Here’s a little thought experiment: imagine if an alien managed to avoid getting shot down by the Biden administration and landed its UFO safely in the US. Imagine if it picked up a year’s worth of copies of the New York Times, the paper of record, in order to do some due diligence on how us earthlings live. What would it come away thinking about life in America?
I obviously can’t speak for extraterrestrial life, but I’ve got a feeling the poor alien might get the impression that every third person in the US is trans – rather than 0.5% of the population. They (I assume aliens are nonbinary) might get the impression that nobody is allowed to say the word “woman” any more and we are all being forced at gunpoint to say “uterus-havers”. They might get the impression that women’s sports have been completely taken over by trans women. They might believe that millions of children are being mutilated by doctors in the name of gender-affirming care because of the all-powerful trans lobby. They might come away thinking that JK Rowling is not a multi-multi-multi-millionaire with endless resources at her disposal but a marginalized victim who needs brave Times columnists to come to her defense.
None of that is true, of course, but you’d understand why they might get that impression. As Popula pointed out in a recent piece (headlined “Why is the New York Times so obsessed with trans kids?”): “In the past eight months the Times has now published more than 15,000 words’ worth of front-page stories asking whether care and support for young trans people might be going too far or too fast”. Those, to reiterate, are newspaper front-page stories. As Popula notes, that number “doesn’t include the 11,000 or so words the New York Times Magazine devoted to a laboriously evenhanded story about disagreements over the standards of care for trans youth; or the 3,000 words of the front-page story … on whether trans women athletes are unfairly ruining the competition for other women; or the 1,200 words of the front-page story … on how trans interests are banning the word “woman” from abortion-rights discourse.”
Popula isn’t the only one wondering why the Times is so obsessed with trans people. On Wednesday, two open letters were sent to the New York Times critiquing their coverage of trans issues. The first was signed by nearly 1,000 current and former Times contributors including well-known names like Cynthia Nixon, Chelsea Manning, and Roxane Gay. This letter, addressed to the paper’s associate managing editor for standards, accused the Times of treating gender diversity “with an eerily familiar mix of pseudoscience and euphemistic, charged language, while publishing reporting on trans children that omits relevant information about its sources”. That relevant information being that some of those sources have affiliations with far-right groups. That “charged language” being phrases like “patient zero” to describe a transgender young person seeking gender-affirming care, “a phrase that vilifies transness as a disease to be feared”.
The second letter was signed by more than 100 LGBTQ+ and civil rights groups, including Glaad and the Human Rights Campaign. It expressed support for the contributor letter and accused the Times of platforming “fringe theories” and “dangerous inaccuracies”. It noted that while the Times has produced responsible coverage of trans people, “those articles are not getting front-page placement or sent to app users via push notification like the irresponsible pieces are”. And it observed that rightwing politicians have been using the Times’s coverage of trans issues to justify criminalizing gender-affirming care.
Was the Times open to this criticism? Did it take some time to reflect on why so many people are upset about its coverage and how its coverage is influencing increasingly dystopian legislation? Perhaps. But if it did it certainly didn’t make it obvious. Instead it went on the defensive. Charlie Stadtlander, the Times’ director of external communication, put out a statement stating that the organization pursues “independent reporting on transgender issues that include profiling groundbreakers in the movement, challenges and prejudice faced by the community, and how society is grappling with debates about care”. While that was all very diplomatic, the executive editor, Joe Kahn, and opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, sent around a rather more pointed newsroom memo condemning the letters on Thursday.
“It is not unusual for outside groups to critique our coverage or to rally supporters to seek to influence our journalism,” Kahn wrote in the memo. “In this case, however, members of our staff and contributors to The Times joined the effort … 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.”
I’m going to pause for a moment here and address the elephant in the room. You don’t need to @ me on Twitter, I’m fully aware that I’m writing this in the Guardian, which has received its own open letter from staff about the paper’s willingness to publish “anti-trans views” and “transphobic content”. (FYI, I didn’t sign this letter because I’m a freelancer who doesn’t hang out in media circles and I had absolutely no idea they were happening.) I’m not trying to pretend the Guardian is perfect when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues and the Times is uniquely awful. But I do think the Times possesses a unique haughtiness in thinking it is above everyone else and that it performs “pure” journalism that has nothing to do with advocacy.
Here’s the thing: there is no clear-cut line between advocacy and journalism. All media organizations have a perspective about the world and filter their output (which will, of course, strive to be fairly reported) through that perspective. To pretend otherwise is dishonest. 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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