The Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality Season 2, Episode 5 transcript and replay.
“I describe it almost like a cult, right? Because it’s, it’s a culture that you imbibe from the people who are there before you. And once you drink the Kool-Aid, I become then a, a vessel for passing that on to others”
I’m Imara Jones, and this is The Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality.
Today, we’re taking a deep dive inside the news organization that people wake up to every day to check. The paper that captures the most pressing headlines of our time. The news source that people all around the world turn to, to find out what matters. And for journalists, to find out the stories worth covering. The New York Times.
The journey that we are going on today means telling hard truths about The Times. How the paper of record has been co opted.
Understanding how this happened means going inside a powerful media organization—all the way to the top. It’s there, among senior leadership, that decisions are made about what to cover and how to cover it. And it’s there at the top that we can see how the corruption of journalistic standards happened.
With disinformation now rife in its pages, the paper of record has become a disinformer’s wildest dream. The Times is now used to justify anti trans legislation. And it helps fuel the culture of skepticism and hostility towards trans people.
The successful capturing of the Times by disinformers seriously erodes the idea that the paper is a neutral authority committed to objectivity. The co-opting of the Times is a major victory of Christian Nationalists. The bottom line is that when it comes to trans people, the paper has become an agent of authoritarians.
Our guide through this world is a journalist we’re calling Harper. They’re a former Times staffer who was courted by the paper, rose through the ranks, and found themselves in the heart of the newsroom and face to face with Times leadership. We’ve changed their voice for protection.
It’s through Harper’s experience that we can understand how this media empire operates, and why insidious myths being pushed by the Anti-trans hate machine are increasingly splashed across its pages.
Harper grew up in a leafy, California suburb. Their family, part of an ethnic minority, actively participated in a variety of cultural and religious traditions. But for Harper what sticks out most from their childhood was how reading the news was a key part of their daily routine.
Harper: my father every day would get the print newspaper I woke up every morning to my dad fetching the newspaper from the driveway, and just from a very early age I remember the respect of that, the starting of the day with catching up on news, and in addition to the print newspaper, including the new York times and other local papers, we would also watch the local newscast at 10pm, and before bed, so it sort of rounded out our day as kids to have exposure to news and what was going on in the world.
Harper was astute and inquisitive – and by the time they got to high school, they were questioning where they could really fit in.
Harper: I felt like, an outsider in a lot of ways. I definitely just felt like something was different about me. You know, where everyone else had boyfriends
Looking for an outlet to express those feelings, they turned to journaling. They kept a diary which allowed them to unpack their early feelings about sexuality and experiment with storytelling. Writing things down was vital as they were trying to figure out their place in the world.
Harper: I felt like the city I grew up in, the community I grew up in felt really small for me at some point, felt like I outgrew it, like I needed to find a place where I could grow into my own skin.
So, Harper would eventually leave their hometown for college. On campus, they worked for their school’s newspaper. And they continued journaling about their queer identity, including the fact that they had fallen for their straight best friend. Their friend rebuffed them and it was devastating.
Around the time of this rejection, they contemplated coming out to their parents. But Harper feared their parents would reject them because being queer felt unwelcome in their religious and ethnic community.
This ongoing tension between the two parts of Harper, their ethnic identity and sexuality, fueled the depression which had been creeping into their life. It became impossible to ignore, affecting their performance at school. So they decided to take some time off and move back home.
Harper: I mean mental health in my culture is not something that is talked about. So it was, I really framed it as, I’m struggling, I need a break I just need some time away.= I’m going to do some classes at a local community college and sort of work a little bit, earn some money, not be a burden on them in any way.
Taking time off from school allowed Harper some space to reconnect with themselves. They returned to college and graduated.
And then they decided to pursue grad school – it would be a new opportunity to leave the nest. They were admitted to a university in New York City.
Harper: there was that dread, and there was an understanding I think off the bat that I couldn’t come out to my family. But because I came out to myself and because I felt that relief, I felt like I could start telling people around me that I trusted, like friends and my brother.
Making the move to New York City felt like a fresh start — a place where they could find a way to be free.
Harper: It felt like this dream and there was a pulse. I vividly remember those first few nights in New York because I remember wandering the streets of the East Village and just being like, oof, like I can feel that everyone is going somewhere, everyone has something to do. You know, you could hop in a subway and get anywhere in a few minutes.
Harper remembers walking along New York’s 5th Avenue for the first Pride parade.
New York City’s pride parade is one of the largest in the world and features thousands of participants and millions more as spectators.
Queer people from all ethnic backgrounds, including their own, were in the streets on a scale that Harper had never experienced before.
Harper: Walking down 5th Avenue, a place that I saw in movies, you know, where it feels like this foreign, amazing, far-off place,it feels ethereal in some ways, I’m walking down New York City streets, being who I am, being with folks who look like me and understand me.
Eventually they joined an organization for queer people who shared their ethnic background.
Harper: so the next year, I get to march in Pride, and understanding the scope of what a pride parade was and how much it meant to me personally. Knowing that I could march with folks from my background and who look like me, and see someone in the crowd, possibly, who maybe would have been like me. I felt such symbolism of just being able to be like, I’m now on this side where I’m out and I’m proud of who I am. And maybe there’s a kid out there who’s going to be on the sidelines somewhere and will see us and say, oh it’s possible. You know, it’s possible to be all of these things at once.
New York allowed Harper to express their emerging understanding of their sexuality.
They even juggled two girlfriends at the same time. In two different states.
But the city also allowed them to experiment with their gender identity too.
Harper: so, the first year, you know, I had already sort of been dressing masculine-of-center. But that first year, after 2013, I cut my hair, that summer is also the summer I come out to my parents.
My brother lived in New York at the time as well and so, you know, we’d go to the department store together and we’d both be in the men’s section. Like it was a visible shift for me where this is what’s more comfortable for me. And it’s ok to sort of openly embrace that and accept that and throw myself into that.
The forever magic of New York City is that you can meet so many different types of people. Harper stayed involved with the community groups who shared aspects of their identity, like those they marched with at Pride. These encounters helped to affirm how they were feeling and expressing themselves.
Harper: I did not find the word ‘queer’ until this time period. You know, I had only met maybe a handful of trans folks up until this moment. So finding out more about my own gender identity and language around that, you know, I eventually start identifying as gender nonconforming.
But during this journey of self-discovery, there was one part of themselves that Harper hadn’t had much time to focus on: their love of storytelling. They had been freelancing here and there to make ends meet but Harper was slowly realizing that journalism meant a lot to them. So when a job posting for an assistant editor position came up, they decided to apply.
Harper: While I’m in school, I start to actually have, this idea that this could be not only a paying job, but it could be something, it is something that I truly enjoy.
They landed the job, and journalism managed to weave its way back into Harper’s life.
But after working as an editor for this online publication, Harper experienced what many journalists are all too familiar with, the inevitable layoff.
Despite this setback, Harper started freelancing again and looking for their next job. Soon they landed one with a major publishing company, working for a magazine.
Harper: And, I think I knew pretty fast — um, apologies to the people who employed me there — I think I knew pretty fast that this was not where I was going to stay very long.
So Harper was looking for open positions again. And they came across a job that could change their life. It was a role for a print editor at the New York Times. The world’s preeminent news organization. The one they had grown up reading daily.
Someone from the Times’ newsroom called them in for an interview after being impressed with their resume. Harper didn’t get the job. But this first contact was the start of a long courtship with the paper.
