Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy by Batya Ungar-Sargon is a superb book that examines the transformation of journalism in the US during the twentieth century. She shows how the media has become a key player in the woke movement. The book charts the trajectory of journalism as it shifted from being a blue collar occupation producing the penny press for the masses, to a profession for Ivy League university graduates of today who focus their concerns on their affluent, highly educated peers. Batya unpicks the moral panic around race, promoted by newsrooms, and how liberal elites protect their own economic interests while focusing on race. Below is an excerpt from the book.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly our current moment began. But you can find evidence that something has changed in the recent headlines in the New York Times, as well as almost every other major national news outlet: “Is the White Church Inherently Racist?”;1 “How Racist Is Trump’s Republican Party?”;2 “Trump’s Racist, Statist Suburban Dream”;3 “How Racist Urban Planning Left Some Neighborhoods to Swelter”;4 “Confronting Racist Marketing”;5 “How to Raise an Anti-Racist Kid”;6 “Petition Urges Trader Joe’s to Get Rid of ‘Racist Branding’”;7 “Can I Stay Friends with Someone Who Voices Racist Views?”;8 “2 Georgia High Schoolers Posted Racist Video, Officials Say”;9 and “FIT Model Refuses to Wear ‘Clearly Racist’ Accessories.”10
When did this newfound obsession with re-racializing all of American life begin? “I started writing about what people now call wokeness at least as early as 2014,” the Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf recalled. “It seemed to me that there was some new moral thing in the air that I did not recognize from when I was in college. I didn’t yet see it in journalism, at least not like it’s there today.” Back in 2014, journalists were able to cover wokeness because it hadn’t yet become their own ideology. “There was skepticism early on before it became the more prevailing position among journalists,” Friedersdorf said. Not anymore. “I don’t think that a majority of journalists actually adhere to these beliefs, but I do think that they are the beliefs that people are afraid to openly transgress against.”
Thomas Chatterton Williams, a memoirist who writes about race and who is a vocal critic of cancel culture, first noticed it during President Obama’s second term in office. “By the second term, social media had become much more widely in use, which coincided with the disillusionment that followed the optimism of Obama’s win,” he told me. “That’s when the idea that white supremacy is hard wired into the DNA of America began to be popularized by writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates.” And it was directly related to a new consensus around race. “I’m convinced part of why now is because things are better than they’ve ever been. You don’t get this level of complaint until much more fundamental concerns and obstacles have been taken care of.”11 For journalist Matt Taibbi, the first time he noticed the trend toward wokeness was during the 2016 primary, when Hillary Clinton sought to recast Bernie Sanders’s attacks on her Wall Street ties as oblivious to more pressing issues. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the L.G.B.T. community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?” Clinton asked a crowd in Nevada, who roared back, “No!” in response to each question.12 “
It was enormously successful because it just completely changed the conversation,” Taibbi told me: It made Democratic voters think of those two aims as mutually exclusive—social justice aims and class equality aims: If you’re concerned about the one, then you can’t be concerned about the other. It started this whole debate which continues to animate everybody in Left media to a degree that’s incredibly annoying now, that it’s class or race, whereas really it’s class and race.13
That there has been an erasure of class from the conversation in favor of a conversation focused exclusively on race and, to a lesser degree, gender is not just based on anecdotal evidence; data and political scientists have been tallying the numbers, and what they found is not only a huge spike in articles on woke topics but that this focus started much earlier than you might think.
As Williams, Friedersdorf, and Taibbi all noted, it was not a reaction to Trump’s shocking 2016 victory, but was already well underway by then. Based on quantitative data, already by the second half of Obama’s presidency, journalists at leading publications had begun using words from the woke vocabulary like “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” and “intersectionality” with staggering frequency, mainstreaming a worldview that had been relegated to the fringes of academia just a few years earlier. The increased use of these terms started in 2011—not surprisingly, the same year the New York Times erected an online paywall and started investing in making its digital publication profitable.
