It’s Time To Retire Culture War Journalism
The media allowed misinformation to frame “debates” about trans identity and race in education. That has to change.
Earlier this month, British media once again platformed a talking point pushed by anti-trans activists. The Sunday Times, among other outlets, "reported" on a backlash to a hypothetical scenario in which a sex offender might choose to identify as a woman. That an imaginary notion was elevated into a news item speaks to the entrenched anti-transness of British media.
But then Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling tweeted the article, further elevating the narrative; she became a trending topic on Twitter, promoting a link between transness and sexual violence. US media covered her tweet as a controversy that implied there might be a real threat posed by trans self-determination. It might be too obvious to state, but there isn’t. In fact, there is actually an ongoing epidemic of violence against trans women, and no such pattern of trans women committing violence against cis women or anyone else.
This was, however, the latest point of panic in a wave reacting to the so-called transgender tipping point of visibility. And Rowling in particular has chosen to make herself the face of this backlash.
Just last year, she publicly targeted clinics where trans youth receive lifesaving gender-affirming treatment, turning trans bodily self-determination into a story about the supposedly threatened safety of cis children. She has also mocked evolving public health language that includes trans men and nonbinary people, hijacking that recognition to create a story about the supposed erasure of cis women.
Like fellow billionaire Peter Thiel, she has even reportedly deployed her money and power to try to silence criticism. And yet all the while her anti-trans campaigning is generally characterized by the media as “controversial” “views”: not part of an explicit agenda, but an ongoing human interest mystery chronicled as a perplexing personal evolution.
Rowling’s status as a celebrity billionaire affords her extra protection and the benefit of the doubt while also helping to amplify her talking points. But it’s specifically because she speaks as a white woman with “concerns” about the safety of women and children that her anti-trans framing is accepted on Twitter and treated by the media at large as worthy of debate.
Never explicitly framed as a misinformation agent who might merit deplatforming, Rowling is a symptom of the current media ecosystem, in which disinformation about minority identities is accepted as legitimate controversy.
This scenario comes into play whenever powerful people, institutions, or political organizations raise public concerns about the protection of majority groups, especially white women and children.
In fact, two of the biggest, seemingly unrelated, culture war stories this year were propelled by a similar reframing of misinformation as legitimate debate. These so-called controversies were supposedly about trans people, especially trans girls and women, and teaching history, known as the critical race theory debate.
Both were part of political backlashes that came in response to increased visibility for minority groups: increased representation of trans people in media and public debate about gender and the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
Framed largely by right-wing activists and think tanks as human interest issues about fairness in sports and classrooms, they circulated into national legacy media — including publications like USA Today, CBS, The Atlantic, and the New York Times — through first-person opinion pieces by mothers of cis athletes raising fears about trans inclusion or human interest reports featuring on-the-ground stories of white moms airing complaints about supposed radical ideas being introduced in schools.
Whatever the content of the reporting or articles, in platforming these issues through the “concerns” of cis and white people, mainstream media helped distort what constitutes legitimate perspectives for coverage, and in doing so sidelined the actual difficulties experienced by marginalized communities, including Black and trans youth.
Ultimately, this kind of coverage raises deeper questions about news organizations and who decides the perspective of “culture war” journalism.
There’s a long history in the US of setting the terms of debate by centering media narratives around the well-being of white women and children. It’s usually associated with anti-Black and anti-gay right-wing activism and can be traced back to anti–school integration campaigns in the ’60s, through “save the children” anti-gay campaigns in the ’70s, and even the coverage questioning how children would fare under marriages between same-sex couples in the aughts.
Right-wing activists used similar framing to introduce the so-called controversy over “critical race theory.” Attempts to eradicate histories of race in the US are nothing new. As recently as 2011, activists attempted to ban ethnic studies and Mexican American studies curricula in Arizona. But “ethnic studies” simply doesn’t have the polarizing — or “concerning” — ring necessary to stoke a national panic about existing curricular offerings like studying civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
The term “critical race theory” was perfect for right-wing campaigns, though, because, as one activist told the New Yorker this summer, to “most” Americans it “connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.” So a long-term campaign to dismantle any talk of race and history in schools was rebranded as a crusade against critical race theory, even though that term actually refers to a graduate-level theory about the intersections of law, culture, and structural racism that has nothing to do with elementary history in classrooms.
There’s a long history in the US of setting the terms of debate by centering media narratives around the well-being of white women and children.
The idea of the country as race-obsessed and race discourse as destructively divisive was already percolating in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, especially after George Floyd’s murder.
