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 read a lightly edited transcript.
Rob Bluey: As somebody who attended journalism school and has worked in the media, I can tell you that I really connected with a lot of the ideas in your book. And I appreciate your writing it and telling the story from your perspective about the situation we find ourselves in today when it comes to 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 always like to begin by asking what inspired you to write 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.”
And it was about how Americans are much less divided than we think, and that polarization is a pretty much purely 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 was turning it down. … It was actually the last drinks I had before lockdown in March 2020. The last time I went out for a long time. We were having drinks and she said to me, “Look, you’re telling me that we’re not that polarized. Well, then why do I think 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 telling this narrative that we have never been more racist or sexist or this phobic or that phobic when the truth is the exact opposite? Americans have never been more united around the values that this great nation was founded on.
That was what inspired me, I would say. 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: The thing that I appreciate most about your book is that you go through by providing examples, which I think is very helpful, but secondly, you explain how we got to the point we find ourselves today.
And so walk us through how this class of journalists, which many years ago, at the foundation of the penny press and Benjamin Day and Joseph Pulitzer, were really there in service to the working class, came to abandon the working class and focus on maybe elite interests instead.
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? Why do we believe all that? The answer is actually not about partisan politics or partisanship at all. 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.
So for much of American history, your typical journalist was not college educated. In fact, a lot of them hadn’t even finished high school. This was a low-status job.
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 put the teacher in charge anyway? And why does the teacher 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 worked and lived in working-class neighborhoods. And they were part of the working class. It was a low-status, blue-collar trade. It was not a profession. And over the course of the 20th century, that really changed.
And of course, it’s not just journalists. The whole Democratic coalition, the whole Democratic Party, the left that used to represent labor, used to be deeply embedded in the working class, today is really the side of the overeducated, the coastal, people with a certain kind of taste palette and setup and so forth.
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.
Now over 92% of journalists have a college degree. The majority of them have a graduate degree. One in five journalists lives in Los Angeles, New York, or D.C. Seventy-five percent of digital media journalist jobs are on the coasts in those corridors. 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 are people who are super comfortable with authority, super comfortable with massive government. They think that somebody should be telling everybody what to think and what to do, and they should be the ones 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. As they started to go to school with the scions of billionaires, of international billionaires, of people who are going to go on to become politicians or have super high-status jobs in America, the people that they end up covering, right? But they have class solidarity with.
It shifted their focus because they ended up on the beneficiary end of the radical class divide in America. Nobody wanted to tell that story anymore. So instead they shifted the focus of inequality from class, which is where it really is, to things like race and gender in order to avoid talking about the ways in which they were implicated in the class divide.
And I don’t want to make this sound like a conspiracy. I think a lot of this was unconscious. 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 really are on the side of criminalizing the views of the vast majority of middle- and working-class Americans.
So to me, the woke revolution that we see in the media is just the last stage of this class revolution, this status revolution that then met an industry that was hungry for clicks and engagement, which meant that it was hungry to cater to the most extreme. And it was sort of like this match made in hell, and that explains why our media is so terrible.
Bluey: Well, thank you for outlining that. That’s a really helpful analysis. And I agree with your assessment there.
One of the things that I’ve noticed, and I’m wondering if you have as well, is this pack mentality. That it seems that the journalists, maybe because they do come from the same elite institutions and the same backgrounds, maybe even live in the same neighborhoods, tend to focus on the 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 huge factor, but only because of the craven cowardice of the people who are supposed to be at the head of august institutions like The New York Times and The Washington Post and NPR. If those people were doing their jobs, then Twitter mobs would have no 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 is over. I mean, the leadership that I follow now is from the working class, from average everyday Americans who have more courage and more values in their pinky finger than the people leading The New York Times.
Bluey: You mentioned The New York Times and obviously, they play a big role in this. You yourself are a deputy opinion editor at Newsweek. James Bennet, who was leading the opinion pages of The New York Times, was forced out of his job when he published an op-ed by a sitting U.S. senator, Tom Cotton, at a time when many people on the woke left did not agree with that opinion. And as a result, he lost his job. 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. It was that they then lied in their own reported piece by three journalists about what had actually happened. They misrepresented what was in the op-ed, OK?
