ThinkProgress editor Zack Ford on how public radio covers LGBT issues

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The LGBT editor for the website ThinkProgress found plenty to take issue with on public radio during the last week of February. The coverage of LGBT issues Zack Ford heard spurred him to write a piece in which he accused NPR of reporting on LGBT issues “in ways that elevate anti-LGBT positions and normalize discrimination against LGBT people.”

Ford appeared on a recent episode of our podcast The Pub to hash out one of the most pressing journalism questions of our time: How do we represent views that we may find reprehensible and/or irrational? Host Adam Ragusea began the interview by summarizing the first of the four segments that Ford found objectionable.

Adam Ragusea, Current: Let’s go ahead and march through these pieces one by one. The first one that you write about is by Sarah McCammon; it’s from February 23. The headline is “In Eastern Virginia, Mixed Feelings on Trump’s Trans Restroom Guidance,” and basically McCammon’s assignment — and I think it’s pretty clear from how it’s written — her assignment was basically to go to Gavin Grimm’s hometown in eastern Virginia and talk to the folks there about how they feel about the Grimm case. The Grimm case, of course, was a Supreme Court case that had the potential to potentially force the Supreme Court to adjudicate some questions about whether or not the federal government has authority to tell schools that they need to make certain accommodations for transgender students. Ultimately that didn’t end up happening, but this was a story that was reported in advance of that expectation.

She interviews five people, it looks like, in this piece. Three of them are transgender folks who are talking about their anxiety about the Trump administration, talking about their sympathy with Grimm. And there are two people who McCammon interviews who are offering a different perspective — and I’ll just go ahead and read this. The first one is from a gentleman by the name of Marshall Butler, quote:

The retiree says the county school board made the right call in refusing Grimm’s request to use the boy’s restroom. “I don’t think we should make rules for anybody special,” he says. Butler said Grimm, who identifies as male, should use the separate unisex restroom provided by the school or use the girl’s restroom.

That view is shared by Brian Hopkins, a cabinetmaker who lives in neighboring Matthews County. “I think the child is very confused,” Hopkins said of Grimm. “Biologically, we are who we are. It should just be that simple.”

So Zack, after a very long time I come back to you. What did you think after you read those quotes?


Ford: I said to myself, “What do we learn from a cabinetmaker who later in the piece reveals that he also never met a transgender person?”

Current: To his knowledge.

Ford: Right. So here he is making a claim about the nature of trans people. He makes a biological claim about their nature, and says that they are “very confused.” I didn’t really see what the value of this comment was. Certainly, there are going to be people that don’t approve of transgender people, and it might be worth including conversations about them. But these comments were just sort of random people that it seems she found and interviewed. And she lets these very dangerous false ideas just sort of hang out there.

It’s true that she then interviews other trans people. She seems to have traveled quite a bit around the area to find them. And I appreciate that she did that, and their perspectives are really great to be included there. But I don’t understand why this biological claim from a cabinetmaker goes unaddressed when it’s actually a very harmful belief that a lot of people might share but that isn’t in any way substantiated by what we know about transgender identities.

Current: There’s two separate issues there, I think. There is the extent to which the claim could withstand factual scrutiny, and then there is the question of whether to include comments from people like this at all. They are random people but, on the other hand, according to a lot of polling as much as half of Americans basically think this way about transgendered people. Now I find that kind of horrifying, but I feel like I need to hear those voices. I need to read those quotes. I need to know what these people are thinking because I don’t encounter them in my lefty university life. Do you feel differently?

Ford: I agree with that. I want to hear from them, too. My problem wasn’t that they were interviewed; my problem was their comments were left uncontextualized. The biggest problem that we have right now with transgender issues is that there’s this very big gulf between how much visibility we now have for transgender people throughout society, and how much education we have. It’s the pattern that we’ve seen before, because it happened with homosexuality and gay issues, too, where there were so many different myths about the nature of homosexuality: it’s a choice, it’s caused by an overbearing mother and an absent father, it’s triggered by sexual abuse, or it’s even a mental disorder.

These are all very similar things that we’ve heard about that set of identities that are very much the same for transgender identity. The only way that we change people’s minds from something that’s factually wrong is that, when we’re presenting what they’re saying about this, we contextualize them properly. Otherwise, we’re just reinforcing it and saying, “Hey, some people believe that, and that’s OK.”

