Batya Ungar-Sargon is the deputy opinion editor at Newsweek and co-hosts Newsweek’s podcast “The Debate.” Before joining Newsweek, she was the opinion editor of Forward, the largest Jewish media outlet in the United States. She’s written for The New York Times and Washington Post. She’s appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and NBC. She has a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.
She is not the person you would expect to have written a book like Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy. But she did.
Bad News is not a book written from a conservative, right-wing, or alt-right perspective. It’s not a hastily compiled mishmash of everything that’s wrong with the news media. Instead, Ungar-Sargon has published a carefully researched, well-documented, and well-written story of where American news media has gone seriously wrong and how that is harming the United States.
If the problem could be summarized in one sentence, it would be this: the business model of the news media has shifted from reporting the news to giving its demographic the perspective that it wants. Some call this reporting the narrative instead of the news. Whatever it’s called, it’s making a significant contribution, perhaps the most significant, to destroying trust it itself, in American Institutions, and what Americans have believed about their country. And that has implications far beyond the 50 states
This is what Ungar-Sargon documents in Bad News:
The people who are the reporters and editors have not been working-class for two generations. The economic and social status of reporters changed fundamentally, and the author points to the Watergate scandal as one of the starting points.
The major news media have abandoned the working class, not unlike the Democratic Party did beginning with the Clinton Administration. The working class is still large group of people, and Fox News isn’t so much the conservative media outlier as it is the channel that covers what the working class cares about.
Social media and the internet, far from “democratizing” society, have been the mechanisms by which the major news media centered their efforts on narrative instead of news – and turned the narrative into a business model.
The media’s coverage of racial issues fits its audience’s understanding about race and itself, but it is completely out of kilter with what most Americans believe or experience. One example: 81 percent of Black Americans do not want the police defunded. Ungar-Sargon argues that the media is besotted with race because a discussion of class, which she sees is the real issue, would undermine the media’s own position.
The media’s cartoonish coverage of Jews, crime, and Trump voters exemplify what is happening. She doesn’t say it exactly this way, but Donald Trump is like the drug to the news media’s addiction. It needs Trump, and not only to prop up its ratings and subscriptions but also to be the ever-present Bogeyman out to destroy America as the media understands it.
She doesn’t present a laundry list of how to fix the problem; the solution will take generations. But she does suggest things that Americans can do to stop the media from exercising the negative influence it has. And it’s not things like cancel your newspaper subscription.
Bad News is an important book, one likely to be ignored by the news media. But the rest of need to read it and understand it. It’s that important.
Top photograph by Markus Spiske via Unsplash. Used with permission.