So they misquoted their own op-ed in their “objective” reporting. They then lied about what had happened. And then they leaked the name of the most junior person at the opinion desk who had worked on the piece. They dangled that like bait in front of the Twitter mob, who came for him in this rapacious, disgusting antisemitic way, just because his last name sounds Jewish. And The New York Times condoned that and condoned it and condoned it.
So there had been seven editors who had worked on that op-ed. They dangled one name out there and not one of those people 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 despicable. And they encouraged the reporters to lie in their reporting about what had happened.
It’s not just the one op-ed. I mean, the rot goes so deep when you think about the abdication of just basic humanity, basic morals, because everybody is terrified about this Twitter mob. I mean, it really, really is shocking. … I know I sound very angry. I got so angry when I was reporting this out. And I just think people need to understand.
By the way, this was by design at The New York Times. If you go back to 2014, when they laid out their digital strategy for the future, one of the things they said they wanted was they wanted their employees to be social media stars. They wanted them to be setting the agenda. I mean, they said, “We need to reward people who go out there and make a name for themselves on Twitter.”
And so what happened? 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. I mean, just the dereliction of duty 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. I mean, to get to that level of squandering your legacy, to where only 9% of your readers are people from the other party, I mean, that takes a lot of work. And unfortunately, they put that work in.
Bluey: You’ve done a great job here of outlining the problem. I also want to give you an opportunity to talk about some of the 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? Maybe there are some people who are doing it well and trying to push things in a better direction and not only hold those in power accountable, but maybe provide a better alternative for the working class and other Americans who really should be getting the information in a way that we did in years past.
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 of all, most marginalized communities have spent 100 years being news deserts, right? 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 would 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? And denying their own culpability in it. 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 an affluent coastal city-based reader. They only want the 6% of Americans who identify as progressives.
So in a way sort of like working itself out. They no longer care about other Americans and other Americans no longer 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. And it just fell flat. 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. And I just feel like the real power, the real alternative to all this lies in the people. And … I’m a little bit more focused on that now.
Bluey: It certainly does. And you and Josh Hammer at Newsweek have certainly, I think, pushed back successfully and tried a different approach. 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, I have to say, I do my job with a lot of gratitude to Josh. I mean, he walks the walk. He doesn’t just talk the talk. We run opinion from across the political spectrum.
Now, interestingly—I think you and your listeners will find this very interesting. Newsweek is now coded as center-right, even though we have three opinion editors who are on the left and two who are on the right. Because just the fact of hosting the debate makes you—that’s now considered a right-wing proposition. If that makes sense. That’s where we’ve arrived at.
A week ago, there was a debate between Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Bernie Sanders, right? A very cool thing to take place. And where do you think it took place? On Fox News, right? On 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.
But we host opinion from across the political spectrum, across the religious spectrum. We have people writing for us of all races, of all backgrounds, of all ethnicities, of all persuasions. Obviously, there’s limits, right? We each have our red lines and then we have our collective red lines as a section. But we are deeply committed to having Americans from all walks of life.
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.
But you will never read those views in The New York Times or The Washington Post. Or actually, you will in The Wall Street Journal, but especially with Newsweek.
And … Josh is very invested in the populist right. And we have two editors who are much more on the left, central left, representing that point of view. Getting the woke point of view, of course, is really important, even though I personally don’t agree with that view. We publish stuff like that all the time.
So we are deeply, deeply, deeply invested in America and in the great American conversation and the great American debate.
Bluey: And Batya, final question for you 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 response as you look ahead? Now that your book is out and people have had a chance to digest it and see your opinion, where do you see things going from here? Do you have an optimistic perspective on the future or do you really think things are going to maybe get worse before they get 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.”
If the right is going to become the side of talking about class inequality, talking about the dignity of working-class life and working-class jobs, my God, what could be better? 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 do we build power from the bottom up and give people a sense of dignity back and a sense of ownership over their lives and a sense of autonomy?
So I feel very, very hopeful and optimistic because I see people responding to my work. 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 you leaving us with that. I, like you, am optimistic about where things are headed. 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, 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 you being on the show today.
Ungar-Sargon: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure and it’s an honor.
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