The abandonment of the working class

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In an editorial published one month after Donald Trump’s surprise election win in 2016, the New York Times lamented the “breakdown of a shared public reality built upon widely accepted facts.” Waxing nostalgic for the days when everyone, on the Left and the Right, would tune in every night to watch Walter Cronkite deliver the news on CBS, the New York Times editorial cast Trump as a fabulist immune to facts. Without people like Cronkite, or a president and other politicians who “care about the truth,” media organizations “that report fact without regard for partisanship, and citizens who think for themselves, will need to light the way,” the New York Times concluded.

There is a deep irony in the New York Times trying to reclaim Adolph Ochs’s goal of providing the news “without fear or favor” at a time when 91% of New York Times readers identify as Democrats. Moreover, the New York Times played a significant role, perhaps unintentionally, in the breakdown of the Cronkite consensus era and the compartmentalization of the news into left and right. A closer look reveals that the real dichotomy is not political at all — it is based on class.

In the past 50 years, the rest of the news media began to emulate the business model of the New York Times, restricting its audience to an ever-more elite group and very consciously excluding the poor and working classes. The defining feature of conservative media is not that they endorse conservative politics but that they stepped into a class lacuna created by the legacy media’s abandonment of the working class.

The consensus that allowed people with different values and political orientations to get their news from a shared source was, in fact, kept alive not so much by a political agreement as by an economic reality. The two decades between the mid-40s and the mid-60s were a time of buoyant social mobility: Working-class wages rose steadily and significantly, so much so that the very idea of “working class” was almost an anachronism. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Manhattan Institute President Reihan Salam wrote in their 2009 book, Grand New Party, in an age of cultural equality “when the rich drove almost the same cars as everyone else, ate roughly the same food, and watched exactly the same television shows,” for the working-class man, “there seemed to be hardly anyone above him worth envying.”

This meant that media outlets were catering to a mass audience that included both the upper classes and the much larger lower ones, in addition to Republicans and Democrats. To maintain the widest audience possible, publishers and editors put a premium on keeping the news straight, telling readers what happened, and letting them decide for themselves what it meant. There were also a limited number of Federal Communications Commission licenses, and those licenses were bound by the fairness doctrine, which required outlets to present issues of public importance in a way that was balanced. Altogether, this resulted in a journalism that was deeply committed to the difference between opinion writing and straight news, a journalism produced often by people with little to no education.

All that began to change in the 1960s. America was going through a “knowledge explosion,” and media companies knew it. As the New York Times executive editor put it, the typical reader “is much better educated, his interests are more sophisticated, his tastes are more likely to be international, he has a grounding in culture, which the older generation did not have.” The educational chasm that has come to define American life today had already started to emerge by that point, and newspapers quickly chose sides. “Newspapers must throw away old definitions of what makes news — petty crime, local fires, the chitchat which provided so much of the stuff of our father’s newspaper,” the executive editor said in a 1965 speech about the future of journalism. He went on:

“Today, the prime subjects of news are those which are on the frontiers of man’s expanding knowledge: cybernetics, the new mathematics, the structure of the chromosome, the deep philosophical and religious implications of man’s expanded universe, the title movements in human relations, such as we have witnessed in the civil rights struggle in this country … the complex splintering and elaboration of Marxism in many parts of the world.”

You can see how the topics that top executives wanted covered had a lot more to do with the class of the reader than with political orientation. But you can also see how tightly one of the political orientations came to be associated with a certain level of education. Already in 1965, the “complex splintering and elaboration of Marxism” could be listed along with mathematics and the structure of the chromosome as the kind of subject the New York Times reader cared about. Naturally, the move away from crime and city hall and toward stories about mathematics and cybernetics meant that a higher class of reporters was necessary to cater to this higher class of readers. After all, reporters were now being asked not to interview people and tell readers what they learned, but to interpret what they learned in essay-length articles about cybernetics.

A generational shift swiftly took place away from journalists who saw the work as a blue-collar trade and toward journalists who came from increasingly elite colleges. And instead of poaching journalists from smaller local papers as they had once done, the big papers began poaching them from each other, writes Matthew Pressman in On Press.

