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The New York Times' coverage of transgender people sparks newsroom divide

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A controversy has erupted about and within The New York Times. This time, it involves coverage of trans people, but in particular reports about medical treatments involving children that shift, which is to say affirm, their gender. There was a protest letter signed by a few hundred people, and that included some people who currently work for The New York Times. And that set off waves of arguments inside the newsroom. We often turn to NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik to talk about journalism, so we called him to hear more about this. David, thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Pleasure.

MARTIN: So first, the letter. What were the critics objecting to? And was it mainly about the Times' coverage of medical care for youths with gender dysphoria or did it go beyond that?

FOLKENFLIK: Right. So this is a protest letter that's been signed now by hundreds of people, a small number of whom are actively currently New York Times journalists. They said that the sweep of the Times's coverage has shown bias against trans people, with a real focus on the question of medical care and treatment for trans youths. And they particularly take objection to the idea that the science isn't fully settled, which comes across in a number of larger pieces that the Times has published in recent months. They argue it is settled. And this is an incredible point of contention.

The real nub of it seems to lie in the idea that there's been this extensive attention to the question of medical treatment for youths who are trans and that it's inducing a kind of panic, that it's used to justify new laws or court rulings that are essentially restricting or trying to bar youths from getting that kind of care. And they're saying this is deeply harmful to not only trans youths, but to trans people who feel that they are being, as a result, treated as less than equal Americans by the Times.

MARTIN: And so how has the Times responded to that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's really notable, right? If you think back to 2020, when the social justice movement welled up, the Times ultimately, as a result of pressures inside its own newsroom, fired their editorial page editor over an op-ed published that a number of not only, but particularly African American journalists objected to. This time, the editor-in-chief, Joe Kahn, and Kathleen Kingsbury, who's the head of the opinion section, said, we haven't shown bias. We've tried to cover trans people in all their complexities, all their nuances in their humanity, but also look carefully at medical and ethical issues that are raised by certain kinds of treatments, whether hormone treatments or others, and how that may affect youths who are not fully grown yet, and that we need to do so unflinchingly, and that we have not shown bias at all. They are not backing down an inch. And that's the response you've heard.

MARTIN: And this has kept growing, though. I understand that the union got involved, a union that represents most Times journalists, and there were some back and forth about that. So you can just tell us about that.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, one of the things that the top editor said was this isn't the appropriate way to address this issue. You've got a journalistic issue. If you're inside the Times, come to us. Let's deal with this as journalists and work through these important issues together. The guild said, look, this is essentially in some ways creating an unwelcome environment for people who may be trans themselves or may be thinking about this, may have people in their families with gender dysphoria. And so that's making it an unwelcome workspace. And then you had a number of veteran Times reporters respond that say this is not a role for the union. If we're thinking about our coverage, that's not a workplace issue. We have to be able to talk about these issues directly. A lot of give and take within the newsroom on all sides of this issue, some of which hasn't been expressed as publicly as those letters.

MARTIN: So this is about the Times, and it's obvious that the Times has a very big, you know, footprint in the public discourse and also is very influential within journalism. So if this was just a workplace issue within the Times, you know, obviously, it would be of interest to some people. But there really are larger issues at work here that - I take it. So, David, can we talk a little bit about what those are?

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. I think it's, in some ways, about the Times present and some ways about how the Times will be looked back on in the role of journalism, right? So, you know, if you think back to how the Times covered gay rights and gay people, it was for decades dismissive, condescending, patronizing or antagonistic, hostile in a way that the Times ultimately had to grapple with a few decades ago and come to terms with and change the way they approached this. And a number of Times journalists said to me they don't want to have to look back on the way the Times has approached this now and think of this as a place that has cultivated a panic or contributed to a society that treats trans people as less than or less consequential than others. And yet the Times still wants to be able to say it's distilling these issues through a journalistic prism and not a political one. They don't want to take such care as a political stance or because of pressure. They want to do so because it's the right thing to do journalistically. Navigating that, I think, is going to be a very fine line for the Times as they see these voices inside and outside the newsroom raised in critique.

MARTIN: But can I just ask you about this whole question of what constitutes harm and what role should that question of harm play in determining what and how to cover certain things? And, I mean, this isn't just an issue for the Times.

FOLKENFLIK: The question of harm is an important one. You're hearing people who signed that letter, particularly people who are themselves trans people, say I'm being negated here because the overwhelming direction of coverage is raising questions about this kind of medical care without having an equal or greater amount of attention being given to, what are the repercussions if those youths are not given certain kinds of medical care? By the same token, I think there are a number of senior executives at the Times who are signaling they don't want to be intimidated from looking carefully at issues which are not yet settled, which do have implications even if the numbers are relatively small.

MARTIN: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks so much for joining us again.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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