The NYT Uses Trans Hate to Discipline Its Workers
Trans rights are labor rights.
Labor Day Parade, Washington DC, 1894
Last week, Soleil Ho at the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a quietly bleak exposé of the anti-trans coverage and bias at the New York Times. According to Ho,
as the Republican Party has embarked on a state-by-state campaign to systematically push trans people out of public life, critics say the country’s leading newspaper has played along. Coverage has ranged from features overplaying the health risks of chest binding, a nonsurgical method of flattening one’s chest, to opinion columns reframing gender inclusivity as misogyny.
Ho talks to current and former Times staffers who said that they weren’t sure that “people at the top fully believe in the humanity of trans people.” They also said that articles on trans issues weren’t treated with the journalistic rigor given other coverage.
Ho’s article is compelling and depressing. And I think it also subtly highlights how the Times has used anti trans coverage not just to hurt trans people, but also to silence and discipline its own labor force—and especially younger and marginalized workers.
I have no doubt that Times editors are sincere in their anti-trans bigotry. But that bigotry is also a convenient cudgel with which to assert dominance over unruly staffers and remind them of their place.
If I were a paywalling sort, I’d break for a paywall here…but! I’d rather people read the piece. Consider supporting me this labor day, though, with a paid subscription!
The Uprising At the Times
After the 2016 election and Trump’s surprise victory, many national media outlets engaged in public soul searching, trying to figure out why they had missed Trump’s appeal. Many Black journalists and commenters had warned that the media was underestimating the power of white supremacy in the US. But the media did not rush to hire Black reporters and analysts. Instead, it scurried to hire (even more) fascists, bigots, and reactionaries.
The New York Times was at the forefront of the reactionary turn. It’s big high profile opinion hire after 2016 was Bret Stephens, a climate change denialist. In 2018, the paper’s editor A.G. Sulzberger, said in a meeting that he wanted to end the Times’ reputation as “a liberal rag” and cultivate a conservative audience.
Staffers were not thrilled with the paper’s conservative rebranding. Internal tensions reached a crisis in 2020, during the George Floyd Black Lives Matter protests. The Times’ reactionary stooge editorial page editor, James Bennet, greenlit an editorial by Republican senator Tom Cotton headlined “Send in the Troops,” in which Cotton suggested that the military should be deployed to squash antiracist protest. The editorial included inflammatory conspiracy theories that the protests were being led by antifa agitators; barely acknowledged that the protests were largely peaceful; and ignored the fact that mayors and governors did not want the military called in. It was irresponsible, misleading, and racist.
In response, Times writers and staffers engaged in a remarkable, and unprecedented, pushback against editorial. Leading writers, including Nikole Hannah-Jones, spoke out against the piece, arguing that encouraging violence against antiracist protests put Black staffers at the Times in danger. Some 30 employees at the paper called in sick in protest. An open letter of protest by primarily Black staffers declared, “We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age.”
Sulzberger and Bennet initially defended Cotton’s piece. But under an avalanche of criticism at a moment when institutions across the country were questioning their role in racism, the Times retreated. The paper acknowledged the editorial process for the Cotton piece had been shoddy. James Dao, the editor responsible for the op ed, was moved off opinion. Bennet resigned.
This could have been a moment for the Times to reassess its reactionary branding, and to rethink a top down editorial philosophy which disempowered staffers. That’s not what happened though.
There were clear signals that many of the old guard at the Times resented the input from staffers. Shawn McCreesh, a former Times staffer, described his colleagues as “bloodthirsty” and compared criticism of the op-ed to a “Maoist struggle session.” James Bennet whined that he’d been treated like “an incompetent fascist” and said that Sulzberger “blew the opportunity to make clear that The New York Times doesn’t exist just to tell progressives how progressives should view reality.”
Sulzberger, it soon became clear, didn’t want to blow another opportunity to put progressives in their place. A violent right wing anti-trans moral panic offered him an excellent opportunity for reactionary retrenchment.
