When, in the summer of 2020, the newsroom of the Philadelphia Inquirer erupted in protest over the paper’s tone-deaf “Buildings Matter, Too” headline, resulting in the jettisoning of longtime editor Stan Wischnowski, I urged the 40 some-odd journalists who had protested the headline to, rather than act like bystander activists, go out and chronicle “the story they were part of as they were in it…cover the crap out of Philadelphia and race, using all the amino acids of great storytelling at your disposal , including point of view.”
They weren’t just making widgets, I argued. As regular practitioners of First Amendment rights, they could turn their ire into a teachable moment for the rest of us—kind of the literal definition of journalism. I cited a precedent: When his Washington Post published what would turn out to be a series of made-up stories in 1981, legendary editor Ben Bradlee had his reporters cover the shit out of the screwup, just as when they covered Watergate. We’re as much of an establishment institution as the White House, Bradlee seemed to be saying, and we can use just as much sunlight to disinfect us as we applied to Nixon. It also made for good business, as it bolstered the paper’s credibility with its readership.
Well, you can imagine how psyched I was to see that the Inquirer’s first installation of its “More Perfect Union” series turned its reportorial insights on itself with Black City, White Paper, a 6,500-word report by Pulitzer-winning writer Wesley Lowery on the Inquirer and race. I’d been looking forward to the story and the series, given that it’s edited by Errin Haines, who sits on the board of the Lenfest Institute, the Inquirer’s nonprofit-owning entity, and who is a journalist of unquestionable integrity.
The piece dropped February 15, and I’ve read it probably 10 times since. Something has bothered me about it, and, until recently, I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it.
Was I just reacting to the piece’s erasure of the Inquirer’s sister paper, The Daily News, which I edited for close to two turbulent years a decade ago? After all, one of the reasons I’d taken that gig was the lure of trying to find common ground between working-class White and African-American readers, long the base of that gritty tabloid. Surely, any discussion of race and journalism in Philly ought to at least mention the legendary broadsheet?
Or was I just responding like the news consumer I am? Lowery spends paragraph after paragraph documenting past racial slights in the Inquirer newsroom, but if you don’t connect those stories to the larger narrative the Inquirer has told about Philadelphia throughout its history, what’s the point? Yes, it’s terrible that a White editor disrespected a Black reporter, but what effect did that have on the current journalism produced?
Numerous newspapers, for example, have apologized in the last decade for their coverage, or lack thereof, of the Civil Rights Movement, including the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader and the Hartford Courant; the Orlando Sentinel has apologized for its horrifying role in the 1949 case of the Groveland Four, in which four young black men were wrongly accused of raping a young white woman.
Back then, newspapers were pawns of the white establishment and often co-conspirators in oppression. Or they just weren’t interested. As legendary Inquirer editor Gene Roberts has acknowledged, mainstream newspapers arguably missed the biggest story of the 20th Century—the Black migration north, chronicled so beautifully in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.
As time went on, the journalistic missteps became less overt, but troubling nonetheless. How does The Inquirer measure up through the years? Lowery delves into none of this; his expose could have been about any industry.
It wasn’t until I saw the litany of op-eds and letters to the editor penned by former Inquirer staffers prompted by Lowery’s story—most defensive in nature and responding to accusations that don’t appear to have been made—that it dawned on me: This is an intra-office debate, playing out in public. Who was Lowery’s piece written for, after all? Newsroom insiders past and present and the journalistic industrial complex at large, or Black working-class residents of Philadelphia who may or may not have been ill-served by their paper of record?
When I cracked the spine of Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy by Batya Ungar-Sargon I finally saw Lowery’s piece as part of a larger media phenomenon along these lines. Ungar-Sargon criticizes the rise of “wokeness” in American newsrooms, evidence of which can be seen in episodes ranging from the Buildings Matter, Too reaction, to the firing of a New York Times editor who had the temerity to publish a US Senator’s op-ed, to thinly-veiled agendas in everyday choices made in news coverage.
But what’s novel about her approach is that it comes from the political left. The deputy opinion editor of Newsweek, Ungar-Sargon makes the case that the mainstream liberal media today—ie The Times, The Post, The Atlantic, NPR, and, yes, The inquirer—has become a bastion for elite thinking and has used a concern on race to forsake its historic commitment to working-class interests.
It’s a tightly argued, provocative thesis, and I reached out to her a couple of weeks ago to explore it in light of Lowery’s Inquirer story. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Larry Platt: So most critics we hear of woke journalism come from the likes of Fox News. You’re a self-proclaimed socialist, and what struck me about your criticism is it comes from the left.
Ungar-Sargon: Yes, our tribalism in America today is not about politics—that’s a mirage. And it’s not really about racing, either. It’s really about class. I have no doubt that all the anecdotes about racial offense in newsrooms, in the Inquirer story and others, is one hundred percent accurate, but it obscures what’s happening today. It’s true that at one point in our history, the media catered to the White working class, but now it caters to the elite of all races.