It took all of 20 years for the stories on the front pages of the nation’s major newspapers to go from being descriptive to being analytic and interpretive, a shift that began in 1954 and was completed by 1974. That shift was not without its critics — including on the Left. James S. Pope of Louisville’s liberal Courier-Journal decried the “Frankensteinish” copy that intermingled the “writer’s personal notions” with the facts. And John Oakes, the editorial page editor of the New York Times, wrote a letter decrying the shift in 1963 to his cousin and New York Times publisher Punch Sulzberger. He felt that the news side was encroaching on his territory by becoming increasingly opinionated: “I suppose I am butting my head against a stone wall; but again I feel I must call your attention to the editorialization in the news columns, which in my view is steadily eroding the Times’ reputation for objective news reporting.” He was ignored.

But the shift was as much about class and education as it was about political orientation. When the Los Angeles Times wanted to compete with the New York Times, hoping to gain national prestige, its top editors knew what they had to do: switch from being conservative to being liberal. As Nick Williams, then the editor in chief of the Los Angeles Times, put it, “Newspaper prestige, not always but usually, is a function of liberal estimation. Most intellectuals are liberal, and editorial prestige depends on what intellectuals judge it to be.”

This is not to say that there were no conservative reporters or columnists, although journalists have overwhelmingly tended to be liberal. Newspapers away from the coasts in smaller cities had many more conservative opinion writers, and conservative columnists were syndicated more widely than liberal ones. But the most prominent papers were overwhelmingly liberal — and not just in their opinion pages. By 1970, “many young journalists (and some not-so-young ones) simply did not believe in the notion of objectivity,” writes Pressman. “Far from considering it journalism’s noblest principle, they believed it was foolish at best and deeply harmful at worst.”

As in so many other aspects of this story, it wasn’t entirely the fault of the journalists themselves. Newspapers in the first half of the 20th century had been central to American life. This was no longer true in 1964, the first year most people said they got their news from television. As a result, newspapers needed to sell themselves to readers not as a utility but as a desirable product. And the customer was conceived of as an upper-middle-class white person.

To cater to these customers, newspapers exploded with service journalism, such as restaurant listings, shopping guides, and doctor rankings — geared, of course, to those who could afford the products discussed. Sections that had once been jettisoned and devoted to “women’s issues” were expanded. A Los Angeles Times bumper sticker summed it up nicely in 1978: “News Fashion Sports Stocks Travel Humor. It all comes together in The Times.”

The shift did not go unnoticed. A scathing critique of the New York Times ran in Harper’s Magazine in 1977, arguing that the New York Times ignored what was going on in the Bronx and spent its time on “goldplated goblets and $90 brass candlesticks” because “neither Bergdorf Goodman nor Cartier has anything to say to welfare mothers in the south Bronx.” The obsession with white, well-off, upscale readers, “people of influence and affluence,” meant that newspapers began to expand into the suburbs rather than having anything to do with the working-class residents of their own cities. As the editor in chief of the Los Angeles Times put it bluntly, “We don’t sell any papers in Watts.”

And as is always the case, this question of whom newspapers were selling to influenced what they were writing about. Asked why his paper failed at covering communities of color, Otis Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angles Times, said, “We couldn’t get the advertising to support that because the mass black audience and the Chicano audience do not have the purchasing power that our stores require to spend additional money in the Times.”

By 1980, Cronkite’s broadcast already represented a nostalgic yesteryear, not because he was apolitical but because he was still speaking to a mass audience that included people of all classes. In No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class, Christopher R. Martin, a professor of communication at the University of Northern Iowa, chronicled what he calls the “class-based redlining of the news audience,” which began in the 1960s and persists to this day. A lot of it took place on the business side of things. Since the 1920s, city papers had been merging into larger conglomerates.

But the rise of television in the 1960s meant an even stiffer marketplace for newspapers, and across the country, papers began to consolidate, leaving most cities with just one.

This had a number of effects on the coverage. For starters, the modern big-city newspapers became big businesses, which meant that their owners shared the values of other big businesses, as Ochs and Henry Raymond once did. As Christopher Daly points out in Covering America, big publishers “were almost unanimous in their support for the Republican Party and in their opposition to the income tax, labor unions, and competition from other papers.” And as the owners of big businesses, publishers often had a yen for a monopoly and a penchant for buying up the competition, another factor contributing to one-paper towns across the United States. While this gave publishers an inordinate amount of power, it also meant that if they leaned too heavily to the right or to the left, they would sacrifice 50% of readers.

