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Saturday, February 18, 2023

NYTimes vs. transpeople: Tom Scocca and The Onion respond

"Month after month, story after story, the Times is pouring its attention and resources into the message that there is something seriously concerning about the way young people who identify as trans are receiving care."

I read an excellent piece a couple of weeks ago by Tom Scocca about the NYTimes increasing obsession with "asking questions" about medical care for transpeople

I found it again after I heard about the letters of protest against the NYTimes about its coverage:

About 200 New York Times contributors have signed an open letter calling out the legacy newspaper for its coverage of transgender issues.

In the letter addressed to the Times' associate managing editor for standards, the contributors say they have "serious concerns about editorial bias in the newspaper's reporting on transgender, non⁠-⁠binary, and gender nonconforming people."

Scocca wrote:

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

This is pretty obviously—and yet not obviously enough—a plain old-fashioned newspaper crusade. Month after month, story after story, the Times is pouring its attention and resources into the message that there is something seriously concerning about the way young people who identify as trans are receiving care. Like the premise that the Clintons had to have been guilty of something serious, or that Saddam Hussein must have had a weapons program worth invading Iraq over, the notion that trans youth present a looming problem is demonstrated to the reader by the sheer volume of coverage. If it’s not a problem, why else would it be in the paper?

***

I actually first caught wind of the protests via The Onion's response:

It Is Journalism’s Sacred Duty To Endanger The Lives Of As Many Trans People As Possible

...We stand behind our recent obsessed-seeming torrent of articles and essays on trans people, which we believe faithfully depicts their lived experiences as weird and gross. We remain dedicated to finding the angles that best frame the basic rights of the gender-nonconforming as up for debate, and we will use these same angles over and over again in hopes that this repetition makes them suffer. As journalists, it is our obligation to entertain any and all pseudoscience that gives bigotry an intellectual veneer. We must be diligent in laundering our vitriol through the posture of journalistic inquiry, and we must be allowed to fixate on the genitals.

It is against free speech to stop us from fixating on the genitals.

Much of the recent debate concerns medical procedures, particularly in children, and whether things like hormone replacement therapy or gender-affirming surgeries are safe and appropriate. Indeed, there are critical questions to be asked about the social complexities of gender, as well as medical ethics in a profit-driven healthcare system. We are simply not interested in any of that. Instead, we will use flawed data and spurious logic to repeatedly write the same hand-wringing arguments asking whether there are suddenly too many trans people around. Journalistic integrity demands nothing less.

One of the things I liked about Scocca's piece was that it mentioned Jesse Singal's role in pioneering the media's approach to trans issues:

...Singal’s story also established the template for the meta-coverage of the subject. Trans writers and activists expressed dismay and outrage about the piece’s alarmist angle; the Atlantic defended it; some of the protests became vituperative and personal; Singal himself curdled over time into, at minimum, a position of combative and obsessive anti-anti-transphobia. The fuss over such an ostensibly thorough and ostensibly reasonable article struck some people with no particular investment in trans issues as censorious and irrational, and those people became invested instead in trans coverage as an object of “cancel culture” discourse: a line of inquiry under attack by the opponents of free inquiry. 

The idea that arguments against trans care are forbidden knowledge, which journalists have a duty to bring to light, is still driving coverage. Last week, the Atlantic published a piece by two scholars who are themselves trans, arguing that there is prejudice against people who have transitioned to another gender and then transitioned back, and that discussion of those experiences is being suppressed. “Haven’t seen it discussed much,” the tactically annoying liberal pundit Matthew Yglesias tweeted, praising the piece. “I think since the authors are harder to dismiss than most.”

(The NYTimes, remember, brought Singal in to defend Steven Pinker and to attack Pinker's critics. )

Scocca makes an excellent point about how the Times' trans coverage frets often over possible damage to young people having trans-related medical treatment, but not nearly as much over medical treatment for young people, equally serious, but not related to trans:

Stories about the sudden rise of trans identity acknowledge the problem of scale, sometimes, in passing. Writing about top surgery for teens, the Times noted that there are other, more prevalent gender-affirmation surgeries going on in the world, too. After scraping together what single-year figures on teen breast removals were available (203 total surgeries across 11 clinics that answered a reporter’s questions, 13 more by one publicity-seeking doctor, 70 at Kaiser Permanente Oakland in a study in a different year), the Times added some context:

Experts said that adolescent top surgeries were less frequent than cosmetic breast procedures performed on teenagers who were not transgender. Around 3,200 girls age 18 to 19 received cosmetic breast implants in 2020, according to surveys of members of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, and another 4,700 teenagers age 13 to 19 had breast reductions. (Surveys from other groups have shown that girls under 18 also receive implants, though the ASPS does not recommend breast augmentation for minors.)

