should be enforced. Black Americans are the most anti-immigrant group in the Democratic bloc because all mass immigration has come at their expense. It’s been tied to a decrease of 40 percent of the wages of Black Americans. Literally, the descendants of slaves are literally paying the price to open that border and have the American dream skip over them and give the American dream to the poor of other countries. 

These are the examples of where you see white liberals—it’s not a correction because they still won’t let people of colour have their say. Two-thirds of Black Americans are either moderate or conservative. Only a third identify as liberal. But it’s ostensibly on their behalf. You get all of this not just liberal but radical views that are spewed that are just completely divorced from what public opinion tells us, what any person with a friendship, with relationships in those communities, already knows. And the problem is, is that these white liberals who live in the most blue states, they just don’t know any working-class people, and they don’t know any people of colour except people who went to Harvard with them. 

And so what you have is a disgustingly white journalism set. We have a real problem of racial diversity, but the reason that journalism is so disgustingly white is not because editors are racist, it’s because it’s disgustingly rich. You have to be rich, essentially, to become a journalist; comes back to everything we spoke about. They’ve created this woke ideology that lines their pockets, and then they sit there and call anyone who opposes it racist, including people of color who oppose it.

SEAN SPEER: Another good example, of course, is the popularization of the term Latinx, which polling tells us doesn’t resonate at all with Latinos.

Just a couple of final questions. This gets to the point of the consequences of the rise of this woke ideology in newsrooms. The book observes that it’s contributed to a feedback loop in the broader society that’s resulting in the popularization of these ideas and terms in our culture and politics. How does woke ideology in the media manifest itself? And what are the broader consequences for our politics and political discourse? 

BATYA UNGAR-SARGON: So, it manifests itself in what is covered and what isn’t covered. The same sociologists who track the Great Awokening from 2015, where they found that white liberals had outpaced blacks and Latinos in terms of their ridiculous views on race, they also found that around 2011-2012, liberal outlets that had gone digital—New York Times, NPR, Washington Post—these outlets started to use woke terminology with skyrocketing frequency. 

So, words like “white privilege”, “oppression”, “marginalization”, the words “people of color”, next to “marginalized” or “oppressed”. Another disgusting thing is that this does not reflect how people of colour think about themselves, but is imposed—this sort of awful, frankly racist, imposition of this paternalistic view that white liberals have towards people of colour. That Great Awokening in 2015 actually came from the media from 2011-2012 starting to inundate affluent white liberals with these ideas and these words, to where it really actually shifted their opinion. I think that you really see it in terms of what’s covered, how it’s covered, and then what’s not covered. 

I do want to say it’s a double-edged sword. George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers would not be in prison if not for some of these pressures. And obviously, that is God’s work to spread these crimes and to make sure these people go to prison. That’s extremely important. There was this very positive outcome, I believe, but at the same time crime will not be covered in the mainstream liberal news media, the national news media. Because the perpetrators of these crimes are often people of colour, it embarrasses white liberals to read about Black criminals. 

And so, in order to avoid that embarrassment, they’re willing to sentence Black children to being shot in their bedrooms, because they don’t want to read about it. It’s so disgusting. It’s just so disgusting. I just have no words for it. Black children, Black old ladies being robbed, carjackings up by historic levels. We’re seeing just historic levels of murder and the victims are, by and large, poor Black people. And you cannot get white liberals to care about this. I don’t have the words or the comprehension to how you can allow an ideology that is supposed to be anti-racist to erase the most vulnerable people from the media and then to signal to the politicians who are in charge of them, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about this, because we don’t care about this.” 

That’s the thing that really, obviously, makes my blood boil. It’s both in how they cover things. Everything is through this prism of race, everything is about who has power and who doesn’t have power, and then they ascribe sort of moral virtue to powerlessness. That’s how you get things like Hamas being elevated to some sort of moral paragon because they have less power than Israel. In a conflict between the two, it’s always going to be the powerless that get elevated to the moral and virtuous position. But even worse is just what they won’t cover and how they won’t speak up on behalf of these children. I really don’t have the words.

SEAN SPEER: Well, if we can end, Batya, with a bit of a personal introspection. Some of our listeners who may not know about you and your story might assume that you have come to these views from the right. But of course, that’s not your personal experience. Do you want to talk a bit about your own intellectual evolution and what caused you to see these trends and developments in the media and to start to push back against them?

BATYA UNGAR-SARGON: Yeah, I call myself a left-wing populist. Sometimes I say socialist, but then I look at what the other socialists are doing, and that’s not what I mean by it. I just mean our economic agenda should be focused on the working class. When people say to me that your points are just right-wing talking points, I’m always sort of tickled by that. Like, okay, you’re ceding the question of economic inequality to the right; you’re saying that’s now a right-wing concern? I mean, so then it’s not really an insult to be called a conservative, right? If according to you the conservatives are the ones who care about class, which is like my whole message, like, I don’t see how that’s offensive to me. That sort of ceding the playing ground, right? You’re throwing the game for the other side. For me, I would say a big turning point was—I mean, there were a lot of them. 

I was definitely woke for a long time. I had the Trump derangement syndrome, and a bunch of things really pulled me out of it. One would be my Rabbi who’s just the most humble, generous, wonderful person I know, who in the winter walks down the street, and if he sees a homeless person he starts giving them his clothes. He’s just incredible, and he loved Trump. I mean, he just loved Trump and I was unable to sustain my belief that everyone who voted for Trump was racist when the best person I know didn’t just vote for him but actually really liked him. I found learning about the depths of despair among the downwardly mobile working class, and then seeing those people mocked on CNN, sneered at, and smeared as racist every single night—there was something about that that was really wrong.

And then I would say, something really important that I learned that I was not initially honest enough to truly take on—I had to set it aside for a while because it was such an indictment of my worldview—but there was a Yale study from 2018 that found that there’s a difference between how white liberals and white conservatives talk to people of colour. It found that white liberals dumbed down their vocabulary when talking to Blacks and Latinos, and all of my friends who are people of colour were like “Yeah, we knew that, you know, we didn’t need a Yale study, exactly.” I remember reading that and thinking this is an indictment of my whole worldview. Like that paternalistic urge to help a person of colour based purely on their skin colour, it’s so disgusting. And then we call the other side racists, and they’re the ones who don’t do that. They just don’t have that urge when they see someone of a different race to assume that they need your help. 

So, for me, that was like a really big, like, “Oh, God, there’s something really diseased in this worldview.” So, I still call myself a lefty, because I still am very. I still think that the left should care about the working class. But it’s very interesting because, in America, the working class is quite conservative, irrespective of who they vote for. So you know, it’s very interesting. I hesitate to say I’m a socialist because that’s not how they see themselves. They don’t want an expanded welfare state. They just want jobs with dignity. So that would be my journey.

SEAN SPEER: Well, it’s a fascinating journey and a fascinating book. The book again is Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy. Batya Ungar-Sargon, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues to talk about your own experience, your research, and your insights into this world of mainstream media and its broader implications for our society, culture, and politics.

BATYA UNGAR-SARGON: Thank you so much.