Once Champions of Working Class, Journalists Now Represent America’s Elite

Just when it seemed that confidence in America’s news media couldn’t get any worse, last month Gallup reported new record lows.

“Just 16% of U.S. adults now say they have ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in newspapers and 11% in television news,” Gallup’s Megan Brenan wrote. “Both readings are down five percentage points since last year.”

Those numbers are startling—and perhaps well deserved given the current state of our corrupt corporate media. But they’re also troubling for America.

Batya Ungar-Sargon, deputy opinion editor at Newsweek, is the author of “Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy.” She spoke to The Daily Signal about the media and her diagnosis of what’s wrong. Listen to the interview or view a lightly edited transcript.

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Rob Bluey, As someone who studied journalism and worked in the media, you can see that I connected with many of the ideas in your book. I appreciate the fact that you wrote it and shared your perspective about the current state of journalism.

I want to begin there before I get to your role at Newsweek and some of the things that you’re doing to hopefully change the direction that we’re headed. But I like to ask you why you wrote the book.

Batya Ungar-Sargon: I have a very unsatisfying answer to that question, which is, I tried to write a different book before and I couldn’t sell it. And that book was called “A More Perfect Union.”

It was about how Americans are less divided than we think and that polarization is an elite phenomenon. People who aren’t making money or getting power off of polarization are not polarized. And I wanted to write a book about all this good news and I couldn’t sell it.

Editor after editor kept turning it down. … It was actually the last drinks I had before lockdown in March 2020. The last time I was out for a while. We were having drinks and she said to me, “Look, you’re telling me that we’re not that polarized. Then why do you think that we are? Maybe you should write that book.”

And I think that is the book that “Bad News” actually is. It’s an explanation of why Americans are so convinced that things are so terrible. Why is the media claiming that we have never been racist, sexist, phobic or this phobic? When the truth is quite the opposite. Americans have never been closer to the values this great nation was founded on.

That was what inspired and motivated me, I would add. I sat back and said, “OK, maybe I should tell the story about how we’re getting the wrong message. Why are we getting the bad news instead of the good news?” And that’s “Bad News.”

Bluey: I find the most valuable thing about your book is that it provides examples. This is very helpful. But, secondly, it explains how we got to where we are today.

Let us now see how this class of journalists, who were actually there to serve the working-class many years ago at the foundations of the penny press, Benjamin Day, and Joseph Pulitzer, left the working-class to focus on elite interests.

Ungar-Sargon: The surprising thing that I found in my book that I did not expect going into it is, why do Americans believe that we’ve never been as divided as we are now, that we’ve never been more racist than we are now? What is the reason we believe this? It’s not about partisan politics. It’s about class.

Really, the reason that we’re getting this messaging has a lot to do with the ways that the industry of journalism changed, the way the profit motive has changed, but also a status revolution among journalists that shifted the kinds of stories that they wanted to tell.

The average journalist in American history was not a college graduate. In fact, a lot of them hadn’t even finished high school. This was a low-status position.

The kind of person who would become a journalist was the kid in the back of the room in school who couldn’t shut up, who couldn’t stop cracking wise, who thought that his job was to point out that the teacher was wrong about everything. And who gave the teacher power? Why do teachers have power over us? Right?

Somebody super anti-authoritarian, who was maybe even too anti-authoritarian to go work in the factory where all of his classmates were going to go after high school because he would’ve presented a danger. So he’d become a journalist, right?

He’d go and he’d meet powerful people. And he’d demand justice and accountability on behalf of his friends who were toiling away in the factory, or who were plumbers or electricians or linemen.

Journalists lived and worked in working-class areas. They were part of the working-class. It was a low-status trade, blue-collar. It was not a career. This has changed over the course 20 years.

And of course, it’s not just journalists. The entire Democratic coalition, the whole Democratic Party that used to represent labor was deeply embedded in the working-class. Today, it’s the side of the coastal, overeducated, and people with a certain taste palette and setup.