Over the second half of the 20th century, there would be a huge corporate consolidation of mass media into five major companies. In The New Media Monopoly, Ben Bagdikian shows how five global firms came to own most of the newspapers, magazines, book publishers, motion picture studios, and radio and television stations in the U.S. — with 45 interlocking directors between them. This, as with so many other developments, resulted in a massive collective shift from the Pulitzer model of seeking the widest mass audience possible to the Ochs model of seeking the most exclusive audience with whom to court high-end advertisers.

The specific reason for this shift was because consolidation meant chains, and chains meant publicly traded corporations that answered not just to readers and advertisers but to stockholders. “With an eye on maintaining high levels of revenue (many in the 20–40% profit return range), the mantra for newspapers in the 1970s and onward was to be more market driven: consumer oriented rather than citizen oriented,” wrote Martin in No Longer Newsworthy. After all, a market-driven product is always looking for an upscale market. And the larger the corporate parent of the newspaper, the more likely it was to adopt market strategies to target upwardly mobile consumers, Martin found.

Of course, even the mass-market papers had never been truly inclusive. In the leading trade journal for the press, Editor & Publisher, where publications would advertise their reader demographics to attract advertisers, the 1930s and 1940s saw newspapers boasting a clientele that was “94.7% native born,” or “93% white.” They often sought to exclude black readers, discriminating against them on behalf of advertisers whose racist clients didn’t want black customers. And in the late 1960s, the papers extended this ban to the working class. “Less desirable customers” now included people who weren’t in the upper half of the market and couldn’t afford to move to wealthy suburbs. By the 1970s, newspapers were separating out the reading public into categories based on lifestyle and writing off those who weren’t affluent enough. And, of course, this intersected with race.

The Washington Post cut back circulation to black neighborhoods in the 1960s “in order to upgrade the quality of its demographic audience profile,” as the paper saw it. Other publications cut subscriptions to rural areas and to working-class sections of the city, “rationing circulation,” as they put it.

By literally cutting off working-class readers, newspapers could boast to advertisers that their readers were upscale. The New York Times of course had a head start on this, having always used this model. And you can see it clearly at work in an ad the New York Times placed in Editor & Publisher in 1940 to attract advertisers, which presented clients with two families: the “John Smiths” and the “Tom Browns.” The Smiths were the undesirable and primitive working-class readers of other papers, while the Browns were the upwardly mobile, affluent readers of the New York Times. According to the ad:

“The Browns, having more money, spend more money on everything than the Smiths, even on everyday items such as food, tobacco or the corner movie. They buy more and buy more often and thus are better and more profitable customers. That’s why we call families like the Browns the Profit Half of New York. They were logically the first families advertisers want to reach in New York — and The New York Times, concentrating among them, is logically the medium through which to do so.”

The ad ran as a series, and each iteration showed the Browns in their natural habitats juxtaposed with the Smiths in theirs — with each family’s shopping lists, picnic baskets, and homes drawn for maximum contrast. In one ad, the Browns stand in the foreground laughing in evening wear, the husband in a tuxedo, the wife in a feathered gown. In the background, the Smiths amble along in much dowdier outfits. “The Browns spend 4 Times as much for fun as the Smiths,” the ad said.

Of course, it wasn’t just the New York Times. The New York Sun in 1940 claimed that it attracted the readership of “the worthwhile buying families throughout New York’s good home areas in cities and suburbs.” The New York World-Telegram announced its readers as “Manhattanites of the higher rental areas — the world-envied group which works hard at play because it can really afford to!” “Are we in danger of becoming the rich man’s paper?” the Los Angeles Herald Examiner asked in a 1970 ad that ran after a strike at Hearst, its parent company, was ended when Hearst brought in replacement workers and Pinkerton security guards. (The answer, also in the ad, is a proud “yes.”)

