“What if you were writing a profile on someone named Janet and I was your editor, and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, for balance, find someone who wants to kill Janet’?” This week, Tuck Woodstock, host of Gender Reveal, takes us on a journey through the New York Times’ coverage of trans issues—and in the end, he points the way to a better future.
You can find Tuck / Gender Reveal online here.
You can find an episode transcript along with citations here.
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You’re Wrong About: We Need to Talk About The New York Times Transcript + Notes
Sarah: You’re like is he the worst waiter in the world or did he spill that soup in my lap on purpose? Either way I need skin grafts
Sarah: Welcome to You’re Wrong About, the podcast where we say, what's going on New York Times, what are you doing? What's all this about? And with me today is no longer of the city, forever a Portlander in my heart, the legend, Tuck Woodstock.
Tuck: Thank you so much for having me and acknowledging my past as the former mayor of Portland, Oregon. I appreciate that.
Sarah: You did a great job. You were only mayor for 15 minutes in the middle of the night, but it was the best mayordom ever.
Tuck: I was talking to my friends recently about has there ever been a good mayor, like not of Portland, just in history of anywhere. That wasn't like one of the dog mayors, you know what I mean?
Sarah: I know. The dog mayors, Richards Splett, possibly Nan Whaley. But, yeah. Who really, exactly.
Tuck: An open question. But in the meantime…
Sarah: Tuck Woodstock, what are you up to, and where can people find your work and so forth?
Tuck: So I make a podcast called, Gender Reveal, which is trans people talking to other trans people, sometimes about gender, sometimes not. You can find that in the podcast places. I also have a consulting partnership called Sylveon Consulting, where I mostly work with journalists to avoid the very problems that we will be talking about The New York Times encountering.
So much of my work is doing trans media criticism. And so I am so excited to talk about this topic today because it really is like giving me the greatest gift of the world, which is just to talk about my number one special interest. But all of my work is trans media. And then I also used to tweet too much, but now I just tweet a normal amount.
Sarah: Yes. I'm so excited to be talking with you about this. Because someone had to get to the bottom of this, and it was going to be you.
We started talking about this topic. And my sort of understanding and sense of it is that for better or worse, the New York Times arguably is the paper of record for the mainstream and left of center United States. And their handling of trans issues, and really gender and sexuality generally, has been consistently horrible. My summary of their discussion of trans rights is basically, “Should trans people exist? Or, should they exist to such an extent? Experts disagree.” And you're just like, [sighs] that's how I feel about it.
Tuck: Yeah. You're totally right. The one thing that I would add is when you're like, “Experts disagree on whether trans people should exist”, it's not really even experts so much as “we found a woman on a forum called, I Hate Trannies.biz, and she says that trans people shouldn't exist.”
So yeah, the main points that I'm trying to make today are basically that the concept of objectivity and balance is noble in a vacuum, but it's being used in manipulative ways to dodge accountability and shield against critiques of power, and just maintain the power of the status quo.
The framing of stories about trans people and trans youth specifically implies this urgency and prevalence and novelty that just doesn't actually exist and that could be malicious, it could be just ignorant, but it ultimately doesn't matter, because the point is that they're putting trans people in danger with this coverage. And that actually does have historical precedent, particularly with the ways that gay people were spoken about during the AIDS crisis and before that.
And lastly, I just want to get into the way that things have unfolded in the last couple of months. And how queer New York Times contributors and allies have tried to have conversations with the New York Times about this on the New York Times terms, and they've still been shut out. They're doing irresponsible, damaging journalism that goes against what I would say is any reasonable code of ethics.
Sarah: Mhm. But then my question that I feel might be occurring to a lot of people, is this a particular to the New York Times problem? Is this like a mainstream journalism problem, generally, that the New York Times exemplifies because we feel like they should do better? Or are they in specific particularly doing a terrible job?
Tuck: Yeah. So I teach workshops to journalists about trans coverage, and when I started teaching those workshops years ago, most newsrooms were on the same page. Which was, we don't know anything.
In the last several years, that has really evolved to where a lot of major newsrooms are doing decent to great work covering trans issues. By which I mean when they're writing about trans people, they are treating them with the same respect and dignity as they would treat any other source that they're writing about. And the New York Times is failing to do this in a way that feels particularly singular. Because other outlets will put out individual stories or have individual writers who clearly are not seeing trans people as people, or who just simply don't know enough about trans issues and trans people to write about them competently. But in a way that looks to me like, oh, these are people making mistakes and learning.
Whereas the New York Times has this pattern over the last few years, and a pattern internally, of the way that they're talking to their reporters and staff about these issues that makes it clear that regardless of individual facts, phrasings, sources, writers that we can pick apart, there's this big pattern that you just can't argue with. You just see that the New York Times is overall creating this pattern of coverage and behavior that's harmful to trans people that I'm just not seeing in the same way from other mainstream publications. Which in some ways is cool that there's only one, but it sucks that it is the national paper of record.
Sarah: Yeah. And there are many aspects of their legacy that run hugely counter to this, and yet they've had a lot of wins. Like I feel like they historically are known for being like, they published the Pentagon Papers and like doing things that were actually like daring and politically meaningful. It feels different when you have expectations based on past accomplishments and demonstrating a past ability to see past the rules.
Tuck: I think the issues that we're seeing happen at the New York Times, for the most part, are coming high up from the standards desk and management. And so when we see a great piece come out about queer trans issues from the New York Times, I feel that it is despite the management, rather than because of them.
And I know for a fact that queer trans writers at the New York Times have had to really fight with their editors to put out anything that they feel isn't actively harmful. So I just want to say that I hate to say nothing The New York Times says could ever be good. That's absolutely not true. Again, there's just this pattern in the aggregate that's really harmful. There's not a great way to parry it because it is The New York Times. And so if you're a trans person and your mom is reading The New York Times and is saying “The New York Times says that there are too many trans kids these days and they're not all actually trans.” What are you going to do as a trans person? You can be like, here's this blog that I read and here's this podcast by Tuck Woodstock. They don't care. Your mom doesn't care what I have to say. They care about what The New York Times has to say.
Sarah: Yeah. They're like, Tuck Woodstock is from Portland. You don't listen to Portlanders in this house. Like, there's no higher authority to go to if you are like lucky enough to have a parent who doesn't just watch Fox News, I feel like.
Tuck: Exactly. Yeah. Journalistic objectivity. It might feel like this ancient, immutable concept, but it really has only come to prominence in the last century or so. Because in the first 50 years of air quotes, “the United States existing”, we were in our party press era. Which is basically like the papers were run by the political party.
So you worked for the Democrat paper and the Democrats paid you to write nice things about Democrats. That's an obvious bias. That's an obvious partisanship. And then 50 or 60 years later, the penny paper is invented. Do you know about the penny paper, Sarah?
Sarah: No, I do not. It sounds very promising.
Tuck: So the concept is basically, oh, this paper is cheap to make. It costs like a penny. We're actually just going to support it by advertisements and so we can write anything we want as long as people will buy it. And that's how a lot of media still works today, right? Is we're just going to write whatever we want and as long as it gets clicks, we can run it.
Sarah: I was reading an old newspaper, it wasn't even that old, it was probably from like the nineties, as am I. And I stumbled across this thing that was like, it was from a relatively small town, and it was like, “people who have gone to the hospital this week.” And I was just like, oh yeah, like the newspaper used to be a lot like Twitter in that you just, you got your coffee and you're like what inane shit do I feel like looking at? There's going to be a lot of it in this thing.
Tuck: The penny paper also lended itself to what we call ‘yellow journalism’, which is basically tabloids today. It's like exaggeration, scandals, sensationalism. Generally making things up.
Sarah: causing the Spanish-American war, I believe.
Tuck: Okay, so that's..
Sarah: Is that not true? Is that a “You're Wrong About?”
Tuck: That's a You're Wrong About.
Sarah: I love it. Why do my seventh-grade teachers keep failing me?
Tuck: Yeah. For people who haven't heard, the most famous examples of yellow journalism are Joseph Pulitzer - which is so funny because a Pulitzer is named after him - and William Randolph Hurst each had these papers that were competing for the most salacious coverage, aka the most clicks.
Sarah: As depicted in Newsies.
Tuck: Yes. And the legend goes that their stories on Cuba were basically the reason that the U.S. entered the Spanish American War. It's said that this was largely disproven, but it's more convenient for everyone's fun and narrative, and Newsies, that totally it happened. So who can say really?