Harper started meeting regularly with a Times editor at Dean & Deluca, a coffee shop that was once located in the bottom of the New York Times Building. Their check ins allowed this editor to keep tabs on Harper and give them career advice.
This ongoing vetting speaks to a culture at the paper that allows it to carefully curate its talent pool. Leaders at the Times work to identify emerging journalists as potential future employees. Often they’ll meet with these journalists on an ongoing basis to see if they have what it takes to work at the prestigious paper.
This kind of deliberate courtship is what gets your foot in the door.
As this elaborate dance went on, Harper continued to grow their career. They moved on to an editor position at a major digital news platform.
But after two years, all that coffee chatting and networking paid off.
Harper: Where instead of me cold applying to The
New York Times, he eventually, after a handful of coffees over two years, ends up saying, we have a contractor opening on our team and I think that you should apply.
Young Harper reading the paper in their childhood couldn’t even fathom a moment like this. Here was a chance to work at the most venerated newsroom in the country.
Harper: It stood for an American news institution. You just knew the name. I would go back to where my family’s from on winter vacations and people across the globe know The New York Times. It was always put up as just the standard of news. Anything that’s printed there is truth and fact and credible and just the quality. It’s just, you can trust it,
Harper had been to the Times before, but this was different. When they walked into the building for this pivotal interview, they felt a sense of purpose.
Harper: I had been in the building, and I had felt the history. I know it wasn’t the original Times building, but it still felt like you could smell the mustiness of the newspapers. I felt like, if I want to be news, if I want to be media, this is where I’ve got to be.
Entering its glass lobby and sleek wooden elevator banks, which ultimately led to a shining conference room, the New York Times headquarters reminded Harper of a modern museum.
But something personal and unexpected also stood out to them.
Harper: You know, I’m escorted up by somebody from the same ethnic background as me and she’s wearing ethnic garb actually that day Immediately, Harper sensed parts of their identity coming together in what seems like an opportunity of a lifetime. Their sexual orientation, their cultural background, and love for storytelling were in sync for the first time.
Harper: And so it felt like, oh, this is somewhere I could belong. This is somewhere that they would see me for who I am and accept me for who I am.
Of course, entering the big leagues meant undergoing a rigorous interview process, featuring editing tests and a selective marathon of conversations which lasted all day.
Surrounded by notable front pages from the Times that adorned the walls of the conference room, the last interview took place with then Assistant managing editor Carolyn Ryan.
Harper: She has a very authoritative presence, right. So, she walked into the room and there was an immediate like seriousness. Carolyn Ryan walked in and she meant business.
Carolyn Ryan had been with the company since 2007. She rose to the masthead in 2016 after heading the politics desk. As part of her responsibilities, Ryan oversaw recruitment and hiring. She was also the first openly gay journalist in her leadership position. Ryan focused on advancing newsroom diversity. To date, she has hired more than 400 journalists.
Harper: She was the highest up that I ended up interviewing with. And so, she cut right to it. You know, what could we be doing better? You know, sort of dug in that interview in a way that a couple other people hadn’t.
Ryan reveled in the importance of front-page editors and emphasized their responsibility to oversee headlines; to act as the last line of journalistic integrity.
Then she ended the interview with a question that gave Harper a moment of clarity. It surprised them both.
Harper: She asked me, you know, if you were to come here, where do you see yourself in a few years? And, I was so impressed by her, the nature of that interview, and the way she was listening to my answers, and really digging and wanting to hear feedback about the Times’ coverage, that I felt the audacity to tell her, you know, in a few years, I want to be where you are. I want to have your job.
Ryan sat taken aback for a moment. It seemed like no one had said that to her face before. But Harper felt encouraged to put all their cards on the table.
Harper: You know, there was the sense that a voice like me could really be respected here.
10 days after the interview, Harper was on their way to Cancun, Mexico for a momentous occasion. In a dream come true, they were about to marry their partner and were excited about building a life with them. What’s more is that they were doing so with the total support of their parents. All of this would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.
And then, during Harper’s layover with their partner in Mexico City, they got a call. It was another dream come true.
Imara: What did you do when you got the job offer?
Harper: I mean, I immediately, uh, I immediately screamed. I mean, I was so happy.
Harper would be working as a staff editor in a contract position, working on digital Headlines across the homepage, and keeping an eye on every published story.
Harper: All of the hard moments, the difficult times, the times that I didn’t think I would make it, didn’t think that I wanted to be here, all of that. All of that felt like it melted away in that moment where it’s like, this, this is why you push through. This is why you work in this field. This is why you did all of that, why you put in the time and the work and you found your people.
At the dinner for family and friends, the night before the wedding, Harper told their loved ones about the job offer from The New York Times.
Harper: And here you are with a supportive family, with a dream job offer, about to be married. And it felt, yeah, it felt like a dream. It felt like a fairy tale.
Harper’s parents hadn’t exactly understood Harper’s choice to live in New York. They hadn’t always been accepting or supportive of Harper’s queer identity. But a job at the “Paper of Record” felt like something they finally could understand.
With so many milestones to celebrate, Harper felt like everything was aligning in their life.
When you enter The New York Times building you cross a marbled floor and walk through a row of turnstiles. From there you can step into one of the many elevators that ascend to the busy newsroom.
A month after Harper got the call, they crossed this threshold to start their new job.
Harper: It almost felt like when I arrived in New York City, actually. I would liken that experience to the electricity I felt those first few nights sleeping in a really buzzy city. You know, being around The New York Times building, inside that building, gave me like a buzz.
Harper worked in the heart of the paper, near the company’s leadership.
As they looked around on that first day, they saw the offices of their interviewer, Carolyn Ryan, and executive editor for the whole paper, Dean Baquet, just steps away.
Part of Harper’s role at the Times meant they worked directly with editors and reporters in various sections.
For more than two years, when they were on the job, Harper reviewed nearly every headline for the New York Times dot com. They were all-in on this new role.
More than that though – the feeling of being at home that Harper was looking for – of being accepted for who they were, was coming true.
After a couple of months into their gig at the Times, December rolled around, which brought with it a strange ritual of belonging at the paper.
It was the year-end tradition: the annual ugly sweater contest, which was judged by the senior leadership of the Times, people like Dean Baquet and Carolyn Ryan.
Their task? Assessing the quirky and overly decorated sweaters.
What may seem like a ghastly custom to some, definitely had Harpers’ buy in
Harper: And it feels like this is the thing to do.
It’s a newsroom-wide thing – I have this cool blazer. I did jingle bell suspenders with a bow tie and a blazer,
Harper’s jingly blazer was up against a food editor who knitted her own New York Times and food themed patches for her sweater. This is the kind of stuff that gets these editors riled up.
Harper: While I end up winning the contest, some folks were upset, which is hilarious to be upset about this over everything else. But, some folks were upset that a blazer won the ugly sweater contest and not a sweater. And I was a newcomer, so it was sort of a weird moment where I felt proud of it, and I felt proud to be part of something larger than myself, but at the same time, also immediately sort of felt like, oh now, this is weird. Not everyone is happy.”
Now while not everyone was happy with the outcome, winning the contest provided Harper an extra perk. It offered some valuable face time with senior leadership, and a bit of spotlight in the bustling newsroom. It wasn’t often that a staff contract employee got face time with Dean Baquet.
