Media critics sounded two alarms last month, each of them muffled by power, privilege and a willful misunderstanding of trans people.
First, on February 15, roughly 1,200 New York Times contributors and 20,000 other “media workers, subscribers, and readers” of the paper addressed an open letter to the Times associate managing editor, Philip B. Corbett, alleging “editorial bias in the newspaper’s reporting on transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people.” They cited the Times’s persistent use of “pseudoscience and euphemistic, charged language” and omission of “relevant information about its sources” in its reporting on gender diversity and trans children as examples of this bias.
A second letter that same day, organized by GLAAD and signed by more than 100 LGBTQ advocacy groups and activists, similarly confronted The New York Times’s “irresponsible, biased coverage of transgender people” and demanded the Times “stop printing biased anti-trans stories”; “hold a meeting with transgender community members and leaders, and listen throughout that meeting”; and “[hire] trans writers and editors, full time on [its] staff.”
The consequences of this bias are dire, including numerous recent legislative attacks on trans people.
The Times’s Editorial Bias Bolsters Anti-Trans Legislation
In January, Popula’s Tom Scocca found that, during the previous eight months, the Times published more than 15,000 words questioning the morality of trans kids’ access to gender-affirming medical care. This figure didn’t include some 11,000 words the New York Times Magazine afforded to Emily Bazelon’s article “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” which was riddled with anti-trans talking points, such as the false claim that transitioning might be a way for young people “struggling with serious mental-health issues … to shed aspects of themselves they dislike.”
Bazelon’s article, among two others published by The New York Times, was cited in July by Arkansas’s attorney general in an amicus brief supporting Alabama’s Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act — a law that would make it illegal for medical professionals to provide certain gender-affirming health care, such as puberty blockers and hormone treatment, to trans minors.
“There is a campaign in state legislatures, in the courts, in the streets and in the media to roll back rights for transgender people, fomenting a moral panic about teachers and drag queens coming for America’s children,” wrote Ari Paul in an article for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). “This campaign is often portrayed as coming from the far right, which sees traditional gender roles under attack by a new world order. But liberal and centrist institutions like the New York Times aid and abet this campaign.”
The Times’s Responses Muffle the Alarms
Charlie Stadtlander, The New York Times’s director of external communications, issued the newspaper’s first response to the critical letters. His written statement, which appeared to conflate the two separate letters, distinguished between the “advocacy mission” of GLAAD and the newspaper’s “journalistic mission.” Writing for The Nation, Jack Mirkinson observed that the Times aimed “to distance itself from what it clearly believes to be an activist mob that doesn’t understand what Real Journalism is all about.” Although Stadtlander’s statement referred to “the co-signers of the letter,” it failed to acknowledge that the letter’s primary authors were journalists whose reporting the Times regularly publishes.
The newspaper’s second response, issued by its executive editor, Joseph Kahn, acknowledged the role of Times journalists even as it dodged the specific criticisms their letter had raised. Instead, Kahn wrote: “We do not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums.” As Paul summarized, “The writers offered documented criticism, and Kahn dismissed it — prohibited it — as an attack and a protest organized by an outside group.”
The Times sought to muffle the alarm sounded by its own reporters, a response that merits deeper examination for at least three reasons.
First, the Times sought to portray the reporters who authored the first letter as out of line. That letter was organized by the Freelance Solidarity Project, a union of digital media workers. As FAIR noted, “For freelancers, openly criticizing the editors of a major outlet is a real risk, because it might mean no more commissions in the future.”
Commenting on the Times’s response, one of the letter’s original signers, Hanna Phifer, wrote, “It isn’t an infringement on the First Amendment to say that fearmongering coverage of trans issues should be put to an end. But the suggestion that marginalized communities have more systemic power than they actually do is the anxiety that pulses through the recent wave of anti-trans rhetoric and other forms of rising bigotry we’ve seen across the country.”
Kelley Robinson, president of Human Rights Campaign, also weighed in after GLAAD’s letter was published, stating, “The Times must stop consistently platforming anti-LGBTQ+ extremists. They must do better, because there are real lives at stake.”
Second, as much as they may be rivals in business, establishment news outlets seem to go silent when it comes to reporting on laws and policies that put them in awkward positions. Executive Editor Joseph Kahn’s chilling statement that the Times “will not tolerate” protest by its journalists reminds us of what happened in 2017, when The Washington Post implemented a policy restricting its employees’ use of social media. The Post’s policy prohibited employees from conduct on social media that “adversely affects The Post’s customers, advertisers, subscribers, vendors, suppliers or partners.” Violators could be subject to “termination of employment,” the policy stated.
As Project Censored noted at the time, establishment news coverage of the Post’s sweeping social media restrictions was “extremely limited.” Similarly, few other major U.S. news outlets have covered the open letters accusing the Times of editorial bias in its coverage of transgender issues, while those outlets that have done so — including USA Today and the San Francisco Chronicle — have typically positioned their coverage as “opinion.” It may be that other establishment news outlets are not prepared to cover criticisms of The New York Times’s coverage, for fear that they might be vulnerable to similar judgment. Either way, this collective silence keeps the issue out of the wider public’s consciousness.
Third, and perhaps most fundamentally, the Times’s distinction between journalism and advocacy is problematic, suggesting that the self-proclaimed custodian of “All the News That’s Fit to Print” clings to an outdated image of news as a “mirror” that simply and objectively reflects reality.
The Times’s Broken Mirror Distorts Trans Lives as Matter of “Both Sides”
The mirror metaphor implies that news professionals are safely isolated from the political, economic and social issues that they cover. That’s an ideal of journalistic objectivity epitomized by Richard S. Salant, president of CBS News in the 1960s and 1970s, who asserted, “Our reporters do not cover news from their point of view. They are presenting them from nobody’s point of view” (quoted by Edward Jay Epstein, News from Nowhere, 1973). Despite Salant’s and Kahn’s appeals to idealized notions of journalism detached from advocacy, power and status shape news workers’ judgments of “newsworthiness,” whether at CBS News, The New York Times, or other establishment news outlets.
Management at the Times “want to appear to eschew progressive bias and hear ‘both sides’ on the issue of trans lives,” Christina Cauterucci wrote, in an article on the newspaper’s decision to publish an editorial by Pamela Paul, defending J.K. Rowling, the day after New York Times contributors called on the paper to rethink its coverage of transgender news. The Times’s “both sides” coverage reflects the newspaper’s commitment to a flawed version of journalistic objectivity that equates balance with accuracy, which critical media scholars (including Robert Entman, in Democracy Without Citizens) have shown make it easier for interest groups to manipulate news coverage in their favor.
Commenting on The New York Times’s defensive reaction to its coverage of trans issues, the Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi observed, “Like it or not, the Times is involved in advocacy. It just needs to step back for a moment and think about who it’s advocating for.”
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