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Bad News

How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy

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Publication Details

Hardcover / 234 pages
ISBN: 9781641772068
Available: 10/26/2021

Bad News
How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy

Something is wrong with American journalism. Long before “fake news” became the calling card of the Right, Americans had lost faith in their news media. But lately, the feeling that something is off has become impossible to ignore. That’s because the majority of our mainstream news is no longer just liberal; it’s woke. Today’s newsrooms are propagating radical ideas that were fringe as recently as a decade ago, including “antiracism,” intersectionality, open borders, and critical race theory. How did this come to be?

It all has to do with who our news media is written by—and who it is written for. In Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy, Batya Ungar-Sargon reveals how American journalism underwent a status revolution over the twentieth century—from a blue-collar trade to an elite profession. As a result, journalists shifted their focus away from the working class and toward the concerns of their affluent, highly educated peers. With the rise of the Internet and the implosion of local news, America’s elite news media became nationalized and its journalists affluent and ideological. And where once business concerns provided a countervailing force to push back against journalists’ worst tendencies, the pressures of the digital media landscape now align corporate incentives with newsroom crusades.

The truth is, the moral panic around race, encouraged by today’s elite newsrooms, does little more than consolidate the power of liberal elites and protect their economic interests. And in abandoning the working class by creating a culture war around identity, our national media is undermining American democracy. Bad News explains how this happened, why it happened, and the dangers posed by this development if it continues unchecked.

About the Author

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the deputy opinion editor of Newsweek. Before that, she was the opinion editor of the Forward, the largest Jewish media outlet in America.

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here’s a view that’s taken hold of America’s national news media. It’s not a new one; it’s long been a staple among academics and activists. But increasingly, it has made its way out of the hallowed hallways of sociology and ethnic studies departments and seeped into America’s mainstream via our leading national news media outlets. It’s the belief that America is an unrepentant white-supremacist state that confers power and privilege on white people, which it systematically denies to people of color. Those who hold this view believe an interconnected network of racist institutions infects every level of society, culture, and politics, imprisoning us all in a power binary based on race regardless of our economic circumstances. And the solution, according to those who hold this view, is not to reform institutions that still struggle with racism but to transform the consciousness of everyday Americans until we prioritize race over everything else.

This view is known as “antiracism,” or by the shorthand of being “woke,” slang for being awake to what’s called systemic or institutional racism. And though many in this ideological camp pay lip service to the idea that race is a social construct rather than a biological reality, they view race as the most important and inescapable fact of American life, reducing America’s past and present to a binary of white oppressors and black and brown victims.

For a long time, this view was the province of far-left activists and academics. But over the past decade, it’s found its way into the mainstream, by and large through liberal media outlets like the New York Times, NPR, MSNBC, the Washington Post, Vox, CNN, the New Republic, and the Atlantic. Once fringe, the idea that America is an unabated white-supremacist country and that the most important thing about a person is the immutable fact of their race is the defining paradigm of today, the one now favored by white liberals to describe our current moment. And it was when white liberals began espousing this woke narrative that it went from being mainstream to being an obsession; and even, most recently, to being an outright moral panic. The obsessive enthusiasm for wokeness among white liberals created a feedback loop with their media outlets that was then reinforced through a new and staggering uniformity of views across once distinct publications and news channels, showing up in ubiquitous television segments like Don Lemon’s, and articles like “Is the White Church Inherently Racist?” and “The Housewives of White Supremacy” and “When Black People Are in Pain, White People Just Join Book Clubs” and “How White Women Use Themselves as Instruments of Terror,”8 the bread and butter of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Where did this obsession come from? The election of Donald Trump is often given the credit for the national liberal news media’s newly woke outlook: Trump was so extreme in his disregard of liberal mores, so willing to offend with comments that were sometimes casually racist—comments that were amplified and justified throughout conservative and right-wing news outlets—that America’s liberal camp, including the liberal media, swung hard to the left. This is true: The mainstream media certainly molded itself around Trump, whose presidency was a major gift to MSNBC and CNN and the New York Times—outlets that were facing a bleak outlook are now thriving thanks to the ratings and clicks that the Trump stories generated.

But the woke moral panic mainstreamed by the liberal news media had actually been underway for at least five years before Trump appeared on the scene. It began around 2011, the year the New York Times erected its online paywall. It was then that articles mentioning “racism,” “people of color,” “slavery,” or “oppression” started to appear with exponential frequency at the Times, BuzzFeed, Vox, the Washington Post, and NPR, according to sociologists tracking these developments. And as we will see throughout this book, this radical shift to the left on issues of identity was rooted in a longer-term trend in the media that has much more to do with class than it does with politics or race.


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