The woke bent of many American newsrooms gives a topical edge to Batya Ungar-Sargon’s new book of reflections on class and race in America. “Bad News” (Encounter Books) is a useful check on the identity politics of the era from an avowed Jewish labor populist who is an opinions editor at the current iteration of Newsweek. (Note that she is being published here by a conservative house.)
Ungar-Sargon depicts the prestige media as uncaring about the U.S. working class even as it rides nearly every left-wing fancy about white supremacy’s benighted reign. She illuminates the hypocritical business interest of institutions such as the New York Times in targeting a progressive (and affluent) audience, but is less convincing about the journalists themselves, whose content these days is in fact full of support for struggling laborers, especially women.
Ungar-Sargon in arguing that Ivy Leaguers in the newsrooms have alienated a blue-collar market draws on a 2019 volume, “No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class,” by Christopher R. Martin, an Iowa communications professor. Martin in turn quotes pioneering media pundit Ben Bagdikian, who says that when the timecard set no longer saw its concerns reflected in reporting, it stopped buying papers. Although it’s true that the “labor beat” took a back seat in the latter half of the 20th century, the dynamic here deserves more scrutiny. The traditional press of the wage workers—the tabloids, the afternoon papers, the readership that Ungar-Sargon longingly associates with publishers Benjamin Day and Joseph Pulitzer—began dying even before Rosie Riveter was a World War II heroine. In 1950, 70% of the country’s dailies were “evening” editions, and now those are rare—the “tabs,” even more so. An interesting study for another volume—one not so much keyed to hot-button “anti-racism” as this book is—would ask, where has this demographic gone? Is it still reading, or have literacy and political standards actually fallen? What has taken the place of “the paper” in their hours of cogitation?
Ungar-Sargon suggests at a few points that Fox News Channel has been the working class’s fallback. I don’t think this best describes FNC’s core audience—it is decidedly male, yes, but hardly a lunch-pale set. The widening gamut of sports programming is a better answer, though watching this doesn’t do much for informed citizenship in our democratic republic (it may not even be aiding sportsmanship). Then there are the booming video games for advancing adolescents. But the biggest draw for Joe Sixpack is probably the same as it is for the Twitter mobs—the smartphone, and the social-media newsfeed that pumps info-bits into our civic bloodstream. Depending on which purveyors are popping up, this ironically may mean that the sermonizing snobs of the press who Ungar-Sargon so unsparingly disparages are in fact still being piped into the Other America. My bet is that, just as in Day’s and Pulitzer’s time of the penny papers, the most popular day-to-day news diet is that which costs the least.