Sarah: Yeah, to Newsies credit, I don't feel like they made that claim specifically, but I think my seventh grade history teacher did. So like once again, if I repeat something I learned in school, I have to just be like, let’s check on that.
Tuck: We have our party press, we have our penny paper. And people were like, what if we didn't have the party press or the penny paper, but a secret third thing? And what if we focus on fact-based reporting, nonpartisanship, editorial independence, objectivity? These are all concepts that sound really good when your choices have been either the guys trying to get you into the Spanish American War, or the paper that says I was paid $50 to say that Thomas Jefferson is Daddy, or whatever they were writing. I don't know.
It makes sense that people would be interested in these values, and I think a lot of the values are really important. I think that journalism should be rigorously reported and fact checked, and newsrooms should have editorial independence. Like it's good that even though Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, The Washington Post can still investigate Jeff Bezos. That's important.
But when we start talking about balance, I just don't really think that there's a concise definition or explanation of what balance means. Is balance multiple people? Is it people with opposite opinions? And what would it mean to have opposite opinions? So if I was interviewing a young, white, public school teacher who says, “I think kids should learn about racism in schools.” Okay, what is the balance to that? Is it a black teacher, an old teacher, a principal, a student, a parent. This is a public school teacher, so maybe it's someone who doesn't believe in public schools. Maybe it's someone who doesn't believe in racism. Maybe it's Ron DeSantis. Who knows what the balance is.
But what we see in journalism these days is that balance is apparently when you put one conservative or status quo-supporting viewpoint into every story. And that standard was created literally just because conservatives put huge pressure on newspapers where anytime they weren't included they were like, “You have to include this. This isn't fair or balanced.” And so it created not a pressure to actually put balance in your story, but a pressure to appear balanced so that powerful conservatives won't yell at you. And you see even to this day that the codes of conduct for newsrooms don't just say, you have to be unbiased. They say you have to appear unbiased.
And there was this one, this isn't the New York Times, it's The Washington Post, but it really got me as an example of this, so I wanted to share it anyway. Because first of all, everyone will say I'm being unfair to The New York Times, so let me spread the blame around and also talk about this one Washington Post story. But The Washington Post put out this story last year where they said that over two-thirds of Americans say that transgender girls would have a competitive advantage over other girls if they were allowed to compete with them in youth sports. An incredible thing to poll about. What if you polled about a fact? That's so wild.
Sarah: And it's like, so are they qualified to know any? No, of course not. What if you called around and asked a different science question like, “how does crop rotation work?” And then he would be like, “80% of Americans say crop rotation is a myth.” And then you're like, well, okay.
Tuck: Yeah. You just call everyone, and you go, “Hey, what do you think is the average height of an American woman?” And then they publish it. It's two-thirds of Americans think the average woman is 5’2”. And it's okay, but what is it? What's the answer? But they actually don't give that answer in this article.
The only sources that they cite by name is this guy Mark, who works at a Center for Sports Journalism, who says that he thinks that most people think that trans women shouldn't play women's sports. He's, “It’s just my vibe is that most people think they shouldn't, including me”, presumably.
And then this is the one that really got me. Cherise, a pharmacy technician in Honolulu. There's no explanation for how she was chosen. She says that she knows more than 10 trans people. Also, she says trans women shouldn't play women's sports because she wouldn't want to play sports against men. And that's who's in the article is Cherise, who's saying, I know trans women and I don't want to play sports with men.
You know who they didn't include? Any trans athletes, any doctors, any experts who could speak to whether trans girls would in fact have a competitive advantage over other girls.
Sarah: Well that's not relevant. We need to know what a pharmacist thinks.
Tuck: Just a random woman that they found. They're like, “Do you know at least 10 trans people?” And she's like, “Yeah.” And they're like, “Cool. Do you think that transgender women should be able to play sports?” And she's like, “No. Because of this transphobic views that I hold, the trans women are men and they're like, sick.” That's actually the only source we need in this article.
Sarah: Yeah. I would love to know, like was the writer on vacation and their boss was like, “We need your article on trans women in sports.” And then he was like, “Oh my God.” And he's literally getting earache medication for his child at a pharmacy in Honolulu and he's like, “Charice, I need a source on this.”
Tuck: It's just so funny that this concept of balance, or in this case not even balance but just sourcing, doesn't seem to require a certain level of expertise or lived experiences. And I think about this a lot, because if I was writing about plane safety - which I'm not qualified to do - I'd be like, oh, I don't know anything about this, let me talk to like engineers and like probably people who inspect planes and pilots and like people in the air traffic control tower and get some data.
What I wouldn't do is be like, I'm going to talk to one person who's ridden on a plane and then one person who hasn't ever ridden on a plane, and those will be the sources for this. But that's actually how they report on trans people, is I'll talk to cis people who think that trans people are real, and cis people who think that trans people aren't real. And they're like, that's balanced.
And then meanwhile, my friend Frankie De La Cretaz wrote this incredible story about trans athletics for Inside Hook, where they cited five student athletes, two adult athletes, a therapist, a documentarian, an organizer, and a trans person's mom. And everyone except the mom was trans. And so it's this huge range of lived experiences and perspectives. But because all of the people except one were trans, they're automatically seen as that's just one side of the story. We’ve got to get the other side, which is people who don't like those people.
What if you were writing a profile on someone named Janet and I was your editor. And I was like, “I'm sorry, for balance find someone who wants to kill Janet.” It's just not how you do things.
So yeah, I don't want to just leave people with questions, I want to leave them with suggestions. So maybe balance could be talking to people with and without structural power or like talking to at least three to four people who have different like relevant experiences and points of view. But if we did that, how would people in power maintain power? Right?!
Sarah: Gosh. Not to connect everything to Newsies, but like it does connect to everything. And there's a scene in Newsies that I love where whatever paper Bill Pullman works for is the only paper that's really covering the newsboys strike, and there's a lot of interest because of it. This is all based on true events. And then we see this poker game hosted by Mr. Pulitzer and his friend, the mayor, and all the newspaper guys, and they're just playing poker together and agreeing that no one is going to cover the Newsboy strike. Because then it'll give more workers ideas. The whole system will disintegrate, this economy built on child labor is vulnerable. They all have to decide to smother the story together. And that's just, you don't have to be a big conspiracy theory person, I think, to understand that power protects itself.
Tuck: Yeah. And I am so glad that you brought up this concept of deciding whether or not to cover something. Because there's this concept that I learned about, I believe, from the book, The View from Somewhere, a book by Lewis Raven Wallace. There's also a podcast version that's all about sort of the myth of journalistic objectivity. And they talk about this concept called Hallin’s spheres. Which is similar to the Overton Window, in that there's like a sphere of consensus, a sphere of deviance, and then a sphere of legitimate controversy. And different concepts get stuck into those spheres and then moved around. So I'm sure you can think of examples. Climate change obviously used to be in the sphere of legitimate controversy. It moved to consensus. I don't know. Shout out some more, Sarah.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah, feminism. Germ theory.
Tuck: And slavery was in consensus or controversy moved to deviance, so they can move in different directions. A few decades ago even, objective - air quotes - outlets didn't talk about gay people at all. Not because it was actually somehow not objective to talk about gay people, but because gay people were seen as in the sphere of deviance and thus an activist topic. If something's in a sphere of deviance we don't talk about it in mainstream publications, right? Deciding what stories you're going to cover and what framing you're going to use is a huge part of this issue when we're looking at how you decide what gets covered and where it gets covered and how it gets covered. That's an incredibly subjective question.
And there's this quote by Luke O'Neil that I really like that says, “I love clocking in at my job at the neutral journalism store where we harvest and process every new fact of the day. Then type them up and shuffle, so as to not show favor to any fact, and then dump the new 10,000-page tome on our reader's doorstep each morning.”
That's the only way to do actually objective news judgment, would be if you just took everything that had happened and shuffled it and distributed it randomly. And that's not what we do, obviously. Like obviously, we all make choices.
Sarah: And also, so much of it is decided like in an intentional way or just a very utilitarian way in terms of… I always like to point out that a lot of the most destructive things that people do in daily life, at least in America and so many other places, is not because they have specific evil intent, but because Kyle needs new shoes. The kids are going to need new coats every, I don't know how often kids need new coats, a lot. And just that like everyone has to pay the bills. And like newspapers and other journalistic outlets are like typically run by parent companies, which are run by corporations, which have stockholders to please. And everyone understands that there are ways to make the kind of profit that we're at least aiming to make in media. And that catering to the already existing whims of your readers, rather than trying to install new software in them, will tend to be more lucrative.