Current: Let’s talk about how we could potentially have done that with this quote. So Hopkins, the cabinetmaker, says, “I think the child is very confused.” I don’t know, that’s an opinion not grounded in fact, but I don’t think it’s one that we could empirically disprove, because we can’t get inside Grimm’s head and tell whether or not he’s confused.

But then Hopkins goes on to say, “Biologically, we are who we are. It should just be that simple.” So, Zach, if you were going to try to interject some facts there to contextualize and potentially question the veracity of that statement, what would you say?

Ford: I would disagree with you on both points. I would say that Grimm has been very public about his experience. He was very brave in speaking out at the very school board meeting where parents were speaking out against him and the school board ultimately voted to discriminate against him. He’s not confused at all. He’s a boy — he’s said that in a million different interviews — and whether or not she took time to interview him again specifically for this story, it would not be hard to contradict the claim that he is confused. He is not. Trans people are not confused. That sort of feeds into the same myth, that being trans is a mental disorder, which is the very problem that we’re trying to correct here.

Current: To your point there, I just want to interject and say that McCammon was assigned this piece as a companion piece to an interview with Grimm that aired on All Things Considered. So Grimm’s voice was very much heard. This is a companion to that.

Ford: And that’s great, too. Like I said before, the other trans voices to some degree contradict that, but they didn’t come until several minutes after that in the piece. I think that just allowing a random person’s opinion that’s not true to go uncontested in that moment leaves it hanging there.

Current: So contextualize “Biologically, we are who we are. It should just be that simple.” That’s what he said. How would you contextualize that?

Ford: I would point out, for example, that there’s an increasing amount of evidence that shows that there is a biological component to transgender identities, that different aspects of their brain chemistry, for example, have been demonstrated to be different or essentially similar to the gender with which they identify, not the sex that they were assigned at birth. Biologically, we don’t have proof that a person’s sex assigned at birth actually determines who they are.

Current: Yeah, but that’s ultimately not taught. I mean you’re talking about an evolving body of scientific literature, right? That’s like a big tangent to go down, and not every piece needs to do that.

Ford: You’re suggesting that it’s still controversial the same way someone might suggest it’s still controversial that the earth is flat or that climate change is real and affected by human interactions.

Current: Am I wrong about that? Really?

Ford: Yeah, every major medical organization says trans people have legit identities. It’s been declassified as a mental disorder. It’s pretty uniform and uniform across all of these bodies that the best way to interact with trans people in society is to respect their identities and affirm them in their gender identities. You can’t just say that it’s controversial, that there’s debate remaining, when there’s really not.

Current: I don’t think there’s debate in the psychological community about how to treat trans people with respect and to respect their choices and their gender identity; I don’t think that’s really controversial among mature adults anymore. But what he’s saying is, “Biologically we are who we are. It should just be that simple.” Do we know in fact there are psychobiological differences between trans-identified people and cisgender-identified people. Is that an uncontroversial scientific fact? I honestly don’t know; I’m asking you.

Ford: As we’ve agreed, the research is still evolving on that, but there’s certainly a lot of convincing research that suggests that. But you’re sort of parsing this a little too closely in that he’s still rejecting the validity of trans identity. Even the language in bills like North Carolina’s HB2 uses the term “biological” to erase transgender people. It’s an insistence that only a person’s chromosomes or genitalia can define who they are as a person and how they’re treated in society. Your attempt to dig into the controversy of that right now is sort of missing the point that his comment was designed to erase and delegitimize transgender people. And combined with a comment that they’re quote “confused,” which feeds into the idea that it’s a mental disorder, that’s what was really problematic about that comment to me.

Current: Everything that you’re talking about, I know that NPR has covered; that’s exactly the kind of science story that they love to do. Do you think that it’s worth considering their coverage in its totality, or does every single tiny piece of content need to cover all of those bases, in your opinion?

Ford: I didn’t write the piece because of one specific incident. One of the four things that I wrote about I heard on 1A, which I listen to via podcast on a regular basis. I was appalled at what I heard, and I actually responded about that via some tweets the next day; I didn’t write a piece about it. And then I saw some of these other pieces, and as I was writing about those on Twitter I heard from others about additional pieces. To see four different pieces in one week from NPR creating this false balance by elevating, or just featuring unfiltered, views that reject who trans people are just struck me as highly irresponsible.