This is what was found by David Rozado, a computer scientist who teaches at New Zealand’s Otago Polytechnic. Rozado created a computer program that trawled the online archives of the Times from 1970 to 2018 to track the frequency with which certain words were used. What he found was that the frequency of words like “racism,” “white supremacy,” “KKK,” “traumatizing,” “marginalized,” “hate speech,” “intersectionality,” and “activism” had absolutely skyrocketed during that time.14
His work does not stand alone. It echoes that of another academic, Zach Goldberg, a PhD candidate in political science at Georgia State University. Goldberg found that from 2012 to 2016, as the digital readership of the New York Times tripled, media outlets like the Times, the Huffington Post, and BuzzFeed began covering topics like white privilege, social justice, and institutional racism with exponential regularity, which correlated strongly with a massive spike in Google search results for these topics. And as those searches rose in number, so did the number of New York Times, Huffington Post, Washington Post, and BuzzFeed articles about racism, privilege, people of color, white tears, white-splaining, structural racism, and slavery. You can see how much of an increase there has been in the use of the word “racism” in major national news outlets from the 1970s until today in the following arresting figure from Goldberg.
Goldberg further found that between 2013 and 2019, the frequency of the words “white” and “racial privilege” grew by an astonishing 1,200 percent in the Times, and by 1,500 percent in the Washington Post.15 The term “white supremacy” was used fewer than seventy-five times in 2010 in the Washington Post and the New York Times,16 but over seven hundred times in 2020 alone; at NPR, it was used 2,400 times.17 The word “racism” appeared in the Washington Post over four thousand times in 2020; 18 that’s the equivalent of using it in ten articles a day. Furthermore, the Times and other liberal publications developed a penchant for associating the word racism with the term “white people,” so much so that these words became the strongest predictor for the inclusion of “racism” or “racist,” Goldberg found.19 How did this all happen? Insiders will tell you it started in the newsroom. Take the New York Times.
Between 2008 and 2015, there were a series of big buyouts at the paper, sometimes leading to hundreds of reporters at a time leaving or retiring. These reductions disproportionately cleared out senior ranks of reporters who had a more traditional view of journalism, in which a big part of the mandate, the meaning, and the fun of being a journalist was exposing yourself and your readers to other cultures and other people, and helping others to understand them. In the buyouts, these reporters were replaced by a younger generation of digital natives, some journalists, some in ancillary digital roles, who were educated at elite institutions and viewed their roles less as understanding their subjects and more as sitting in judgment over those they disagreed with. And that’s had an enormous effect on the paper.
While at one time, the older journalists taught the younger ones how to think, after the buyouts this younger generation, armed with their judgments and accusations of racism and sexism, became the ones wielding immense influence over their older colleagues. Insiders at the Times describe an atmosphere in which an older generation of editors and staff has completely capitulated to a younger woke generation. As one longtime Times journalist explained it to me, imagine having the stress of being replaced by someone younger with better tech skills and then imagine that that person calls you a racist to boot, and you’ll know the fear that older journalists experience and why they have ceded so much moral authority to younger ones. And it’s not just moral authority.
Some Times journalists of this younger generation have accrued big social media followings, which they wield as a cudgel, both against Times management and against colleagues whose work displeases them. But it wasn’t just the buyouts that led the Times there. The Times’s 2014 Innovation report explicitly suggested that journalists should create their own social media brands in order to amass loyal followings. The paper’s leadership saw its future in digital media—in a younger generation who could make that change happen, and thus needed to be courted and shown respect. The report demanded that the Times “accept that digital talent is in high demand,” suggesting that “to hire digital talent will take more money, more persuasion and more freedom once they are within The Times—even when candidates might strike us as young or less accomplished.”20 Leadership must “identify the rising digital stars in the newsroom. Show them they are appreciated, and solicit ideas from them on how The Times can be better.”21
The point, it seems, was taken. You can see this generational dynamic playing out in the leaked transcript of a town hall that the executive editor of the Times, Dean Baquet, was forced to call after an uproar over a headline that failed to call President Trump a racist. “I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting,” a staff member asked Baquet in 2019. “Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? Like these conversations about what is racist, what isn’t racist. Ijust feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting.”22 Baquet agreed. “Race in the next year—and I think this is, to be frank, what I would hope you come away from this discussion with—race in the next year is going to be a huge part of the American story,” he replied. “And I mean, race in terms of not only African Americans and their relationship with Donald Trump, but Latinos and immigration. And I think that one of the things I would love to come out of this with is for people to feel very comfortable coming to me and saying, here’s how I would like you to consider telling that story.”23
Baquet made good on his promise. The coverage of immigration from a racial point of view and the coverage of Donald Trump and his supporters as uniformly racist have been mainstays of the Times over the past four years, as we have seen in previous chapters. But it’s not just the New York Times, though the paper’s influence on the industry cannot be overstated.
