News Brief: The Battle Over NYT’s Lurid, Tabloid Coverage of ‘Trans Issues’
Citations Needed | February 24, 2023 | Transcript
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and, if you are so inclined, become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled full-length episodes when — I don’t know — for instance, The New York Times, our paper of record, is doubling down on its policy of just asking questions and both sides-ing trans existence and rights. The New York Times has been in the news, and making news lately, based on its obsession with trans people and its subsequent attacks in publication.
So first, just a little background. On Wednesday, February 15, a collective of hundreds of New York Times contributors, both past and present, published an open letter to The Times itself in response to the alarming pattern of consistently hostile and dangerous coverage of transgender, non binary and gender non conforming people, and on today’s News Brief, we are lucky enough to be joined by two of the letters signatories. Eric Thurm, campaign coordinator for the National Writers Union, a steering committee member of the Freelance Solidarity Project, and one of the co authors and organizers behind the recent contributors open letter to The New York Times. We’re also joined by Julia Carmel, reporter for the Los Angeles Times who formerly covered nightlife and queer culture for The New York Times. So we are thrilled to have you both here with us, Eric and Julia, on Citations Needed. Welcome.
Julia Carmel: Thank you. Thank you for having us.
Eric Thurm: Happy to be here.
Adam: So yeah, let’s start off kind of big picture, as we typically try to do, for those listeners who aren’t familiar with what sort of brought this about, or what the kind of inciting incident, obviously wasn’t one thing it was over many years. But if you could just kind of start off by giving a broad base view of the impetus of this letter, obviously, I think for precarious, loosely organized, and a lot of freelance writers to challenge the sort of Holy Grail of media, it’s a risky thing. So obviously, there must have been some sense of desperation and genuine outrage. So I want to sort of talk about what brought that about to take that risk. How did this kind of come to be, and what were the sort of, if you could break it down, let’s say into two or three kinds of main criticisms of The Times coverage of quote-unquote “trans issues”?
Eric Thurm: Yeah, so I am an organizer with the Freelance Solidarity Project, which is the digital media division of the National Writers Union, and basically just got a message from one of our members asking if there was anything that we could do to organize around this after sort of one of the more recent pieces. I think that people who have been reading The Times coverage of these issues for a while are sort of aware that there’s a problem, and has been won for quite some time, and this just sort of was a breaking point.
Adam: The article in question, I think that was the last straw, if it’s fair to call it that, was the article, “When Students Change Gender Identity and Parents Don’t Know,” with the subhead, “Educators are facing wrenching new tensions over whether they should tell parents when students socially transition at school,” written by Katie J.M. Baker. So that, you’re saying that was kind of the last straw?
Eric Thurm: Yeah, I think that that, for whatever reason, really felt like a sort of bridge too far for a lot of people, and folks started to feel like there has to be something that we can do. And so myself and a couple of other members of the Freelance Solidarity Project sort of reached out to a couple of people, and put together this group of contributors to The Times, people who are trans, non binary or gender non conforming, people who are cis, people who are contributors to The Times, people who are not really representing all possible parts of this personality matrix, and this came together really quickly in the span of a week or two. In terms of the sort of broad issues with The Times coverage, I think that it’s fair to say the real top level thing is one of emphasis and resources. We say at the beginning of the letter, that there are lots of reporters who cover these issues well and fairly at The Times, and I think that that’s true, but we cite this piece by Tom Scocca and Popula, where he essentially calculates that The Times has spent something like 15,000 words of A1 coverage in the last several months essentially covering whether or not there should be a panic about healthcare for trans kids. This is an instance where just asking the question sort of tells you what the answer is going to be.
Adam: Right. So you think they’re being kind of coy about it, which is typical of the New York Times. They’re coy about a lot of editorial choices, but so long as they maintain this kind of view-from-30,000-feet reporter voice they can play stupid or play kind of ‘Oh, you know, we didn’t mean to do that,’ but what you’re saying is that they were contributing to a broader panic around effectively grooming children. Is that fair?
Eric Thurm: Yeah, and sort of one of the things that I didn’t know when we started working on this, but that, you know, I found out pretty quickly, and that makes up a lot of the material that ended up going in the letter, is that this reporting has started being used in policymaking, particularly by Republican legislators and sort of activists. So we cite this amicus brief by, I believe, the Arkansas attorney general, that’s co-signed by a bunch of other attorneys general, that includes citations from three different New York Times pieces that are on this subject. This attorney, who I learned was previously most famous for doing something racist to the Pete Buddigieg rally, I still don’t know exactly what, gave this sort of invited testimony in front of the Nebraska State Legislature, where he said, essentially, the sort of quiet part loud, which is, ‘Oh, even the liberal New York Times, the paper of record, thinks that it’s important for us to limit healthcare access to trans kids. So obviously, we should do it.’ And I think that that’s exactly what’s happening in a nutshell. You can kind of see how even if you have this veneer of plausible deniability, the coverage is being used in really clear ways that are impossible to deny.