I’m not saying that NPR is always bad; I’m saying that in that one-week period NPR made this same mistake several times at a time when people are listening and interested in the issue. I think that journalists have a duty to discern that the information that they’re putting out there is helpful and educational to people to understand this issue. I don’t think we’re just stenographers. I think there’s something that was really irresponsible about this collection of content in this very concentrated period of time.

Current: OK, point taken on the cumulative effect; I think that’s a strong argument. But let’s transition just into talking about that 1A segment. 1A is the new national show from WAMU distributed by NPR, the new Diane Rehm Show, hosted by a guy named Joshua Johnson. They did an episode on Monday, February 27. The headline on the web post is “Beyond Bathrooms: The Battle over Transgender Rights.” There’s four guests in the seg. They open talking to a young woman named Grace Dolan-Sandrino, a trans woman who is an 11th grader, and the whole segment starts off with just a two-way between Joshua Johnson and Grace. Then they bring in a panel in subsequent segments which consists of Tanya Washington, a law professor at Georgia State University who — it’s so reductive to say this, but she’s articulating essentially a pro–trans rights legal position. And then Peyton Chapman is a principal at a high school in Oregon who has dealt with this issue and is again articulating a point of view that is very strongly that trans kids need to be accommodated with regards to bathrooms in schools. And then there is a fourth guest who’s Matt Sharp, a senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, and he’s there to articulate the — how do you want to describe his position?

Ford: The anti-transgender perspective.

Current: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I mean, he couches it as in, “I’m not anti-trans; I’m just pro the rights of individual school districts to decide how they want to deal with this issue rather than having a one-size-fits-all solution foisted on them from the federal government.” Which sounds exactly like all of the arguments against federal-court–ordered school integration in the civil-rights era. In fact, that very parallel was drawn by guests on the program. Ultimately, though, there is a public controversy at hand here. And in order to talk about it, you’re going to have to get in someone with an opposing point of view. Let me ask you first: Do you accept my assertion that you’d have to bring in some kind of opposing point of view to have this conversation?

Ford: No, this is not a two-sided issue. I mean, there are certainly people who have opinions that are rooted in a lack of education and ultimately sort of an ignorant form of bigotry that might apply to a whole lot of people, but you don’t need to give them an opportunity to have a voice in order to talk about the issue and elucidate it, particularly on a call-in show where — as we heard in that episode — there were people who called in to ask questions and to express those sort of concerns. The opportunity for those voices is already built into the nature of the show. But this is an issue that we faced the exact same way on the issue of homosexuality, where they would invite guests from the Family Research Council and other organizations that have been designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Current: As the Alliance Defending Freedom has been designated, and one of your complaints was that Joshua Johnson did not identify the ADF as a hate group, as deemed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Ford: Exactly. And in the past we had the same issue on gay rights, where people were not identified. They were not given the context in terms of the kinds of messaging that they deliver to their own constituents when they’re not in the mainstream audience. My response to that is, there’s no other minority group other than the LGBT community that continues to experience this in this way. For example, if you were talking to somebody who works in one of the Jewish community centers who has been threatened with bomb threats, you wouldn’t invite a neo-Nazi like Richard Spencer to provide the opposing view to substantiate why that kind of behavior is OK.

Current: That’s a strong argument, Zack, but the thing is that the main reason you don’t invite Richard Spencer on is not because he’s vile, it’s because he’s irrelevant. Or I guess maybe he seems to be more relevant day in and day out. I feel like that’s kind of a false comparison because you still have a situation in which, like, half of Americans don’t think that trans kids should be able to use the bathroom of their choice in schools. This is a public controversy whether you and I want it to be or not. I don’t want it to be, you don’t want it to be, but it is, and you have to interrogate that somehow, you have to have it out in order to advance the public conversation. I don’t know how else you do it other than bring on someone who’s going to articulate that point of view.

Ford: You can ask the people who are on the show to address concerns that are raised by other people without giving those people the platform themselves. I totally appreciate that you can’t interrogate an issue if you don’t actually ask the questions and provide the perspectives of the people who oppose it. But that’s different than actually inviting the person on. And, as you said, he did not identify him as a member of a hate group and that’s —

Current: Just hold that thought. In my opinion, Joshua Johnson did a really good job with this episode. I do think he could have done a bit better job of explaining what the ADF is and what its other positions are, the more extreme positions that were not being mentioned by Matt Sharp in this very polite conversation. I think he could’ve done a better job of that.