In that moment, Harper began to see how things really operated in their new workplace. It’s a competitive environment where people jockey for social capital. And there’s a strict hierarchy. To succeed and move up in the ranks requires following this complex system of unwritten cultural norms.
And as a newcomer, you’re expected to learn this system quickly if you want to make a name for yourself.
But while Harper was fully integrating themselves into the Times’ workplace culture, they had also started to notice something that worried them.
In 2019 Harper experienced a collision between the professed values of the paper and how it applied those values to trans coverage for the first time.
Just months after Harper started, they were in the midst of putting out a fire.
Earlier that day, the Times published a story called “Chest Binding Helps Smooth the Way for Transgender Teens, but There May Be Risks.” The story casts chest binding as a dangerous activity, especially for trans youth.
Harper: It’s hard to read it because the writer did not have experience with this. And the article basically makes the argument that there are all these risks to it.
Moreover, the story cites a website that we know all too well. It was 4th Wave Now, the very same blog we investigated earlier in this series. We described how the group spread fears about a trans social contagion to unassuming parents. But the Times story doesn’t provide this context.
Now Harper didn’t understand all of this about 4th Wave Now at the time, but was disturbed by the overall tone of the piece.
Harper: It sort of feels laughable to me at first because binding has been around forever. It’s something I’m doing. People in the community – we all talk about how you do it properly.
Some Times employees were putting pressure on editors, so by the time Harper arrived at work that day, the piece’s concerning headline had already been changed.
But the story didn’t end there. The Times published a supplemental page asking readers to share their experiences with chest binding. The headline for that page cast chest-binding as dangerous again.
So Harper decided to reach out to the editor in charge of publishing the page to suggest that they fix it. This was part of their job on the Headlines desk.
But that editor wasn’t interested in changing the headline.
Harper: The person was sort of just like very flippant about it. Just sort of like, “Is this important right now? Do we need to talk about this right now?”
There’s someone who’s very dismissive of the fact that the first piece was very hurtful. There was a reason it was changed. And that they sort of repeated those mistakes. And I was offering to make those changes. I was saying “copy has signed off on this.” You know I’m doing essentially all of the work for them. I really just need their okay to go ahead and implement those changes.
Eventually, the editor approved.
Harper: She ended up being like “okay, if you’ve gotta do it, do it,” Because the change goes through, I think I walk away from that thinking it’s a blip.
But Harper didn’t dwell on the episode. They had really fallen in love with the Times. So they decided to put their name forward for a prestigious rotation working in London with the global news desk.
Harper: They say, well okay we can’t send a contracted employee.
In order to garner the London position, Harper needed to be promoted to a full time employee. But Moving up at the Times can be a very hard thing to do. In fact one editor told us that the best way to move up at the paper is to go work somewhere else.
Yet despite that culture, Harper got the promotion.
Harper: So it was sort of set and done that like if I’m going abroad, I’m going to be hired as a full-time employee.
And, I learned later that Carolyn Ryan is like the person that approves this. And it’s like “oh, of course. For Harper, of course.”
Carolyn Ryan, the editor who had interviewed Harper for the job initially, was a champion for them. And Harper saw her as a role model too — a queer woman who had risen the ranks of journalism and used her power to uplift other queer people.
With their mentor’s blessing, Harper and their partner moved to London, where they lived in an apartment that was paid for by the Times.
One day, at their job in London, they got a message from another employee. It was a tip about a glaring omission.
Harper: And, so they sort of flagged it to me knowing that the news desk is able to have conversations about these things.
The piece in question was a short news update about how the Trump administration was pushing to end gay adoption. And cited in the piece was a key player in anti-trans and anti-gay advocacy – The Family Research Council
They’re cast as a conservative organization in the article, but Harper felt that was somewhat misleading. The Southern Poverty Law Center designates the Family Research Council as a hate group for its anti-LGBTQ actions and views.
Harper: Like, this is a fact. The SPLC designates them as a hate group. That’s a fact.
When Harper brought it up to the editor of that story, they were told “we don’t blindly follow all the SPLC’s designations on hate groups.” But the paper often does the SPLC when it comes to white nationalist groups. For example, in stories about the Proud Boys, their SPLC hate group status is commonly mentioned.
But it seemed that, when it came to Christian Nationalism, it wasn’t worth mentioning.
Harper: Is there another way that we can describe this or tell readers about that, and it was sort of “nah, we like the way we’ve written this in the article. We think readers can understand.”
This was the second time Harper and many of their colleagues felt the paper wasn’t living up to its own standards. Although it was getting harder and harder, Harper still was committed to being on the inside.
Harper: You know, the gatekeepers let me in, then I essentially buy into this power, right, of saying I have a voice at the Times, I can affect change. We’re the paper of record.
After finishing their rotation, they returned to New York in early 2020. After their time overseas, the big city, once so open and welcoming, felt incredibly small to Harper. And just a few months later the pandemic started, making things even smaller. Just picture Harper and their partner, both working from home and never leaving their tiny 500 square foot apartment.
Like so many others at this time, Harper threw themselves into their work.
Harper: I was one of those people who hit the ground running with work from home. Like I was like ready for it, here for it, and felt very connected and productive actually working from home
By the late spring, Harper would receive another promotion, this time to Senior Staff editor. They were a rising star at a time when the paper would experience a profound shift spurred by the murder of George Floyd.
As protests erupted around the US, the Times published an earth-shattering op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton. He called the Black Lives Matter protesters rioters – and argued the US military should attack them.
And this wasn’t an esoteric free speech thought experiment. Tom Cotton is a politician with significant power, who had the ear of then President Trump. Moreover, he was advocating for crushing a protest movement made up of Black people. And if the military were to get involved, it would also jeopardize the lives of Black journalists covering events on the ground.
Harper: It was really all our Black colleagues at the Times who banded together during that period.
Behind the scenes, New York Times staffers in all corners of the building were furious. A key concern was that the piece violated a widely understood, though unwritten rule at the paper: that it was not to be used as an instrument to incite violence or baselessly malign an entire group of people; even in the opinion section. The opinion page is supposed to be used for responsible dialogue. But sources tell us that the internal outcry about Cotton’s op-Ed was ignored by the highest levels of the organization.
When attempts to raise the alarm were ineffective, staffers engaged in direct action to get higher-ups to pay attention: “Running this puts Black New York Times staff in danger” they tweeted. And more than 800 of the paper’s staff members sent a letter to management in protest of the op-ed’s publication.
Now to be clear this was out of the norm. Reporters are banned from criticizing the paper publicly so these staffers risked their jobs by speaking out. Moreover, the overall culture at the Times is one of glacial change and going with the flow. But this very public backlash did the trick.
Dean Baquet, the executive editor at the time, met with Black staffers and allies to talk about their concerns. And Baquet’s response made a lasting impression on Harper.
Harper: There was a meeting that sticks in my mind about him sharing his experiences as a young Black reporter, him hearing the criticism, understanding it, sort of mirroring it back. like a meeting that was very powerful.
Management was doing the unexpected. They were listening to staff and promising change.
Harper: You know, it felt like not only is he opening up and seeing the vulnerability of this moment and humanizing himself for us, but that then he’s encouraging that like, you know what, if I can do that in this moment and connect with you all and make you feel heard that, that we wanna move towards a newsroom culture that allows you all to do that too.
Over the next year, Dean and upper management would follow through. They made several changes to address the concerns of staffers.
Harper: I think there was an understanding that they had to do more to address diversity concerns at the paper.