Outlets like the New York Times and the Atlantic dedicated valuable resources to reporting on the supposed excesses of anti-racism. These “nuance” stories by white journalists included one about a Black father’s school board campaign against anti-racism. In the Times, there was a story about a Black student who made a supposedly false accusation of racial profiling at Smith College. Even attempts at self-reflection centered whiteness and painted anti-racism as an elitist concern; a story about the Times’ own newsroom racism was used to highlight how privileged white high schoolers now felt entitled to call out racism.
Right-wing think tanks, like the Manhattan Institute, promoted that precise notion online and in legacy media to activate parents into believing anti-racism was out of control. Quotes from concerned moms further stoked these fears: “They are making my son feel like a racist because of the pigmentation of his skin.”
The idea of “talking about race” wasn’t necessarily new to many Black and brown parents for whom discussing the realities of inequality and existing in a white world isn’t an “option” in the same way. Yet outlets including CBS and the Atlantic picked up that framing too, feeding into the sense that radically new ideas were suddenly being introduced with headlines like, “When the culture war comes for the kids,” and “How young is too young to teach kids about race?” (The latter headline was changed after a backlash.)
As the November elections neared, news stories about suburban or small-town parents battling over school curricula started popping up as well. The framing of these battles through reported human interest stories, rather than, say, misinformation explainers, suggested that these were newsworthy grassroots issues that spoke to broad parental fears rather than a vocal minority stoking social media disinformation.
To some degree, the stories discredited the panic about race education in schools by pointing out the organizations and dark money groups (like the Judicial Crisis Network) who helped fund these campaigns and including voices of supporters of existing curriculums. But they still promoted the idea that these battles represented two equal sides of inflamed national feelings, rather than a strategically invented controversy and well-funded top-down disinformation campaigns.
Ultimately, the timing and framing of these stories about race and education highlight that they were not deemed newsworthy because of concerns of the community members at the center, Black parents and youth, or the massive ongoing inequality around race and class that still permeates public schools. Instead, they helped reframe debate to center white parental anxieties.
In many ways, this same scenario — misinformation platformed as debate — has been playing out in the coverage of trans people, long before J.K. Rowling seized the moment as a major anti-trans voice. Newsrooms lacking in trans journalists had been framing trans existence through “concerns” that trans people were incapable of deciding their bodily self-determination on their own.
This type of clueless question about how young is too young for children to know their gender, coming from outside the trans community, was epitomized by a now discredited 2018 Atlantic cover story. It explicitly addressed imagined anxious white parents with the (misgendering) headline, “Your child says she’s trans...she’s 13.”
The story and its cis panic about trans identity as some kind of trend among teens was later completely debunked by other news outlets. Since then, gender historians have shown the long history of trans children, studies have confirmed that trans children are just as certain about their gender as cis teens. The Atlantic never officially apologized for the story’s framing, including misgendering and outing the cover model. (The writer, however, has since been placed on watch lists for anti-LGBTQ journalism).
This year, right-wing activists expanded their “concern” to sports. And it wasn’t an accident they set that arena as a location to invent debate.
In the real world, all trans people are not white and not middle class and have little access to healthcare even if they can find an affirming clinic, especially when most insurance companies refuse to cover such care. Trans people struggle not with identity itself, but with an anti-trans world that restricts access to resources for transition and features gatekeepers who set rules and timelines on cis terms. And unsurprisingly, November’s elections saw right-wing activists promoting a new wave of bills blocking access to healthcare for trans people. As GLAAD pointed out, that Atlantic cover story was used in a legal brief filed by seven state attorneys general in a federal lawsuit seeking to roll back existing healthcare access for trans people.
This year, right-wing activists expanded their “concern” to sports. And it wasn’t an accident they set that arena as a location to invent debate. Like classrooms, sports are imagined by white Americans as a neutral space of meritocracy, and right-wing think tanks purposely promoted that setting for human interest stories about fairness.
Publications including USA Today and the Economist took the bait, uncritically platforming first-person pieces by white mothers and white athletes airing out concerns about maybe having to compete against trans girls. The misinformation spread by cis athletes about hormonal or strength differences was ultimately debunked.
But real questions about meritocracy, including around race and class inequality, did not even get folded into these chronicles, revealing that narratives were about the protection of supposedly endangered young white women. This becomes clearer when considering that the surveillance regarding testosterone levels has primarily targeted cis Black women athletes.
Given the minority status of trans people in society at large, it’s unsurprising that trans athletes never even materialized in most states where the bills were being pushed. Yet even positive human interest pieces about trans athletes were reactive ones in which trans humanity was rendered visible only in terms of the wave of cis fears.