Nima: Yeah, it’s kind of like how the Bush administration used New York Times reporting to justify its invasion and occupation of Iraq, ‘Oh, it was in The Times,’ and so therefore, we’re just responding to the thing. Julia, I’d love to hear your take on how The Times got here, and the perspective of this kind of outpouring of outrage really, from current and former Times contributors, and kind of how this all came together, and then obviously, we’re going to get to the backlash to it both by The Times leadership, the memo that they sent out, and then the kind of counter letter the, ‘How dare you be activists, your journalists damn it.’
Julia Carmel: Right. And so when I think about how it started, I mean, I haven’t worked at the New York Times since the New York Times started, that would be physically impossible, but since I worked there several years ago, and spent several years there as a non binary person who was covering often other queer and non binary people, a lot of it seemed to boil down to the literal style guide. So you would bring up something, one example that came up a lot, would be that addendum that sometimes people add where, let’s say we’re introducing me. If you were introducing me in the New York Times, you would write, “Julia Carmel, who uses they/them pronouns,” and then continue on with whatever you’re introducing me for. A lot of publications don’t do that, and it’s for good reason. Because, you know, I wouldn’t do that to someone who uses he/him pronouns. I wouldn’t do that to someone who uses she/her pronouns. The fundamental journalism rule is that you introduce everyone with the same credentials, you know, if you’re mentioning one person’s race, you mention everyone’s race, if you’re mentioning one person’s age, you mention everybody’s, and so a lot of it came down to things like that, where even when I first started working at The Times, I was writing about a queer nightclub, and I was told that the word queer wasn’t “best practice,” and best practices very in air quotes there, you can’t see it, because this is audio, but it’s very in air quotes for me.
Nima: We felt it.
Julia Carmel: You felt it, and that’s part of what this letter touches on as well, is the way that the New York Times can be cautious about language, you know, like that order of, “Don’t use the word gay, unless it’s capital G,” all of these different things that shape the way the coverage actually gets to people and shapes the words that people hear in the paper and the impression that they get, and so I think that a lot of it fundamentally comes down to what’s coming out of the standards desk, you know, what’s coming from people on the highest level, and the highest level for most papers would be the masthead and how they want news to be disseminated, you know, how they want it to sound. I think that’s where a lot of this honestly starts, because as someone who was bringing things up like this internally, they direct you to the standards desk, you know, they say, ‘You should put in a suggestion for a style book update,’ they say, you know, ‘you should mention it again,’ and a lot of people have mentioned it to them. I know this isn’t something that is new in any sense to people on the inside. It’s a constant discussion, especially for the people who work there who are part of the LGBTQ community, and especially the trans people and non-binary people who work at the New York Times. It’s incredibly uncomfortable. I mean, it was something for me where I didn’t even feel comfortable fully going by they/them pronouns until I left the New York Times, because it’s really uncomfortable to be correcting the people around you who, by all means are very intelligent, progressive people in many ways, who just can’t seem to understand your pronouns and can’t seem to understand your gender identity in the really basic, professional way that they need to, you know, I’m not asking them to get into queer or trans theory with me, I’m asking them to just use they/them. But I think a lot of it starts there, and this kind of public outpouring is happening because it’s been building up for so long. Trans people aren’t new, nonbinary people aren’t new, expecting better coverage isn’t really a new thing to be asking for, this is all stuff that at this point, it feels very expected. I don’t want to read news from an organization that’s not meeting my standards of just acknowledging people in the proper way, and treating them with care, and also that kind of thing you mentioned before where it’s like, well, journalists can’t be activists. I wouldn’t call myself an activist, I’m just a non binary person. I am very much just advocating for something that affects me and people in my community, and that, to me, doesn’t feel like activism. That’s a lot of where the problem comes in between people who are freelancers, people who are contributors, and the New York Times is, you know, if you’re a trans person who wrote something for the New York Times, and you want to update your name several years later, they won’t do that for you, and that just feels so antiquated and so absurd to be like, ‘We’re keeping your dead name on it.’ They’ll update your last name if you get married, they’ll update that for your future articles, they’ll update your byline, if you legally change your name. I have a friend who changed her last name to her mother’s maiden name, they updated that. But if I decided to change my name as a trans person, and I legally changed it, they wouldn’t want to go back and retroactively update that name.