They would approve style changes for the paper, such as capitalizing the B in Black. And they would also move to expand and formalize the company’s employee resource groups, or ERGs. Informal affinity groups like Black at NYT and the queer-led Times Out had already existed before 2020, but formal recognition by the Times created the possibility for real change.
For Harper, Dean Baquet was standing out as an example of someone who could both wield power and work to protect marginalized employees.
Harper: Understanding that the ERG was really pivotal for our Black colleagues at that moment, in terms of leading dialogues, creating safe spaces for our employees, and connecting with leadership.
I think for me that becomes a moment of hope because it felt like leadership was listening and engaged and invested in making the culture of the paper better.
Harper, who had been trying to improve the paper’s coverage on LGBTQ and trans issues, saw this as an opportunity.
While Dean Baquet served as sponsor for the Black at NYT group, Carolyn Ryan was the sponsor for Times Out, the LGBTQ group.
Harper: Carolyn Ryan initially was like this beacon for me because I thought, here’s a queer person, you know, a woman who has made it, who’s in the ranks and who will understand, even though the trans experience is outside of her only lived experience, but you assume that, you know, as close as someone can look to you, being a part of the queer community, that someone could be on your side in that.
Looking to Carolyn as an example, Harper became co-chair of the group. With greater management involvement, Times Out might finally be able to push forward on issues proactively. And maybe, just maybe, when raising concerns about problematic articles to leadership, Harper would have more support in improving coverage.
Harper: There was a humanizing of leadership and that there was a real desire to move towards, you know, talking about diversity, actually putting action plans in place, the ERGs being one of them. It felt like there was a movement towards like, oh, we’re being heard.
But there would be hints that this push from management wasn’t all in good faith. Early-on, when the ERGs were being restructured, Harper attended an orientation zoom meeting with dozens of other ERG chairs and co-chairs.
Harper: What ended up happening is that it became really clear very early in the morning in this presentation that HR was talking to us as if we were going to be an arm of disseminating info to our membership.
The ERGs had always been employee-led spaces where marginalized Times staffers felt empowered. But now Harper and the other leaders realized that by formalizing the ERGs, the Times expected to have total oversight and control.
Harper: I mean, right away during the presentation, I just sort of had a pit in my stomach where I was like, wait, this doesn’t feel quite right. This isn’t, you know, I was new to the structure, so I am new to ERGs in a formal way. So I felt like there was just sort of a discomfort where I was like, something doesn’t feel right and, and I didn’t speak up right away.
As the ERG leaders realized that they were now expected to act as extensions of management, many of them reacted in real time, voicing their outrage directly into the chat.
Harper: And you had people sort of talking in the chat right away saying, wait, we have questions about this, or we wanna raise something. And so as other people started to speak up I then realized, oh no, this is not what it’s supposed to be.
Shortly after this meeting, the ERG leaders found out that the HR person no longer worked at the company.
Harper: I think a lot of us were sort of like, I think we felt like she had become the scapegoat for a miscalculation on management’s part about how that was gonna go.
Even though the HR person was no longer employed by the Times, management did not retract what they said about how the ERGs were supposed to operate. This was the first indication to Harper that the fundamental power dynamic at the paper wasn’t going to change.
But despite this early warning of future turbulence, Harper and the rest of the Times Out ERG moved forward with hope and confidence.
They pushed forward with ideas on how the paper could more accurately cover trans people. And they started with what is essentially the rules of the road for any media organization: its style guide.
A style guide is the basis for the identity and voice of a paper—governing everything from punctuation rules at a paper, to how journalists are supposed to frame certain issues.
Harper: We needed some kind of guidance because what was happening was that, when I was on the news desk and it was like an evening, you don’t have a masthead leader or a person to guide and say, Hey, this should not be printed. Let’s take out the dead name.
But winning substantial changes like this would prove difficult. And all of the meetings and back forth with those in charge led to nowhere.
Harper: Initially there’s just such, gratefulness, that the times is even engaging on this, that we don’t realize that it sort of stays stagnant. keeps us in a loop, keeps us in the weeds and keeps us coming back asking for the same things over and over, which then start to wear down on our resolve to do so. There was a deferring happening as well in some of these conversations. So it was like this can’t happen right now or this can’t happen right away, or there are other steps we need to take to get there.
In a bid to jump start the process, Times Out wanted to bring in the Trans Journalists Association to discuss trans coverage with Times employees. But that idea went nowhere, too.
And bit by bit, with deflection and after deflection, Harper was getting worn down.
Over time, they grew dissatisfied with the lack of ability to make change at the paper.
And there were big changes in Harper’s personal life.
Harper and their partner were talking about starting a family, which made their tiny New York apartment feel even smaller.
So, Harper moved within the company again, accepting a position outside New York on the West Coast. This position would focus in-part on audience development. On determining who actually consumed Times content and how to grow its audience.
Harper: I wanted to be a part of the conversation in the audience team around how do we grow
in, in places abroad, in places, across demographics, young folks, queer folks? How do we create stories and, and cover and capture community voices, that we’re not currently doing?
And Harper believed they would be able to enact change in this new role. Because Harper wouldn’t just be fixing headlines, they would be in a position to actually help the paper make good on its commitment to diversity.
But like so many things at the Times, such a clear pathway to change was a mirage.
It turned out that much of their new job in audience development was actually more of a social media job.
And the problematic pieces just kept coming. One year after the murder of George Floyd, the Times published an op-ed. It criticized the organizers of New York City’s annual Pride march for asking cops not to join the event in full uniform. Many queer activists had been pushing pride organizers to do this for years. And given the events of 2020 as well as the history of the Stonewall Uprising, police participation was even more controversial.
Many Times Out staffers criticized the Op-ed internally because in failing to provide this context, the Times wasn’t living up to the standards of balance it typically requires even of opinion pieces.
Times Out Staffers expressed this discrepancy to their management sponsor Carolyn Ryan. And Ryan told them nothing could be done about it.
Harper: It starts for me, what I think was a pattern of the paper continuing to publish things, but hearing feedback from employees saying, Hey, these things you were publishing are hurtful. and actually not hearing the receptiveness that we heard about the Tom Cotton op-ed, like we heard similar arguments then too, but I remember them there being sort of this confusion on her part of like, well, okay, like it’s, it’s opinion. We can’t really do anything about that.
Times management and staffers were at an impasse. And each time management stalled, or deflected, it just inflamed the situation.
These frustrations ignited one day in September 2021 when the New York Times published an article that would change everything for Harper.
As soon as they got out of bed that Tuesday, it was clear that something was wrong.
Harper: I wake up to messages, oh my God, did you see, did you see, did you see it?
Everyone is speaking out. Everyone is DMing me.
Harper’s heart sank as they started to understand what the avalanche of messages was about.
The New York Times had published a book review by Jesse Singal. He’s the first mainstream journalist to spread disinformation about a supposed trans social contagion. We explored that in episode 3 of this season.
And he’s well known for being a provocateur who consistently attacks trans people online.
Singal had been tapped to review the book “Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality” by anti-trans writer Helen Joyce, which argues that gender identity isn’t real and that gender is a biological fact.
Anyone familiar with Singal at all would be aware of his anti-trans leanings. So choosing him to review the book sent a loud message.
And as Harper began to read the book review, they realized it was essentially a buffet of anti-trans talking points.
Harper: I get maybe a paragraph or two in, and I, you know, my stomach drops even further. It’s hard for me to read just as a trans person.