And what ended up happening was journalists now are, it’s one of the most educated professions in America, despite the fact that you can’t actually teach journalism in school, which is something that Americans knew for the vast majority of our history. It’s something that you do by going out and talking to people.

Over 92% of journalists now have a college diploma. A majority of them hold a graduate degree. One fifth of journalists live in Los Angeles, New York or D.C. Seventy five percent of digital media journalism jobs are located on these coasts. So there’s been a total profile shift in who journalists are.

Today, journalists are the kid in the front of the class going, “Oh, me, me, me,” every time the teacher asks a question. “Me, me, me.” And the teacher has to pretend they can’t see them because otherwise they’d only be calling on them.

These people are comfortable with authority and large government. These people believe that someone should tell everyone what to think and do. They should be the ones who are in charge of that messaging. It’s just been a complete shift in the makeup of this class.

And as journalists ascended to the elites, to where they’re making … they’re in the top 10% today. They began to attend school with billionaire scions, international billionaires, and people who will go on to become politicians in America. They have class solidarity with.

They shifted their focus to the beneficiary end of America’s radical class divide. This story was not something anyone wanted to tell. Instead, they moved the focus from class to race and gender to avoid mentioning the ways they were involved in the class divide.

And I don’t want to make this sound like a conspiracy. A lot of this was unconscious, I believe. I think most of these people still see themselves as good people and really do believe that they are fighting on behalf of the forgotten people, but they really aren’t. They are really on the side that criminalizes the views of the vast majority middle- and working-class Americans.

To me, the woke revolution in the media is the final stage of the class revolution. It was the status revolution that then met an industry hungry for clicks, engagement, and which meant it was hungry to cater only to the extreme. It was a match made in hell, which is why our media is so awful.

Bluey: Thank you for highlighting that. That’s a really helpful analysis. I agree with you on that.

One of the things that I’ve noticed, and I’m wondering if you have as well, is this pack mentality. Perhaps because they are from the same elite schools and come from similar backgrounds, or maybe they live in the same communities, journalists tend to focus on the exact same story. And they’re not telling certain stories or telling aspects about our culture that would have before.

Probably also a consequence of the fact that you don’t have nearly as many local news outlets that simply just have not been able to sustain themselves economically in this world that we live in.

So how much of a factor is that in terms of how we’re actually consuming news and what it means for the populace in terms of how they go about getting information?

Ungar-Sargon:It is a significant factor but only because of cowardice by those who are supposed to be at top of august institutions like The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR. If these people were doing their jobs, Twitter mobs wouldn’t have any power.

Yeah, sure, you’d have a bunch of really angry, overeducated elites living in coastal cities who were really mad at you on the internet, but it wouldn’t matter. The reason that it matters that there’s this mob mentality is because people at the masthead, at the top of these mastheads, have been caving over and over to the pressure from the mobs. That’s where the problem lies, is just in the cravenness at the top.

There’s no leadership anymore in this country right now. The leadership class has ended. I am referring to the working class. They are the ones I follow, and they have more courage, more values, than those at The New York Times.

Bluey: Bluey, you mentioned The New York Times. This is a huge role. You are also a deputy editor at Newsweek. James Bennet, who was heading the opinion pages at The New York Times was fired after he published an opinion piece by Tom Cotton, a sitting U.S senator. This was at a time when many on the woke left were not in agreement with the opinion. He was fired. I’m sure he’s not alone in that regard.

Ungar-Sargon: Let me just tell you something that I think people don’t realize, and I go through this in the book, blow by blow. It wasn’t just that The New York Times fired somebody for publishing a sitting U.S. senator. They then lied to three journalists in their own piece about what actually happened. OK?

So they misquoted their own op-ed in their “objective” reporting. They then lied about what had occurred. Then they leaked the name the most junior person on the opinion desk who worked on the piece. They set that up as bait for the Twitter mob, and they came for him in this rapacious and disgusting antisemitic manner, just because his name sounds Jewish. The New York Times even condoned this and condoned the act.