Adam: So let’s talk about this counter letter that was sent by, I think it’s probably fair to say, the more established members of the New York Times. Not categorically, but as a general rule, most of the divide is based on precarity versus stability, which is something we’ve seen with other labor issues at other publications, and y’all, of course, framed this as a labor issue, I think, for good reason, and this is more of a, I don’t want to say generational, because it seems like a bit of a cop out, but Jeremy Peters, Michael Savage, Adam Goldman, among others, just to kind of list off some of their kind of big names, they wrote a letter saying, quote:
Every day, partisan actors seek to influence, attack, or discredit our work. We accept that. But what we don’t accept is what the Guild appears to be endorsing: A workplace in which any opinion or disagreement about Times coverage can be recast as a matter of ‘workplace conditions.’… We are journalists, not activists. That line should be clear.
Now, I of course, wrote a pretty quick hit on my own Substack, showing how Peter Baker openly lobbied to keep US troops in Afghanistan, and, and of course, they have this thing called News Analysis, which is sort of a cheeky way you kind of break the fourth wall, and they’re journalists are allowed to sort of make policy prescriptions or offer opinion, again, they launder it through some hand selected resources, but ultimately, it’s just an opinion piece, and this is, I think, one of the things that people have kind of latched on to as being deeply hypocritical and smarmy, this idea that they’re kind of this above the fray, they’re one of those extra dimensional aliens from Star Trek, they kind of observed humanity, they have no investment in anything. This is obviously pretty patronizing. So if you could comment on that formulation as this idea that there’s this petulant group of Zoomers with pink hair, nose rings, and they’re just hypersensitive, and they’re very activist-y, and this is kind of the broad narrative. Can you guys talk about that? Why is that unfair and what is this topic’s relationship to workplace conditions and labor?
Eric Thurm: Yeah, I think we kind of need to back up a second. Unfortunately, at this point, there are now so many letters that it’s hard for me to keep track of them, it may be just helpful to sort of walk through the sequence of events. So this group of Times contributors, originally, I think about 170, that now currently is about 1,200 New York Times contributors and like 34,000 additional signatures from, you know, media workers, Times readers and subscribers, was sent to the standards editor last Wednesday, and this sort of additional memo came down from management at The Times, that sort of essentially threatens retaliation against people who signed because there are a couple of people who are on staff who either expressed support or who signed on to the letter, and they were told, and I think the quote here is that The Times “would not tolerate their behavior,” which then prompted an additional letter from leadership at the News Guild, which represents the staff of the New York Times, saying I think correctly and sort of obviously, that signing on to this or making very reasonable complaints about editorial bias and the way that The Times covers these issues or the way that it is contributing to this moral panic is all protected workplace activity, which seems quite obvious if you either are a trans employee or know trans employees, but some people see seemingly don’t, because that is what kind of prompts this final letter that we sort of started with, which essentially is chastising the union for trying to protect its members, and I think that there’s a lot that one could say about that. I kind of just find it sad, and I think that it’s a real bummer if you think that the purpose of the union is to make sure that people can’t be mean to you.
Julia Carmel: Exactly. It was patronizing, and it was also so disappointing to see the names of people who I’ve sat next to in the office, and people who I’ve had really wonderful conversations with. Not everyone on this list is someone who’s in their own tower of being, I don’t know, like a New York Times superstar or old guard, whatever you want to call it, where some of these people, you know, all of these people are my colleagues, but some of these people are people who I knew and interacted with in the office and to see them sign a letter like that, that basically is being like, ‘Well, you’re being mean to me so actually, I don’t care if people care that you’re trans, I don’t care if people care how you’re covered, and how we’re actually rightfully covering this community,’ and it’s really just appalling to see because it’s condensing this really large issue that’s putting a lot of literal lives in danger into like, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be criticizing your colleagues in public, why would you do that kind of finger wagging?’ Where it’s actually so embarrassing that you’re getting your feelings hurt by someone saying that you should be covering this group better, that reflects so much more poorly.
