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How The New York Times was rocked by JK Rowling trans row

Editor hits back at staff for protesting at its coverage of the issue

Matt Mathers
Friday 17 February 2023 21:12 GMT
JK Rowling defended over transgender rows by Ralph Fiennes!

An editorial in The New York Times that defended the views of the author JK Rowling has reignited a war of words between the newspaper and its staff over the coverage of transgender issues.

Staff and contributors penned a letter this week criticising the publication’s coverage of transgender, non⁠-⁠binary and gender nonconforming people.

The letter, addressed to The Times’ associate managing editor for standards, said the signatories had “serious concerns” about what they described as “editorial bias” in its coverage.

At the same time, more than 100 organisations issued a separate statement accusing The Times of “spreading inaccurate and harmful misinformation about transgender people and issues”. LGBTQ+ campaigners also staged a protest outside the publication’s headquarters in Manhattan.

The paper hit back, saying it was “proud” of its coverage which it said seeks to “explore, interrogate and reflect the experiences, ideas and debates in society – to help readers understand them”.

Then, apparently determined not to be strong-armed into changing what it felt was its objective reporting on trans issues, the paper published an opinion-editorial article by Pamela Paul entitled: In Defense of JK Rowling. The Harry Potter author has faced a sustained backlash in recent years for statements she has made about gender ideology that critics and prominent voices in the LGBT+ community have described as transphobic.

Ms Paul said the campaign against the author – who has received abuse including death threats – was “as dangerous as it is absurd”.

Ms Paul defended Rowling’s right to debate, among other things, “spaces for biological women only, such as domestic abuse shelters and sex-segregated prisons”, and the “insufficiency of self-declared gender identity”.

She listed a series of Ms Rowling’s comments on trans issues, including one instance where she said: “I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them.”

“The brutal stabbing of Salman Rushdie last summer is a forceful reminder of what can happen when writers are demonised,” Ms Paul added. “And in Rowling’s case, the characterisation of her as a transphobe doesn’t square with her actual views.”

She also referred to comments made by EJ Rosetta, a journalist who says she was asked to write an article under the title: 20 Transphobic J.K. Rowling Quotes We’re Done With. After 12 weeks of reporting and reading, Rosetta wrote that she hadn’t found one “truly transphobic message” before adding on Twitter: “You’re burning the wrong witch.”

Joe Khan, editor of The Times, has reprimanded staff for the letter, according to an internal email that was obtained by The New York Post. He said employees had gone “against the letter and spirit of our ethics policy” by aligning themselves with advocacy groups and attacking their colleagues’ journalism.

“It is not unusual for outside groups to critique our coverage or to rally supporters to seek to influence our journalism,” he said. “In this case, however, members of our staff and contributors to The Times joined the effort. Their protest letter included direct attacks on several of our colleagues, singling them out by name.

“We do not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organised by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums.”

A spokesperson also pushed back against the criticism, saying: “Our journalism strives to explore, interrogate and reflect the experiences, ideas and debates in society – to help readers understand them. Our reporting did exactly that and we’re proud of it.”

Prominent journalists as well as high-profile names such as writer Lena Dunham had been among those who signed the note, which accused The Times of treating its gender diversity “with an eerily familiar mix of pseudoscience and euphemistic, charged language”.

One example cited was a January report which looked at the challenges faced by schools when students changed their gender identity with their parent’s knowledge.

The New York Times’s HQ in Manhattan (Getty Images)

The letter’s signatories said the story “misframed” the issue, saying it failed to make clear that lawsuits brought by parents against school districts are part of a legal strategy tied to groups that have identified trans people as an “existential threat”.

It is not the first time The New York Times has found itself at the centre of a debate.

In 2020, the newspaper published an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton in which he called on the US government to use the US military against Black Lives Matter protesters.

It ultimately led to opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss quitting, amid claims she had been bullied and harassed by colleagues over her often controversial opinion articles.

In a resignation letter posted to her website, she accused The New York Times of being a paper where “truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else” and alleged that Twitter is the paper’s “ultimate editor”.

The row comes ahead of the release of a new podcastThe Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling in which the author will address the backlash she has faced since the summer of 2020.

“I never set out to upset anyone. However, I was not uncomfortable with getting off my pedestal,” Rowling says in the trailer for the podcast, which is hosted by Free Press, the media company set up by Weiss after she left The Times.

The podcast will be hosted by Megan Phelps-Roper, who grew up as part of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church before choosing to leave.

The backlash against Rowling appeared to begin in December 2019, when she came out in support of researcher Maya Forstater, a visiting fellow at the Centre for Global Development whose contract was not renewed after she made what were perceived to be a number of anti-trans posts on social media.

In June 2020, Rowling called out an article’s use of the phrase “people who menstruate”. She wrote: “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

Rowling has continued to regularly discuss gender issues and trans rights on social media in the years since, but denies being transphobic.

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