Tuck: That's a hundred percent true. And I also think that even that is giving them a little bit of an out by saying we're feeding existing thoughts. When in fact, I think they're in many cases introducing new thoughts into people's heads and then claiming they're not.
Sarah: Or being like what, the famous lowest common denominator. Like what are the thoughts we can count on being able to, the feelings we can count on being able to drum up on you whenever, like disgust, fear, hatred, revenge.
Tuck: Yeah, absolutely. And this comes up with what they do cover and what they don't cover, right? So when we're thinking about things that they don't cover because they feel like it's simply not news, like why would our readers care about this. The New York Times didn't put AIDS on the front page until 1983, when more than 500 people had died. Even to this day, they are generally slow to cover the anti-trans laws that are currently being passed.
So in the last few months, Mississippi and Tennessee both banned gender affirming care for minors. It was not substantially reported on until a month later. And I looked at this for so long last night. The only place I can find it covered is in this weird online-only slideshow that I don't really understand how to access, and that was the coverage.
Meanwhile, Kentucky passed one of the worst anti-trans bills in the country. It was covered two weeks after it passed the state legislature and they put it on A23, so buried in the middle there. Wyoming and Arkansas recently passed anti-trans laws that they didn't seem to report on at all. A CPAC speaker recently said, “Transgenderism must be eradicated.” That wasn't really mentioned.
But I say all of this because in the last 10 months, The New York Times has run at least four front page stories about the - air quotes - controversies surrounding the concept of trans youth. And I do want to name them. They said in June, they wrote, “Report reveals sharp rise in transgender young people in the U.S.” In September they said, “More trans teens are choosing top surgery.” In November they said., “They paused puberty, but is there a cost?” And in January they said, “When students change gender identity and parents don't know.”
So that's 14,000 words of front-page coverage. That does not include Emily Bazelon’s cover story for The New York Times Magazine that was all about the minutiae of the official standards of care for trans youth, which was another 11,000 words. And it also doesn't count two stories by Michael Powell. One about whether trans women athletes are ruining competition, and another about how progressive groups are allegedly banning the word ‘women’, and those were also on the front page.
And so readers are going to trust that if The New York Times is putting something on the front page over and over and over again, of course it's an emergency, of course it's a legitimate debate. Why would we be devoting 29,000 words of front page and cover story space if this isn't a huge issue. It's clearly more important than the anti-trans bills that are being passed because we're not covering those at all. Or we're burying them in the middle of the paper, we're putting them like throwaway lines in other articles. Of course this is the most important thing.
And so it just feels really disingenuous to me to have The New York Times be like, “We're providing a broad array of trans coverage. Look at all of the different trans coverage that we've done.” And when you ask them to point to that, I can pull up the examples that they give, but it's very clear that they're weighing some of this a lot more heavily than they're weighing other stories.
Sarah: Yeah. And it feels like this is a kind of perspective where if you were to try and turn in a story that's, I don't know, say there's this trans girl who's like this up-and-coming folk singer in Appleton, Wisconsin. You're like, she's playing in coffee shops and she's influenced by Pete Seeger. Whatever. It feels like it would be controversial based on the style of reporting to just be like, “Here she is. She's doing it, she's crushing it.” That would feel too biased in favor of like just accepting trans youth as people who are there.
Tuck: When people reached out to the standards desk and was like, “Hey, it really seems like you're running a lot of front page stories about whether trans kids should exist”, the representative of the standards desk gave a real example that says, “Actually, we've covered a wide array of trans topics. Let me give you some examples.” And the actual examples that he gave was one 800-word story on anti-trans violence that was from 2015, some front page coverage about the trans military ban in 2017, a brief Q&A with a trans film historian, a piece about anti-trans laws that went back to 2020, a nice pro trans op-ed from 2015, a short film that they embedded in the op-ed section about a Mexican trans person, another article that's being criticized as transphobic.
There’s not a comparable example in that list.
Sarah: Like a countervailing argument to what the Times is doing I think, would be a paper talking about the systematically genocidal approach. And it feels like that's the kind of thing where like you could find all the evidence, yo u could actually get good sources, you wouldn't have to talk to Cherise. But that would be considered too controversial, not because it was too partisan and unsupported, but because it is supported, and it does sound true.
Tuck: And what's so interesting is that the right wing has said, and I believe that The New York Times has reported on this, they have said openly that they are targeting trans kids as part of a larger strategy to eliminate trans people, because it is easier to whip up support of going after trans kids. They have said that openly. And so if you are going after trans kids, you are doing their work whether you want to or not.
So to claim that it doesn't count as partisanship or bias or advocacy, when you know that they have said out loud that they're going after trans kids as part of a strategy to eliminate trans people, it's just dishonest to be like, that has nothing to do with us, we're simply doing our jobs. We’re doing our jobs in a vacuum, and you can't possibly think that it matters how that is. I don't know. I can go into that, that's a whole thing, but it's just it's so wild to hear.
Sarah: And yeah, I don't know. And anyone who's like, “Look, I'm just doing my job”, that's never good.
Tuck: These stories are really demonstrably hurting trans people in a number of different ways. And part of it is just that a little over half of Americans don't think that they know a trans person. And so this is where they're getting their information is from the media.
But also in that the New York Times' trans coverage has been cited in amicus briefs supporting anti-trans legislation. And so for example in Arkansas, the Attorney General filed an amicus brief supporting a law that will imprison medical providers for up to 10 years for administering puberty blockers or hormones to trans youth. The same puberty blockers or hormones that you can distribute to cis youth, that's fine, but not trans youth. And in that amicus brief, they cited three of these New York Times articles. And The New York Times is like, that's not our fault, you can't possibly hold us to account for the ways that our articles are being used.
And like, sure. But I have talked to former New York Times reporters, who's actually the New York Times loves to brag about how an article incited change, impacted someone, influenced a legislator. Like those are the articles that win awards so they're like, we're so proud of the way that our coverage of this issue actually impacted the way that the world works. But then when you bring that into taking healthcare away from trans kids, they're like, “I don't know what you're talking about, you can't hold us accountable for that. That has nothing to do with us. We're just doing our job.”
If my work was being used to take healthcare away from a group of people, regardless of my intent, I would stop and go, maybe I should try a different approach because my work is being used to take healthcare away from people.
Sarah: Yeah. I remember talking to an old school journalist and I referenced my idea of journalism being intimidating because it's a lot of power to wield. And they're like, “Oh, I don't think of a journalist as having power.” And just clearly had never thought about it” And I was like, weird. First of all, I can see why you would need to think that, because it's a weird thing to do every day. There's a reason I don't do it the same way other people do.
But b), I think that viewpoint, at least the way this person described it to me and the way I feel like other people see it, is that you're just like a messenger of the capital ‘T’ truth, and you go to the river of truth, and you got some water and you put it in your saddle bags and ride into town.
And it's no, you're not a bearer of truth. You're a subjective witness who is doing their best to understand not just what you've seen, but to understand it as it exists in the context of the culture that's taught you how to see it for your whole life. And yeah, this comes back to the whole concept of journalistic objectivity, which I think most journalists will at least claim to admit they know is impossible to get to a hundred percent.
But I don't know. I think I'm really fascinated by jobs—This is a journalism thing, this is also a lawyer thing and a judge thing, where like psychologically to do the job you have to do, you either have to live your whole life in humility and uncertainty and anxiety and eat a lot of Tums, or just be like, “I'm great, I figured it out. I can tell who's guilty. I can tell what the truth is. I'm doing it.”
Tuck: Yeah. It's so interesting the ways that different journalists approach this concept of individual objectivity. And I really appreciated someone on Twitter, I don't know who, pointing out that this isn't actually how it's handled in other fields. Like they wrote this tweet that I wrote down because I thought it was really useful. They said, “In qualitative research, it is expected that the researcher understands that their beliefs and experiences will color their analysis. This is covered by stating their positionality, not trying to hide behind being objective.”
And so other fields have been like, wow, we really are all people, let's compensate for that by admitting that we're people. And journalism is like no, in order to be good it means that you have to be completely detached. You can't have a dog in the fight, you can't have a role in the story. But what that just means is that they're defining objectivity and neutrality by having your views in the spheres of consensus. So if you're questioning the status quo, that's no longer objective. If you're going along with the status quo, that is objective because when you have the power to create the rules, you get to decide what neutral is.
