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Journalism in the Age of Many-to-Many Communication
A review of Batya Ungar-Sargon's book, 'Bad News.'
[Note: I’d suggest reading my earlier piece on police violence before this one.]
Tony calls 911 twenty minutes before he dies. He tells the dispatcher that he’s schizophrenic and hasn’t been taking his medication. He says he’s afraid for his life. Then he hangs up the phone and runs into traffic.
A security guard sees him and runs after him. He places him in handcuffs and waits until the police arrive a few minutes later when the body camera footage begins.
“Help me!” Tony calls out.
“Hey, get on the ground,” Officer Dillard says.
“You’re gonna kill me! You’re gonna kill me!”
Another officer grins. “Yeah,” he says.
Dillard kneels on his back.
“Will you let me go, please?” Tony says.
Tony begs for his life. He says over and over that they’re going to kill him. Dillard kneels on his back until he begins making unintelligible sounds into the grass. He stops moving after eleven minutes.
“Tony, you still with us?”
Tony doesn’t respond.
Dillard stays kneeling on his back while other officers peer down at Tony.
“He’s out cold.”
“What the fuck? Is he asleep?”
“It’s time for school. Wake up!” They laugh.
An officer mocks him in a child’s voice, “I don’t want to go to school! Five more minutes mom!”
“First day you can’t be late. Tony, we bought you new shoes for the first day of school, come on! Made breakfast. Scrambled eggs, your favorite.”
“With waffles!” Another chimes in.
Another officer laughs. “Waffles!” He yells.
“Rooty tooty fruity waffles.”
Dillard kneels on his unresponsive body until the paramedics arrive and they place him on a gurney. His body is limp. His eyes are partially open and glassy. “He ain’t dead is he?” Dillard says.
“No, he just looks it.”
“He didn’t just die down there did he?” Dillard looks back at the grassy spot where he held him down.
“I don’t think he did.”
“Is he breathing?” Dillard puts his hand on Tony’s chest and shakes. Tony stays limp.
The paramedics take Tony away.
Dillard seems worried but the other officers grin into Dillard’s body camera. They slowly walk over to the ambulance still joking and laughing.
Tony lies on a gurney in the back of the ambulance. One paramedic is sitting in the back, wearing purple gloves. Another is standing next to Tony. He looks back and says, “He’s not breathing.”
“He’s not breathing?”
Another officer calls into the ambulance, “I’ve got his mom on the phone and she knows all his stuff.”
A paramedic points at Tony. “He’s dead.”
Tony Timpa’s death went largely unreported. The New York Times ran over four thousand articles for George Floyd and only four articles about Tony Timpa by 2021. But how is it possible that as a white man, Tony Timpa’s death got so little coverage in a country portrayed as white supremacist?
Batya Ungar-Sargon’s book, Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy, looks at the history of American journalism and how the media became fixated on race. While books criticizing wokeness have proliferated recently, almost all of them come from a conservative perspective. What distinguishes Bad News from the others is Ungar-Sargon’s perspective as a progressive with about the most leftist credentials you can get. She has a PhD in English Literature from Berkeley—one of the most liberal campuses in the country—and her doctoral dissertation makes an Andrea Dworkinesque argument that consensual sex under patriarchy is rape: “The pre-modern alternative story—that traditional, patriarchal society had plenty of coercion which was eradicated under the magical sign of consent—is revealed for the fiction that it is” (Coercive Pleasures, 28). It’s tough to dismiss her criticisms of the media as that of a right-wing reactionary. She calls herself a “vulgar Marxist” and her book is very much a Marxist project. It is this leftist perspective—along with her meticulous research, statistically grounded arguments, and very quotable prose—that makes her book worth reading over all the others criticizing wokeness, cancel culture, and identity politics.
Ungar-Sargon found that “between 2013 and 2019, the frequency of the words ‘white’ and ‘racial privilege' grew by an astonishing 1,200 percent in the [New York] Times, and by 1,500 percent in the Washington Post.” But how did the media become so fixated on race?