Adam: If you would indulge me, let’s talk a little bit about specifics, because I think some people listening to this, it may seem a little vague. What are some examples? Because I know, again, I sort of comment on the kind of coy, I don’t want to say “vibes,” but the general framework of a lot of the New York Times trans coverage is all very kind of spooky, you know, including those sort of photos of kids hiding in shadows and all this kind of, they frame it in a very kind of lurid way. But what specifically? Can you share any sort of particular sections we can point to? I know that the letter had specific examples, things that were not correct. Can we talk about the specific things that you think are just not accurate, sort of scientifically or manifestly and how that sort of translates into putting people in danger? Because I think that, you know, a lot of people hear that and they think putting people in danger, ‘Oh, well, again, they’re sensitive Millennials or Zoomers or whatever.’ Can we talk about how you kind of get, other than, again, there’s 340 anti-LGBTQ bills that are currently making their way through statehouses, 150 of which target trans people specifically, so there are stakes here, but can we show how one goes from A to B to C here?
Eric Thurm: Yeah. So I think that this really is sort of a top-down problem. So part of it is just what are these articles focusing on, and you know, if you’ve read The Times, you would think that the sort of biggest issues facing trans people are that not enough people talk about detransitioners, that not enough people are talking about parents who have capital R, capital Q, Reasonable Questions about what their children are doing at school, all of which sort of broadly fly in the face of the medical consensus, the sort of broader social consensus of what is actually supportive and useful for these kids, and what will help them to have happy and full childhoods, and that a lot of these issues that these stories bring up, are really, really marginal, in a community that already is very small and marginal, and that in making those questions seem like the most important thing happening, you sort of tee up those questions to become the basis of a lot of these policy debates, which is what happened in this amicus brief, which cites three different Times stories in some of his testimony, and then that also trickles down to sort of specific things. So one of the things we talked about in the letter is that a lot of sources are, you know, sort of just like not being correctly identified, they will sort of say, ‘Oh, this is just a sort of random person who decided to transition and that’s how we’re quoting her,’ when actually the person in question is the head of an anti-trans organization that partners with a lot of other right-wing hate groups that sort of pedals these widely discredited theories about gender dysphoria, and like transness.
Adam: So they’re trying to do some intelligent design maneuver where they lie and reframe it as a secular parents concern organization.
Eric Thurm: Partly that, and also, not even really connecting the organizations at all or sort of giving the broader context of what these people want to do. Because if you read some of this coverage, you would think, ‘Oh, maybe this person is just sort of a slightly concerned parent who maybe is going a little overboard, but they sort of are asking reasonable questions,’ and then you look at the groups that a lot of these people belong to, and their agenda is not just eliminating gender affirming care for kids, but really just sort of legislating out the existence of at the very least a medical transition, but ideally trans people altogether, that context is never really given to people who are reading the stories. In The Times.
Adam: It’s somewhat similar to think tanks and national security, they mask who funds them.
Julia Carmel: Right. Part of that is also that you’re not seeing coverage of trans people just existing, you know, like, you’re not seeing this coverage that feels kind of default to them for, you know, what I consider kind of like the default of a major legacy newspaper of, I picture a white guy over 40, has a wife at home, maybe some kids, lives in Park Slope, that feels like the New York Times default to me, and a lot of the coverage reflects that, a lot of just the random articles that you see in the leisure sections, the more fun sections, they touch on things that would be relevant to people outside of urgent crime and medical problems and controversy, where you’re not getting that coverage for trans people otherwise, you’re only getting the controversy and the absolute fringe and you’re not having trans people just covering trans people. All of these stories, I think one of the most frustrating things about it is a trans person didn’t write it, I’m sure a trans editor didn’t look at it, and I’m sure that just no one trans had a hand in it really, besides sources who at times have spoken out about not having an honest interaction with the reporter. I’ve seen that before, where you’ve seen an article go up on the New York Times, and a trans person on Twitter being like, I spoke to this reporter, and she completely twisted my words, which is so shocking and so disappointing where it feels like trans people aren’t at all centered in this coverage. It’s kind of gawking. It’s looking at a community and not actually having any stake in it, which is part of that, again, activist journalist problem where it’s you don’t have anyone from this community covering it, because you think it would be too involved, but also, then, what do you actually know about it?
Nima: Yeah, I mean, there’s so much focus on the sensational, and you know, The Times stories about trans people, whether it’s about rights or — I don’t know — gender affirming care or whatever, the articles that really do hit the front pages that are promoted on The Times social feeds, etcetera, all have this air of there’s a crisis about. One of the articles mentioned in the initial open letter from Times contributors, pushing back on Times coverage, references the Emily Bazelon article, “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” where it uses the term “patient zero” in reference to a trans kid seeking healthcare.
Adam: When their whole argument is that it’s a social contagion.