The thing that really gets me about that, besides all of the obvious things, is that getting to know a topic shapes your view on that topic. And so there are stories of Vietnam War reporters who went over there maybe objective and neutral, and then they witnessed the Vietnam War and was like, we have to stop this war. This is so deeply fucked.
Even for me, I did protest reporting in 2020. The first few days and weeks of protest reporting I was trying to come across as more objective because of jobs, right? Jobs want you to seem objective. But then there is one group of people, ask the police who are spending every night yelling at me, throwing me to the ground, tear gassing me, shooting shit at me. And then there's another group of people who are the protestors, who are physically hauling me out of unsafe situations, offering me aid, flushing my eyes when I'm getting tear gassed by the police, warning me when something's going to go down. And I can't just pretend that's not happening.
And journalistic training would be like, don't accept the help. But I actually can't not accept the help of being physically dragged out, of someone attacking me. That was a really helpful thing that someone specifically did that I couldn't be like, no, just leave me to get beat up.
And so yeah, if we accept that knowing an issue gives you opinions on the issue, and also accept that getting to know people on your beat gives you empathy for people on that beat, then what we're saying by you have to be perfectly objective, smooth brain detached, is that the best reporters are people who don't know anything, or anyone related to what they're talking about. Which is such a wild argument that is so clearly used to keep marginalized people away from journalism.
Sarah: And I feel like it's a cliche journalism that like, oh, it was better for me to go into the story not understanding the subculture or the world of it. And you're just like, but how would you know, because you didn't and fundamentally don't know anything about it, so how would you know if it was better for you?
Tuck: Yeah. I hate that I constantly think about the phrase “unknown unknowns”, because that is a Donald Rumsfeld quote, and I hate to think of anything that Donald Rumsfeld has ever said, but it really is so useful when I'm talking about the ways that cisgender reporters who have never really covered trans issues go into trans stories a lot. Where they think they're telling a good story because they're actually missing the entire historical context of what they're talking about.
And it's sure, to a fresh baby this seems like a good story. And in fact, I wouldn't expect a random person to know any of this context. But I would expect someone who's writing front page stories for the New York Times to know this because there are people in the world who know it. You're not going to get as good of coverage.
And also when people aren't tied to community, there's also no accountability to that community. And people will argue that journalists shouldn't be accountable because somehow that threatens their independence if they're accountable to their sources. I find that knowing who I'm accountable to makes me a better journalist. It prevents me from doing extractive journalism where I just get what I need and leave. It gives me compassion towards the people I'm writing about. It prevents me from objectifying the people that I'm writing about.
And also, it just gains trust. Because if you're a random person outside of community parachuting in, people don't have a reason to trust you. I host a podcast, Gender Reveal, where it's trans people talking to trans people, and our conversations are so different. Then when one of us is talking to a cisgender interviewer, because we just trust each other to have good intentions to understand the background of what we're talking about, to see each other's people. And when you're having random cis people parachute in and have no accountability and no context and they're like, “I actually can't say whether I think you're a person or not, because that wouldn't be objective.”
Sarah: And that's the story that is implicitly always being covered. Like any sort of publication or outlet that serves a marginalized community, that's always the response of mainstream media or mainstream culture to be like, they're biased because it's by that group and for that group. And it's that's such an ingrained thing. And then you're just like, how did we get away with promoting that as a truth?
Tuck: Even to this day, black people, queer people, trans people, women, are all told we can't report on stories about our communities because they're biased. The Washington Post famously said that a reporter who had been sexually assaulted couldn't write about sexual assault. Lots of papers have prevented black reporters from covering police violence. I have a friend who used to be a teacher and is now a journalist who was discouraged from covering education because somehow the fact that she used to be a teacher was biased instead of informing her position as an education reporter.
For some reason we've decided that objectivity means never stating your political opinions out loud, as if simply not speaking them publicly means that you don't have political opinions or biases. And Lewis Raven Wallace in his book tells a story about a white journalist telling him very proudly that when she was in college she used to do anti-apartheid organizing. And her mentors were like, “You have to choose between journalism and anti-apartheid organizing.” And she was like, okay, I'll do journalism. And it's, you as a white person are proud of this. This is a good thing that you're talking about.
Sarah: Yeah. It's as a white person, you just love to sacrifice something that helps no one, but makes you feel noble because you didn't like doing it.
Tuck: And one more thing I want to say about this concept of an objective person is that it extends to this ban on political speech, including in social media, but it's really unclear what counts as that. And so it's unclear whether employees of The New York Times, or any other major publication with an ethics code around this, can get in trouble for supporting Black Lives Matter, supporting gay marriage, supporting trans people, because these are all politicized topics.
And also, like I alluded to earlier, every outlet has its own code. And if you're a freelancer, you're also expected to have followed the code before and after. And every time I tweet, I could be thinking, oh, I should follow The New York Times ethic code, because what if The New York Times wants to hire me? Obviously they're not going to hire me. I'm on this podcast, think of me like five years ago. It's oh, I better run every tweet through The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, ABC and NBC's ethics codes, just in case.
And yeah, those are also enforced so unevenly, because when people in power want to appear unbiased, they'll just fire off someone without power to be like, “No, look, we're not biased. We fired that one trans reporter.” Or, “We fired that one black reporter who dared to have an opinion. And if we were biased, would we have fired this person for bias.”
And in fact, the first examples in history of firing a journalist for not being objective was firing union organizers in 1935. Where they were like, “Oh, these people can’t be objective, they're in a union.”
Sarah: I don't know. I feel like sometimes people, they listen to the show and they're like, I thought you'd be smarter. And I'm like, no, my whole appeal is that I take forever to catch on to anything, and then I notice really obvious stuff. And if you haven't noticed it either, then you don't feel embarrassed.
But the thing that I'm just putting together is that all the stuff we're talking about, it's like again, this is so simple. Bias in all these cases is about caring too much about a group that is trying to win civil rights from the oppressors, who on some level are represented by most forms of media. Because most forms of media are owned, and therefore controlled by corporate interests.
Tuck: And yeah, there are New York Times staffers that have been quoted recently as saying that the way the masthead talks about activists, you would think that the activist only exists on the left. Because there's not really discussion of oh, you're being a right-wing activist. It's really only exactly what you're saying, which is like, you're standing up for civil rights, that's activism.
Sarah: And hidden within that is the belief that civil rights are a dangerous concept, that you want to be very careful about fucking with. And really you're just like, what if every civil right wish came true? I think things could not possibly be anything but great. And I don't know, it just really shows its hand. It's just oh, what is the news? Like the news, fundamentally what we know of as news as you've been explaining this whole time, is a defense of things the way they are and power the way it is.
Tuck: Absolutely. And to that end, I would love to take a little bit of time to just give examples of the way that the framing of these stories are inherently anti-trans. I don't want to litigate specific articles and specific phrasings and specific bylines too much. There's no point in just nitpicking. But I do want to give some examples, so people know what we're talking about here.
When we're talking about balance and weighing inherently unequal sources equally, we will see stories in general where they're saying, should trans kids be able to access care? And the sources on the side of ‘yes’ will be the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the Endocrine Society, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, other resources, experts, trans adults with lived experiences.
On the other side, it'll be like a Republican politician, and a mom that they found on an anti-trans web forum, and they'll be like, so who can say? I keep referencing the opposing viewpoint is someone on a website. And it's partially because in this 2019 article about chest binders, the New York Times famously, extensively quoted a spokesperson for Fourth Wave Now, which is a blog that literally exists to deny the existence or legitimacy of trans youth. And they use them as a credible source. And that's pretty common, right?
When people are looking for balance, they will take someone who is a spokesperson for a group that hates trans people. And they aren't always disclosing that that's where the source comes from. Which is also something that has been called out, is if you are going to get your sources from anti-trans hate groups, at least admit that's where they're from. Because not disclosing that information is simply not best journalistic practice.
But the other issue, which we talked about already, is just this huge volume of coverage about trans youth in healthcare that really implies that there is this urgency and prevalence and novelty around trans healthcare. And so Tom Scocca writes some really good stuff about this, where he points out that the Times wrote more than 6,000 words on puberty blockers, raising the specter. He says that despite doctor's widespread agreement that the treatment makes life better for trans adolescents, the drugs carry the risk of reducing bone density. And then he says bone density loss is also one of the main side effects of Accutane, which has been used to alleviate severe acne in millions of teenagers over the decades, even though it comes with a list of potential harms up to and including its ability to cause severe birth defects.
