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Reading Notes


Notes on the selected reading for the quarter, Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy by Batya Ungar-Sargon.

Table of contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Chapter 1: Joseph Pulitzer’s Populist Revolution
  3. Chapter 2: A Respectability Counterrevolution
  4. Chapter 3: A Status Revolution
  5. Chapter 4: The Abandoment of the Working Class
  6. Chapter 5: A Digital Revolution
  7. Chapter 6: The Lesson of the Trump Era
  8. Chapter 7: A Great Awokening
  9. Chapter 8: A Moral Panic
  10. Chapter 9: A Rich Debate within the Black Community
  11. Chapter 10: Case Studies
  12. Chapter 11: How the Left Perpetuates Inequality and Undermines Democracy
  13. Epilogue


  • Don Lemon and the relationship between white people and Trump.
  • Argument: a view that has “seeped out” of sociology and ethnic studies departments into mainstream media outlets.
  • Belief in a America as a white-supremacist state conferring power and privilege upon white people.
  • Belief in the infection of racist institutions into all aspects of society through an interconnected network.
  • Goal: transform the consciousness of Americans until race is prioritized over everything else.
  • Trump’s presidency was a gift to the MSM; but the ‘woke moral panic’ had begun at least five years before Trump entered the scene.
  • 2011 - New York Times erected its online paywall, and articles mentioning ‘racism’, ‘POC’, ‘slavery’, ‘oppression’ began to appear more often in various news sources.
  • Argument: primarily an issue of class rather than race.
  • Journalism has become a profession of privilege, turning from blue-collar trade to a highly-educated workforce.
  • Radicalization of the profession on questions of identity: concern in economic inequality has declined.
  • Journalists rising to the American elite and journalists mainstreaming radical ideas about race are “two sides of the same coin”.
  • Journalism has become an “impenetrable caste”.
  • Waging a cultural battle.
  • Modern business model encourages building a niche audience.
  • Economic and cultural divide, a chasm between the college educated and those the college educated disdain.
  • For a culture war to succeed, it needs to be waged against a problem that can never be solved. Thomas Frank
  • National liberal news media - mainstreaming a moral panic about the idea of race rather than issues of institutional racism.
  • Rapacious economic inequality growing in America afflicting the working-class and poor people of all races.
  • ‘Wokeness’ perpetuates the economic interests of affluent white liberals.
  • Internally reconciling inequality: meritocratic status produces compassionate emotions towards the less fortunate. Perpetually on the right side of history without disrupting what was right for them. Panic around race: takes the guilt they should feel around their economic fortune and political power, and cast it on whiteness - an immutable characteristic they cannot change.
  • Agitate for more diverse elites instead of a more equal society.
  • Wokeness is the perfect ideology for affluent, liberal whites who don’t want systemic change if it means their children must sacrifice their own status.
  • American journalism comforts the comfortable.
  • Bad News - a populist critique of American journalism.
  • Racism as a cudgel to protect class interests.
  • An ‘optimistic’ book - convinced it’s not too late to change course.
  • The liberal news media has abandoned the working class, allowing conservative outlets to swoop in and cater to them.

Personal Comments and Thoughts for Discussion

  • Interesting discussion between desiring to believe and actually beliving. What are the epistemologically applications to Ungar-Sagon’s claim here?
    • Quite a postmodern perspective
  • What exactly is the difference between discussing the ‘concept of race’ vs. ‘systemic racism’?
  • What does Ungar-Sagon think about intersectional analysis of the black working class?