By the 1970s, the New York Times had shifted from boasting of the affluence of its readers to boasting about their education. “The New York Times will enlighten, expose, expound, confound, explore, suggest, contest, probe, prod, praise, and otherwise provoke and inform now more than ever before,” read an ad it placed in Editor & Publisher on Sept. 19, 1970. Two other ads placed by the paper in 1970 showed the “New York Spenders,” featuring an expensively, understatedly dressed woman in an antique shop, and the “New York Smarties,” three men playing squash, for which it added the caption, “Two-thirds of them have attended college. More than 500,000 hold post-graduate degrees. They’re the people who read the New York Times.”

So it’s ironic, to say the least, when legacy journalists, especially those at the New York Times, lament our “information silos” and how divided we are as a nation into different news audiences by political orientation. After all, the national news media made a conscious decision to unsubscribe poor and working-class people. They did not want their business. And they signaled that not through circulation but through content.

To make sure advertisers knew who their readers were, and to signal to readers who their readers were, the media stopped talking about the working class, stopped addressing their issues, and stopped representing their lives. Labor coverage, which used to be robust, was phased out and all but disappeared. Where newspapers used to cover transit strikes from the point of view of striking workers, they started covering them from the point of view of inconvenienced, disgruntled customers, feeding a class divide and an “us versus them” mentality that pitted the solidarity of the working classes against the individualism of upwardly mobile office workers.

And while the decisions that led to this shift in coverage weren’t entirely the fault of journalists, they were implicated in them. Already by 1971, less than half of journalists, just 39%, told pollsters that it was “extremely important” to focus on news that’s relevant to the “widest possible audience.” By 1992, just 20% of journalists believed that. By 2013, it was a scant 12%. And this shift in media coverage had real-world consequences. “Beginning around the early 1970s, there was a wholesale shift in political rhetoric about people and their social economic status,” wrote Martin. “The public went from being valued as citizen workers whose productivity created the US economy to consumers in an economy led by Wall Street and business entrepreneurs.”

And these consumers needed someone to tell them where and how to spend their money. Thus, in the 1960s, two more magazines cropped up specifically for the purpose of promoting class through taste: the New York Review of Books and New York magazine. These publications were explicitly designed to, by turns, stoke and allay the class anxieties of urban college graduates living in fear of not knowing what the book of the moment is or where the right place to eat is or what wine to order, thereby losing their claim to elite status. And, of course, it was all aspirational: You had to make sure people felt there was somewhere they were still excluded from so they would buy the next issue.

Needless to say, working-class people stopped reading these publications. And without a working-class readership, the liberal media have leaned ever more heavily on upper-class readers, viewers, and listeners.

Just 7% of people who consider the New York Times their main source for news have a high school degree or less. Only 8% of loyal NPR listeners have not gone to college. Sixty-two percent of public radio listeners earn more than $75,000 a year, and 77% own their own homes, one public radio station reported in 2014. New York magazine boasts 2,224,000 “affluent magazine readers monthly,” 76% of whom have a household income of $150,000 or more. The Wall Street Journal reported in its media kit that 4 out of 5 readers have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and half are affluent, meaning they own liquid assets of $1 million or more. In a now-deleted media kit, the New York Times boasted a print readership that is “elite,” “affluent,” and “influential” — more likely to consist of millionaires, C-suite executives, or business decision-makers than “the average affluent adult.” And it claimed a median household income of $191,000, with digital readers coming in at $96,000.

In other words, class plays a huge role in how publications see themselves and their readers. But though this information is front and center for publications, it’s been completely erased from the national conversation about the media, which tends to focus on political polarization. That polarization is, of course, also there. Of those people who identify Fox News as their main source for political news, 93% are Republicans, while 91% of people who identify the New York Times as their main source are Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center. But just as important, yet hardly discussed at all, is the question of class. Something that’s never mentioned is how the liberal news media have actively excluded the working class, even the idea of being working class, from their pages.

Today, there is no legacy media outlet left that is doing what Day and Pulitzer did so assiduously: waging a crusade on behalf of the dignity and autonomy of working-class people while also offering it as a product for their consumption. And there’s at least an argument to be made that the media’s abandonment of the economic concerns of the working class led to its abandonment by politicians of both parties.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is deputy opinion editor of Newsweek and author of Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy (Encounter Books, 2021), from which this essay is adapted.





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