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Feb. 15, 2023, 1:42 p.m.
Reporting & Production

New York Times contributors, GLAAD, and many others criticize Times’ coverage of trans people

One open letter draws parallels between the Times’ coverage of trans people and, in earlier decades, its coverage of gay people and HIV/AIDS.

This story has been updated with a statement from The New York Times and with a response to that statement from Times contributors.

In the past year, page A1 of The New York Times has frequently featured stories with one similar theme: “whether care and support for young trans people might be going too far or too fast,” in the words of Tom Scocca writing recently in Popula. By his estimate, these front page stories have totaled more than 15,000 words combined, not counting coverage of similar topics in the Opinion section and New York Times Magazine. He added:

Page A1 is where questions go. Is the number of young trans people suddenly unusually large? Is it good for young trans people to be getting medical treatment as drastic as breast-removal surgery? If they’re deferring more drastic medical treatment by taking puberty blockers, is it harmful for them to take those puberty blockers? If they’re not getting medical treatment at all, are their schools letting them socially transition too easily?

On Wednesday, in two separate open letters to Times leadership, two different groups argued that the Times’ coverage of transgender, non⁠-⁠binary, and gender nonconforming people is biased. (The timing was coordinated, the organizations said.)

“The Times has in recent years treated 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,” reads the open letter organized by the Freelance Solidarity Project, the digital media division of the National Writers Union.

The letter is addressed to Philip B. Corbett, the Times’ associate managing editor for standards. Initially signed by more than 200 Times contributors, including Alison Roman, John Herrman, Jia Tolentino, and Virginia Sole-Smith, the letter has gained thousands more signatures since Wednesday morning.

The letter notes that Times coverage has been used to support anti-trans bills across the country:

Last year, Arkansas’ attorney general filed an amicus brief in defense of Alabama’s Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act, which would make it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment, for any medical provider to administer certain gender⁠-⁠affirming medical care to a minor (including puberty blockers) that diverges from their sex assigned at birth. The brief cited three different New York Times articles to justify its support of the law: [Emily] Bazelon’s “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” Azeen Ghorayshi’s “Doctors Debate Whether Trans Teens Need Therapy Before Hormones,” and Ross Douthat’s “How to Make Sense of the New L.G.B.T.Q. Culture War.” As recently as February 8th, 2023, attorney David Begley’s invited testimony to the Nebraska state legislature in support of a similar bill approvingly cited the Times’ reporting and relied on its reputation as the “paper of record” to justify criminalizing gender⁠-⁠affirming care.

The letter draws parallels between the Times’ coverage of trans people and, in earlier decades, its coverage of gay people and HIV/AIDS and its treatment of gay employees. “New York Times managing editor and executive editor A. M. Rosenthal neglected to put AIDS on the front page until 1983, by which time the virus had already killed 500 New Yorkers,” they write. “He withheld planned promotions from colleagues he learned on the grapevine were gay. Many of his employees feared being outed.”

That last link is to a 2018 piece in the Times’ T Magazine, “Six Times journalists on the paper’s history of covering AIDS and gay issues.” Reading the Times’ early HIV/AIDS coverage, T Magazine editor-at-large Kurt Soller wrote then, is “to be reminded how news coverage shapes perceptions and policies, particularly when it comes to oppressed communities.”

In an interview with Hellgate NY, Jo Livingstone, a critic and writer who helped organize the Freelance Solidarity Project’s letter, argued that the Times’ reporting on trans people is intended in part to drive views and outrage:

There are really not that many trans people in America. There aren’t that many trans children in America. This is an issue which affects a lot of people, in theory. In practice, maybe not so much.

But because it’s a question that seems to relate to institutions that people feel a lot of ownership over, for example, schools, especially primary schools, you know, “what are people doing with my child when I’m not around?” I think that there’s a paranoia at the heart of what makes people want to read about this stuff, which is only getting more and more intense, the more the coverage.

Newspapers have a passive explanation — what people want to read is the news that we report. And just to go back to what I was saying before, that is a willful misreading of what journalism does in society.

GLAAD also published an open letter on Wednesday and protested outside Times headquarters, calling out the Times’ “irresponsible, biased coverage of transgender people.” That letter was signed by more than 100 equality and media organizations and individuals including celebrities like Judd Apatow and Margaret Cho.

GLAAD’s letter includes specific demands for the Times, including a meeting with trans community members and more hiring of trans employees. The Freelance Solidarity Project’s letter simply asks for a response.

Charlie Stadtlander, The New York Times’ director of external communications, provided a statement on Wednesday afternoon:

“We received the open letter delivered by GLAAD and welcome their feedback. We understand how GLAAD and the co-signers of the letter see our coverage. But at the same time, we recognize that GLAAD’s advocacy mission and The Times’s journalistic mission are different.

As a news organization, we pursue 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.

The very news stories criticized in their letter reported deeply and empathetically on issues of care and well-being for trans teens and adults. Our journalism strives to explore, interrogate and reflect the experiences, ideas and debates in society — to help readers understand them. Our reporting did exactly that and we’re proud of it.”

I asked Stadtlander to clarify which letter this statement is referring to — just the one from GLAAD, or also the one from the Times contributors? He responded:

The letter you linked to with the numerous signatories was delivered in person by GLAAD reps to the NYT this morning. GLAAD issued press releases and letters of their own simultaneously, but the open letter you’re talking about came to us through GLAAD. The statement applies to both.

On Thursday, the group of Times writers behind the letter told me, “GLAAD confirmed to us that they did not deliver a copy of our letter to the New York Times. We look forward to clarification from the Times.”

You can read the Times contributors’ letter here or sign it here. You can read GLAAD’s letter here or sign it here.

Photo of The New York Times building by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (laura_owen@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Feb. 15, 2023, 1:42 p.m.
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