Starting in 2022 the GOP began introducing hundreds of anti-trans bills in state legislatures across the country, attempting to ban trans healthcare for children, to prevent trans people from using public restrooms, to stop trans kids from participating in sports, and, through “anti-drag” bans, to prevent trans people from speaking in public. They also leaned into extreme, inflammatory rhetoric claiming that trans people and trans healthcare are a danger to children. That’s led to bomb threats at children’s hospitals and libraries.
The Times could have taken a forthright stand against this hate campaign. Instead, the paper joined it. “In the past eight months,” journalist Tom Scocca wrote in January, the Times has now published more than 15,000 words’ worth of front-page stories asking whether care and support for young trans people might be going too far or too fast.” And , again, it has done so at the moment when care and support for trans people is being rapidly rolled back.
The NYT is engaged in a moral panic intended to scapegoat, terrorize, and encourage bigotry against trans people. Staffers at the Times noticed, and in February, almost 1000 current and former contributors delivered a letter condemning the coverage as biased and bigoted.
This time, though, there was not a nationwide civil rights protest buttressing the staffers. On the contrary, there was a national embrace of bigotry, which the NYT was stoking and riding. Editors at the paper felt comfortable ignoring criticism and crushing dissent.
Instead of focusing on the specific criticisms of coverage, management claimed that staffers who had signed the letter had violated newsroom standards. They held private meetings threatening signatories with reprisals if they engaged in similar protest in the future.
In the words of one staffer Ho interviewed, currently “There’s a culture at the New York Times of not saying exactly what you’re thinking.”
Using Bigotry to Crush Worker Dissent
So, to summarize: workers at the NYT demanded that the paper reconsider its turn to reactionary racism. The paper responded in large part by using an upswell of transphobia to essentially taunt and bait its own staffers, and then to discipline them when they dared renew their protest.
There is every reason to believe that NYT editorial is sincerely bigoted against trans people, and that they in fact, as one staffer said, do not consider trans people to be fully human. But bigotry isn’t just a conviction; it’s a tactic. Sulzberger and his troupe of gray, reactionary hacks see hate as an external marketing strategy and as an internal method of asserting hierarchy.
NYT leadership wants to position itself as a scourge of the left. It thinks that doing so will appeal to right wing readers—and more importantly, to “serious” centrist inside-the-beltway “thought” leaders, who want to see themselves as open to arguments from “both sides.”
More, by trolling the left with grotesque bigotry, the Times can assert its independence from, and power over, its own staffers and workers. In 2020, writers and workers, and especially marginalized writers and workers, did that thing that labor sometimes does—they seized the means of production, in at least a limited way. They demanded a say in editorial decisions; they demanded a say in staffing. They forced the paper to fire James Bennet, incompetent fascist.
The Times does not want this to happen again. Moral panics are an intentional, effective means of funneling power to established hierarchies and demonizing marginalized people. Times leadership, by embracing the anti trans moral panic, isn’t just trolling for clicks. It’s building its own power vis-à-vis its rebellious staffers, who it is choosing to fight on ground which it considers advantageous.
Why the Establishment Likes Fascism
This is why people with power are attracted to fascism. Fascism provides violent tools for shoring up hierarchy. Scapegoating, moral panic, righteous hatred—the tactics and emotions of fascism give respectable, thoughtful conservatives and bosses a way to demonize some underlings and divide the others. Stigmatizing workers by associating them with marginalized people is a tested, popular, effective tactic, just as is stigmatizing marginalized people by associating them with labor unrest (see the conflation of communism and the civil rights movement.)
The struggle at the Times also shows just how misguided it is to try to separate labor issues from civil rights issues, or to try to prioritize the first in hopes of eventually, someday, addressing the second. As long as there’s prevalent bigotry, it will be used to target and to undermine worker movements and worker power—just as, as long as class hierarchies are entrenched, they will be used to advance and codify bigotry.
The NYT anti-trans coverage is moral panic for clicks; it’s bland both-sides marketing. But it’s also an expression of the owner’s class interests. Crushing trans people is a way for Sulzberger to crush his own workers. Capitalists and fascists want you to think they speak for workers. But the truth is that labor rights are trans rights and trans rights are labor rights. To fight for one is to fight for the other. As someone said, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.