Media have dropped the middle class, the book claims

As books go, 2020 was the annus horribilis of meritocracy. Daniel Markovits warned about “The Meritocracy Trap”, while “The Tyranny of Merit” gave Michael Sandel several awards for this year’s book. Both books pointed to the potential of meritocracy to legitimize inequality beyond the point of tolerability. However, they overlooked the role of the media in covering up this growing inequality. In “Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy” (2021), Newsweek’s deputy editor Batya Ungar-Sargon argues that “the identity culture war has allowed journalists to portray our nation as hopelessly divided along party political and racial lines as a smokescreen. actual impenetrable and destructive division that takes place along class boundaries. ”

Most of Ungar-Sargon’s book documents on its own what she calls the “moral panic” that is currently gripping America’s mainstream media, brought to a fever by the assassination of George Floyd last May. This panic, she argues, is intertwined with a much older trend: the drift of the media away from the values ​​and concerns of the American working class. The book begins by tracing the rise of populism in the mid-19th century, ignited by such journalistic coryphaeus as Benjamin Day and Joseph Pulitzer, who sought to sell newspapers with content relevant (if often sensational) to the lives of working men. Despite the seemingly insurmountable class divides of the gilded age, Day and Pulitzer’s so-called penny press emerged, with its focus on work, corruption and crime, as a knowledge equalizer and tool for empowerment. As the U.S. economy moves toward comparable levels of inequality, today’s media play the opposite role – taking care almost exclusively of the interests of urban, upper-class liberals.

Ungar-Sargon points to three major trends that are driving the transformation of the once socially eclectic mass media into today’s class-skewed press. First, a “respectability counter-revolution” has stigmatized working-class culture as unworthy of media attention, and pressured the city press to accommodate the tastes and interests of American sophists, as the epitome of The New Yorker. Second, a “status revolution” has transformed journalism, once once a middle-class subject, into an upper-class subject, where aspiring writers and journalists from humble backgrounds have to climb through a series of apprenticeships to get their first jobs. Third, ads have replaced subscriptions as the media’s main source of revenue, even though the industry is consolidating into five major national conglomerates at the expense of a rapidly disappearing local press. Combined, these trends have meant that increasingly exclusive journalists are targeting equally distinguished and liberal-minded readers, while the remaining few businesses targeting the working class are becoming conservative outliers.

The most crucial – and complex – factor in the social and ideological stratification of the media is the Internet. With its information bubbles, echo chambers and customer engagement funnel, “social media has sacrificed the quality of journalism on the altar of individual journalists’ egoism.” Staff writers and journalists are caught up in a battle for online likes and shares, leaving less time for the face-to-face reporting that was once the bread and butter of journalism. Then came Donald Trump, with his branding of the press as “the enemies of the people.” Ungar-Sargon writes that the 45th president licensed the mainstream media to push working-class whites even further away from their editorial lens. Because the mainstream media saw Trump as an enemy of the journalism profession itself, they treated the policies that his administration had put forward, such as stronger border security, as sinister – even when many of these policies won the approval of voters.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump had called the press “the enemy of the people.”
MANDEL NGAN / AFP via Getty Images

Generational change has also been a factor. Older cohorts of journalists understood that their subjects thrived on different views and stubborn reporting; the younger generation of digital natives see their role “less as understanding their subjects and more as sitting in judgment on those with whom they disagreed.” This awakened cohort is intent on spreading its crusade to the wider community. “Despite all the talk of fighting racism,” writes Ungar-Sargon, “the re-racialization of American life through a waking culture war was simply the next stage in the journalists’ status revolution – and who they regarded as their readers.” Imbued with critical race theory and postmodernist thinking, the younger journalists have brought to the newsroom an “obsession with race that elegantly crosses a truer abyss of American life – economic inequality.” of these young journalists (regardless of their color) enjoyed on their path to professional success.

Late.  Tom Cotton's
New York Times staff revolted after publishing Sen. Tom Cotton’s op-ed.
Tasos Katopodis / Pool via REUTERS / File Photo

This generational change in staff, in turn, has jeopardized a long-standing editorial practice. Editors once had the ultimate power over what was published; Today, newsroom plotters often exercise the power that emerges from the staff uprising after The New York Times published Sen. Tom Cotton’s op-ed, urging troops to quell the riots and looting after George Floyd’s death. “What’s so shocking about this censorship development in American journalism,” Ungar-Sargon explains, “is not that online activists would try to use their power to enforce their views, but that an older generation of journalists – people who should, who know better – would capitulate to the pressure. ” Ungar-Sargon believes that the responsibility for restoring reason in our media image lies with all consumers of the news. By choosing wisely what business we read and keeping politics at an arms length from the rest of our lives, we can push back against the degeneration of the media to a polarizing force in American life.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) co-hosts the podcast “Uncommon Decency” on European issues (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at the Fundación Civismo (Madrid).

Reprinted from City Journal


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