The New York Times obviously isn't publishing 6,000 words on the front page about whether teens are endangering themselves by taking Accutane. And if you pitch that story, my guess is they would look at you and be like, that's not news, what are you talking about?
Sarah: Yeah, of course. And they'd be like, nobody's going to read that. You know what they will read. And also it's, I don't know, it's so rich for any news outlet to be like, “We're so worried about the teens.” And it's, you don't give a fuck about teens. Nobody does. Nobody in America cares about the teens and their health. And if they did, I know that there are people who care a lot about this, but none of them appear to be making laws. If we did care, then we would try and help them get shot less often, among other things.
Tuck: That's the thing, is like none of this is coming from a care for trans youth. What it's coming from is what if these youth turn out to be not really trans? That is a largely fictitious population. Like they're just saying, what if theoretically some of these kids turn out to be not trans. Generally speaking, these stories cannot even find children who regret transitioning. A lot of times when they're quoting so-called detransitioners, they will quote people who transitioned as adults and then say I regret transitioning as an adult, so can you even imagine doing it to a child?
Sarah: Which is like me taking skating classes and being like, wow, I can't imagine doing this as a child. And it's yeah, it's actually a lot harder when you're 35 because children are gummy, and they have very low centers of gravity.
Tuck: Totally. Which I think would be more terrifying to them, right? It's oh, these children are so gummy and we're making them all trans. But again, they're like so focused on this regret. And I hate to throw statistics because no one cares, but I just think it's like really important.
Sarah: I care.
Tuck: I was going through peer review journals. This is not like Pop Crave, this is like actual science. About one in five people regret their total knee replacements. One in five people regret their gastric band surgery. In fact, the average regret rate across all surgeries, if you just average the concept of surgery, the regret rate is about 14%. One in seven.
The regret rate for gender affirming surgeries is, depending on the study, between 1% and 0.1%. And so what are you doing to write all of these stories about this population that mostly doesn't exist? Even not just surgeries, almost 10% of people say they regret having kids. The majority of people say they regret their student loans.
Sarah: We’ve got to do more headlines about that kid's thing.
Tuck: Yeah, it's just like one in 10 people versus 0.1% of. And then not just trans people, trans people who have had surgery. So it's one third of 1% and then 1% of that. Why are we running front page stories on this? But it implies this urgency and this prevalence.
There's also, even The New York Times' own coverage, they were trying to talk about teens who get top surgery. And they could only find numbers in the low three digits of teens who have had top surgery, because it's actually not very common in teens. If you think about cis girls, they're getting breast reductions at the rate of like almost 5,000 a year, and implants at the rate of more than 3,000 a year. But we're not putting that on the cover. We're talking about the teens who got top surgery. We're not talking about the 30,000 kids a year that are getting rhinoplasties, like nose jobs. We're talking about the top surgery.
It's just this fixation, and I think it is truly because cis people cannot imagine what it would be like to be trans. And so their thought is if I was trans, I would detransition because I'm not trans. So if I was trans, I would want to undo being trans. Thus, trans people must want to undo being trans. And thus we should talk about this. But it's just like, you're actually just making up a guy to get mad at, right?
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. This is the Quentin Crisp, I think, quote in the Celluloid Closet, “I don't eat peas and I'm glad I don't eat peas. Because if I ate them, I would like them, and I hate them.”
Like top surgery, for example, like you could argue that there are problems with top surgery. But the problem is that it's not supported, and the care isn't good enough, and that it's a struggle to get and to have someone do it well. And that's a problem not with the thing existing, but with the resources for it. Is that reasonable to say?
Tuck: Sure. That's all surgery. The regret rates are really low. Even people I know who had some form of revision that they needed with their top surgery. I literally don't know anyone. I know so many people who have gotten top surgery. Just truly astronomical numbers of people in my specific life, because of my field, who have gotten top surgery. I don't know anyone who's regretted it. Even people who have had to have some sort of revision with some sort of complication. It's never been deeply serious. And I'm not saying that it has never happened, but I do know people that haven't regretted other surgeries. I know people who have complications from other surgeries because that's what it is to be alive.
Sarah: I think that like just the statistical presence of comparing it to the rates of regret for other surgeries, it's just like, why aren't we seeing more of that? It's a very simple thing that explains itself.
Tuck: And I just really want to stress, because I think people actually don't know this, that the medical resources that trans people access to transition are actually identical to the way that non-trans people's sex and gender are routinely medicalized, to quote Jules Gil Peterson. So what that is to say is that cis and trans people are accessing the same hormones, hormone blockers, birth control, hair removal, mastectomies, breast augmentation, orchiectomy, hysterectomies, vaginoplasties, BBLs, Botox, fillers, all of it is the same.
In fact, all of it was developed for cis people. And then trans people are like, we would like to use that also. And so when you're seeing articles of any kind that are saying trans people should not be able to access this care, it is care that cis people are accessing. And the only difference is that a trans person wants to access it.
And when trans people want to access that care, we are required to submit psychiatric evaluations to corroborate our need for medical care, which cis people don't need. And so if, for example, a trans woman wants to have an orchiectomy, she needs to pay psychologists and psychiatrists to write a letter that says, yes, this person is really trans, and yes, she is mentally stable, and yes, she is really a woman, and yes, she can have an orchiectomy. But if a guy goes in and says, “I'm having a lot of testicular pain and I would like you to take my balls off”, they're like, “Wow, that sounds serious. Yeah, totally.” That's it. That's all that you need.
Puberty blockers, which New York Times has covered, have been now legally banned by anti-trans laws in certain states only for trans people, but cis kids can access puberty blockers for such reasons as things that make sense. Like they started puberty at seven and now they're menstruating at seven and that seems troubling.
Sarah: And then it's wow, we're saying that people don't get equal access to healthcare. That's a thought.
Tuck: Right. It just comes back to the fact, I guess I should clarify because I'm saying just as a funny bit, should trans kids allowed to be trans. But trans people are trans, whether or not they can access healthcare. So by denying healthcare or transition or even social transition to trans kids, you're not actually making them not trans, they're just trans kids who are suffering. But they're still trans and they'll still grow up to be trans adults. They'll just have a harder time because all of the weird shit that you did to them.
But anyway, all of these debates that are saying like, should trans kids be allowed to, in their minds, be trans. It's because they think being trans is a negative outcome. So all you have to do is think of what if it was okay that kids were trans? What if there's actually nothing wrong with having kids be trans. And all of a sudden all of the big problems that are being put on the front page go away.
However, the problems being buried are not covered about how those kids are being attempted to be legislated out of existence by denying their access to healthcare and even denying their ability to socially transition or talk in schools, in the case of ‘don't say gay’ bills or book bans. Those don't go away, when you accept that being trans is actually good.
And so it's just oh if we could get the New York Times to just see transness as like a neutral quality, the coverage would completely shift.
Tuck: I do feel like we need to talk about the developments of The New York Times in the last couple months. And before we do that, I think we have to talk briefly about their sort of history of talking about queer and trans people, because there are some really fun headlines.
One of my favorites is from 1952, when they were talking about gay people getting kicked out of the military. And the headline is, “126 perverts discharged.”
Sarah: Oh, that's a big load. That's a good one. I don’t know where they discharged it.
Tuck: Actually, I think one of my actual favorites is they have one that the headline, “Homosexuals Proud of Deviancy, Medical Economy Studies Finds.” And then that article goes on to say, of course, homosexuality is a disease. It's an emotional disturbance. We have to prevent it through sex ed. If we can't prevent it, we have to treat it.
This was New York Times coverage of gay people in the 1960s. Amazingly in the 1970s, a reporter was allowed to write this really fun seeming article about a gay cruise in the travel section. Oh, they're like, “They were doing BDSM. They were wearing G-string. They were listening to music. It was so fun.” And the publisher at the time, his mother was like, this is appalling. Do not ever have this happen again.
So the publisher actually banned both the concept of gay life and the word ‘gay’ from The New York Times. And they put in the style guide that you can't use ‘gay’ as a synonym for homosexual unless it appears in a formal, capitalized name of an organization or in a quote. And that rule lasted until 1987. So there were 12 years in which you could not say gay. There was a literal ‘don't say gay’ law at The New York Times. And even when they started using ‘gay’, instead of saying the phrase ‘openly gay’, they said ‘admitted homosexuals’ well into the 1990s.
