For those who don’t have the Washington Post as your local newspaper, let me tell you what it’s like opening up the print edition each morning over breakfast. The front page inevitably has a story on race — today as I write this article, it’s on how word games like crossword puzzles and scrabble suffer from “systemic racism.”
The next section, “Metro,” tracks local (often race-related) news, like a recent article by leftist columnist Petula Dvorak on a couple Virginians putting racist things in their front yards. Next is “Style,” which covers entertainment and fashion… as it relates to race, such as a recent feature on black women and reality TV. Finally comes “Sports,” which, no surprise, has multiple stories on race, such as former Raiders coach Jon Gruden being labeled a racist, or how women’s rugby needs more black players.
Sometimes I play a game in which I try to see if the WaPo can go a day without having an article on race in every single section of the paper. Most days I lose. And if it’s not race, there will inevitably be some other hobbyhorse of identity politics — feminism, LGBTQ+, transgenderism — that takes the place of race. Sometimes the WaPo gets extra points by figuring out how to combine them all, say, with an exclusive report on black transgender feminists.
It didn’t used to be this way. When I was going through my deceased father’s files, I found an old Washington Post from the 1980s that included an entire section on the upcoming hunting season. If the WaPo bothers to report on hunting now, its writers are so clueless on the subject they call bowhunting “archery.” Today they’d probably either label hunting systemically racist, or do a feature on a black transgender feminist bowhunter (surely there’s at least one).
How did the media’s nonstop obsession with identity politics happen? Batya Ungar-Sargon, the deputy opinion editor of Newsweek, has some ideas. In her new book Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy, Ungar-Sargon argues that in the last several decades, as their profession became populated by those from elite academic institutions, American journalism underwent a radical shift away from concern with the working class towards those of the affluent and well-educated.
The ‘Woke Tax’
Further compounding the problem is the digital media landscape, whose business model aligns corporate power with the latest crusades of the left. This paradigm has created largely unacknowledged tensions in the media world, given that the ostensible role of the journalist is to be the little guy “speaking truth to power.”
Consider the fact that the public face of corporate media, as well as its management, remains predominantly white. That’s certainly the case at the Washington Post, but also The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, etc. Schooled in identity politics, the journalism world has to square their own claims that America’s institutions all suffer from systemic racism that require correction, with the inconvenient fact that the media is its own elitist, white-dominated power structure.
One way to resolve this tension is to pounce on any white journalist (preferably male) who transgresses the holy codes of wokeism — for example, former NYT reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr., who was somewhat dubiously accused of using a racial slur. Diversity hires can replace fired, canceled, or retired journalists, which can provide at least a patina of woke self-righteousness with which to clothe themselves.
But is that enough, especially when the media outlet is owned by the same greedy corporate interests – the astoundingly wealthy and undoubtedly white Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post – supposedly suffering from systemic racism? And what should be done about the incoherence of elite’s competing beliefs in their own success via a meritocratic system… and dismantling power structures populated by well-educated technocrats like themselves?
Thus the media pay what Kyle Smith calls the “woke tax,” devoting as much content as possible to the identity politics agenda, which both tries to atone for white guilt and obscures the fact that they are part of the problem they claim to be identifying and disrupting.
As Ungar-Sargon observes, The New York Times wants us to believe that simultaneously showcasing Angela Davis and ads for Cartier watches “are not in tension with each other, but rather two sides of the same coin.” As long as liberal white technocrats perform the necessary obeisances to wokeism, they wager, they may be able to avoid being devoured by the monster they helped create.
Sadly, there are already quite a few casualties of the media’s ideological project. One is democratic civic life itself, which suffers from siloed news streams that avoid real debate. In the six months leading up to the 2020 election, there was not a single op-ed in the NYT by anyone explaining why they were voting for Trump. This, Ungar-Sargon notes, is supposed to be the nation’s “paper of record.”
Another casualty are working-class Americans, whom the media view with disdain as backwards, bigoted racists. Working under that presumption, their reporting of flyover country and rural and rust-belt America is patronizing and paternalistic.
Heroes and Saints
Ungar-Sargon offers several suggestions for what Americans can do to counter the deleterious influence of corporate media. One is to “starve them of your rage” by refusing to hate your political opponents and become “a champion for the opinions you don’t like.”
Another is to try and understand why those of the working class — including those whose labor union past was consistently Democrat — have largely shifted to the right. Ungar-Sargon also urges us to “find and protect nonpolitical spaces” in our lives, and says we need to be humbler in our approach to political debate.
This is pretty milquetoast. Academia, corporations, government bureaucrats, and most corporate media (with the exception of Fox News) are firmly aligned in their ideological agenda regarding race and sex. Their ability to silence dissident voices and coerce submission to their woke agenda grows ever-stronger.
Some of the most bizarre, fringe ideas about the human person, such as giving hormones to gender-dysphoric children to block the onset of puberty, are now unquestionable dogmas of the left. Being nice and understanding will not change this socially disastrous reality. The woke have an incredible amount of cultural and political power at their disposal. What incentive do they have to change course?
Moreover, Ungar-Sargon’s explanation for how we find ourselves with a media (and many other institutions) obsessed with race is incomplete, partly because the problem is not just about race, but also gender and sex; in other words, the most salient biological components of our humanity. The normalization of woke religion’s perverse conception of the human person could not have happened without the decline of an earlier American self-understanding, a “civic religion” that was deeply influenced by Christianity.
Yet Christianity’s influence in the public square — and in the hearts of everyday Americans — has been declining for many decades. As faith has waned, so has the American civic religion and its mythologies, which explains why so many citizens now despise not only Christopher Columbus, but also George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. We are a people increasingly without a coherent “creation narrative,” because many now believe our nation’s founding was scarred by an irredeemably racist, sexist, exploitative patriarchy.
But we Americans, like all humans, are a religious people. We need stories that explain who we are and how we got here. We need a telos to which to orient ourselves, meaning something (or someone) worthy of our worship and sacrifice. We need doctrines and codes of behavior that direct our thinking and behavior towards one another.
Christianity once served that purpose. Wokeism now awkwardly fills the void. Its deity is far less merciful and far more capricious than the God of Jews and Christians, as demonstrated by the quickness and eagerness with which its adherents turn on one another. L
ike all periods of cultural and political upheaval, what is required is not bromides about niceness and open-mindedness. We need heroes and saints committed to the truth, even if that commitment requires unexpected suffering and sacrifices.