Finished reading Bad News by Batya Ungar-Sargon 📚

Blue sign reading Frame Central

The central observation of this book is that journalism has shifted from a blue collar job, with practitioners who are deeply interested in working class issues and concerns, to an elite profession drawing primarily from the well-off: People who can afford journalism degrees from elite institutions, and who have the support network necessary to survive the low-paying internships and early career wages.

The early chapters are an interesting summary of newspapers in the 19th and early 20th century both as a media form and as an industry, and how business choices exemplified by the mid-century New York Times caused national media to turn away from working class concerns, replacing, for instance, the labor beat with advice columns about how to get a raise or navigate office politics. This turning was the result of advertising-driven business strategies that led media companies to do what they could to appear more valuable to high-end advertisers:

The consensus that allowed Americans with different values and political orientations to get their news from a shared source was, in fact, kept alive not so much by a political agreement as by an economic reality. The two decades between the midforties and the midsixties were a time of buoyant social mobility; working-class wages rose steadily and significantly, so much so that the very idea of “working class” was almost an anachronism, given how little distinguished the working class from the middle class, and even from the rich.

Later chapters cover the rise of online media and the economic crises that triggered:

”… the Internet changed the relationship between the business and the editorial sides of journalism. For starters, because the cost of starting a publication was now zero, there was also a potentially unlimited amount of competition for readers’ attention. When this became clear to advertisers, the price of online ads plummeted. If, at one time, an ad in the New York Times was competing with an ad in the Washington Post for the guaranteed attention of a group of people who had been painstakingly cultivated for their purchasing power by publishing the right kind of articles, an ad on the website of the New York Times was now competing with the entire universe for the attention of literally everyone.

The subtitle of the book is the provocative “How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy.” From Ungar-Sargon’s point of view, growing economic inequality combined with the elite proclivities of the national media have led meritocrat journalists to ignore or displace their class privilege:

“It has quite simply been a displacement exercise; instead of experiencing economic guilt about rising inequality and their status among America’s elite, members of the news media—along with other highly educated liberals—have come to believe that the only inequality that matters is racial inequality; the only guilt that matters is white guilt, the kind you can do absolutely nothing to fix, given that it’s based on something as immutable as your skin color.”

Applying a class lens to social justice politics is a fraught exercise. It invites charges of class reductionism and risks repeating the alienating dismissal of other identity categories that old-school socialists frequently engaged in prior to the collapse of the Marxist left, and still sometimes do today.

Ungar-Sargon does her level best to acknowledge and decry ongoing racism, but that subtitle is sort of unfortunate because the word “woke” is thoroughly settled into its recent life as a signifier of opposition to social justice politics and their attendant values. As a result, you could be forgiven for wondering if this is a book that is opposed to social justice values, which I don’t think it is. It is opposed to how media elites use those values to ignore other pressing societal problems – and sometimes even work at cross-purposes with social justice goals to avoid the politically charged nuances that complicate the discourse around e.g. policing:

“You can’t solve a problem you don’t know exists. By maintaining a total taboo on talking about crime in minority neighborhoods, we consign the residents there to keep living with it indefinitely—something affluent whites would never in a million years accept as the standard for themselves and their own families. Indeed, it’s from their safe, upscale neighborhoods that affluent white liberals read the coverage of police brutality in the New York Times—and vocally call for abolishing the police.”

… it points out how little actual diversity exists in newsrooms:

“According to Census Bureau data, while ethnic minorities make up 40 percent of Americans, they constitute just 17 percent of newsroom staff and 13 percent of newspaper leadership. Diversification efforts all too frequently relegate journalists of color to the “softer” sections of newspapers—culture, ‘hot takes’ on the news or entertainment, arts, and lifestyle—or to the online versions of legacy media.”

… and argues that that twisty postmodernity of standpoint anti-racism brings along its own complications, paradoxes, and disconnects:

“Though many well-meaning liberals don’t realize it, the re-racialization of American life further entrenches a deeply unequal status quo. And there is a paternalism at work that is embarrassing and dehumanizing. Under the guise of ‘doing the work of antiracism,’ white liberals have taught themselves to ‘center’ people of color and to silence their own views. This isn’t empowering; it’s insulting to people from minority communities, in the same way that critical race theory insults them—by labeling them as passive objects subjected to the whims and whimseys of whites, with no agency of their own. These stereotypes are the bread and butter of wokeness, but their real-world impact is awful. After all, it is only white liberals who a Yale study found dumb down their speech when talking to people of color.”

“’Most Whites, particularly socio-political liberals, now endorse racial equality. Archival and experimental research reveals a subtle but reliable ironic consequence: White liberals self-present less competence to minorities than to other Whites—that is, they patronize minorities stereotyped as lower status and less competent,’ found the study, conducted by Yale professor Cydney Dupree and Princeton professor Susan Fiske.”

So, if I had to compare Bad News to, say, John McWhorter’s polemical Woke Racism, I’d say it would be more comfortably situated next to Manufacturing Consent, because the “wokeness” of liberal elites doesn’t figure until relatively late, and because the depth of her analysis about the class warfare playing out in the national media suggests that once the current moral fervor attenuates, it won’t exactly lead to some sort of class reckoning among the Columbia-educated press corps.

One other thing worth chewing that I wanted to call out here:

“The studies used to determine ‘racial animus’ frequently fail to actually measure racism. More often what they measure is insufficient liberalism on questions of race. For example, to measure the alleged racism of Trump supporters, one study determined people’s racism according to whether they support affirmative action or not, even though over half of black Americans don’t. Can something that splits the black community down the middle really measure racism? It also asked whether the government should ‘make every effort to improve the social and economic position of blacks’ or if ‘they should help themselves.’ But this question, too, has nothing to do with racism; according to this logic, a libertarian who thinks that the government should help no one at all would be classified alongside David Duke and Richard Spencer, clearly not a morally serious proposition.”

It’s an interesting paragraph that makes a lot of sense to me, but part of its interest is because it points to the contentiousness of the language around these issues: She starts the paragraph talking about “racist animus” and ends the paragraph talking about “racism.” Depending on your school of thought, there is anything from an inch to a mile of difference between these words. Ungar-Sargon uses “racial animus” and “racism” interchangeably, others tend to see them as two different things: One is about personal prejudices and hostility, one is more institutional and focused on power relationships.

The book does feel a little under-documented in its attempt to discredit “woke” narratives about Trump voters. It does point to familiar electoral data that suggests “they’re all just racist” is falsely reductionist, and that there’s something to claims that economic anxiety figures in. But this section also feels the most polemic. I would be interested in more data, and there’s a Jacobin/YouGov report on working class politics I’m reminded I should read.

So … bottom line: Yes, I recommend it. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s part of the current bumper-crop of CRT-panicking anti-“woke” jeremiads, but it simply is not. It will test the capacity of some to tease out antiracist values from counterproductive ally behavior. It definitely threads a cultural needle. Personally, I think committed anti-racists who want to test their own analyses and move past a program of “whatever will play well on Twitter” will benefit from a close reading and an open mind.

Bad News by Batya Ungar-Sargon 📚

Mike Hall @pdxmph