Chapter 1: Joseph Pulitzer’s Populist Revolution

  • “It didn’t have to be this way”.
  • American journalists responded to rampant inequality by making journalism a crusade on behalf of the powerless and economically disenfranchised.
  • Benjamin Day: arrived in New York, deeply segregated. Brightness “only shown for few”.
  • The press was antilabor in 1829.
  • The Sun - exists for everybody, rich and poor.
  • Americans were the most literate people in teh world.
  • News of crime - the local news of the poor and working classes.
  • Penny press - visibility to people who weren’t people of means.
  • America’s most important journalist: Joseph Pulitzer.
  • Pulitzer was a Jewish immigrant from Hungary. Appaling Dickensian chasm between rich and poor in NYC when he arrived.
  • Pulitzer was shaped by experiences at the bottom in a way he could not and did not wish to forget.
  • Pulitzer exposed corruption and the abuses of the powerful against the powerless.
  • Newspapers are a voice to speak out against the powerful.
  • Pulitzer insisted on the truth.
  • Penny press - a story about class. Partisanship is not so much of a problem so long as everyone is represented.

Chapter 2: A Respectability Counterrevolution

  • Not everyone was thrilled by the penny press revolution.
  • Many labeled the newspapers crass, indecent, an affront to good taste.
  • Pulitzer was accused of sensationalism.
  • The World was the poor’s world, even as the rich sneered.
  • News is sensational - Pulitzer. Every story which is sensational in itself must also be truthful.
  • Sensationalism is a class concern clothed as a journalistic critique - protection of the elites from reckoning with the realities of lower-class life.
  • Henry Raymond began the New York Times.
  • Whig magnates turned to Raymond and raised money to start a well-funded journal.
  • Raymond placed borgeois respectability above all else.
    • Subtle rebuke to penny pressed.
  • Proper and respectable; a monopoly on decency.
  • Raymondw as known for being able to see both sides of an argument.
  • The editorial page was kept weak.
  • The bourgeois politics of respectability was popular with the target audience. Emphasized journalistic virtue.
  • The Times was impartial on political issues but remained friendly to policies that benefitted their audience.
  • Adolph Ochs, the successor; Jews were cast out during the Gilded Age.
    • Ochs wanted to be accepted. Obsessed with respectability.

It will be my earnest aim that THE NEW-YORK TIMES give the news, all the news, in concise and attractive form, in language that is parliamentary in good society, and give it as early, if not earlier, than it can be learned through any other reliable medium; to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved; to make the columns of THE NEW-YORK TIMES a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.

  • Roadmap from class to taste to journalist virtue.
  • Attractive language for good society and intelligent discussion.
  • Marriage of class aspirations, signifiers of respectable taste, desire to avoid partisan identification.
  • Fundamental tension between different visions of journalism
  • Crafting elite readership
  • Dynamics about audience, originality
  • The New Yorker - not concerned with what poor and working-class New Yorkers were thinking about.
  • Due to a status revolution among journalists, this is the rule rather than the exception.

Chapter 3: A Status Revolution

  • Until recently, journalists were not part of the American elite.
  • Reporters regarded themselves as working-class.
  • Status revolution - a degree was no longer a status symbol.
  • College education became a marker of class in American society.
  • The educational divide showed up quickly in politics.
  • Class markers like travel, food, wine, and art
  • New breed of reporter - highly educated and socially aspirational.
  • By 1980, American journalists tightened into an elite caste.
  • CHange in demographic breakdown; journalists were getting more liberal and less religious with every generation.
  • Journalists at national news outlets are generally homogenou - cosmopolitan in background, liberal in outlook. Elite in economic status, public perception, and social influence.
  • Reliance on initial middle to high class status in order to get into journalism.