As they geared up for work, Harper braced themselves. They knew that as a leader in Times Out? they would be in the middle of the controversy inside the paper.
And outside the paper, readers and trans people online were furious about the book review. The criticism was getting louder and louder on social media. And all of this told Harper that this was going to be explosive.
Harper: I’m immediately realizing that this fury is reaching like crisis mode and we’ve gotta move on it asap,
Harper logged on and began to coordinate with Times Out, which asked for meetings with top newsroom leaders and management.
Harper: There’s factually incorrect things in this, so, he’s just been given a soapbox with which to talk about things that aren’t actually correct.
In response, the Standards Desk, the part of the Times that implements the style guide, agreed to meet. And during that meeting Harper and their colleagues were asked to flag precisely what the problems were in the piece. So after the meeting, they begin to work together to do just that.
Harper: And so we’re literally copying and pasting his text into a doc and saying, okay, as Times Out folks. Let’s go through this line by line and see if we can actually be like this graph is not cited, and sort of trying to go through that because we still think at this point, assuming good faith, you know, we’re trying to understand was this fact checked? I think there was an assumption on my part that the quicker we get this to standards, You know, the quicker we can just fix it.
Harper was going through the motions and doing the next right thing. But internally, they were in crisis. Up until then, they had maintained the belief that the anti-trans ideas that had been cropping up in the New York Times had been an accident. That the shortcomings in the paper’s trans coverage were mistakes and ignorance, not an indication of a larger anti-trans environment. With the publication of this book review though, Harper felt doubt creeping in.
Harper: it takes a simple Googling of Jesse Singal to know who he is. Is it possible they didn’t Google him? There was still an assumption that maybe there was some small chance that the Times did not know who he was. And then sort of an immediate like, well, it seems unlikely.
The next day, Times Out learned that the editor of the book section where the review was published had hand-picked Signal to write the piece. The doubt Harper felt grew.
Moreover, the editor of the books section, Pamela Paul, had a lot of clout at the paper. It became clear to Harper and others at Times Out that they wouldn’t get face time with that editor. It also became clear that no correction or editor’s note would be added to the piece. And efforts to engage with the paper’s leadership about this were going nowhere.
Harper: I’m feeling very raw and vulnerable, and I think that Jesse Singal piece hurt me in a way as an employee I had spent about three years at this point defending the paper to myself, to people around me who often went, oh, how can you work at a place like that? It was so deeply hurtful for me that I had spent all of this time defending this
it felt like we’re just continuing to do the thing that we say we don’t wanna do. You know, we wanna change this place. We’re not doing that. We wanna do better in terms of stories. We’re not doing that. We wanna change the way we talk about things or our style guide. We’re not doing that. And I feel like it came to a head with this piece.
So, almost out of desperation, Times Out leaders decided that their best bet was to go to the very top of the news food chain: Managing Editor Dean Baquet. Not only was Baquet the leader who showed so much heart and empathy in the wake of George Floyd, but because Dean ran the newsroom, he could really make things happen. Baquet’s word would cut through all of the other layers.But their official request to talk to Dean was rebuffed. So Harper decided to be bold. They felt that the moment called for it.
Harper: It’s like my last life raft that I’m throwing out by reaching out to Dean because I think on some level, what I didn’t know then was that I was about to give up, I think it happened so rapidly for me to be worn down that it was my last chance. I thought the least, and the last thing that I could do is make an emotional appeal to the man who stood in that newsroom in 2021, and United us, right? Who made us feel like, you know, our colleagues were going to be heard and seen. I thought, oh, if I just make an emotional appeal to the highest guy in, the most power in this place, it will resonate. Maybe he just didn’t understand and maybe the paper just didn’t understand how hard it is to be a trans employee at the New York Times.
So Harper wrote an email to Dean. They hoped to appeal to the sense of justice and sensitivity he had shown Black reporters after the Tom Cotton Op-Ed. They wanted him to understand that the choices the paper was making were once again having an emotional impact not just on readers, but on the people who dedicated themselves to the Times.
Harper: Hi Dean. You may remember me as the controversial blazer wearing ugly sweater contest winner of 2018. I know our paths have crossed a bit in my three years at the Times, but we haven’t had much time to talk one-on-one. I’m reaching out today as a trans non-binary NYT employee who has been deeply hurt by this week, by the actions of my own employer. I want to preface this by saying never before have I walked into a workplace on day one and felt like I belonged. For me, that’s been the magic of this place. Of this institution, of the journalism we do and the values we uphold.
Reviewing this book was absolutely the right call. Picking a cisgender, transphobic person who has a history of denying gender identity is real and who has hurt and defamed transgender journalists was not the right call. As much as transgender issues have come to the forefront in the last few years as people, we’ve always been here. I’m heartened by the progress the Times has made this past year and the renewed efforts towards DEI goals that are backed by action.
It becomes hard to be so invested in our journalism and our coverage when internally our members share the feeling that the Times is not only not as inclusive as it could be, but is actively doing harm to trans, to trans and queer folks inside the building. I don’t know how to defend this place that I love, the people and reporters and editors I love working with when my existence as a trans person feels like it’s up for debate. I’m writing to you because I respect you a lot. I wanna make a difference here. I want to know that the Times hears me and sees me as a queer and trans person of color, and is taking my lived experience seriously. There’s a lot more work to be done, but healing the pain that has been caused would require starting with an acknowledgement of our wrongs with a true desire to understand where we’ve made mistakes. Thank you for taking the time to hear me out, and I look forward to hearing from you.
So Dean responds.
Of course I remember this sweater. I’m also glad you wrote. I do want the Times to be an inclusive place. It is important to me personally and professionally, but I have to tell you, I disagree with you in this instance. I know Pamela worked hard to find someone to review the book. There was not a long line of people who were willing to do so, to be honest. And for all the criticism of the choice in the building and on social media, I have not seen much criticism of the actual review. There is another very large principle at play here. The editor of the book review has to have tremendous freedom to make choices. Each of us has political views, personal views, and friends who write books. I think she worked tremendously hard to manage all of those issues. Harper I do hope this disagreement doesn’t make you less proud of the place, the place hasn’t changed.
Imara: When you hear those words, both his and yours, what strikes you now?
Harper: To be very honest, I think hearing my own words back now I could not have been more clear that I was in pain. I’m really proud of what I wrote. I feel for the person who wrote that and the former self that was in that position because I can just hear the pain in those words. I think what strikes me still today and did at the time was Dean’s response. You know, he had been sort of an emblematic figure for me about the hope for change that this place could and wanted to be better, and even now hearing it feels hurtful yet again. it is re inflicting of pain that is already in that initial ask. If you think about it, all I’m asking on some level in that initial letter is, please see me, please see my pain because there is something happening here that I don’t understand and it’s causing me pain. And so maybe we can at least start with acknowledging that that’s real.I’m asking for that to be validated. and his response is ignoring all of that, there is also a defense of the choice that , then adds insult to injury.
I think it sort of, it makes me crestfallen even now, and I think that’s how I felt at the time I think of a balloon just deflating, you know, all of the last hope I had for the Times to understand what I was experiencing or going through,was gone because I don’t think I knew at that time, how deeply hurtful it had been. So hearing that back now is as difficult as it was then, because I know how the story ends.
