Inside the New York Times Blow-Up Over Transgender Coverage

“I want to talk to you briefly about journalistic independence,” Carolyn Ryan said during an all-hands meeting for the New York Times newsroom earlier this month. The Times managing editor, sporting a pinstripe pantsuit, spoke from a stage where she was seated between fellow managing editor Marc Lacey and executive editor Joe Kahn. “We don’t do our work in an effort to please organizations, governments, presidents, activist groups, ideological groups,” she said in a recording of the meeting obtained by Vanity Fair, noting this has been “a bedrock principle of ours for generations” that “many of us feel in our bones” but “can really get obscured in the modern media landscape, which these days has populated with so many more partisan players.” 

Ryan praised the paper’s coverage of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision; Astead Herndon’s podcast The Run-Up; Michael Powell’s report on whether the ACLU was losing its way; and Megan Twohey’s “thoughtful, careful, well-reported story looking at medical treatment for teens who are transitioning and the lack of scientific research around some of the puberty blockers.” She assured the newsroom that they’ll be hearing more about journalistic independence throughout the year. “And sometimes that will be an annoying note on deadlines saying, you know, we can’t use that language because it really…reflects an activist-group way of looking at an issue and we don’t want to do that,” she said, noting being as “panoramic as possible” is not only “good journalism” but “key to how we think about attracting new, more readers and satisfying a need that’s really out there.”

“Great,” said Kahn. “Marc?” 

“Very nicely put, Carolyn,” said Lacey. 

The Times’ journalistic mission, as framed by the masthead that day, may have seemed cut-and-dried. And yet a week later, the newsroom would be embroiled in debates over objectivity and “activism,” as criticism of the paper’s coverage of transgender issues sparked a series of exchanges involving Times leaders, staffers, contributors, and the paper’s union. The current dispute, ostensibly about transgender coverage, has reignited past concerns about how the Times covers marginalized groups, as well as whether younger, so-called “woke” staff are helping shift the paper’s journalistic values. 

Inside the Times, the paper is still wrestling with “the Tom Cotton op-ed,” as staffers refer to not only the controversial opinion piece the Times ran in 2020, in which the Republican senator called for the use of military force against Black Lives Matter protesters, but to the ensuing staff revolt which culminated in the resignation of editorial page editor James Bennet. The episode was back in the news last week as a former staffer, New York’s Shawn McCreesh, was quoted in a new book saying that leadership at the Times “completely lost their nerve” in the face of “angry backbiting staffers.” Bennet has also spoken out in recent months, telling erstwhile Times media columnist and Semafor editor Ben Smith that he was treated “like an incompetent fascist” and publisher A.G. Sulzberger “blew the opportunity to make clear that The New York Times doesn’t exist just to tell progressives how progressives should view reality.” 

A few people I spoke to pointed to Ryan’s remarks in the all-hands as setting the tone for the debate that’s since broken out. “The way that the masthead talks about activists, you would think that activists only exist on the left,” said one. “By being so explicit about not wanting to appear left-leaning, the masthead is, in fact, picking a side. And I think that is the core problem here.” Said another staffer, “Deciding what to focus on requires deciding what is in the public interest, and it’s hard to separate values from that. And I feel like the Times is in denial about that, because once you admit that you open yourself up to criticism that you’re making choices.” As a third staffer put it: “There’s a sizable minority contingent that never has a voice that now does. I don’t think management has ever figured out what that means for the paper.” 

“We reject the claim that our coverage is biased. The role of an independent news organization is to report on issues of public importance and follow the facts where they lead,” Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha said in a statement to Vanity Fair.  

“I don’t believe the journalist-activist binary is useful. Every good journalist I’ve known has been an activist for values like truth and clarity and transparency. And I see The Run-Up as in that same vein, even as we talk to political figures from both sides of the aisle” Herndon told me. “Plus, as a Black journalist, I’ve seen how charges of activism can be used to discredit journalists of underrepresented backgrounds who may come to the work of reporting with a different lens.”

Here is the abbreviated version of what transpired in recent weeks. A letter was delivered to the Times, signed by hundreds of current and former Times contributors as well as some current staffers, criticizing the paper’s coverage of transgender issues, in which they cited specific stories and who wrote them. The letter also highlighted journalist Tom Scocca’s searing analysis of Times coverage, which, they wrote, “found that the paper spent 15,000 words of prime front-page real estate on stories stoking a moral panic about trans kids’ healthcare.”

Kahn and Opinion editor Katie Kingsbury addressed the contributors’ letter in a memo to staff, but focused largely on the fact that Times journalists who’d signed the letter had breached Times policies. “We do not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums,” it read. Guild leadership—meaning the local NewsGuild of New York, not the Times Guild—read Kahn and Kingsbury’s letter as implying the threat of discipline, which prompted President Susan DeCarava to write a letter affirming journalists’ right to criticize the paper in order to address workplace conditions. 

Some Times journalists saw this as an affront to their independence: Here was the Guild injecting itself into a debate over what they believed to be an editorial dispute, not a matter of workplace safety. They channeled those feelings into a letter to DeCarava, signed by dozens of journalists—including Pulitzer winners and prominent members of the Washington bureau—that signaled support for Kahn’s memo. 

“Factual, accurate journalism that is written, edited, and published in accordance with Times standards does not create a hostile workplace,” they wrote. “We are journalists, not activists. That line should be clear,” it continued, rejecting “what the Guild appears to be endorsing,” which is “a workplace in which any opinion or disagreement about Times coverage can be recast as a matter of ‘workplace conditions.’” (DeCarava later wrote a response to that letter, in which she said the Guild was just trying to affirm free speech rights.) 

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