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This is not about the "New York Times"

As anti-trans legislation sweeps the U.S., a group of writers have complained about a bias they see in the "Times’" coverage of trans people. One of the writers explains.

On November 14, 2022, pro-transgender rights activists confronted right-wing organizers during an event about gender identity in City Hill Park, New York City. Police arrested some of the protestors. [© Alex Kent/​Getty Images]

Jo Livingstone is a cultural critic from London based in New York. They were the 2020 recipient of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics' Circle. They have written for the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, and many other publications. They're a contributing editor at the Public Domain Review.

If I'd written this article a week ago, it would have been entirely about the New York Times.

I was at my wits' end. A group of New York City writers I'm part of had written and sent a letter to the Times' standards editor, Philip Corbett. It was a formal complaint about the editorial bias we saw at work in the Times' coverage of trans people.

On February 15, we sent the complaint to Corbett with the co-signatures of 120 other New York Times writers, photographers, illustrators, and other contributors—a roster that would quickly grow to 1200 and includes luminaries like Chelsea Manning, Cynthia Nixon, Hilton Als, and more. Being Times contributors was the only thing we all had in common. This letter was meant to be feedback written to journalists, by journalists.

In it, we noted the alarming amount of space on the Times' front page that has lately been dedicated to asking loaded rhetorical questions about gender-affirming medical care for minors, and the way that coverage has made its way into the legislative system of the United States. We referred to several amicus briefs filed by politicians who want to roll back rights for trans people which quoted directly from such articles in the Times, relying on its status as "the paper of record" to condense and legitimise transphobia into rightwing political argument in the United States.

The letter also drew a line between this problem and the long history of homophobia in the New York Times. Five hundred New Yorkers were already dead of HIV/AIDS before New York Times managing editor and executive editor A. M. Rosenthal was willing to put the illness on the Times front page, in 1983. It would be four more years before the newspaper removed the instruction from their style guide: "Do not use gay as a synonym for homosexual unless it appears in the formal, capitalized name of an organization or in quoted matter." In this era, journalists at the Times lost out on promotions if management learned they were gay. Conservative titan William F. Buckley argued in the pages of the New York Times that people with HIV/AIDS should be forcibly tattooed.

Chaos ensued after we sent our letter. Instead of replying to it, the publicity department at the Times replied to a different group, GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), who had submitted a different letter on the same subject that day. A publicist for the Times said,

"We received the open letter delivered by GLAAD and welcome their feedback. We understand how GLAAD and the co-signers of the letter see our coverage. But at the same time, we recognize that GLAAD's advocacy mission and The Times's journalistic mission are different….Our journalism strives to explore, interrogate and reflect the experiences, ideas and debates in society — to help readers understand them. Our reporting did exactly that and we're proud of it."

A reporter from Harvard's Nieman lab asked the Times rep for clarification. Which letter were they talking about? We probably mostly agree with what GLAAD has to say, but our letter had nothing to do with theirs.

The representative responded that the letter "with the numerous signatories" was "delivered in person by GLAAD reps to the NYT this morning," so the "statement applies to both." This is false. The Times has yet to issue any kind of retraction or correction to this stunningly disrespectful dismissal of 1200 of their own writers, editors, photographers, and illustrators.


(c) 2023, Zeit Online


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