Sarah: ‘Admitted’. This was like I was reading Kitty Kelly's Nancy Reagan book. She describes someone as an ‘avowed lesbian’.
Tuck: Yes, exactly. Which, yeah, they were, again, they were like really slow to talk about AIDS. They spent basically two years not talking about AIDS at all. They avoided saying the word AIDS in obituaries in the 1980s, which is like partially their fault and partially stigma. They did publish a William F. Buckley op-ed in 1986 that called for all people with HIV to be forcibly tattooed on their arms and their butts. So that was a cool, chill thing that they did.
This is really different. I don't mean to compare these two things, but recently last November, an ostensibly liberal op-ed writer at The New York Times published an op-ed about the mass shooting at Club Q, in which queer and trans people were murdered. And that op-ed, which condemns a mass shooting in which queer and trans people were murdered, contains the line, there are, I believe, legitimate debates over questions like when puberty blockers should be prescribed, or gender confirming surgeries performed on minors in the office about trans people being murdered in a hate crime.
And like, and both of these things feel really relevant to what's happening today. Because in the last few years, queer and trans New York Times reporters have been increasingly bringing up issues at The New York Times. Like everything we've discussed, but also just little style guide issues. So most of the time when they're talking about trans people, they will have to say, like Cole Escola, who identifies as non-binary and uses the gender-neutral pronouns, they and them. And then they'll turn to the next comedian on the list, Matt Rogers, and it won't be like who uses the pronouns He and Him and identifies as a man.
It's very special language that we only use for trans people so we have to say, ‘identifies as trans’ or ‘identifies as a woman’. Which really I would argue makes it sound like, who can say this person identifies as a woman, but who knows if they are a woman, but it's really none of her business. And the reason that they use that special language, which if you're going to name someone's age, you name everyone's age. If you're going to name someone's race, you name everyone's race. But this special treatment is only for trans people and it's because The New York style guide specifically tells them to do that.
There are many cases in which they've just refused to use a trans person's pronouns by just not using any pronouns for them the entire piece. There are more, many more cases where they're just using really clunky explanations in the middle of a sentence. I have so many of these in PowerPoints that I use to teach that are just like really shocking by how clunky they are. But we're not here to talk about that, because who cares about sentence structure except for me.
Sarah: I also, it's so I've read the things where they're saying no pronouns, and it is like, it feels like you're reading a press release for a new right startup product where it's like, “Kylie started playing guitar at 11. Kylie is from Prince Edward Island.” You're like, wow, Kylie's going to change everything.
Tuck: Right? There was also a case in which The New York Times wrote a long profile of my friend Maia Kobabe, who wrote the book Gender Queer, which has been banned a lot. And so this story deals with the banning of trans and queer people and stories. But Maia uses e/em/eir pronouns, which are fairly uncommon. So I actually would understand if The New York Times chose to explain the pronouns. But what they didn't do was ever use the pronouns either.
Even one time they just did the thing that you're saying where it's, “Kobabe said this”, “Kobabe said that”, “Kobabe” said this”, “Kobabe said that”, in a full profile of Maia. And it just gets to the point where it's like you're not treating em like you're treating any other person. You're treating em differently because you're scared of eir pronouns. And I understand this is new and scary for you, but you can't write a full profile of someone and then refuse to refer to them the way that they're asking you to be referred to.
They also suggest that people avoid using the word ‘queer’. So I have a friend who used to be a reporter on queer culture for The New York Times, but then if they wanted to write the headline “something queer bar”, they were told they couldn't say “queer bar” in the headline. They had to say “L.G.B.T.Q. bar”, with the periods between each letter. And that's just simply not what we call our bars. Wrong. That person, specifically Julia Carmel, who's talked about this on the Citations Needed podcast. So I feel okay sharing it here because they've said it as well. They were told, as were others, that if you had an issue with the style guide to take it up with the standards desk. And so then they would, and people wouldn't do anything.
And Julia has a story of, I put a suggestion in the standards desk Slack, and then I was told that was the wrong place to put my suggestion. So then it was bounced around a while and then finally a meeting was scheduled. And then the meeting was canceled and then nothing changed.
Meanwhile, trans people who have changed their name have been told by The New York Times that their name cannot be updated on past bylines. So if you wrote for The New York Times, and then after some articles were published you were like, actually I have a new name and it is… you're picking, it's your name.
Sarah: Oh my God. It's so much pressure… Wendy.
Tuck: Yeah. You're like, “Wendy is my gender affirming name now.” They're like, “Okay. Totally. You can use Wendy moving forward maybe if you legally changed it.” I don't know what their standards are. But we will not change past stories to Wendy to make your byline consistent. Which is actually just out of practice with the way that other outlets treat this. I have not heard of other major outlets who will not update your byline retroactively if you change your name, particularly for being trans. But The New York Times will not do that. Even when The New York Times union got involved, they're still just refusing to do it.
You'll be shocked this is leading to a bad feeling for trans reporters at The New York Times. Multiple former New York Times reporters have reported not feeling comfortable using they/them pronouns at work or getting misgendered by people that they've known for many months. And I just find that to be troubling, personally. I don't know why. I just think that trans journalists can be journalists.
Sarah: The New York Times employed Barry Weiss. And it's just to work at The New York Times, you do not necessarily have to have a thought in your head, but you apparently can't be trans or non-binary.
Tuck: And even in the op-ed section, Jennifer Finney Boylan had an op-ed column in The New York Times for 15 years. And what I have read in certain places was that her contract was not renewed. And I couldn't find that independently to verify it, but regardless, she does not have a column there anymore. And instead of replacing her with another trans columnist, I can't say they replaced her one-to-one with this person, but they did then hire David French, who's an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is an anti-LGBTQ legal organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as a hate group, and who has written - French specifically - has written many times in the past about how he doesn't believe that trans people are real. And so we lost a trans columnist, but we gained someone who hates trans people as a columnist. So that's fine.
Sarah: But then I guess if he doesn't think trans people are real, then the trans columnist was never even there.
Tuck: So you don't have to be sad about it. Absolutely.
Sarah: I don't know. This feels like something that happens in like attempting to be mainstream liberalism and this idea in America of like politics are more divisive than ever. Everything's political. There's no bipartisanship. So it's up to Democrats to reach across the aisle by agreeing to commit a little genocide. Not as much as conservatives are asking for, but just pick one group and let them die, right?
Tuck: Yeah, no, absolutely. I don't know if they hate trans people or if this is just some wild ignorance. And if I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they don't hate trans people, somehow they keep tripping and accidentally doing transphobia. It doesn't matter because the result is that they're putting trans people in danger. And so I don't really want to litigate whether they hate trans people or whether they don't care about trans people or whatever, whether they secretly love trans people and hug them and give them money. They're putting trans people in danger.
It's the whole impact outweighs intent thing. It's I don't care what you think you're doing, I don't care that you think you're doing objective, unbiased journalism if you're putting trans people in danger.
So that brings us to everything that has happened since I pitched you this story. And I want to say like early February and now, which is early April when things are still developing. And the most important thing is on February 15th when organizers at the National Writer's Union's Freelance Solidarity Project published a letter that was addressed to Philip Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards at The New York Times. Who is the person that you would theoretically go to if you were a New York Times contributor who were like, I have a problem with this coverage, that is the proper channel for filing a grievance.
So these different organizers who have all contributed to the New York Times in some capacity, is my understanding, writes this letter that had this really professional tone as if they were addressing a senior colleague. Very respectful, very much like on The New York Times' terms. They're like, no tone policing us here, just asking that maybe The New York Times reconsider the way that they're approaching its trans coverage.
So I want to read part of it just to give people an idea, but people can also read the whole article or the whole letter at nytletter.com, and there's a bunch of updates on that page, too. So they say the newspaper's editorial guidelines demand that reporters quote, “preserve a professional detachment free of any whiff of bias” when cultivating their sources, remaining sensitive that personal relationships with news sources can erode into favoritism, fact, or appearance. Yet 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 emits relevant information about its sources.
For example, Emily Bazelon's article, The Battle Over Gender Therapy, uncritically used the term ‘patient zero’ to refer to a trans child seeking gender affirming care. A phrase that vilifies transness as a disease to be feared. Bazelon quoted multiple expert sources, who have since expressed regret over their works misrepresentation.