Chapter 4: The Abandoment of the Working Class

  • New York Times - proclaimed the breakdown of a shared public reality built upon widely affected facts after Trump’s election in 2016.
    • Yet, 91% of New York Times readers identify as Democrats.
  • The real dichotomy is not political, but rather about class.
  • Liberal news outlets began consciously excluding the poor and working class, opening the lane for conservative media to step in and clean up.
  • The defining feature of conservative media is not that it endorses conservative politics, but rather that it picked up what the mainstream press abandoned in terms of the working class.
  • In the ‘Golden Age of Consensus’, when Cronkite had become host of CBS news, the mainstream media was quickly abandoning the consensus approach
  • Consensus always took shape in the midst of a national crisis - unifies people around shared values.
  • The 1940s to the 1960s were a time of buoyant social mobility.
  • To keep a wide audience, publishers kept a premium on keeping the news straight; allowing readers to decide for themselves what events meant.
  • FCC licenses - bound by the fairness doctrine.
  • Journalism that was committed to the difference between opinion writing and straight news.
  • Focus on the who, when, what, how - but not on the why.
  • In the 1960s, the journalist class began to shift upwards. America was going through a knowledge explosion: the typical reader is “much better educated, his interests are more sophisticated…”
  • Educational chasm that has defined American life today began to emerge; newspapers quickly chose a side.
  • Topics that top executives wanted covered had much more to do with the reader’s class rather than their political orientation.
  • The big papers began poaching journalists from one another.
  • The shift from analytic to interpretative began in 1954 and completed in 1974. McCarthy’s witch hunt gave the shift the justification it needed: reporters amplified his charges by reporting his accusations of communism.
  • The shift drew some criticism from the left.
  • The question of class predicted the liberal slant of most newspapers; “tnohign is a better predictor of liberlaism than whether or not you have been to college”.
  • Most young jounralists in 1970 simply did not believe in the notion of objectivity.
  • Newspapers could not sell themselves tor eaders as a utility in 1964 when most Americans got their news from television.
  • Obsession with white, well-off, upscale readers - newspapers began to expand into the suburbs rather than having anything to do with the working-class residents of their own cities.
  • Little room for jounralists of color or catering to nonwhite communities from the perspective of the papers.
  • A question of education and class that resulted in refusal to hire black jounalists.
  • Effects on coverage:
    • Modern big-city newspapers became big businesses
    • Big publishers were unanimous in their support for the Republican Party.
  • Five global firms own most of the newspapers.
  • Massive collective shift from the Pulitzer model of seeking the widest mass audience possible to the Ochs model of seeking the most exclusive audience to court high-end advertisers.
  • Consolidation meant chains, and chains meant publicly traded corporations that answered not just to readers and advertisers, but also to stockholders.
  • Consumer oriented rather than citizen oriented.
  • Newspapers often discriminated against groups that prejudiced clients didn’t want to advertise to.
  • Newspapers began to feed into an us-versus-them class divide mentality.
  • Without a working-class readership, the liberal media has leaned more heavily on upper-class readers, viewers, and listeners.
  • The political polarization exists, but the divide in class is more stark.
  • Conservative media is conservative because it caters to the working class.
  • Media outlets catering to the working class eschew the national for the local; there is a greater degree to which conservative values and localism overlap.
  • Localism - valuing noncredentialled forms of meaning: place, faith, natural institutions
  • The media is just as polarized along class lines as it is along political lines.
  • Rush Limbauge portrayed the media as arrogant and out of touch. It was relatively easy to make mainstream emdia the bogeyman.
  • Fox News could have created a real political constituency, but instead went all in on the culture wars.
  • Conservative media does not have an accurate picture of who the working class is, either.
  • The liberal media, on the other hand, has abandoned both sides of the cultural-economic equation.
  • Fox News has sometimes descended into racism. Ailes constructed a never-ending us-versus-them saga; each news cycle feeds into a larger narrative.
  • The concept of race has been ued to erase the role of class.
  • No mainstream media outlet left does what Day and Pulitzer did: wage a crusade on behalf of the dignity and autonomy of the working class.

Chapter 5: A Digital Revolution

  • The Internet created information bubbles and echo chambers.
  • The Internet had the opposite effect of democratization with regards to legacy journalism.
  • The digital media is a perfect tool for elite journalists to drill down on subjects.
  • The Internet has upended a top-down journalism of journalism.
  • The cost of publication befcame near zero.
  • The Washington Post drove readers to the website, algorithmically organized.
  • A company can make money by tailoring its ads to specific class demographics.
  • Engagement became key to collect data and show more ads.
  • Digital ads always bring in a fraction of the money that print ads had. Major media outlets switched to digital subscriptions, then to memberships.
  • Many new journalists have never gone out an reported a story; the incentive instead is to aggregate news from other places.
  • The sole measure of a story’s quality is how much the story is shared and talked about.
  • This is not a democratization of the news. Less than a quarter of Americans use Twitter, and these users are younger, wealthier, and more educated than the nation at large.
  • Journalists are increasingly foucsed on themselves.
  • Vox: specific audience in mind - young, affluent, highly educated.
  • Social media sharing as a digital magazine peeking out of a handbag.
  • Quiet appeal to identity
  • Takes the question of class and sells it as truth, information, and data - sells being informed as belonging to a certain class and having a certain identity.