Nima: Well, right, exactly, exactly. “Patient zero,” I mean, you see the, you know, that this is right, this is a virus, this is a problem. This is, you know, verging on an epidemic of, you know, what are we dealing with in this country, this trans frenzy and, meanwhile, this kind of coverage, you think that trans people made up 47 percent of the American populace, right, as opposed to less than .5%. There’s just this total kind of front page freakout that keeps happening, and then when it’s actually called out, you know, I do want to mention it was referenced earlier, but I just want to quote from it, The Times official response to this letter signed by hundreds and hundreds of people in response to the tens of thousands of really harmful words that have been published, from The Times leadership, Executive Editor Joe Kahn and Opinion Editor Kathleen Kingsbury in an email to New York Times staff wrote, among other things, this quote, “We do not welcome and will not tolerate participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums,” end quote. So just to kind of really note the way that The Times received the pushback from so many of its current and former contributors, and then obviously, the union got involved in yada, yada, yada. And then it goes back to that kind of, you know, letter that Peter Baker and friends wrote, but, you know, I’d love to hear from you, Julia and Eric, about just, this isn’t just that coverage has been bad, right? It’s that the coverage that is bad is elevated to front page epidemic frenzy, which I think has a lot to do with why this was such an important thing to push back on, and why so many people signed on to this.
Eric Thurm: It’s the woke mind virus. First, I think it feels sort of important to back up, and this is maybe not quite as related to the question, but that The Times response is not just, you know, this memo for management, but that their initial response and the other responses that they’ve given, again, you know, like you said to this letter that now has been signed by over 1,200 Times contributors, is articulated directly to the standards editor and really is based on these very specific problems with the coverage, their response has been to basically pretend that this letter is identical to the separate letter that was delivered to The Times by a coalition led by GLAAD, and essentially all of the public statements that they’ve given have pretended that our letter functionally doesn’t exist, including a statement by The Times director of external communication saying that the contributors letter was delivered to them by GLAAD, which is just patently false, not even, oh, you know, this sort of it’s like, unclear whether or not this is true, or we’re sort of obfuscating. It’s just not true.
Nima: This was the claim made by Charlie Stadtlander, right?
Eric Thurm: Yes. GLAAD did not deliver our letter, they confirmed multiple times that they did not deliver our letter, they did their own sort of action and delivery after we had already sent our letter to the standards editor, and it just is disappointing to see those things be kind of intentionally smushed together.
Adam: Well, they’re attempting to third party the letter, right? It’s a classic anti-union tactic where you ignore the organic demands of the contributors and make it look like some quote-unquote “outside force” or a third party.
Eric Thurm: And they say in the memo, ‘we welcome feedback through the proper channels.’ But I mean, Julia, like you were saying earlier, this is the proper channel, you know, they tell people to go to the standards editor, which is what we’ve done in a letter that, I think, really all things considered, is actually quite polite and measured.
Julia Carmel: Right, and I mean, that’s, I’ve seen that happen many times internally, as well, where, myself, and others, have tried to put his feedback and suggestions, you know, not even, not criticisms of our coworkers, literally just suggestions of, ‘I don’t think this is the right way to phrase this, I don’t think this is a reasonable guide to have for all of your journalists, I think this is a dangerous way to guide people,’ and it always gets bounced around in the same way, you know, like you throw it in the standard slack, and someone tells you you’re in the wrong slack, and then you move to a different slack, and then you got an email, and then there’s a meeting and then the meetings canceled. It’s the same thing, yYou know, it gets bounced around, and you get that kind of bounce back of, ‘Well, if you did this the right way, we would change it,’ and people have tried to do it the right way. That’s why you have 1,200 people signing a letter publicly, is because people have tried to do it the right way and you still aren’t listening.
Adam: Proper channels is corporate speak for, ‘Tell someone in HR, they’ll write it down on a piece of paper, crumble it up and throw it right in the waist bin.
Nima: It means, ‘Please, please don’t send that in the first place.’ I do also want to point out that the day after the letter was delivered, The Times published a column called, quote, “In Defense of J.K. Rowling,” end quote.
Julia Carmel: Such a one-two punch.
Adam: Yeah, obviously that had been planned but that was a big fuck up nonetheless, in terms of timing, right?
Nima: No, I mean, obviously, I don’t think it was in response. It’s just, the timing is impeccable here.
Adam: Sure. Sure.
Eric Thurm: It would be very funny if it was. The image of sort of frantically, you know, Pamela Paul, frantically trying to write this.
Julia Carmel: On deadline.
Eric Thurm: Last minute.
Nima: We need a response. What should we call it? I don’t know? “In Defense of J.K. Rowling.”
