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The New York Times Continues To Make Its Priorities Clear

Mike Marsland/WireImage

This morning, New York Times op-ed columnist Pamela Paul made another play at becoming the paper's least thoughtful dullard, through the publication of an article titled "In Defense of J.K. Rowling." Does an extremely rich and famous person need a paper of record to defend her? Is there anything new to bring to this conversation?

The answer to both questions is no. Paul's column is a belabored, exhausting defense of Rowling written for people who have already decided she's a victim, nestled amongst some warmed-over meditations on separating the art from the artist. All this column can give you is a better understanding of what it must be like to be cornered at a party by Bill Maher.

Paul decided to dedicate her precious column inches to defending Rowling because the formerly beloved author of the Harry Potter franchise has consistently argued that trans women are not women and need to be excluded from certain spaces in order for cis women to feel safe. Rowling has claimed to be "empathetic" toward trans issues, which in her mind are entirely different from "women's" issues, thus proving that she is not.

After arguing that much of the criticism of Rowling for her opinions on trans rights is wrong because actually Rowling is very empathetic to trans people and does not like to be yelled at, we reach this crucial paragraph in Paul's article:

So why would anyone accuse her of transphobia? Surely, Rowling must have played some part, you might think.

The answer is straightforward: Because she has asserted the right to spaces for biological women only, such as domestic abuse shelters and sex-segregated prisons. Because she has insisted that when it comes to determining a person’s legal gender status, self-declared gender identity is insufficient. Because she has expressed skepticism about phrases like “people who menstruate” in reference to biological women. Because she has defended herself and, far more important, supported others, including detransitioners and feminist scholars, who have come under attack from trans activists. And because she followed on Twitter and praised some of the work of Magdalen Berns, a lesbian feminist who had made incendiary comments about transgender people.

This could have used an editor. The whole article is written like a high-school argumentative essay reasoned by a 14-year-old, but it's also just wordy. Let's just give this a quick tightening:

So why would anyone accuse her of transphobia? Surely, Rowling must have played some part, you might think.

The answer is straightforward: she has consistently argued that trans women are not women.

The actual substance of Paul's article (useless, not important, pedantic, boring!) is less important than the timing of its publication. Yesterday, the Times received two open letters, one from GLAAD and one from a collection of Times contributors (including myself and many members of this staff), criticizing the paper's obsessive and fear-mongering coverage of trans healthcare. The second letter reads, in part:

The newspaper’s editorial guidelines demand that reporters “preserve a professional detachment, free of any whiff of bias” when cultivating their sources, remaining “sensitive that personal relationships with news sources can erode into favoritism, in fact or appearance.” Yet the Times has in recent years treated gender diversity with an eerily familiar mix of pseudoscience and euphemistic, charged language, while publishing reporting on trans children that omits relevant information about its sources.

For example, Emily Bazelon’s article “The Battle Over Gender Therapy” uncritically used the term “patient zero” to refer to a trans child seeking gender⁠-⁠affirming care, a phrase that vilifies transness as a disease to be feared. Bazelon quoted multiple expert sources who have since expressed regret over their work’s misrepresentation. Another source, Grace Lidinksy⁠-⁠Smith, was identified as an individual person speaking about a personal choice to detransition, rather than the President of GCCAN, an activist organization that pushes junk science and partners with explicitly anti⁠-⁠trans hate groups.

In a similar case, Katie Baker’s recent feature “When Students Change Gender Identity and Parents Don’t Know” misframed the battle over children’s right to safely transition. The piece fails to make clear that court cases brought by parents who want schools to out their trans children are part of a legal strategy pursued by anti-trans hate groups. These groups have identified trans people as an “existential threat to society” and seek to replace the American public education system with Christian homeschooling, key context Baker did not provide to Times readers.

The Times released a single statement in response to both letters yesterday evening:

It is infuriating to watch the Times brush aside the letters' specific criticisms and critiques of the paper's coverage so casually, and it is offensive for the paper to plant the letter signed by scores of former and current contributors under the umbrella of "advocacy." Every single person who signed the second letter knows what journalism is, and what it is supposed to do, because it is their job to know. They all understand that by signing that letter they were engaging in media criticism, a foundational aspect of any journalistic cause, rather than advocacy, something that rich newspaper publishers have a much easier time brushing aside.

Speaking of advocacy, under which description should Paul's column be filed? It's certainly advocating on behalf of Rowling, who, again, is a monstrously wealthy person completely insulated from experiencing any meaningful consequences whatsoever. It's also a provocation, a finger jabbed into the eye of anyone, even the Times' own contributors, who dared speak up about the Times' failure to write more responsibly about trans healthcare. It is certainly not media criticism, because it is actively arguing against criticism of famous people.

I'm certain that if you waved Paul's column in the face of a decent Times editor and asked them to explain what the fuck is going on here, they'd argue that the op-ed section is separate from the news operation, and nothing in it should be taken as an expression of the paper's values. That's bullshit, though. Paul, and her editors, know exactly what they are doing. I highly doubt this article would be published if the name of the editor was nestled alongside Paul's in the byline. And it's an argument they know won't hold water with readers, whose understanding of the iron curtain between editorial and news is weak at best.

Everyone in leadership at the Times knows that those open letters did not arrive out of the blue; the paper has long been aware of the intense criticism its coverage of trans healthcare has drawn, and by publishing Paul's (totally useless and uninteresting!) column, it has said all it needs to about how seriously it takes those critiques. There is no value in this column beyond provocation, and choosing to publish it the morning after these two open letters were sent shows exactly who the Times hopes to provoke: not people in power, but people who have a right to question them.

This is what the open letters were about in the first place: The New York Times seems to have lost its ability to discern between work that is valuable and well-considered and work that provokes.

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