Imara: Well, and also like for me, it is the pain which is palpable and should be heard and dealt with and responded to. But you’re also saying that what happened here was wrong, and what happened here is not what we’re supposed to be about and you know better. And so it’s beyond just your own personal pain, you’re actually holding the place to the standards that you know, because your job was to uphold those standards. That’s why they hired you. That was your first job.
You knew what they were. Just like every other article that you’d read in your first couple of years there and that you’d flagged when something was wrong, it was your job to point out when something was not in line with what the paper was supposed to be and what you were supposed to be doing, just like you had done on in several other instances you were doing that. And then for the person who is emblematic, who is in charge of the entire operation to say, no, actually what we did was alright I mean, I can’t imagine that that also didn’t feel like a deep betrayal.
Harper: Yeah, I was heartbroken. Betrayal is the right word. I was heartbroken because I wanted someone, anyone at that point, at my breaking point to see me and to see what was happening at the paper. in a way that I didn’t even see. You know, I allude to the fact that I felt like something larger was happening that I didn’t understand. I wanted someone to see that, I wanted validation of that because I felt crazy. I felt like I spent the last three years playing Whack A Mole with all of these issues, all of these articles with a place that you trusted me to be in. And I can’t be the only one that sees that something is going wrong and I can’t be the only one that sees that editorially. This is not the place that I thought it was.
Harper was crushed, but they didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on their feelings in the moment. They had been in the process of applying for another job at the paper, a role which would make deputy managing editor Sam Dolnik their new boss. Dolnik also happens to be a cousin to the Times’ publisher, AG Sulzberger. Despite all that happened, they still felt they had to go through the motions of the final interview with him.
And the interview seemed to be pretty standard until Dolnik asked Harper how they felt about the book review from Jesse Singal.
Harper: physically for me, it was as if all the air left my body. Like I suddenly, what I could now probably have the language to describe is like a trigger, like a trauma response in that moment where I was so caught off guard and so many wheels started turning in my mind at once, but I also felt frozen. And sort of my immediate thing was to
joke, jokingly deflect. And so I said, Oh Sam, you know, are you trying to get me in trouble? Ha ha ha
And he said, No, no, I really want to know what you think? You know, Dean shared with us at the masthead, um, your note and so I just, I just wanted to hear from you, what you think of what happened. And I think immediately, if all the air had already left my body, at that point, like my heart sunk. Because I was realizing two things. One was, this was a test
And the second thing that really struck me was that Dean had shared my letter, my note to him. And, you know, I realized later how heartbreaking that was for me. It felt like a breach of trust. I had written to Dean in a very personal, personal, vulnerable way. I was shocked.
It was at this moment Harper realized this wasn’t just any interview—they were quietly being told that they had been labeled as a troublemaker. And so Harper pulled their application.
Harper: I think emotionally for me, that was the first time it sort of starts to sink in for me that perhaps my career trajectory that I sort of came in with, believed was possible for me at the Times, would no longer be possible because I had, I had gone all the way to the top with, with my, defiance. And that that was going to be marked on me forever as long as I stayed there.
For Harper, there was a lot of grief in this realization. Everything had come crashing down so fast. The book review that set off this chain of events had only been published a few weeks before. And Harper had put so much of themselves into trying to make a difference at The New York Times. They had put their work ahead of their own mental health and even their marriage.
Harper: I was a shadow of myself,
It was very difficult at the time to navigate trying to exit the Times and have my personal life fall as well. But it allowed for both of those things to coincide. And for me to realize that relationship between the professional and the personal. I had always thought that they were separate and that I could keep them separate. But it’s the first time that I finally realized how tied they were.
Harper eventually accepted another job offer and left the New York Times. But they were in crisis.
They had once had what they envisioned as a perfect life— a big marriage and the dream job.
And it had all fallen apart.
Since Harper left, the anti-trans bias in the paper has become overwhelming. And it’s clear that what they experienced is part of a larger pattern. The larger culture Harper had sensed but not understood, the larger anti-trans forces at work, that Harper had been begging Dean Baquet to see, have become a defining feature of the paper of record, even as new leadership has taken over.
“The Battle Over Gender Therapy”
“What Lia Thomas Could Mean for Women’s Elite Sports”
“How Medical Care Became ‘Child Abuse’ in Texas”
“How Ben Got His Penis”
“Doctors Debate Whether Trans Teens Need Therapy Before Hormones”
We did a thorough review of the New York’s Times 2022 transgender coverage and found anti-trans disinformation deeply embedded in the paper. It’s a problem that’s continued and is prevalent throughout the company, including the news, politics, health, magazine and op-ed sections of the paper.
An analysis of 100 articles about transgender people and issues found Christian Nationalist disinformation playing a major role in what was covered and how. The myth that transness is a social contagion appeared regularly. Meanwhile, articles about gender affirming care nearly always validated and echoed far right talking points, including detransition narratives, health risks or the possibility of so-called irreversible damage. Additionally, disinformation about trans women having an advantage in sports was published on several occasions.
In particular though, fear mongering and disinformation about young trans youth made the front page more than any other trans issue.
“They Paused Puberty, but Is There a Cost?”
“More Trans Teens are choosing ‘Top Surgery'”
“Report Reveals Sharp Rise in Transgender Young People in the U.S.”
These three headlines are taken from the nearly 10,000 words of front page coverage devoted to
None of this front page coverage focused on where these ideas came from, nor where the attacks on trans people originated. These articles don’t name the concerted effort by Republicans to disinform the public about gender affirming healthcare nor the larger Christian Nationalist agenda fueling it all. Moreover these articles never emphasized that there’s a broad ranging medical consensus about how to treat trans kids. For journalists, these omissions are glaring.
What’s scary about this disinformation appearing in the Times is that it’s almost imperceptible, unlike the overt anti-trans propaganda in the right wing media. You almost have to be an expert in anti-trans disinformation to even recognize it.
To be fair, not every single article from the Times is laced with right wing disinformation. For instance, you can find coverage of trans people doing groundbreaking work, like L Morgan Lee, the first openly trans person to be nominated for a Tony Award, and Adeem The Artist, a rising country musician. But almost all of the adequate coverage of trans people is relegated to the style and culture sections of the paper. This sends the message that trans people exist for entertainment, and that trans humanity is not deemed important by the paper of record
Several employees we spoke to expressed frustration about management’s dismissiveness towards those inside who want more accurate coverage of trans people.
Jackson is one of those employees and a longtime editorial staffer. Because of fears of retribution at the paper, we hired a voice actor to conceal their identity.
Jackson: It feels like a betrayal. It feels like we spend way too much time thinking about and trying to uphold the standards of excellence and as close to journalistic perfection as we can. And when we raise these kinds of flags that something seems to be outside of our standards we are dismissed as being uncollegial or opinionated or activists ourselves, it feels like a slap in the face.
And this is the point that’s constantly missed. Those at the Times complaining about trans coverage are doing so out of a sense of deep journalistic integrity. But rather than this dedication being recognized by senior management, these staffers are told that they’re being unprofessional.
Jackson: It can make you feel quite gaslit. Do I actually not understand the standards of this place? Because the people in charge, and most important to upholding them are not meeting our flags with concern. They’re being dismissed outright, it really makes you question the mission that you have chosen to dedicate your working life to.
So why is this happening at the Times?
A one-off story might make for a fluke, but a slew of disinformation in more than one section of the paper by more than one leadership team is evidence of a deeper, more troubling pattern. Because Dean Baquet was replaced by executive editor Joe Kahn in 2022, and the anti-trans bias has not only persisted—it’s gotten worse.