Adam: Yeah, Pamela Paul is running a one woman show to get liberals to vote for Ron DeSantis. So I want to talk about that, actually, because I know that Matt Yglesias and Jonathan Chait of Substack and New York Magazine respectively, basically wrote the same article on the same day making the argument that if liberals don’t engage in these edge cases, you know, ask tough questions, that kind of rhetoric, that Republicans are going to kind of fill that void. This is an argument you hear all the time that liberals have to sort of police themselves about these difficult questions about trans youth care, and it’s all very kind of concern troll-y, right? Can you sort of address that objection, the idea, because you say, you know, this has been cited by the psychotic, you know, attorney general of Arkansas, who is like the most anti insurance person on earth, and other conservatives, and they would say the enemies using your reporting cannot be a reason not to do that reporting in and of itself. What do you say to that pushback, this kind of head patting liberal, we need to sort of sort this out amongst ourselves in public I guess, and whether or not you think that’s a fair mode of reasoning?
Eric Thurm: I mean, it’s not, I don’t know, I think this is pretty laughable, among other things, right? The posture that a lot of these people are taking, I think is an indication that either they didn’t read the letter or committed to not reading it, because a lot of the tone of that response is, ‘Oh, these people are saying not to cover these issues,’ which if you actually read the letter very clearly is not the case, right? That’s oh, there are people who do really good coverage of these issues, there are some bigger structural biases that really affect a lot of other coverage that does happen, and we would like the paper to really think about addressing those in future coverage. No one is sort of taping a piece of duct tape to anybody’s mouth, and you know, saying like, ‘You’re not allowed to talk about this.’ But the other thing is also just this mode of reasoning, I think, only is compelling if you sort of live in a perfectly smooth, ideological wasteland, where there’s no sort of trade offs or values or priorities —
Adam: Or political context.
Eric Thurm: Right, or context, because, ‘Oh, like we need people to report on these cases where people, you know, sort of regret having these procedures,’ and the rate of regret for gender affirming surgery is quite low, and The Times is not doing these long pieces about people who’ve regret getting hip replacements.
Nima: Yeah, or a tattoo?
Eric Thurm: Well, I feel like probably there are some people, you know, at The Times who are like rugby parents who want to do that, but one of the hundreds of other medical procedures that people get all the time, and if you went up to these people, and you were like, ‘I think we need to have like a huge debate in the paper of record that goes on for 15,000 words about whether or not people regret getting hip replacements,’ they would be very confused or sort of more confused than normal, because you actually cannot, in fact, have all of these debates at one time, and people do, in fact, make choices about what they think matters and what they decide to cover.
Adam: There’s not a lot of articles about, yeah, trans people going to the movies or doing laundry, they’re always sort of exotic-sized.
Julia Carmel: Right, and that’s what makes it weird, is it’s not just coverage that includes trans people, because that’s a great example of something that I know I was doing, there are other queer reporters who were doing similarly, I’m sure there were cis reporters and straight reporters who also include trans people in normal articles in normal ways. But that’s not the matter of discussion, because that’s not the problem. It’s just so strange to have people outside a community fixating on a problem in a community that really isn’t a matter of topic within a community. It’s baffling, and even just the, you know, like the question that you posed before, as we got into talking about this, of is that a valid argument, how do you address that? My first thought was like, oh, my God, go outside, touch grass. It’s such an absurd argument that’s like, no, we don’t need to get into that, it just makes no sense.
Nima: Yeah. I’d actually love to hear from both of you where do you see this going? You know, obviously, this has been a topic of media conversation over the past week or so ever since the initial letter, which was sent on Wednesday, February 15. Where do you see this potentially going? And let me actually frame that within the context of what I think is done so well in the original open letter, which was sent, you know, as you mentioned earlier, Eric, to the attention of the associate managing editor for standards at The Times, Philip Corbett, and what the letter does, it does provide the context of not just anti-trans reporting and commentary in The Times, but it places it within a historical trajectory of the way that The Times has covered, say, homosexuality in the past, and the same kind of not only obsession, but denial of humanity, the way that AIDS was covered, so much of this is brought up in this open letter really kind of placing the current coverage, the current issue, in this broader context. Do you think that The Times has ever editorially reckoned with those other historical touchstones and do you see this being an opportunity for something similar?