As with the CRT coverage, the focus on questions about youth transition or sports isn’t actually about the struggles of trans people at all, which include disproportionately high rates of housing insecurity and under or unemployment.
The sidelining of actual trans issues in order to debate imaginary fears does, however, speak to broader systemic problems with media and the way that trans people circulate as objects of coverage for cis people rather than subjects of their own reality. Even media attempts to cover anti-trans activism have turned into debates between cis women about transness through controversies about trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFS).
That moniker itself, recently used to describe Rowling, platforms anti-trans activists within the context of feminism and has lent legitimacy to their efforts, portraying bigotry as some kind of newfangled intellectual exercise over the meaning of feminism or queer community. In fact, anti-transness is part of a long history of class and racial exclusions in feminism, both in media and, most importantly, in the real world, where trans identity has been made into a scapegoat for anger about inequality more broadly.
It’s unquestionable that the CRT and trans “debates” have been pushed into the media by right-wing activism and conservative politicians through strategic waves of anti-CRT and anti-trans bills. They’re even timed to purposely inflame conservatives and rally the base for elections.
But at this point, it’s too easy to see anti-trans and anti-Black concern-mongering as just an issue of right-wing misinformation. After all, these framings are accepted for coverage via the editorial judgments of majority white and cis newsrooms.
So-called culture war issues are where the media allows itself maximal editorializing on behalf of cis white “anxieties” and fears about a changing world. But the terms for what becomes a culture war story are not decided by the public. Instead, they are decided in newsrooms that don’t mirror reality but certainly help shape it.
American newsrooms are even whiter than the country as a whole, and it’s in that context of media echo chambers that “critical race theory” is repackaged as controversial. Most Americans believe the history of slavery should be taught, for instance. And after the 2021 November election, polls showed that even the idea that critical race theory drove elections was overstated.
Similarly, trans rights are actually not “controversial” in the US population at large. But trans journalists are woefully underrepresented in newsrooms. It’s predictable that cis journalists talking to each other about transness results in stories that home in on and magnify cis debates about trans identity. This dynamic sidelines the potential richness of good faith exchanges within the trans community about the complexity of existing in a cis world.
Current thinking about misinformation is focused on anti-science or partisan campaigns that exist in the social media ether. But there are other important questions, like the way the media feeds into misinformation by platforming sources that reframe debate outside the terms of the communities these “debates” actually affect.
Trans people struggle not with identity itself, but with an anti-trans world.
“Partisanship” is still the favored term in journalism for talking about media “balance.” But considering editorial judgment through partisanship simply recreates existing power imbalances by focusing on issues about race, class, and gender only if they’re legible through the lens of Republican vs. Democrat. It would mean something quite different if corporate media held itself accountable to the communities it covers rather than political parties.
Categorizing questions about ethical coverage through partisanship issues also helps ignore uncomfortable realities about news capitalism, like the fact that newsrooms need to make a profit and stories are often packaged for advertisers and imagined white readers.
Financial incentives are a major reason why it’s hard to wean media off engaging with misinformative framings to capture cis and white readers, which still constitute a majority of the public. After all, these panicked stories feed engagement for Twitter, Facebook, legacy media, and new venture capitalist corporate platforms like Substack.
It’s not an accident that in all the race and trans backlash stories, class is invoked not to call out how white middle- and upper-class perspectives shape newsrooms (including through media CEOs). Instead, it is invoked to imply that anti-racism or trans rights are somehow an “elitist” concern. This framing takes pressure off the publications themselves to engage with these issues as a labor concern in their own newsrooms. But divorcing stories about class and identity from the real world and existing power structures is a distortion. Framing and context shouldn’t only be dictated by cis white fears and concerns.
Still, there have been some changes by newsrooms around the framing of stories to acknowledge power imbalances in the real world. The Verge has updated its policies for giving big tech companies anonymity as background sources for articles. Some news organizations are questioning the uncritical use of police sources when ascertaining the truth of events. Cis and white “concerned parents” might be less obviously identifiable as problematic sources, but it’s a powerful category of people due for a similar reckoning.
Tellingly, after a backlash to the white framing of its “how young is too young” CRT story, CBS changed the headline — not to, say, “White Parents Are Finally Having to Grapple with Questions Others Routinely Do.” Instead, it was replaced with a nonclickbait-y mouthful: “Documentary explores debate over how and when race should be taught in schools.”
That shift of the framing to “debate” is the customary way mainstream media dodges any pressure about “taking sides.” But platforming “both sides” implies we live in an already equal world. We don’t. And that’s a fact. ●