Another source was identified as an individual person speaking about a personal choice to detransition, rather than the president of GCAN, an activist organization that pushes junk science and partners with explicitly anti-trans hate groups.
So this article goes on to go through much of The New York Times history that I shared about how gay topics and gay people have been treated in the past. It also gives more examples of trans journalism that they felt were lacking and cited why. Similar to the examples that I gave.
There are not specific demands or calls to action. They're simply saying we've noticed this pattern in your coverage, here are some things we have issues with. Here's the precedent for that. We would like you to reconsider the way that you're doing trans coverage at The New York Times. This letter was signed by initially about 180 past and present contributors and staff members of The New York Times. Later, that number bumped up to 1,200.
And so 1,200 New York Times contributors and New York Times staff signed this letter, as well as 34,000 supporters. It was delivered to The New York Times via this website on the same day that GLAAD, the advocacy organization, sent its own letter. The GLAAD letter was similar but had a different tone and had specific demands. And the demands included, stop printing biased, anti-trans stories, and invest in hiring trans writers and editors. And that letter was signed by more than a hundred LGBTQ organizations. And then celebrities like Judd Apatow, Margaret Cho, and a bunch of trans-famous trans people.
So we have these two letters. One of them is signed by a bazillion people at The New York Times. Another one is created by GLAAD. This is important because the Times spokesperson, Charlie Stadtlander, releases a statement that day that says in part quote, “We received the open letter delivered by GLAAD and welcome their feedback. We understand how GLAAD and the cosigners of the letter see our coverage, but at the same time, we recognize that GLAAD's advocacy mission and the Times journalistic mission are different. The very news stories criticized in their letter reported deeply and empathetically on issues of care and wellbeing for trans teens and adults”. It does not acknowledge the journalistic contributor’s letter at all. We'll call it the contributor’s letter for ease. And when asked, Charlie says, “Oh, well we got the contributor letter through GLAAD.” Which is not true.
GLAAD has put out a statement since that says, “We did not deliver that letter. We submitted our own letter.” So they're just refusing to acknowledge the contributor’s letter at all. Interestingly, totally unrelated, but I feel like you'll appreciate this. Charlie Stadtlander was at The New York Times for about a year. Before that he was the head of public affairs at the NSA. And before that was at the US Army Cyber Command and has a long history of working with the military and military contractors. And I just was like, wow, it's so wild that this NSA man would not take seriously issues of transphobia.
Sarah: It's really bad PR, implicitly, to hire someone who has that on his CV. Because it's like, what are the size of The New York Times' problems? Are they torturing people abroad that we don’t know about? Hire someone who used to work at Pampers or something.
Tuck: I know. It really is so troubling, I’ve got to say. So that happens. The contributor's letter doesn't get acknowledged. The next day, the executive editor and the opinion editor at The New York Times sent out a message internally to staff, which immediately gets leaked. And there's so much going on in here. But it also only mentions the GLAAD letter. It claims that New York Times journalists signed the GLAAD letter, which is false. It claims that the letter included direct attacks on several of our colleagues, singling them out by name. It also says that participation in such a campaign is against the letter in spirit of our ethics policy because they prohibit journalists quote “from aligning themselves with advocacy groups”. Which again, they didn't sign the advocacy letter. They signed the journalist contributors letter.
They also say that their ethics policy prohibits journalists quote “from attacking one another's journalism publicly or signaling support for such attacks.” So they're using the word ‘attack’ over and over and over again. It also says that these articles that are criticized have been important, deeply reported, and sensitively written, but that the writers have quote, “nonetheless, endured months of attacks.” Again, harassment and threats, and most importantly, they say the following, “Even when we don't agree, constructive criticism from colleagues who care, delivered respectfully and through the right channels, strengthens our report. We do not welcome and will not tolerate participation by Times, journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups.” Again, did not happen. “Or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums.”
So again, this is going out to the staff of The New York Times. It is an internal message that's basically saying, we saw you sign a letter. We're actually going to pretend that you signed a different letter written by an advocacy organization, and we're also going to call this an attack on your poor, defenseless colleagues that have been experiencing harassment and threats.
And as it has been pointed out elsewhere, particularly by Adam Johnson at Citations Needed, this behavior of pretending that it's coming from this GLAAD organization instead of literally contributors to The New York Times, is a classic union busting tactic known as third partying. Ah, you, it's just like PR Crisis Management 101 stuff where you're like, oh, you don't want to join a union. A union will tell you what to do. Except for it's the advocacy organization GLAAD, and also they're not actually involved.
Sarah: And it also feels like they're doing that classic, “we're a great big family, and also, everyone has got to work Christmas.”
Tuck: You can't criticize your coworker Emily Bazelon, because it will hurt her feelings. When the criticism is directly hurting the lives of trans youth. And it's sure, sure. Lives schmives.
Sarah: This feels like such a pattern in abuse on the individual and on the cultural scale. Where you have a group that's saying, “you abused me, and you hurt me in all these ways. You’re hurting me, you have hurt me, and you are continuing to hurt me.” And then the person or entity who you communicate that to is, “you have hurt me more by telling me that I hurt you.” And okay, is it possible that you really think these things are comparable?
Tuck: Yeah, maybe, who can say?
Sarah: I think at least some individuals do. And then you're just like, and again, as you've been saying, it doesn't matter because whether you believe it or not, the outcome is the same. And the sort of pretzels that you bend your argument into to make your victim, therefore you are a victimizer. Because it makes you feel something when they tell you what you've done to them. It just allows you to keep doing whatever you want.
Tuck: And just another layer onto this. One day after this letter first comes out, an op-ed from Pamela Paul is published and it's called, In Defense of JK Rowling. And this op-ed complains that quote, “A number of powerful, transgender rights activist and LGBTQ lobbying groups have called JK Rowling ‘transphobic’”, which Pamela says doesn't square with her actual views.
It's worth noting a couple things here. One, it's worth noting that JK Rowling doesn't need a defense, because she's a billionaire who has been using UK libel laws to go after her critics. But it's also worth noting that this was not just published a day after a letter that says, maybe don't be so transphobic, but also a week after the murder of Brianna Ghey, who is a 16-year-old British trans girl.
And so as has been pointed out, other places such as the podcast Death Panel, talking about this, outlets hold stories all the time. There is a famous phrase, “stop the presses”, where if you think that something needs to be changed at the last minute, you can just change it.
Sarah: If you have a computer, you really can.
Tuck: You don't have to publish your defensive JK Rowling that day. You could publish it in a week or two weeks or three weeks.
Sarah: You're not even saying don't publish it, you're just saying do it later.
Tuck: Exactly. So it just seemed very pointed to a lot of people, is what I'll say. A lot of people are like, wow, you really don't care if you are going to do this.
So a bunch of stuff happened after that. The New York News Guild, which is the New York Times union, put out a statement in support of the contributor’s letter. They affirmed that journalists actually do have the right to criticize the paper in order to address workplace conditions. And then in response to that, dozens of other New York Times staffers wrote a counter letter to the union letter that says, quote, “Your letter appears to suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of our responsibilities as journalists. Our duty is to be independent. We pursue the facts wherever they may lead. We are journalists, not activists. That line should be clear.” And it's very la, la, ha, ha, ha.
Another example of someone who signed that letter was Emily Bazelon, a person we've mentioned several times already, because she wrote this 11,000 word piece on gender affirming care.
Sarah: I only needed 10,000 words to defend Tonya Harding.
Tuck: And she, in a series of now deleted tweets, said that to her being a journalist meant following the facts where they lead, and it's not advocacy. So like very similar to what this letter says, but yet many trans experts have come forward and said that they were interviewed for Emily Bazelon’s piece and then were left out of the piece. And in fact, Emily did a really weird thing where to boost her cred in these tweets that are now deleted, she was like, “You don't have to take it from me. Take it from, for example, Jules Gil Peterson, the author of The Histories of the Transgender Child.” “
And Jules is like, I'm not cited in the article. And in fact, many things that I said to you contradicted in the article. Like I told you the histories of the transgender child, and then you just pretended that I didn't tell you and said something else instead. And so that was the outcome that was felt by trans people who participated in this story was that they were not listened to and that their words were twisted.
