If your only source for news about transgender issues was the New York Times, here’s what you would know. You’d know that trans people’s lives are constantly at risk, either from hate crimes or suicides. And you’d know that an increasing number of young children, especially young girls, are so certain that they were born the “wrong” sex that the only responsible thing for the adults in their lives to do is to “affirm” them by giving them puberty-blocking hormones, chest-binders, and other “therapies” that allow them to live “authentic” lives.
You’d know that any discussion of the dangers or long-term consequences of things such as intensive hormone treatments is an exercise in hatred toward trans people. You’d know that celebrities who have transitioned are brave civil-rights pioneers. And if you’re a reader of the sports section, you’d know that trans athletes who were born male but now dominate in competitions against women (who obviously lack the physical advantages of men) are heroes, and that anyone who complains about the unfairness of the situation is transphobic.
You’d know that many words of cultural significance and meaning—words such as “woman,” “mother,” or “breast-feeding,” for example—are particularly triggering to trans women and so must be replaced with phrases such as “chest-feeder” or “person with a uterus.” You’d know that often-debilitating surgeries that remove breasts and sexual organs and that, in some cases, produce lifelong health complications for patients are to be referred to only under the gauzy banner of “gender-affirming care” and ideally not much discussed.
In other words, for the past many years and in hundreds of stories, support and outright boosterism for the claims of transgender activists (and the demonization of any opponents) was the only coverage you could reliably find in the Times.
That is, until recently. In June 2022, the paper of record published a well-reported article by Emily Bazelon that offered a nuanced portrait of the debate within the medical community over how to treat trans children. “More teenagers than ever are seeking transitions,” she noted, “but the medical community that treats them is deeply divided about why—and what to do to help them.” Another article in November offered a critical look at what is and is not known about the effects of frequently administered puberty blockers.
The backlash these two stories created in the broader world of mainstream journalism is best represented by a headline from the left-leaning Texas Observer: “There is no legitimate ‘debate’ over gender-affirming healthcare.” In fact, as Bazelon’s piece detailed, the debate in medical communities in other countries has been ongoing and has yielded far more caution with regard to treatments than has existed in the U.S.; both Finland and the UK have recently paused some of the more aggressive treatments for trans children, for example. No matter. Writing in Nieman Reports, Issac Bailey accused Times editors of contributing “to what feels like a moral panic about trans people.”
The outrage expressed here was a shocked and startled reaction to the fact that the Times was no longer treating as unquestionable the claims of transgender ideologues. Those claims were instead being subjected to the kind of scrutiny journalists in other parts of the world had long practiced.
Both activists and journalists at the Times reacted by coordinating the release of two letters condemning the Times and demanding that the paper change the way it reports on transgender issues. The first letter, from GLAAD, a trans activist organization, asserted that the Times had to “stop questioning science that is SETTLED” and hire four transgender writers and editors within three months. The second letter, signed by more than 1,000 writers—some of whom, such as Roxane Gay, are current or former contributors to the Times, as well as Times staffers—specifically called out the reporting of Bazelon and others as evidence of the paper’s unacceptable attitude toward transgender issues and compared it to the Times’ supposedly backward misreporting of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
But in a refreshing change for a paper that has often proven itself all too willing to be humbled by woke staffers, Joe Kahn, its new executive editor, behaved like the adult in the room. “Participation in such a campaign is against the letter and spirit of our ethics policy,” he wrote in a memo. “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 well-intentioned as Kahn’s statement of principles is, however, it would have been unnecessary had the Times bothered to enforce its own ethical standards consistently during the past many years.
The Times’ own handbook states that the goal of the paper is covering news “as impartially as possible—‘without fear or favor,’ in the words of Adolph Ochs, our patriarch—and to treat readers, news sources, advertisers and others fairly and openly, and to be seen to be doing so.” But these standards are not consistently applied. In a section outlining the paper’s “Duty to our Readers,” for example, the Times claims, “In print and online, we tell our readers the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it. It is our policy to correct our errors, large and small, as soon as we become aware of them.” In fact, as the numerous stealth-edits made to parts of the fact-addled “1619 Project” revealed, the Times is not a stickler for publicly correcting its errors if it reflects badly on favored journalists at the paper. Perhaps Times journalists expected that the same level of care would be given to their feelings about transgender ideology.
In another section about Times practices, the paper says it wants its reporters “to be aware of their own biases and to consider how someone with an opposing view might think about the topics they are covering.” A worthy goal, surely.
The problem, as the backlash reveals, is that many reporters don’t believe there is a legitimate opposing view about transgender “rights.” The only appropriate view is to defend and amplify radical gender ideology—and to do so by engaging in something that no self-respecting journalist should support: censorship of opposing views. As one anonymous Times staffer griped to Charlotte Klein at Vanity Fair, “there are people high up on the paper who think we are on the wrong side of history, and there is no public indication that anyone is grappling with that seriously.” Worse, as another anonymous journalist complained, management had forgotten the most important thing when running a newsroom: not hurting the newsroom’s feelings. “I mean, this is a moment where New York Times employees are feeling profound hurt, disagreeing deeply on core issues, and it feels like leadership is nowhere to be found, except for a threatening letter,” the staffer said.
What the activists and their journalist allies objected to was simply reporting on an ongoing debate about transgender medicine. That they thought it even appropriate to make this objection shows just how daunting is the challenge that Joe Kahn and other managers of newsrooms face.
Perhaps this is why, in the aftermath of the public airing of grievances over transgender ideology, the Times has gone back to its regularly scheduled programming: Recent stories featured in the paper include, “Rikers Is Already Awful, and It’s Worse if You’re Trans,” “Why the GOP’s Attack on Trans Rights Could Backfire on the Party,” and “These 12 Transgender Americans Would Love You to Mind Your Own Business.” Joe Kahn’s memo was impressive, but the activists have won anyway.
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