There had been seven editors involved in the op-ed. They floated one name out there, but not one of them stood up for him. AG Sulzberger, all of these people, the Standards Department—the “Standards Department” at The New York Times—all of these people allowed this kid’s name to be dragged through the mud. It was so abominable. They encouraged reporters to lie in reporting about what had been reported.

It’s not just the one op-ed. It’s the complete rot when you think about the abdication just of basic humanity, basic morals. Everyone is scared about this Twitter mob. It is truly shocking. … I know I sound very angry. I was so mad when I reported this. I believe people need to get this.

This was, by the way, by design at The New York Times. When they set out their digital strategy for the future in 2014, one of their goals was that their employees be social media stars. They wanted them to set the agenda. I mean, they said, “We need to reward people who go out there and make a name for themselves on Twitter.”

What happened next? They encouraged this behavior and then their own employees turned on them and got them to fire people who they didn’t like the cut of their jib. I mean, it’s really, really, really horrifying. It’s just the dereliction at the top.

Look, there’s a lot of victims here, but the main victims of all of this—now we are an America that doesn’t have a New York Times, right? That’s not great. For people like me who grew up reading that paper every single day of my life, that’s not great.

But I just think that The New York Times now, … 91% of their readers are Democrats. It takes a lot of work to reach that level of squandering one’s legacy to where only 9% are people from the other side. They put in that effort, unfortunately.

Bluey: You’ve done a great job here of outlining the problem. I want to give you the opportunity to discuss some of the possible solutions. And let me begin by asking you the question, if there are different models that you’ve seen in the media landscape that have worked particularly well as disruptors? Perhaps there are some people doing it well and trying hard to push things in the right direction.

Ungar-Sargon: Yes. Obviously, there’s stuff I love, there’s great independent stuff going on. But I would say, even more importantly, I love the mass boycott of the news that’s happening right now. …

First, the majority of marginalized communities have been news deserts for 100 years. So it’s like OK, now we’re all feeling what that feels like, but how important is it that there be a national news media that people tune into? I’m not sure it’s very important.

Local news was very important to holding power to account, but right now I just don’t see how any of these people have the moral credibility to hold people to account. And they weren’t even doing it like before because of all of this class solidarity.

So I’m very heartened to see the American people just turning away from all of this, finding podcasts they like that reflect their values that they see as on their side.

There’s a lot of that going on and that’s great. But at the end of the day, it’s about entertainment because like I said, the crisis of leadership is so deep, one struggles to imagine, how would you fix this? How can you turn this around

I don’t think that our journalistic class is capable of doing that because they are so economically invested in the status quo and so psychologically invested in denying it, right? It is also denial of their own responsibility. I don’t see that turning around.

But they don’t want the vast American readership anymore, right? The New York Times wants a Democratic readership. It wants a reader who lives in coastal cities. They want only the 6% who identify as progressives.

It’s almost like it all works out. They don’t care anymore about other Americans, and Americans don’t care about them.

… There was this huge hit piece against Tucker Carlson in The New York Times where they did their best to call him racist a gazillion different ways. It was a complete failure. And Glenn Greenwald tweeted, there was a time five years ago, 10 years ago, where a hit piece from The New York Times calling you a white supremacist would’ve ended your career. And today, nobody cares.

So I feel much more heartened by the boycott than I do by the fact that there’s now Substack or what have you. I’m taking my cues from working-class Americans who I speak to every day working on my next book. I feel that the real power, and the real alternative to all of this, lies in the people. And … I’m a little bit more focused on that now.

Bluey, It does. Josh Hammer and you at Newsweek have tried a different approach and pushed back, I think. And so I’d like to hear how you are approaching your job on a day-to-day basis, not only to push back on the cancel culture that you’ve talked about, but to make sure that you are reaching a broad swath of Americans and not just catering to Democrats or Republicans, but trying to reach everybody with a diversity of opinions.

Ungar-Sargon:First, let me say that I am grateful to Josh for my job. He is a real person. He doesn’t just talk the talk. We provide opinion from across the political spectrum.