Or, and yet this letter is again saying we are independent, and we are journalists, not activists, and we pursue the facts wherever they may lead. And it just feels really dishonest. And not to quote Luke O'Neil over and over again, but he said something that makes me laugh a lot, which is, “You are performing advocacy one way or the other, whether you are aware of it or not. The difference now is that more of the audience is onto the con and can yell at you about it on Twitter every day.”
And I really feel like that's what they hate is. They're like, I want to be able to do this with no consequences. But it really feels, in general, like the energy a lot of these people have are like, I want to have no consequences for my actions. I don't want to be yelled at on Twitter.
Sarah: Exactly. And look, to be clear, I hate being yelled at more than anyone. If I could structure my whole life to avoid getting yelled at, I would. And yet even I can recognize that there are worse things. And if that's like the thing that feels worse in your life, then it's pretty good.
Tuck: And if I were going into such high stakes as the cover of The New York Times, I don't know that I would feel the confidence to speak so authoritatively on something that I don't know anything about. You know what I mean? Like I don't want to get yelled at either. So I'm not putting myself in the position where I'm pretending to be an authority on a community that I don't know anything about.
Sarah: And you're also, I think you're being persuasive in this episode because you exist and you're talking to me, and I'm not sitting here having a conversation with no one like it’s A Beautiful Mind.
Tuck: Wouldn't that be a fun twist if you get my tape back and it's empty, and you were just talking to a wall the whole time?
Sarah: If you were a figment of my imagination, I would be like, wow. Good job, imagination.
Tuck: Because I will say, as far as I know, the people who signed that second letter, nothing happened to them. Whereas The New York Times employees who signed that original contributor's letter, at least 20 of them were called into investigatory meetings and were given warning memos in which they were like, look, we considered serious punitive measures. You're not being suspended. You're not being fired, but there will be consequences if this happens again.
Sarah: Jesus Christ. And comparing it to union busting tactics feels really important. Because we all, not all of us, but it certainly is more historically accepted. Being a union buster or a scab is one of the worst things that you can possibly be. And this is the same.
Tuck: Yeah, two weeks after that contributor's letter and the GLAAD letter were published, Corbett finally replies. Corbett's, the person who the original letter was addressed to, because he's the standards guy. And he says, “We believe these discussions should be internal and not public.” And he also says that “the specific news story cited in your letter were entirely in keeping with our journalistic standards. They reported deeply and empathetically on issues of care and wellbeing of trans people.”
And then he gives that list that I mentioned earlier that's, “We don't just publish stuff about whether kids should be trans. We also, in 2015, did 800 words on anti-trans violence. And also we showed a short film on a trans Mexican person.”
And it's okay, cool, thank you, Philip. And then the next day, the publisher of The New York Times defended the papers trans coverage in his State of the Times address. And that's why I really just will continue to stress that like it is actually so tempting to go through and dispute specific facts, specific phrasing, specific sources. But at the end of the day, that's why I'm not focusing on that. Because then the publisher will be like, oh by focusing on a handful of individual stories and lines, you're missing the breadth of our coverage. And it's like the breadth of your coverage is that it's harming trans people. Like when you zoom out, the sign just says, ‘harming trans people’. So don't tell me to zoom out. It's not any better than when I zoom in.
But they did make one change. Which is that on March 17th, they finally edited, I believe, Bazelon’s story from June 2022. So that's, what, I can't do math? Nine months later. Nine months later, they finally edited the term ‘patient zero’ out of the story, where they referred to someone accessing trans care as ‘patient zero’. Because they were like, oops, that was a phrase that we used to bully people who had AIDS. I'm like, maybe we shouldn't use it in this context.
Sarah: Yeah, there's like several layers of implied sinisterness there where you're just, and the number of people who had to read that and be like, yeah. It's a pretty big operation.
Tuck: We're recording this on April 7th and April 6th, yesterday. The people behind the contributor's letter, which I don't think I said at the top, but are a really incredible array of trans reporters that I think are absolute geniuses and other allies. They released another letter going over a lot of what I just went over, but more concisely and articulately. And they created a timeline of everything we just described that I used to make a lot of the references in this episode.
And so people can find the whole thing at nytletter.com, and it is a really good resource if you're like, what did Tuck just say? It's much better. But I just can't get over the fact that we're having this argument on The New York Times’s terms where everyone's trying to be as polite and fact-based in using the ethics code of The New York Times as possible, and it's still being dismissed.
And it just reminded me of something that Ryan Ken said on Gender Reveal a couple months ago, which was that they said some of the most frustrating parts around doing DEI work is the inability to speak freely, and all of the couching and calculation you have to do to be like, excuse me, maybe, if you have a moment, possibly, if you could please get your foot off my neck.
I do think it's legitimate to be upset about the fact that many people in this country and beyond are calling for quote, “an end to transgenderism”, and that the national paper of record does not seem to be particularly concerned about that. I think it's actually okay to be upset, but in order to be taken seriously, I feel like, oh my gosh, I'm so sorry, but could you maybe consider not treating me like both an alien freak and a danger to democracy? And they're like, no.
Sarah: Yeah. I don't know, isn't it completely factually supported that if the thing you can say out loud is that you're like an end transgenderism, that what you're saying is an end to trans people, and where do the people go?
Tuck: It was a big fight because people like Rolling Stone, I believe, and some other outlets quoted that and then said, “Oh, this person called for an end of trans people”, and they were like, “No, I didn't. I called to an end of transgenderism. And transgenderism is an ideology, and so it's actually not calling for an extermination of those people. It's actually just the extermination of an ideology.”
And it's just I can't, again. Like Marxism is ideology. It's just, I can't play this game with you. There's no way to eradicate transgenderism without eradicating trans people. That doesn't make any sense. And it sounds like a semantic game that a lot of oh, we're just being objective, would play. And I refuse to play it. You just refuse.
Sarah: And it's just like when you have to engage in hair splitting like that, then it's like, okay. The lady doth protest. But it's no, it's not like genocide. It's similar. I can get why you're confused, but there's a small difference.
Tuck: I just get really stuck on this unwillingness of The New York Times to admit that it is in any way putting a thumb on the scale of this conversation. Because I just think that when you are uncritically repeating right wing talking points and phrasings, but also just reporting on trans youth in a complete vacuum where you're not acknowledging the hundreds of trans bills going through almost every single state legislature in this country, and are fixating not on the real category of trans kids, but on the made up category of kids who are not trans, but think they are. And when you are refusing to see trans people as experts, and in fact refusing to see them as like fully worthy of respect and dignity, and then ignoring and threatening simultaneously the reporters who critique this. It's just tangibly creating a negative impact for trans people. And so to have them say in every single statement, “actually we're being deeply empathetic and compassionate and objective.” It's like, just say it with your chest. Just say what you're doing.
Sarah: And that's an insult on top of everything else. The unwillingness or inability to admit the truth of what's going on. Because it feels like what you've described creates essentially like an unwinnable maze for the truth, for truth to seep in. Because if you can't challenge things internally, if you go through the allegedly correct route, but you can never do it, it creates this sort of like bureaucracy in which actual truth or insight go to die. And people can also claim that it's nobody’s fault.
Tuck: Absolutely. It's very much the hotdog guy saying, we're all trying to figure out the guy who did this.
So yeah, the good news about all of this, because like obviously there's so much bad news. But the good news about all of this is that, as you asked at the beginning, like this is a distinct pattern from other comparable news outlets and it is therefore not inevitable. And we are very much within our rights to ask for better. Because it is being demonstrated at other outlets that you can do better. And I'm not saying other outlets are perfect, but they are doing better. And that it's actually really powerful to name the big pattern and then refuse to participate in it. And it's very satisfying to just be like, I can see what you're doing.
Sarah: Yeah. And they're just like, excuse me, we are so fancy. None of you can figure out all our little tricks. And it's yeah, no, they're not that great.
Tuck: You're not that sneaky. You wrote, “126 perverts discharged”. It's like, you're not that subtle. And so it really is easy to contribute to a better world for trans people. And it's simply, and I cannot say this enough, being normal. Just being normal about trans people. And if The New York Times could just be normal about trans people and cover us the same way that they cover literally any other topic with the same journalistic standards and framing, all of these problems would be solved.
Sarah: Yeah. And that was our show. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you so much to Carolyn Kendrick for editing and producing and holding my hand. You can listen to Tuck’s podcast Gender Reveal, it’s great. Thank you so much for being with us. We’ll see you soon.
Gender Reveal: Episode 136 with Sabrina Imbler
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