Wokeness has taken over national newsrooms, and it’s influencing everything from coverage to personnel decisions to workplace culture. In 2019, WNYC took the entire station on a two-day off-campus diversity retreat to examine whiteness. Everyone had to fill out a questionnaire that included questions like, “Is the food that you grew up with readily available in your supermarket?”; “If you go to a high-end clothing store, do you find that the clerk pays too much attention to you and follows you around?”; and “How many times have you been pulled over by the police?”24 Their answers were then tallied to create a literal score of oppression, and they were placed in a semicircle based on their scores so everyone knew where everyone else fell in the hierarchy.
A senior editor at one of the better-known general-interest online news publications described the newsroom to me as full of ordinary office radicals who believe some pretty wild things—we should have no police, the rich should be abolished, that this is all awesome—especially among the younger workers and the reporters, who skew younger, thanks to a decision management made, because younger workers are cheaper and they don’t use their health insurance as a rule and don’t cost as much that way. And these young journalists end up writing in a very specific way.
As the editor explained: If you are twenty-five years old, looking at the state of society, you’re getting constantly inundated with this coverage of how bad things are, and many things are actually bad, and then you’re considering how previous generations dealt with this, and how respectability politics—white ones, black ones—have not produced a more equitable society, and you’re like, yeah, let me go all the way, that seems morally right….I totally get that as a starting point of assumptions and how you end up there, especially if you’re thinking about race but you’re not immersed in it, it’s not your daily lived experience. I completely get how normal, decent people end up there. And now they’re pushing the discourse in a way that’s just weird—and disconnected from how politics actually works.25
Disconnected though it is, that single narrative has taken hold at America’s leading journalistic outlets, and it’s being reinforced at the personal, political, and business levels of journalism, as well as in questions of workplace culture and personnel. Of course, we’re not the first generation of journalists to be seduced by a grand narrative, Friedersdorf pointed out. After 9/11, the prevailing mythology was that we were in a clash of civilizations with Islam and terrorism was the biggest threat to society. There was a time when the communist threat was the prevailing narrative. During war, American journalism gets jingoistic. “The narrative right now is that white supremacy and patriarchy are the biggest problems in society and attacking those problems as remorselessly as possible is the way toward a better society,” Friedersdorf told me. “I think it does a poor job of analyzing the range and magnitude of the problems that face us as a society. And I think that it does a more to tear us apart than it does to bring us together.”26
Now, it would be one thing if America were getting more and more racist, if white people were, as the magnitude of Times articles would suggest, good predictors for the existence of racism. Then one could argue that the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and the Los Angeles Times were doing their job in covering American life. But that would not explain why the newfound woke journalism is also obsessed with chattel slavery, a fact of American history that has not, thankfully, renewed itself in the past 150 years. And still, as you can see in the following graph by Goldberg, articles about slavery have risen exponentially in the past decade.
More importantly, it’s simply not true that racism, like the coverage of it in the Times and other liberal media outlets would suggest, is on the rise. Of course, racism persists in a number of areas that are urgently in need of amelioration. A study published in Nature Human Behaviour found that black Americans were disproportionately stopped and pulled over by police—a disparity that shrank after nightfall, when “a ‘veil of darkness’ masks one’s race,” as the researchers put it.27 Equally horrifying is the finding of a Harvard economist who concluded that based on data from New York City’s stop-and-frisk program, when it comes to nonlethal uses of force—police putting their hands on people, slapping or grabbing them, or pushing them into a wall or onto the ground—there are large and shocking racial differences in which groups get violated. Black and Hispanic Americans are over 50 percent more likely to be subjected to some form of force in interactions with police.28
And a Cato Institute study found that black Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to report a police officer swearing at them or to know someone who has been physically abused by the police. But it’s not just in policing or mass incarceration that these gaps exist. A history of racist policies like redlining is responsible for much of the remaining wealth gap between white and black families. Our public schools remain effectively segregated by race, and a larger percentage of black and Latino Americans are stuck in intergenerational poverty than white Americans. And people of color continue to be the overrepresented as the victims of violent crime. Every one of these issues deserves our attention, and as a society we must be committed to eradicating them once and for all. The problem is, that’s not what the woke narrative is doing. Rather than seeking out solutions to the actual problems that continue to plague our society, problems one can point to and solutions one can try, the woke narrative casts America as irredeemably racist and ineluctably tainted by white supremacy. And in so doing, it erases not only the facts but the true solutions to our remaining problems.