I like the Southern Poverty Law Center — I think they do a lot of amazing work — but don’t you think it’s a little weird that we’ve given them the authority to dictate who is and who is not a hate group? That’s not an uncontroversial statement when they do that, and in fact there have been some times in recent history where the Southern Poverty Law Center has described people as extremists or hate groups where I think legitimate concerns could be raised. Like — oh God, I’m going to blank on her name — the Dutch politician who is from Somalia, they called her an anti-Islamic extremist. [He’s thinking of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. — Ed.] I understand where they’re coming from, but reasonable people can disagree over these things. So because the SPLC says it so, I don’t feel like that’s enough. Feel free to disagree with me.

Ford: I don’t know a lot about the specific cases of individuals that the organization has identified as extremist, but I know their work in terms of organizations. And actually the fact that the Alliance Defending Freedom was only recently added to that category speaks to how discerning they are and how high a bar they set for the kind of language and tactics that these organizations have to use before they receive that designation. Alliance Defending Freedom filed briefs opposing Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 case involving sodomy laws. They actually took the position that homosexual behavior should still be criminalized in the country, and it was not till over a decade later that it achieved the designation of hate group. So this is not an organization that just all of a sudden crossed some threshold. It’s been building up for some time, and if you look at how the SPLC arrives at that these sorts of designations, they’re incredibly well-researched.

And to segue to a point you alluded to, there are a lot of things that Matt Sharp said in that interview that were blatant lies about the positions that his organization takes. That was one of the reasons that I was concerned about how Joshua responded to him. He personally didn’t have the context to know Matt Sharp was lying about what ADF stands for, and so a lot of those points went unaddressed, and it helped soften ADF’s image to a listener who doesn’t know anything about them and covered up all of the things that the organization does to attack trans kids.

Current: What I think you’re referencing is that Sharp kept presenting his position as being one of giving school districts, states, municipalities, whatever, the right to decide how they want to handle this issue on their own, when in fact the ADF actually has its own position about how they want those school districts to handle this issue, and it’s a rather extreme position.

Ford: Sure, and they present that in a number of different ways. They lobby — in fact, Matt Sharp himself has publicly testified in various states in favor of bills, like what we saw with HB2 in North Carolina, that would force schools to discriminate against trans kids in several different states. He talked about some of these suits but didn’t really contextualize what they were about properly, that they represent parents that don’t want their kids to have to interact or affirm trans kids at their school, so they’ve sued those schools as essentially a way to force the parents’ bigotry onto the school district. … There are trans kids at their school, so they’ve sued those schools as essentially a way to force the parents’ bigotry onto the school district. And, as you said, they have a model policy that they try to peddle to different schools that would impose this sort of discrimination on trans kids.

Current: But these things are not mutually exclusive. An organization can advocate for local choice while at the same time advocating for a choice they would like those localities to make; those things are not mutually exclusive.

Ford: That’s what Matt Sharp said in an interview. He said, “Our only position is that we want schools to be able to have their own choice.” That’s not what ADF stands for; that was a lie, and it totally misrepresented what ADF stands for, what Matt Sharp stands for. And then let’s not forget that here is a hate-group representative that is trying to justify bigotry against transgender kids, and then a transgender kid is forced to then defend herself, defend the legitimacy of her own identity.

Current: What are you doing depriving her of her agency? She wanted to be there. She wanted to take that son of a bitch on. She was so down.

Ford: Right, but that only assumes the premise that it was a good idea to have him on in the first place. When Matt Sharp said those things, and then Josh said, “OK, 16-year-old girl, how do you respond to this person who’s been a national advocate against your rights?” Whether or not she wanted to do it, that doesn’t make it appropriate to put her in the position to have to do that. Her interview was great. She was very articulate and very poised and very capable of defending herself and speaking up for herself, but that doesn’t justify forcing her to respond to a hate-group leader. You wouldn’t have a black guest who has been oppressed by police listen to David Duke and say, “OK, respond to David Duke.” You just wouldn’t do that. There’s a double standard where it’s OK to force LGBT people to have to defend the legitimacy of their identity against people that are just expressing open bigotry against them.