Once you start asking questions about things like breast-enhancement surgeries in comparison to trans care, it’s hard to stop. Some 30,000 teens each year get rhinoplasties—irrevocable, highly visible, life-changing surgeries that are overwhelmingly performed on girls, many of whom are motivated by body dysphoria, peer pressure, and invidious internalized notions about race and ethnicity. 

The Times expended more than 6,000 words on puberty blockers, raising the specter that, despite doctors’ widespread agreement that the treatment makes life better for adolescents who identify as trans, the drugs carry the risk of reducing bone density. Bone density loss is also one of the many side effects of isotretinoin, more famous as 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 psychological and physical harms up to and including its ability to cause severe birth defects. 

Any medical decision involves some sort of judgment about how to balance competing sets of risks. Yet the Times isn’t publishing multiple front-page stories about whether teens are endangering their bodies by getting treated for cystic acne. 

And back to that pioneer, Jesse Singal:

...And Singal, trying to argue against social gender transitioning, accidentally described the logic that keeps those (gay) kids there: 

[I]f a decision to socially transition that is kept from parents sticks, a young, developing person will then spend months, or maybe even years, living one identity at school and another among their family. That just can’t be psychologically healthy. It fosters distrust between students and parents, and it isn’t sustainable because the parents are inevitably going to find out (if schools think they can keep it a secret in the long term, that’s ridiculous). 

If it wanted to, there’s no question that the Times could find parents and support groups who are still bothered, today, by their children identifying as gay. The parents would be furious if the children were out at school without their knowledge, and would feel that their parental rights were being violated. Selected experts would share the parents’ concerns. What would that do for the kids?

And what will all this trans coverage accomplish? The Times considers itself an objective repository of current events, not a crusading newspaper, but when a publication fixes its attention on a subject and keeps it there, it is making the case that its attention matters. If youth trans care is a problem, the Times is bringing that problem to light, so that the public and people in authority can understand it and make it better.

Finally, Scocca makes the case for how the NYTimes, either deliberately or fecklessly, is aiding and abetting the current Republican war on transpeople:

In the spirit of asking critical questions, then: how many thousand words on the front page of the Times does it take to acknowledge the existence of doubt? At what cumulative word count does it become possible to read it as something less neutral—something that could in fact give ammunition to Republican politicians? 

What if, perhaps, a mainstream liberal moral panic about young trans people has been moving in synchrony with “a barrage of bills to regulate the lives of transgender youths, restricting the sports teams they can play on, bathrooms they can use and medical care they can receive”? What if the laws are being promoted by “some of the same figures who fought the legalization of gay marriage”?

And what if the latest wave of this legislative assault included “bans on transition care into young adulthood; restrictions on drag shows using definitions that could broadly encompass performances by transgender people; measures that would prevent teachers in many cases from using names or pronouns matching students’ gender identities; and requirements that schools out transgender students to their parents”?

This was what the Times reported on Jan. 26, three days after it had used its front page to air parents’ objections to teachers using names or pronouns matching students’ gender identities, and letting those parents suggest schools should have requirements that out transgender students to their parents. 

In this story about new legislation, the Times raised the possibility that the interest in young people’s welfare was a tactical pretext by the far right, the opening stage in a full-on campaign against trans people:

Matt Sharp, senior counsel and state government relations national director for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said his group believed “gender ideology attacks the truth that every person is either male or female.”

And Mr. Schilling, of the American Principles Project, confirmed that his organization’s long-term goal was to eliminate transition care. The initial focus on children, he said, was a matter of “going where the consensus is.”

This news ran under the headline “G.O.P. State Lawmakers Push a Growing Wave of Anti-Transgender Bills.” 

It was on page A13.

FAIR (not the right-wing grifters FAIRforall) also has a response