1 Tisby, “Is the White Church Inherently Racist?”
2 Thomas B. Edsall, “How Racist Is Trump’s Republican Party? And How Do You Determine That in the First Place?,” Opinion, New York Times, March 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/opinion/trump-republicans-racism.html.
3 Paul Krugman, “Trump’s Racist, Statist Suburban Dream: Racial Inequality Wasn’t an Accident. It Was an Ugly Political Choice,” Opinion, New York Times, August 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/13/opinion/trump-suburbs-racism.html.
4 Brad Plumer, Nadja Popovich, and Marion Renault, “How Racist Urban Planning Left Some Neighborhoods to Swelter,” New York Times, August 26, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/climate/racist-urban-planning. html.
5 Charlotte Cowles, “The Week in Business: Confronting Racist Marketing,” New York Times, June 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/21/business/the-week-in-business-confronting-racist-marketing.html.
6 Tara Parker-Pope, “How to Raise an Anti-Racist Kid,” New York Times, June 24, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/well/family/how-to-raise-an-anti-racist-kid.html.
7 Allyson Waller, “Petition Urges Trader Joe’s to Get Rid of ‘Racist Branding,’” New York Times, July 19, 2020, trader-joes-petition.html.
8 Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Can I Stay Friends with Someone Who Voices Racist Views?,” Ethicist, New York Times, August 25, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/25/magazine/can-i-stay-friends-with-someone-who-voices-racist-views.html.
9 Mariel Padilla, “2 Georgia High Schoolers Posted Racist Video, Officials Say,” New York Times, April 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/18/us/racist-tik-tok-video-carrollton.html.
10 Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “FIT Model Refuses to Wear ‘Clearly Racist’ Accessories,” New York Times, February 23, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/23/nyregion/fit-racist-fashion-show.html.
11 Personal interview with Thomas Chatterton Williams conducted via WhatsApp, January 31, 2021.
12 Hillary Clinton, quoted in Nicholas Confessore and Yamiche Alcindor, “Hillary Clinton, Shifting Line of Attack, Paints Bernie Sanders as a One-Issue Candidate,” New York Times, February 13, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/us/politics/hillary-clinton-shifting-line-of-attack-paints-bernie-sanders-as-a-one-issue-candidate.html?_r=2&mtrref=undefined.
13 Personal interview with Matt Taibbi conducted via Skype, January 25, 2021. 14 Rozado, “Language of Prejudice in the New York Times.”
15 Goldberg, “How the Media Led the Great Racial Awakening.”
16 Michael Powell, “‘White Supremacy’ Once Meant David Duke and the Klan. Now It Refers to Much More,” New York Times, October 17, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/17/us/white-supremacy.html? campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20201018&instance_id=23253&nl=the-morning®i_id=70030382§ion_index=i§ion_name=big_story&segment_id=41417&te=i&user_id=857c70a345299c7c5b923d34f49ab4e1.
17 Retrieved from the search engine on the NPR website, December 2020, https://www.npr.org/search.
18 Retrieved from the search engine on the Washington Post website, December 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/newssearch/.
19 Goldberg, “How the Media Led the Great Racial Awakening.”
20 New York Times, Innovation, 96.
21 Ibid., 96.
22 Ashley Feinberg, “The New York Times Unites vs. Twitter” (townhall exchange between Dean Baquet and New York Times staff member), Slate, August 15, 2019, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/08/new-york-times-meeting-transcript.html.
24 Off-the-record personal interview with a journalist at WNYC.
25 Off-the-record personal interview with a journalist at a major national digital media publication conducted by phone.
26 Personal interview with Conor Friedersdorf conducted by phone, January 13, 2021.
27 Emma Pierson, Camelia Simoiu, Jan Overgoor, Sam Corbett-Davies, Daniel Jenson, Amy Shoemaker, Vignesh Ramachandran, et al., “A Large-Scale Analysis of Racial Disparities in Police Stops across the United States,” Nature Human Behaviour
28 Roland G. Fryer Jr., “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force” (working paper 22399, National Bureau of Economic Research, revised January 2018), https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w22399/w22399.pdf.