Chapter 6: The Lesson of the Trump Era

  • After the 2008 crisis, the New York Times was facing a disastrous outlook.
  • In 2011, the New York Times erected a paywall - “subscription-first business model” of digital journalism.
  • The business structure incentivized reporters and editors to promote their stories.
  • A two-way relationship between readers and journalists.
  • “User-generated content”
  • Trump made a habit of attacking the press.
  • Symbiotic relationship between Trump and the press; Trump capitalized upon the feeling that the media had changed; the media capitalized upon the content.
  • The media gave Trump attention because it was profitable.
  • Kabuki theater
  • Hating Trump was a good business - drew engagement
  • Trump allowed teh Times to lean into the business model pioneered by Facebook.
  • Emotions drive engagement.
  • Sensationalism
  • Soon after Trump’s election, there was a possibility of class understandings (Hillbilly Elegy, White Trash) - but this was quickly replaced with the explanation that Trump’s voters were racists.
  • Difference between economic hardship and economic anxiety
  • Immigration and economic concerns
  • Race and economics

Chapter 7: A Great Awokening

  • Something has changed in the recent headlines
  • Re-racialization
  • The new race consensus
  • Changing the conversation from class to identity
  • Erasure of class in favor of race and gender
  • A younger, more educated generation of journalists
  • Race is everything
  • The narrative that America is irredeemably racist eliminates the possibility of finding true solutions to true racial problems.
  • Class/income is a strong additional factor left out in law enforcement data.
  • Republicnas have been at the forefront of criminal jsutice reform.
  • How does intersectionality truly manifest?
  • Origination of ideas in academia
  • American universities underwent a shift away from facts and grand narratives towards relativism.
  • 60s and 70s: postmodernism and critical theory. Deomination and oppression are seen in every human interaction. Critical theory is rooted in Hegel’s work.
  • Derrida and Foucault: ‘exposing’ falsely universal claims of historical and cultural narratives
  • In postmodernism, historical narratives serve as justifications for power.
  • The Constitution - a flawed achievement but nevertheless a big one.
  • Structural vs basic racism
  • Rich whites benefit materially from whiteness, whereas poor whites somehow benefit in ‘psychic ways’. Critical Race Theory still does not have a comprehensive theory of class.
  • Two sides of the same coin - intermixing between racial activism and class interests.
  • Antiracism - the great displacement exercise, the magic track that transforms economic guilt into racial guilt.

Chapter 8: A Moral Panic

  • The national liberal news media has been mainstreaming an obsession with race.
  • Moral panic is enforced by mob-style action on social media.
  • Collective action
  • Capitulation to pressure
  • Use-reference differentiation of symbolic terms
  • Bari Weiss - given a mandate to find conservatives and other heterodox voices to publish in the Times.
  • Radical shift of the Overton window just in the span of a few years.
  • Identity is the only lens there is - everything ties back to the principles of identity
  • George Floyd - nail in the coffin in polarization over race.
  • Moral panic - occurs when people believe a hostile force threatens the values and safety of their society.
  • Minimum conensus - Goode & Ben-Yehuda. Moral panic sets in only when there is consensus about who is cast as evil.
  • Tom Cotton, Times op-ed.