Eric Thurm: I’m really proud of that section. Chris Randall, one of the other FSP organizers and co authors, really did a fantastic job sort of tying all that stuff together. The facts of the history I didn’t know before we started working on this, and a lot of it is really unbelievable, you know, besides the fact that there was literally a “don’t say gay rule,” at The Times for over a decade, you sort of dig in a little bit deeper and learn that that rule was in fact in place because the publishers mother was offended by, you know, an article that they published about gay people on a cruise, and they have reckoned with that and they, you know, a couple of years ago, they published a bunch of stories engaging with that coverage and trying to reckon with it. Almost all of those parts of the letter cite reporting from The Times, except that when they did that, there were trans people on staff who found out that there were no gender neutral bathrooms at The Times headquarters, and I think reasonably, as part of this sort of reckoning process, said, ‘Oh, can we get gender neutral bathrooms?’ And management said no, and tried to, you know, fight it and it just feels so short sighted to me that they have admitted that this is a sort of stain on The Times’ record and know that it was sort of, at the very least, that it was, it’s perceived as being a mistake by other people, and it really feels like an obvious opportunity to change that. One of the pieces about the letter in The Nation includes some quotes and an interview with Donna Cartwright, who was a copy editor at The Times for a long time, and to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the first trans employee at the company, and she sort of expresses a lot of this and it’s just incredibly disappointing. It really feels like with this whole record there, people should know better. I also briefly would want to add, it’s not even that stuff is history, you know, you mentioned earlier, the patient zero quote, and I think it’s worth acknowledging that the sort of current widespread usage of the phrase patient zero, comes from a typo in reading medical charts of HIV/AIDS patients that then turned, you know, someone who was labeled as patient “O”, into patient zero, and that then threw, like a sort of history book, turned this guy who did nothing, you know, did not deserve this at all, into this boogeyman, who was sort of made out to be, you know, the very sort of sexually promiscuous, intentionally infecting people driver of the epidemic, and you see the same attitudes, finding shape again in this copy.
Julia Carmel: Yeah, I think it’s also, the New York Times, I think any organization when you’re around for long enough, you have to apologize for things you’ve done wrong, and the New York Times does that really well sometimes. I think that the overlooked series of obituaries is a really great example of something where they are literally going back in time, and writing obituaries for people who deserved it, who didn’t get it at the time, for whatever reason, maybe because they were queer, maybe because they were trans, maybe because they were a woman, maybe because they were Black. It’s looking back and being like, we should have covered this thing and we didn’t do that and we’re going to do justice now. I know that the New York Times is capable of doing something like that, doing a thoughtful, ‘Here’s something we did wrong, here’s something we’re doing better,’ and that, I think, is why the word disappointing keeps coming up. That’s why everyone keeps saying, ‘God, this is so disappointing,’ because it wouldn’t be that hard to just do the right thing here to just be like, ‘You know what, we were doing this wrong, and we’re going to listen, and we’re going to actually going to put more thoughtful things in place, we’re going to hire more trans people perhaps, we’re going to make sure that there are trans reporters who are writing about these things,’ whatever it is, that actually accomplishes having quality coverage of a community, where it just doesn’t make any sense, what’s going on right now, and having all these letters bouncing back and forth. It’s just stalling to a point where you just don’t want to say sorry, you know, it feels like you’re fighting with a child, and it’s just being like, ‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t have bullied me,’ where you did something wrong, you have to fix it, it, you know, if you think people are bullying you, that is your business, but that doesn’t change the fact that you did something wrong, and I think that’s what all this keeps coming back to is you could reckon with it and you could do better and you could make an active effort to make sure that this coverage isn’t doing things that are very tangibly putting people in danger and affecting lives. Because that’s the thing is people see that as a talking point. But so many New York Times articles, the reason why they’re getting awards, you know, the reason why they’re getting a Pulitzer or a Polk is because they’re inciting a change, and that’s something that people at the New York Times love to talk about. This article really impacted something, you know, it influenced a legislator, it changed something, it kept a business open, whatever it is, and so to look at these articles and be like, ‘Well, we’re just looking at something, we’re not impacting stuff,’ when it is so tangibly affecting legislation and affecting people in government and affecting the lives of adults and children and just trans people of all ages is such a dissonance and such a disconnect. It makes no sense to me.