Now, interestingly—I think you and your listeners will find this very interesting. Newsweek is now coded center-right despite having three opinion editors on the left and two on the right. Because just the fact of hosting the debate makes you—that’s now considered a right-wing proposition. That makes sense. That’s where we’ve arrived at.

A week ago, Sen. Lindsey Graham & Sen. Bernie Sanders had a debate. It was quite an amazing thing to see. Where do you think it occurred? Right, Fox News. Fox Nation. It’s so interesting that the left has so abdicated the question of debate that that is now considered a right-wing proposition.

We welcome opinions from all political and religious perspectives. We have people of all races, all backgrounds, all religions, and all political opinions who write for us. Obviously, there’s limits, right? Each of us has our own red lines, and then we all have our collective redlines as a section. But we are deeply committed Americans from all walks.

I have a very strong focus on working-class voices, getting people into our pages who don’t have a college degree who work in the trades, who have a different perspective on life, on American life. That’s something I’m very passionate about. I’m very passionate about elevating moderate black voices, … they represent where the vast majority of black Americans are at.

These views will not appear in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Or, you will, especially with Newsweek, in The Wall Street Journal.

And … Josh is very invested in the populist right. Two editors are much more left-leaning, central left, which is what we have. Getting the woke point of view, of course, is really important, even though I personally don’t agree with that view. We publish such things all the time.

We are so deeply, deeply, deeply, invested in America and the great American conversation.

Bluey: Batya, last question for me here. I’ve had the opportunity to watch some of your interviews, listen to them. And I notice that when you’re talking to some in the media, they get very defensive, or in some cases, even angry about some of the indictments that you’ve made. What is your reaction as you look ahead? After your book is published, and people have had time to read it and hear your thoughts, where do things go from here? Are you optimistic about the future? Or do you believe things will get worse before getting better?

Ungar-Sargon: Oh, I’m really optimistic. Yeah. It’s funny because the left will … be like, “This critique is a right-wing talking point.” I’ll be like, “OK, so it’s now considered a right-wing talking point to care about class?” If the right is willing to follow me there, I’m coming to the right.

And I will just say to you and your listeners—I don’t know if your listeners know this, but I was invited to speak at this Heritage [Foundation] event. And when I was first invited to speak, I said, “Sure. Can I come and talk about how free markets miserate the working class?” And I said, “No hard feelings either way.”

And John Malcolm wrote back to me and he said, I hope he doesn’t mind my sharing this, he said, “Batya, you come and talk about whatever you want. We believe in open debate and dialogue and hearing from the other side.”

My God, what could be more positive than the right becoming the side that talks about class inequality, the dignity of working-class life, and working-class jobs? I mean, I don’t care which side does it, I just care that these people have a voice. And I’m getting a great response from the right. I mean, I don’t quite know, I haven’t delved deeply into why, but I’m super, super grateful. I’m super grateful to be here talking to you and to have been to the conference.

And so … I don’t think right or left really matters so much anymore. I think it’s really about who has power and who doesn’t, and how do we reshape that? How can we bring power back from the bottom and give people dignity, ownership and autonomy in their lives?

Because I see people respond to my work I feel very hopeful and optimistic. And like I said, I’m taking my cues from the people that I interview. And so I’m elevating their voices and I’m seeing an increased appetite to hear from them. So yeah, I’m betting on the American people, man. I’m betting on the American people, so I feel great.

Bluey: Thank You. I appreciate your kindness in leaving that. Like you, I’m optimistic about where things will go. I think the response that we’ve received since the creation of The Daily Signal—and I know there are so many other conservative media outlets that have come into existence in just the last decade. There’s clearly an underserved audience out there of American people who are looking for alternatives to the legacy media. And so thank you for the work that you’re doing, not only with the book “Bad News,” but day-to-day at Newsweek ensuring that we have that diversity of opinion represented.

Batya Ungar Sargon, we thank you again. The book is called “Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy.” We appreciate you coming to that Heritage event in Nashville. We appreciate your participation in today’s show.

Ungar-Sargon:Thank you so very much for having me. It was a pleasure and it’s an honor.

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