At the end of his career, in his 1907 retirement speech, Joseph Pulitzer wrote up his credo for journalism. He was adamant about the thing that made it a noble profession, one worth dedicating your life to: “Never lack sympathy with the poor.”
Living in the Gilded Age, there were plenty of poor people for journalists to sympathise with — the streets were teeming with working-class Americans who had been cast out of the comforts enjoyed by the obscenely wealthy industrialists. You might think modern-day America — a new Gilded Age in which the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than it has been in living memory — would provide another such opportunity for American journalists to sympathise with the lower classes. You would be wrong.
Back in 2016, journalists, Democratic politicians and Never Trumpers struggling to comprehend how they lost the election came up with two competing explanations. One camp argued that it was a protest vote stemming from the economic anxiety and despair birthed by globalisation, stagnant working-class wages, and downward mobility for the shrinking middle class. The other camp argued that Trump’s supporters were simply racists.
Hillary Clinton was the rare figure to hold both views, immortalised in her infamous comment that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables”. One might have expected that after Clinton lost the election, liberals would question the efficacy, if not the morality, of calling a quarter of the country racist.
Instead, they doubled down: it wasn’t just a quarter; it was half the nation. Everyone who voted for Trump was racist. By 2017, the very term “economic anxiety” had been branded a dog whistle for racism by some of the highest profile journalists in the country. So definitive was the racism explanation that during the 2020 election, the New York Times appears not to have run a single op-ed from a Trump supporter explaining their vote; how could the paper of record publish people who everyone knew were avowed racists?
How did this happen? How did the journalists, thinkers, influencers and professional Tweeters who too often set the agenda for the nation — people who consider themselves on the liberal and progressive Left — manage to police out of existence the devastating effects of globalisation on the middle and working classes of all races? How did we allow the definition of racism to melt until it covered people — of all races — who found their lots slightly improved over the three years prior to the pandemic, a time when wages for the bottom 25% rose for the first time in a decade?
You have to be pretty far removed from the pinch of economic anxiety to confuse it with bigotry. And indeed, America’s media has undergone a status revolution over the past century.
Writing in the Nineties, Christopher Lasch observed that the Left had begun to portray the nation, the neighbourhood and even the commitment to a common standard as racist, as part of a larger attack on populism and abandonment of the working class. But in truth that shift was a long time coming; throughout the 20th century, American journalism went from being a working-class trade to a highly educated caste.
As I chronicle in my new book, American journalism was born in the 19th century of a populist revolution in the form of the penny press, which was explicitly produced by and for the labouring class. At the time, the newspapers in circulation existed solely for the political and business elites: they were prohibitively expensive, and contained shipping schedules, wholesale prices, speeches from Congress and other things that interested few except those whose livings were made in business or politics.
The cheap penny papers filled that gap in the market, and were soon impossible to ignore thanks to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who purchased them every day (catering to the lower classes has the benefit of there being so many of them, after all). From that moment, through the middle of the last century, journalism became a blue-collar job, one in which a journalist was as likely to not have a college degree as to have one.
This is no longer the case. If a 1937 study found that fewer than half of journalists were college-educated and many hadn’t even finished high school, by 2015, 92% of American journalists had a college degree, a number that’s certainly even higher today. And college itself is no longer enough; to become a journalist today in a rapidly constricting industry, you have to go to the best colleges and take multiple unpaid internships in the most expensive American cities — where the vast majority of journalists remain.
But journalists today are not just more educated and progressive than the country at large; like other highly educated liberals, they have become increasingly affluent. As the local newspaper industry collapsed in the face of the internet, it squeezed those who made it to the top 10%, while dropping everyone else out. The fact that the starting salary of a digital media job is so low is not proof of the industry’s egalitarianism but of its exclusivity; who but the scions of the wealthy can afford to live in New York City or Washington, D.C. on $35,000 a year?
With a few exceptions, journalists along with the rest of America’s highly educated liberals now, by and large, belong to what the French economist Thomas Picketty calls a Brahmin Left. And as journalists became more highly educated and more affluent, they stopped writing for or about the working class. In its place, a moral panic around race and an obsession with causes once confined to academia — open borders, intersectionality, anti-racism, anti-Zionism — provided a convenient alibi for an elite that still sees itself as on the side of the little guy.
It’s not all on individual journalists, though. Journalists have for decades been more liberal than their fellow countrymen. But in the past, this liberalism was checked by their publishers, who were often the owners of large corporations, or Republicans, or both. They wanted their newspapers and their news stations to appeal to the vast American middle, which meant that journalists were not at liberty to indulge their own political preferences.
Then came the internet and with it the collapse of the local newspaper industry and the birth of a business model that was diametrically opposed to the goal of getting the widest circulation. Success is now rated in terms of engagement rather than circulation or ad revenue. And the best way to achieve this is to build a niche audience — more often than not, a highly educated, highly affluent, highly liberal niche audience who use the politics of identity to mask their success.
In other words, the media’s moral panic around race in America and the abandonment of the working class go hand in hand, like a photo of Angela Davis on the cover of the New York Times’s T Magazine and a Cartier ad on the back; like affluent liberals in New York’s most expensive neighbourhoods demanding we defund the police amid a historic rise in murder taking place in neighbourhoods just ten blocks away; like American Express hosting diversity, equity and inclusion training sessions in which the facilitator tells employees that capitalism is racist.
This perfect alignment of journalistic and corporate interests is one of the great ironies of the progressive culture war. It makes individual journalists feel like heroes while making their bosses and shareholders (and themselves) even richer.
Of course, the racism of state actors remains a problem in need of urgent repair; police brutality, for example, remains a scourge on communities of colour. But the racial moral panic obscures — and therefore perpetuates — the real divide separating America into two groups: an economic and cultural one, a giant and ever-growing chasm separating the college educated from those they disdain.
And therein lies the real tragedy: the liberal news media has abandoned the working class, allowing conservative outlets to swoop in and cater to them. The conservative media may not do much to help the economic fortunes of the downwardly mobile, but at least it doesn’t sneer at the working class while abandoning them economically.
That, ultimately, is the story of today’s national media landscape in a nutshell: with few exceptions, it is waging a moral panic around race to disguise the abandonment of the working class — and it’s getting rich off of it.