And this fact makes clear that bad reporting on trans issues transcends any editor at the Times. It’s institutional.
And the institution seems, at almost every turn, hostile to the existence and equal treatment of trans people. Not only is this reflected in the external work of the Times through the content it publishes, but also internally, in terms of how it treats its employees. In fact, before being settled in May of 2023, union contract negotiations dragged on for years, and multiple sources told us that the conversations around trans equity were notably hostile.
The union asked for two big changes.
First, updating the bylines of trans journalists on old stories after they change their names. And the second, gender neutral bathrooms on every other floor of the company’s headquarters.
But The New York Times refused to budge in the union contract talks.
Shane O’Neil, a member of the The New York Times Guild Executive Committee, was involved in the negotiations.
Shane O’Neil: These conversations have been prolonged and difficult and there’s a lot of, um, there’s a lot, there’s a lot less movement on certain issues than some of us were expecting.
Union talks take place between guild leaders and the lawyers who represent the New York Times’ publisher.
And looking at the publisher gets us closer to understanding the motive for trans coverage and treatment at the Times.
Publishers are at the very top of new organizations like the Times. The buck stops with them. And when you look at the Times, the person at the apex of leadership—who has remained consistent despite management changes below him—is the publisher: AG Sulzberger. His family has been publishing the Times since the 1890s.
Sulzberger is in his early 40s – he’s pretty young, considering he’s the publisher of the most influential paper in the country, if not the world.
As Sulzberger was being set up by his father to take over the paper in 2018, our source Jackson recalls how he set out his priorities for the New York Times.
Jackson: So, AG told employees explicitly that his biggest concern was that the paper’s audience saw it as a “liberal rag,” and that’s in quotes, he said a “liberal rag.”
Sulzberger’s vision for the paper is to change that perception and court conservative readers. That means validating and platforming their viewpoints.
So what happens to conservative views based on disinformation?
They get published.
In the opinion section, this conservative disinformation is readily apparent.
Not only did the paper decline to renew a contract with its longest running trans opinion columnist, Jennifer Finney Boylan, but there’s been a notable spike in anti-trans vitriol.
You know who else still has a column in the opinion section? It’s Pamela Paul, the editor who commissioned the Jesse Signal book review. And in one of her columns in July 2022, Paul criticized the shift toward inclusive and gender neutral language around reproductive healthcare. She said it hurt cis women.
Not surprisingly, the assertions within the piece deeply concerned a lot of people at the paper, including Jackson.
Jackson: This was something that upset many colleagues and they began asking one another, what can we do about this very alarming type of argument, which is pretty plainly transphobic in nature.
Once again, here was an example of the paper publishing a piece that didn’t meet its own standards.
Alarm bells also went off for staff when the opinion section hired David French as a columnist. He’s a conservative writer who used to work as an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, a designated hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and an organization behind major anti-trans initiatives across the country.
In our last season, we investigated Alliance Defending Freedom for writing and disseminating legislation that blocked trans athletes from competing in sports. French’s affiliation with ADF is conveniently left out of his New York Times bio.
But the active decision to uplift conservative talking points goes deeper than the opinion section.
Every quarter, the publisher A.G. Sulzberger selects individuals or teams for what Times staffers described as the paper’s “Quarterly Pulitzer Prize.” It’s called the Publisher’s Award. And it signals to employees what kind of coverage their boss wants to see more of.
In 2022, Sulzberger announced the Publisher’s Award honorees in an email.
Voice Actor: I’m delighted to announce our Publisher’s Awards for the second quarter of 2022. On the journalism side, I’m struck by not only the sheer excellence of all the work we’re recognizing, but also its breadth and depth
One of those awards was for a magazine piece called “The Battle Over Gender Therapy” by Emily Bazelon.
Voice Actor:For rigorous, meticulous and fair-minded explanatory reporting about gender therapy for young people.
The piece elevated the myth of trans social contagion.
Jackson and many other employees were surprised by the award, given the severe criticism around the magazine article.
Jackson: The language of rigorous, meticulous, and fair-minded explanatory reporting stood out to me in particular. the fair-minded part because that was not the way that a lot of people received that piece
It was certainly meticulous in centering all the disinformation around social contagion we’ve been covering this season.
Here’s a line from the article:
Voice Actor: Genspect parents told me the rise in trans-identified teenagers was the result of a “gender cult” — a mass craze.
Genspect is a group that pushes conversion therapy and anti-trans conspiracy theories that we mentioned in episode 3 of this season.
And even Abigail Shrier’s work makes an appearance in the article. We profiled Shrier last episode as one of the people most responsible for taking the myth of social contagion from the right wing to mainstream audiences.
The fact that the publisher, Sulzberger, is rewarding this coverage and signaling to his staffers that this is what he wants to see at The New York Times is highly concerning. Because it sets the tone for news coverage across the country. And this is dangerous at a time when legislation targeting trans youth is everywhere.
Ari Drennan is deeply alarmed by all of this. She’s the LGBTQ Program Director for Media Matters, a nonprofit monitoring right wing disinformation. Ari’s been analyzing the company’s anti trans coverage.
Ari Drennan: Whether or not it’s deserved. The New York Times is treated as the gold standard of reporting, And then it’s also a widely read piece of information within the mainstream of the Democratic Party, which is the only major political party that is not currently leading an effort to criminalize trans existence. And so I worry about The New York Times eroding mainstream support for trans people at a time when Republicans are pushing us pretty hard.
And Republicans in positions of political power are using the reporting from the paper to justify their attacks on trans kids.
In Arkansas, the attorney general has used the paper’s reporting to defend the state’s draconian law that would punish anyone who provided trans care to a minor with up to a decade in prison. And in Texas, the state has been citing coverage from the New York Times in its legal battle to take trans kids away from their supportive parents.
Ari says the company needs to address the nightmare they’ve helped create.
Ari Drennan: the Times needs to really take accountability for everything that they’ve done to help add heft and a patina of credibility to the right wing attacks.
The disinformation that has infiltrated the Times is a direct result of the Christian Nationalist agenda that seeks to eradicate trans people from public space.
Brennan Suen works closely with Ari at Media Matters as the Deputy Director of External Affairs. He’s been trying to educate the public about the spread of right wing disinformation for years.
Brennan Suen: it is a goal of right wing media to move disinformation to mainstream outlets. It’s helping the right give legitimacy to their claims.
It is something that they know could win them an election or could seriously misinform the public.
Christian Nationalists have successfully used their influence to spread their anti-trans agenda to the mainstream.
Brennan Suen: It’s concerning that instead of leading the way in the conversation with its coverage, New York Times is following, and who it’s following in its coverage of trans people are bad faith actors who have an extremist agenda.
This battle at the core of the New York Times and mainstream media more broadly is hard for the general public to actually see and acknowledge.
TJ Billard has also been studying it. They’re executive director at the Center for Applied Transgender studies and a professor at Northwestern University.
TJ Billard: It is hard to believe when you have been taught for a very long time that an institution is neutral, is stable, is there to serve a mission to the public. It’s hard to then break yourself of the belief that maybe that’s not true. And we’ve seen that as a kind of reckoning moment in 2016 with a lot of in particular white people thinking like, but how could our government fall like this too, to the extreme right? It’s like this institution of democratic ideals. And it’s like, well, I yes, we have been taught that for a very long time. But that’s not true. And I think the same goes for the media system, the news. They tell us the facts and just the facts or whatever, or they’re just reporting on important issues. But that’s never been the case. News media have always been ideological, but the ideology that they have supported has been a kind of status quo that has been given an air of neutrality in our society.