Bad News argues that the portrayal of America as an irredeemably white-supremacist nation ignores the glaring class inequalities in the country to the extent that this narrative becomes a form of class warfare. Ungar-Sargon repeatedly makes sure to not avoid America’s historical and current racism, but rather argues that it is dwarfed by class issues. She pushes back on intersectionality:
“As is so often the case with wokeness, the theory’s ballooning popularity coincided with the growing mountain of evidence that it was wrong, at least factually. A study from 2020 published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that while black men earn substantially less than white men from a similar economic background, black women earn slightly more than comparably endowed white women. Black women are also more likely to go to college than white men from similar backgrounds…white men often fare worse than women of color, in direct contravention of intersectionality’s predictions; according to the most recent census data, Iranian, Turkish, and Asian American women all outearned white men.”
Despite this mountain of evidence, significant portions of the US population believes in these ideas of intersectionality, to the point where government policies and institutions are being remade around them. And yet, as Ungar-Sargon notes, many of these ideas are false, “at least factually.” How did so many people come to believe in these ideas so strongly that they were willing to riot over them?
Ungar-Sargon avoids simplistic partisan tribalism for the situation and focuses instead on broader, underlying factors. There is certainly a political angle to the book, and even though my writing has been interpreted politically, I’m actually not particularly interested in politics. The real reason I’m interested in this book is because it addresses a question I’m very curious about: How does our society build our collective understanding of the world and how has the shift to many-to-many (social media) communication changed how we build that understanding?
Bad News traces how journalism transitioned from expensive subscriptions, to individual sales, to advertisement based business model, to finally our current digital platforms. One aspect of the book was how technologies producing the newspapers influence the business model of journalism, and how the business model controls the content of the newspapers, which finally shapes the dominant political narratives of the time.
A New Populism: Penny Press Journalism
Bad News begins with the biography of Benjamin Day, an early pioneer of the American newspaper penny press. When he began his paper in the 1830’s, newspapers were priced as a luxury good. These were sold through an annual subscription, which cost as much as a used car today. These newspapers were read by, and written for, the upper class. They focused on elite interests like politics and business and international affairs. America was the most literate country in the world, and penny presses for religious material and gallows confessions were already profitable. But Benjamin Day was the first to begin selling newspapers for a penny. In contrast to the newspapers targeting elite audiences, he focused on selling the papers individually on the streets rather than making the business model a subscription service, since his audience likely didn’t have the excess cash to invest in an annual subscription.
We quickly see that the link between the content of the newspaper and the business model of the newspaper. It gave voice to unions and working class concerns and focused on the crime that the lower classes faced. But, penny presses sometimes were sensational. Their business model demanded it. When they shifted to individual sales, rather than an annual subscription, it forced these penny presses to have nineteenth century versions of clickbait.1
The Rich Strike Back
A new business model came to challenge these populist papers: the New York Times. The revenue model was focused on advertising rather than subscriptions or individual sales. Rather than trying to outsell the penny presses, the Times just had to convince advertisers that the paper was a conduit into the minds (and pocketbooks) of the wealthiest consumers in the city.
Once again, we see how the business model shapes the content of the paper. The Times announced that it would be written for “good society” and part of the strategy of attracting wealthy consumers was focusing on international and national stories, rather than local stories, as well as a substantial business section. The serious tone of the paper was reinforced by a ban on comics and photographs. Knowing about international affairs is a luxury only afforded to people who have the time to read about international affairs, that is the people who don’t have to worry about their family not having enough to eat at dinner. This luxury knowledge became a signifier of wealth and it was this class signifier that the New York Times really offered its readership, much as Ungar-Sargon argues that anti-racism is a class signifier of wealth today.
Journalists become Influencers
The technological shift Bad News focuses on the most is the shift to social media. As news shifted to being consumed online rather than in print, newspapers were faced with a challenge: digital ads are much cheaper than print ads, and so bring in much less revenue. To compensate they paywalled their content and began to charge subscriptions. As we saw with the penny presses, switching to a subscription-based model tends to bias content towards wealthier readers.