Eric Thurm: So much of this continues to not even be behind us at all. I mean, Julia, you’re talking about sort of feeling uncomfortable or afraid to use your pronouns at work, and obviously, it’s like not a one to one analogy, but so much of the admission of what The Times did wrong is about the fact that plenty of reporters were afraid to come out during this period of very serious institutional homophobia, and it just feels astonishing to me that you could hear people talking about having an identical experience and either not see the connection or just choose to ignore it.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, you know, if the past is prologue, right, there does seem to be a strange petulant refusal to acknowledge where this is inevitably going to lead, which is, again, one more reckoning with past coverage that doesn’t actually need to be that way, right? So, the kind of impulse to fight for something that is inherently kind of retrograde or conservative is an ongoing tick that The Times editorial team seems to have, I don’t want to say everyone on the editorial team, or let’s say, The Times leadership, and so I so value, you both joining us today, and for your work on this. Before we let you go, is there anything that Citations Needed listeners should know in addition to maybe what they’ve already seen in the coverage of this or, you know, something to pay attention to in the future or even just to be supportive of the work that you’re all doing.
Eric Thurm: We’ll see how things continue to develop, I would love to get a serious sort of considered reply from the standards desk. I’m not necessarily holding my breath, but I do think that all these people coming together to ask for one has been really powerful, and I think will continue to be so as long as people continue asking, and in the meantime, I really would like to sort of shout out the union, I’m obviously biased. But organizing freelancers is really hard. Everyone is really precarious, and works in different industries and lives in different places, you don’t have a traditional shop floor, and the Freelance Solidarity Project has only existed for four years, and I’m really proud of everything that people have done in terms of ways to show solidarity with other people or to do organizing in this field, including, I would add, and maybe they should have gone in the context, a separate solidarity letter with the entire Times Union when they, you know, did a one day walk out in December, and many of the people who signed on to that solidarity pledge also signed on to this. I feel really grateful and excited to see those two things sort of coming together and to see where that’s going to be able to lead when people that are being pushed to the margins of a lot of these otherwise, you know, prestige industries come together to demand better from their bosses.
Julia Carmel: I don’t have anything as specific as this project that I have foresight and profound things to say about but I guess the thing that does come to mind is kind of just a larger, a larger look at objectivity in journalism, because I think that that’s the root of a lot of these issues that we see especially this specific problem with having this trans coverage that really is just atrocious. This expectation that journalists are always a blank palette, and that you can’t be involved in a community and still cover it in an air quote “objective way,” it doesn’t service readers, and it doesn’t service stories, and it doesn’t service these news organizations. When you see that kind of mentality of like, ‘Oh, well, you know, we’re having people outside the community cover it, because we’re keeping an objective,’ and, ‘Well, you can’t be an activist, we don’t want you to speak out about something being wrong because you’re not an activist, you’re just a writer for this, you’re just a journalist.’ Where, I think, that that kind of black and white line that we see at the New York Times, and lots of other papers and publications, is one that sometimes really just causes a disservice in what’s being put out from different organizations, and I think that that’s kind of just what I see as the zoom out of the situation is part of the problem here, and something that I think about a lot when I’m thinking about these issues is something that I heard, I think the Black Trans Lives Matter protests back in 2020, and it was something that I actually went to because I wanted to cover it for the New York Times while I was working there, and that was a whole back and forth. But when I was there, someone at the protest was speaking and said something along the lines of, ‘If you don’t have a Black trans woman working at your organization, if you don’t have a Black trans woman in power, your organization is obsolete,’ and that was something where even as I was just arguing to cover that protest inside the New York Times, I just kept thinking about that line and being like, we’re not even close to just having anyone here who’s representing that group, you know, we’re not even close to having one employee here who would fit the bill for that, you know, it just doesn’t make any sense to me to look at an organization that big that covers that many things,and to see such a handful of trans people. For me to be able to look around and think and be, oh, yeah, there were definitely, like I could count the trans people who I worked with on one hand, is crazy, at an organization of thousands, and I think that that all just is kind of the larger picture that I think of when I think of these problems is there’s just not not a thoughtfulness there of whose identities are being centered in a newsroom and whose identities are being centered in coverage, and that’s part of what leads to this, which maybe is a tangent, but I’m putting it out there since we’re chatting freely.
Nima: No. I think that’s hugely important, of course, and a great place to leave it and so truly can’t thank you enough, both of you, for joining us today on this News Brief. We have been speaking with Eric Thurm, campaigns coordinator for the National Writers Union, a steering committee member of the Freelance Solidarity Project and one of the co authors and organizers behind the contributors’ open letter to The Times. As well as Julia Carmel, reporter for the Los Angeles Times now who formerly covered nightlife and queer culture for the New York Times. Julia and Eric, thank you again so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Eric Thurm: Thank you.
Julia Carmel: Thank you so much for having us.
Nima: And that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Thank you all for listening. We will be back very shortly with more full length episodes of the show. But until then, you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. That will do it. Thanks again for listening. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Friday, February 24, 2023.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.