Billard says a lot of people are reticent to acknowledge the right wing media is influencing these trusted institutions.
TJ Billard: People need to begin seeing the media for a little bit more of what they are, which is a kind of contested terrain, a kind of battlefield for the national conversation, because that’s really what they are. They aren’t a kind of neutral vessel. One side is treating the media as a battlefield and the other side is not showing up to that battle.
Conservatives have been treating the media as a battleground for years. And those who try to fight back against their disinformation are losing.
A key part of the pushback against disinformation at the Times comes from those connected directly to the organization. So far they haven’t been successful.
In 2023, contributors to the New York Times called out the paper’s anti-trans bias in a public letter. The more than one thousand signatories included prominent writers like Roxanne Gay, Chelsea Manning, Cecilia Gentili, and NK Jemisin. It was an unprecedented move.
VOICE ACTOR: Some of us are trans, non-binary, or gender nonconforming, and we resent the fact that our work, but not our person, is good enough for the paper of record.
Surprisingly, some employees signed as well.
But they weren’t the only ones calling out the organization.
At the same time as the contributors and employees, the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD sent its own letter. GLAAD demanded that the Times change its coverage and stop printing biased stories.
Faced with these two simultaneous callouts, the Times decided to conflate them. By mashing them together into a single act of protest, the paper gave itself permission to ignore the calls for change from the inside
The leadership of the paper, the executive editor and the opinion editor lashed out by saying that anyone speaking up at the Times was “an activist.” And even though the letters were uncoordinated, they accused their own writers of being agents of GLAAD.
VOICE ACTOR: “We do not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups.”
Many staffers saw this as a threat, including the union. Shane O’Neil is on the executive committee of The New York Times Guild.
Shane O’Neil: I would say that the Guild has taken a position that the email was a broad and sweeping threat against some activity that would be protected. Which is to say that employees are protected in raising concerns that their environment is a hostile work environment and they have a right to raise that complaint even if it turns out that it doesn’t bear out after some investigation.
Imara Jones: To your knowledge, has The New York Times initiated any disciplinary action because of a perceived
Shane O’Neil: I will say that scenario that you’re describing was certainly something that we are on high alert for,
The paper’s response to the contributor letter was aggressive and swift. Our source Jackson spoke to what happened.
Jackson: they’ve begun a really, really intense campaign of
Jackson told us that HR began an investigation to find out which current employees signed the letter. And then brought them into meetings one by one with senior leaders.
Jackson: the employees are questioned about why they signed and then given a talking to as to why this is not acceptable behavior and in some cases, told that there will be a disciplinary action taken.
The actions of New York Times management sends a clear message – don’t speak out, or else. Don’t complain, or you’re an activist. And don’t try to hold the paper to its own journalistic standards. Or you’ll be labeled a troublemaker.
Now what’s hopeful is that there will be more employees who push back against anti-trans coverage in the future, and more people like Harper who ultimately leave the paper because of the organization’s hostile culture.
But while the paper continues to accuse employees of having an agenda, it’s actually the New York Times itself that’s been captured by an extreme ideology.
Jackson: they don’t see what they’re doing as harmful. They see it as reporting on a story that is honestly in the mainstream, and that ouroboros self-fulfilling loop of, we cover it so it’s mainstream, we cover it because it’s a question in the mainstream. The Republican strategists have played us pretty well.
They played us like a fiddle.
Throughout this series, we’ve seen how anti-trans disinformation has spread, and how it comes straight from the playbook of anti-gay propaganda. Those who fought to legitimize anti-gay hate used pseudoscience and created “ex-gay” groups to justify their fanaticism and infiltrate mainstream media. And when they eventually lost that fight for gay marriage, they took all that they had learned and applied it to trans people.
But this time, so far, they haven’t failed.
Using the internet and the powerful infrastructure of the right wing media, Christian Nationalists have gone beyond daytime tv talk shows and talk radio. They’re reaching audiences on an unprecedented scale, without any filters. This machine that they have built shaped the conversation about trans people to a dangerous extent.
And what’s even more disturbing is they’ve captured the most prestigious news organization on the planet. A platform that’s all too willing to launder discredited ideas and give them unimaginable legitimacy, making questioning the very existence of trans people into an everyday talking point for the entire world.
This should shake everyone who cares about democracy and a free press to the core. Because it shows just how easy it is to manipulate places like the Times in the service of extremism.
But I have to end on a personal note, as I and the investigative team at TransLash wrap up this season, I can’t help but think back to last year, in 2022, when I happened to be right next to Dean Baquet at the National Association of Black Journalists Awards. We were both being honored for our journalistic work.
Imara Jones (at NABJ): As journalists, we’ve been taught actually—that the way that we deal with the truth is to tell two sides of one story and to walk away. But we know sometimes the truth doesn’t have a side. Sometimes the truth has nine sides. Sometimes the truth takes no side. And our job is to be bold enough and brave enough to go against our training off times, to tell the truth that we know and to trust and believe that the audiences that we serve are smart enough, have the courage enough, to judge whether or not in the end we are right or wrong.
I wonder if I was even heard.
The Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality is hosted and executive produced by Imara Jones. Oliver Ash Kleine is our senior producer and Nicole Kelly is our editor. Our producers include Josephine Jaye McAuliffe, Ann Marie Awad, and Mara Lazer. Our associate producers are Vera B., Wren Farrell, R. Robinson, Nicole Richards, and Tiler Wilson. Fact-checking for this season comes from Steven Crighton. This series is sound designed by Xander Adams. Zak Lanius helped with audio production. Our social media team includes Daniela “Dani” Capistrano, head of Digital Strategy, as well as Brennen Beckwith, our social media producer.
Help spread the word about #AntiTransHateMachine by accessing our Season 2 social media toolkit.
The New York Times did not reply to our requests for comments prior to air, and would not connect us to ask precise questions of AG Sulzberger, Joe Kahn, Dean Baquet, Carolyn Ryan, Pamela Paul, or Emily Bazelon.
But after this piece went live. The New York Times provided us with a statement which says:
“We reject the claim that our coverage is biased. The role of an independent news organization is to report on issues of public importance and follow the facts where they lead. As part of that mission, we’ve reported fully and fairly on transgender issues.”
Their full statement can be read on our website at www.translash.org/antitranshatemachine.
TransLash used this opportunity of The Times’ rudimentary communication with us to re-engage the paper. We asked 16 specific questions of The Times, the ones we would have asked if they had spoken with us, and we put them in writing. The Times told us that the statement I just shared with you represented their response and declined to answer our questions about the issues raised in this episode.
You can find these questions on our website at https://translash.org/the-new-york-times-responds-to-translash-media/
Even though The Times essentially told us “I said what I said,” this story is clearly not over. Despite the fact that this season of The Anti-Trans Hate Machine is coming to close, we will continue to update our Times reporting as needed. Stay tuned.
TransLash Media founder and CEO Imara Jones received the 2023 Lisa Ben Award at NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists Convention on September 8, 2023, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
She addresses The New York Times, and anti-trans journalism in her remarks available here: https://translash.org/imara-jones-receives-lisa-ben-award-at-nlgja-convention-transcript/