Ungar-Sargon sees woke beliefs as a status symbol. What the New York Times is selling is not just information, it’s status. That to be an anti-racist is a status symbol in and of itself, and all it would take to have that status is a subscription. She points out that the wokest headlines and the luxury ads run side by side:
“These [woke] headlines don’t exist in tension with the Armani ads they appear on top of; they are the content Armani has paid tens of thousands of dollars to embed beneath. The October 2020 edition of the Times’s luxury magazine, T, had a picture of activist Angela Davis on the front cover—and an ad for Cartier on the back cover. Because they are two sides of the same coin.”
Digital ads brought another change too: The value of recommendation engines. In a print media environment, two papers could sell equally well if they each had a catchy headline to attract interest. But when it comes to engagement, that’s not enough. The paper that has a better recommendation engine to hook readers into the article after the catchy headline will make more money. In addition to recommendation engines, the New York Times created its own in-house Data Science Group to make a model for sentiment analysis so that advertisers can pick the emotion they want the reader to be feeling when they encounter the advertisement. My guess is this was a bit of overhype on the part of the New York Times and their sentiment analysis model was probably just n-grams piped into an XGBoost, but I bet it worked well enough to convince advertisers to go with the Times.
The change has not simply been digital consumption, but to social media consumption. Prior to social media, journalists and the people selling the paper were siloed from each other. Journalists wrote to impress other journalists and ignored the revenue. But in the age of social media, the journalists are also the paperboys distributing the stories they wrote. The news is increasingly tailored to appeal to the Twitter hive mind. To go viral with the sort of people who use Twitter the most. On social media “journalists cast themselves as the stars of a Manichaean drama, a process very much rewarded by an industry that measures success in terms of buzz, clicks, and attention.” Twentieth century journalism emphasized objectivity, where the reporter describes different sides of a debate with an attempt at impartiality. In an age of social media, reporters see themselves as activist influencers, who are part of the story. They’ve shifted from writing in the third person to the first person. And in a mode of communication where the audience can easily tweet back, then this encourages para-social relationships. It’s not that there are no longer impartial reporters writing in the third person, it’s that the reporters writing themselves in as characters are building the most aggressive audiences. Reporters are now judged by the size of their digital mob.
When the newspaper is dependent on the same employees for both generating content and generating revenue, it puts the journalists in charge. And these journalists who are now in charge have not been selected randomly from the population, but in a way that only allows wealthy students to succeed: “unless you come from the kind of background that can pay $70,000 for a vanity degree, you need not apply.” She notes that they almost exclusively come from a small handful of elite institutions.2 In the age of social media, journalists have become influencers from wealthy backgrounds:
“Once a blue-collar trade, journalism has become something akin to an impenetrable caste. And what journalists have done with that power, perhaps inadvertently, is to wage a cultural battle that enhances their own economic interests against a less-educated and struggling American working class. Once working-class warriors, the little guys taking on America’s powerful elites, journalists today are an American elite, a caste that has abandoned the working class and the poor as it rose to the status of American elite. And a moral panic around race has allowed them to mask this abandonment under the guise of ‘social justice.’”
But why did the Times ignore Tony Timpa’s death and fixate so heavily on others? Compassion for his death was not a status symbol of elitism. The influencers known as journalists wanted to signal their luxury beliefs by writing about George Floyd, and their audiences wanted to signal that they consume these luxury beliefs. Solving a problem requires you to accurately describe it. The danger of racializing a problem that cuts across racial boundaries is that you don’t actually solve it. Which doesn’t really matter to you personally if you’re wealthy and don’t come into contact with the police. That’s for the peasants to worry about.
Bad News doesn’t cover this, but the penny press publishing model had important literary implications as well. Novels that were sold as serials became the early forms of genre fiction, and the serialized nature of these novels required them to have neatly spaced cliffhangers to ensure that readers would come back the next week. Twentieth century genre fiction retained these highly plotted storylines whereas novels that were sold as a whole book ended up being modernist novels that had no plot, were aimed at higher-brow readers, became canonical in English departments, and often very boring.
Another distinction between writing for wealthy versus working class audiences is word count. Ungar-Sargon asks, who else would have the time to read an 8,000 word Vox article aside from a member of the laptop class? I should note this review is only 2,400 words. Because I’m a man of the people.