Chapter 9: A Rich Debate within the Black Community

  • Moral panic around race
  • The concept of objectivity - a key tenet of journalism - has come under deep scrutiny.
  • Dichotomy separating objectivity from morality
  • Journalism is more personal - reporters more willing to speak about their truth without fear of alienation
  • Standpoint epistemology - lived experience and identity
  • Articles on white supremacy and slavery are primarily written for white liberals; the legacy black press has remained inured.
  • Enduring whiteness of America’s newsrooms stends from the enduring whiteness of America’s rich
  • Williams: “In America, we can’t talk about class, so we racialized class. We use race as a way of avoiding those distinctions.”
  • Conversation around race in the black community is much richer and deeper.
  • The Liberator - William Lloyd Garrison.
  • Racial essentialism - reduces individuals to immutable characteristics.
  • We can simultaneously resist bigotry and imagine a society that has outgrown the identities it preys on - Williams.
  • Blackness as culture and heritage
  • We often make class differences into racial differences.
  • Discourse on white priviledge - eliminates the chance for an individual to be presumptuous and dehumanization.

Chapter 10: Case Studies

  • Aaron Grossman and the Palestian vs Israeli conflict
  • Crude binary in which power is one-way; poorly executed analysis of power dynamics
  • Jews - erasure from mainstream media.
    • Ochs was deeply insecure about his Jewishness.
  • The Times buried Nazi atrocities against Jews. Determined to view Jews as a faith community rather than a nationality.
  • The Times routinely blamed Jews for violence in Palestine, including when the victims were Jews.
  • Critical Race Theory, Hegelian master-slave dialectic
  • Binary of the antiracist worldview - eliminates the complex position that Jews occupy
  • Crime coverage - Pulitzer and Day reported crime that reflected the lived realities of poor and working-class readers.
  • Many newspapers consciously made the decision to move away from crime coverage.
  • Problem in how black Americans are represented in crime reporting. White Ameircans overestimate how much crime is commited by people of color.
  • Inner-city violence isn’t being covered, and there is a stigma against discussing it:
  • Crime is a local affair. The local newspaper industry has collapsed, and poorer communities become news deserts.
  • Ordinary citizens posting on social media fill this lacuna.
  • Trump’s voters - almost all muslims turned out for Trump in 2020 higher than they had in 2016. Trump obtained a record 18% of the black male vote, despite racist statements about companies and inability to disavow white nationalists.
  • Class and language barrier
  • Isenberg: “Whiteness is not a privilege equally enjoyed by all white Americans.”

Chapter 11: How the Left Perpetuates Inequality and Undermines Democracy

  • The left perpetuates inequality in a number of ways
  • Intersectionality and ‘wokeness’ suggest that equality is impossible
  • Critical Race Theory - rooted in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic; power imblanace and domination is at the root of every human relationship
  • The roles of oppressor and oppressed are being cast neatly into America’s racial divide
  • Looking through the past by the color of one’s skin - “dehumanizing”

“It’s a patronizing imposition of powerlessness on entire groups of people that refuses to see them with the dignity that is bestowed by agency - a view that is coincidentally rejected by working-class Americans of all races.”

  • People pushing this narrative likely believe it is the pathway to write the wrongs of America, but it erases what “makes us human”
  • Elevating race to transcend humanity
  • Left - monopoly on American culture
  • Chris Arnade: a Wall Street banker has more in common w/ a sociology professor at Cornell than a truck driver or a guy who owns a landscaping business.
  • We sort by culture, not economics; they overlap, but culture matters more.
  • Diversification of elites enalbes elites to sustain the fiction that elite status is a result of merit.
  • Free college - a fantasy in which there is no working class.
  • Since the 1970s, upward mobility in the middle class has stalled.
  • Emerging neofeudalism; a technocracy oligarchy


  • Americans frequently bemoan America’s political polarization - information silos, lack of shared reality, etc.
  • More important divide is not political or racial, but class-based.
  • Disengagement with politics is not ignorance but exclsuion from public debate.
  • Information is not the condition but rather the byproduct of debate.
  • Good news: as consumers of news, we can rest on our own.
    • Starve them of your rage
    • Understand the connection between the working class and conservatism
    • Find and protect nonpolitical spaces in your life -Be humble about the right things