Current: I think it’s worth mentioning that Grace’s mother tweeted after the show, “I think having Sharp on was good. He could be schooled along with listeners who may share his views.” Aren’t you being a little bit paternalistic, Zack, in assuming that listeners can’t handle this stuff, that they need Joshua Johnson to chew their food for them, that they can’t listen to what a guy like Matt Sharp is saying and be skeptical about it and think for themselves?

Ford: That would be great if what was actually said was scrutinized. But, as I just said, Josh didn’t provide any of the context for the kinds of things that Sharp was saying. So, yes, it was great to have other guests that could respond, but, again, you’re giving the person a platform to soften their own image, to reiterate talking points that are false and demonizing of people, and then just expecting people to realize that that’s OK. That’s false equivalence. That is saying that this naked bigotry is the same as the legitimacy of who these people are and the civil-rights issues that they’re fighting over. And that’s just irresponsible.

In the world of open information that we now live in, I think journalists have a much bigger responsibility to process the information that’s out there. We’re not just stenographers delivering it, because everyone can find that anyway; we can all watch Sean Spicer’s briefing together every day. But we’re going to deliver it to you in a package that says, “Here’s what you need to know about this. Here’s what makes sense. Here are the claims that we can validate. Here is the claim that we can’t.” And to say it’s no big deal if we just let it all hang out there, I just think is lazy and unprofessional.

Current: I want to say something, Zack, before I go into my last question for you. Part of what’s going on with me here right now is that we’re talking about a bunch of NPR journalists’ work, and I’ve not invited any of those journalists on to defend their work — and I know I’m going to hear about that later. So part of what’s going on here is I actually agree with you a little bit more than it might seem, but I’m trying to say the things that they would say if they were here. That’s part of the responsibility of an interviewer.

So please bear that in mind as I go into my last question to you here, which is, looking at this 1A segment, you make a lot of strong points about Matt Sharp and his presence on the panel and how he was handled by the host. However, at the end of the day here, we’re looking at an hourlong segment about an issue of public policy on which Americans are split, and you have three people in favor and one person opposed. Any conservative is going to look at that segment and think that this is atrociously, atrociously biased in favor of the pro–trans rights point of view. What more do you want of NPR? How are they supposed to try to do what they’re supposed to do, which is serve and acknowledge the entire country, and still make you happy? What do you want from them?

Ford: What’s more important, to be unbiased politically or to be biased in favor of the truth? Because everything that Matt Sharp said — besides misrepresenting what ADF stands for, he also reiterated all of these claims that people’s safety and privacy is at risk because of transgendered people — and I acknowledge that Joshua pushed back on that a little bit, as did the other guests. But I’ve been tracking transgender issues for many years, since before they blew up with Houston’s equal-rights ordinance and some of the other things that have followed since then. And in all of my coverage and all of my tracking — I just watched hours of testimony in Texas yesterday about their bill — I’ve never heard anyone say that they care about privacy and safety issues and not also reject the legitimacy of transgender people. I’ve never met a single person that actually understood transgender people and the nature of their identities and the needs that they have to be affirmed in those identities as a civil-rights issue, who then still has a concern that respecting those identities will create safety and privacy issues for other people. It’s just never happened. That talking point is a ruse that is used to scare people about something that they don’t understand.

And so I don’t really care if NPR comes off as politically biased one way or the other, because what I care about is that people’s lives are on the line and that the truth is on the line. Giving someone a platform to reinforce fears that aren’t based on facts is irresponsible. The end.

Current: That is the end. Zack Ford of ThinkProgress. Good talk.

Ford: I appreciate the opportunity to flesh it out.

Current: Yeah. Do you feel good? Anything else that you want to talk about that I didn’t get to?

Ford: One other thing that I was going to just toss in is that just yesterday, March 7, there was an article on CNN, “3 Myths That Shape the Transgender Debate,” and I just wanted to provide that as a counter-example of an independent news outlet that generally tries to not favor one side or the other that just very simply said, “Here’s what people say; here’s what the truth is about those issues.” I think that’s a really important example to highlight to show it’s not hard to talk about these issues in a simple way that spells it out for people fairly.

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