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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 260

Batya Ungar-Sargon — Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy

Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy (book cover)

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.

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. She has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, the New York Review of Books Daily, and other publications. She has appeared numerous times on MSNBC, NBC, the Brian Lehrer Show, NPR, and at other media outlets. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

Shermer and Ungar-Sargon discuss:

  • What is “news” and what happened to it over the past century?
  • news about labor, corruption, and crime
  • how journalism was originally invented to empower the poor
  • how the media left the poor behind and now caters almost exclusively to the interests of urban, upper-class liberals
  • 3 trends: (1) respectability counterrevolution: working-class cultures as unworthy of media attention, (2) status revolution: journalism shifted from middle-class to upper-class, (3) advertising has replaced subscriptions as the economic model
  • 4 remaining problems: (1) police brutality, (2) mass incarceration, (3) educational disparities, (4) intergenerational wealth gap
  • social media and the Internet
  • information bubbles, echo chambers, customer-engagement funnel
  • When did the press become “enemies of the people”? (Trump)
  • generational change in journalism: older journalists focused on diverse viewpoints and dogged reporting; young on sitting in judgement over those they disagreed with
  • academic shift a shift away from facts and grand narratives and toward relativism
  • race, gender and class
  • why Democrats are migrating to Fox News
  • UBI (Universal Basic Income) and reparations
  • the bigotry of low expectations by progressives against people of color
  • the positive role of the home environment on education and success
  • the positive role of religion on how lives turn out.

Quotations from Ungar-Sargon

The Wall Street Journal reports in its media kit that four out of five readers have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and half are affluent, meaning they own liquid assets of $1 million or more. In a now-deleted media kit, the New York Times boasted a print readership who were ‘elite,’ ‘affluent,’ and ‘influential’; more likely to be millionaires, C-suite executives, or business decision makers than ‘the average affluent adult’; and claimed a median household income of $191,000, with digital readers coming in at $96,000.”

“When you define racism as an omnipresent white-supremacist framework baked into the heart of our nation that can never be solved or extracted, you give people a culture war they can hammer away at forever, a perpetual cudgel against those who disagree with them, even if those who disagree with them are less affluent and less fortunate — the losers of the economic and culture war.”

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This episode is sponsored by Wondrium:

Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on April 5, 2022.

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