So we have White liberal media pushing this woke racial scaremongering that makes everyone think we’re divided by race when we’re really divided by class, and newsrooms are a part of that. Journalism in the early to mid 20th century was a working-class job. Reporters and editors lived next door to factory workers and saw their role as fighting for the “little guy.” Now journalism has become a position for the elite. Over 90 percent of journalists have a college degree—compared to only a third of Americans.
LP: So you contend that journalists are fueling the divide while appearing to be covering it?
BUS: That’s right. The economy is working well for those in the knowledge class. Liberal elites are benefitting tremendously from the class divide—and making it about race is a way to appear to be doing something about it and avoiding any discussion about how they, journalists, have benefitted from income inequality.
LP: But, Batya, the starting salary for a newspaper reporter in America is $40,000 in an increasingly squeezed industry. That hardly strikes me as elite.
BUS: That’s partly my point. No one can take a job that pays $35,000 if their parents aren’t still paying their rent, especially in cities like New York, San Francisco and even Philly. Now, if a parent or spouse pays the rent for 10 years, you’re likely to make $100,000 in your 40s, and that will put you in the top 10 percent of wage earners. But that’s an awfully long game. And then there’s freelancers—yes, they’re paid slave wages, so it may look like a working-class profession, but it’s really not, because, with few exceptions, no one can live on that unless you come from wealth.
“You’re diversifying elites”
LP: And, as you see it, that criticism extends to the efforts to diversify newsrooms.
BUS: The attempt to diversify is extremely important, but when everybody in the newsroom is rich, what you’re really doing is diversifying elites. You’re extending opportunity to every person of color who went to Harvard—it’s an ersatz form of diversity.
LP: Let’s back up here. Where did the idea for this book come from?
BUS: I was reporting throughout the American South during the Trump years. Here I was, this lefty New York journalist who was surprised by what I found. Based on what I was hearing in New York, I was going to be reporting from the frontlines of white supremacy, right? But I found something very different—I found Black and White people praying side-by-side in church and sitting side-by-side at barbecues. I was confused. It’s a different culture than what we have in the north.
The more I dove in, the more I saw that a seismic shift was going on. On many racial issues like police reform and criminal justice reform, polling shows there’s less of a partisan divide than you’d think if you just watch cable news. So I decided to write a book called A More Perfect Union that would argue we’re more united than you think.
There’s more agreement on the values that made America greater than we all think.
And guess what? I couldn’t sell it. A New York publisher sat me down and said there’s no market for a book that says we’re more united than we think. So I pivoted. I asked, why does it feel like we’re more divided than we are? And I realized it’s because of this media narrative of white supremacy, this narrative of state-sponsored racism. So I wanted to explore why the media is so invested in this narrative.
LP: I’d love to read that book about how we’re more united than we think, by the way. So, I left The Daily News in 2012, and, while we had smart debates back and forth, I don’t remember anything ideological. When did so-called wokeness start to take over newsrooms, in your view?
BUS: Right around then. In 2011, when The New York Times put up its paywall, there was an influx of young digital hires, getting paid very little. But they were highly educated and aligned with the woke ideology that was coming out of elite universities. Soon, you started seeing this new language—“people of color,” “marginalization,” “white supremacy.” “White supremacy” went from being mentioned 75 times to 750 times in one year. You saw this outpouring of articles in liberal media obsessing over race all the time, and it influenced how white liberals started to talk about race.
And, by the way, this was not a cynical thing. These people truly believe they’re on the right side of history. But the effect has been to create a division within newsrooms, where older journalists are terrified of saying the wrong thing and being called racist by their younger colleagues.
A prescription for journalists
LP: We practice solutions journalism here, Batya. So what’s your prescription?
BUS: Well, I try to provide a platform for working-class voices at Newsweek. Beyond that, we have to empower journalists to say no to having contempt for Americans who haven’t gone to Ivy League schools.
LP: Is that really what’s going on? That journalists have contemplated for people who haven’t gone to Ivy League schools?
BUS: The liberal media—and by that I mean places like the New York Times, the Post, the Atlantic, NPR—tells you what to think in this moralizing tone. Take the liberal media critique of Joe Rogan, that he’s “cost lives.” It assumes his listeners of him are zombies, when really what he’s doing is giving them a variety of points of view.
I know journalists don’t want to hear this, but liberal media tells America what to think, instead of explaining que America thinks.
LP: That’s well put. Geez, as a New York Lefty, have you angered members of your tribe with this book?
BUS: Oh, there have been some tense dinner parties. I get liberals accusing me of parroting Republican talking points, which is strange, because what they’re really claiming is that a Marxist is really a conservative.
LP: Well, thank you for this point of view. It’s a much-needed addition to the conversation.
BUS: Thank you.
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