NPR demonstrates how not to report on LGBT issues — four different times

NPR News is elevating anti-LGBT voices and legitimizing discrimination with false equivalence.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Four times in the past week, NPR News has reported on LGBT issues in ways that elevate anti-LGBT positions and normalize discrimination against LGBT people.

By neglecting to include people who are LGBT identified, counter junk science arguments made by opponents of LGBT equality, or contextualize the hate groups fueling pro-discrimination arguments, NPR is actually propping up those who wish to perpetuate stigma and discrimination against LGBT people.

Unchecked junk science

Last week, NPR National Desk Reporter Sarah McCammon traveled to eastern Virginia, the home of transgender high school senior Gavin Grimm, to talk to different people about his Supreme Court case seeking access to the bathrooms at school.

Among the people she talked to were retiree Marshall Butler and cabinetmaker Brian Hopkins. Butler opposed “special” rules for Grimm, who he believes should be prohibited from the boys’ room. Hopkins, who has never talked to a trans person (and doesn’t want to), called Grimm “very confused” and asserted, “Biologically, we are who we are. It just should be that simple.” Motivated by his interpretation of Christianity, Hopkins believes discrimination against trans kids will “give peace of mind to the other 99.9 percent of the students at the school.”

Though McCammon went on to talk to various trans people, she never provides any context for these statements. Upworthy’s Parker Molloy called her out for not talking, for example, to any medical professionals who could actually provide some expertise about the legitimacy of transgender identities to counter Hopkins’ claims regarding biology.

But in response to this accusation that she was providing a pedestal for unchecked transphobia, McCammon defended her piece as simply “documenting the climate” in which Grimm lives.

For the record, there is zero evidence to suggest that trans protections make anybody less safe, not in schools nor writ large.

A platform for hate groups

On Monday, the WAMU show 1A (First Amendment) also decided to explore the conversation on transgender students’ access to bathrooms in schools. The segment opened with an interview with a transgender high school student from Washington, D.C., Grace Dolan-Sandrino, who talked about the challenges transitioning at school and what it’s meant to her that her district recognizes her gender identity. Once the conversation expanded into a panel, there were some major problems.

Among the guests was Matt Sharp from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Christian legal firm fighting transgender rights all over the country. Simply including Sharp as a guest was an exercise in false equivalence, treating discrimination and the rejection of trans identities on par with simple inclusion and respect. At no point was ADF identified as an anti-LGBT hate group, as it was recently classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Host Joshua Johnson pushed back some against Sharp, such as when he was misgendering a student in one of the cases ADF is fighting, or when he repeatedly claimed that other students have privacy concerns sharing a restroom with a trans classmate. Largely, however, Sharp had a platform on which to claim that ADF simply opposes “one size fits all” solutions and believes local schools should be able to make their own decisions about trans students.

That, however, was actually a lie. ADF peddles a model policy encouraging schools to discriminate against transgender students. And Sharp himself has testified — on behalf of ADF — in favor of state laws that mandate schools adopt such anti-trans policies. None of this was mentioned during the conversation.

Perhaps most shockingly, Dolan-Sandrino remained in the discussion. At various points, this 16-year-old student was expected to defend her identity against one of the most well-funded opponents of her equality. She articulated her experience with patience and aplomb, but setting her up to have to argue against a hate group’s spokesperson was completely unnecessary to discuss the topic.

Blatant erasure

Tuesday morning, NPR’s Morning Edition delved into the question of whether “religious freedom” should justify discrimination against LGBT people. Between the drafted executive order that is still circulating in President Trump’s White House and the proposed “First Amendment Defense Act” Trump has promised to sign, the threat of legalized discrimination against LGBT people is very real.

The segment inaccurately portrayed the debate as only having two sides: one that gives “religious freedom” a free ride to discriminate and one that creates protections but still provides some accommodations for religious people. The piece didn’t really mention the position that there should be no exceptions to allow for discrimination against LGBT people, which is probably because it didn’t include the perspective of anyone who actually identifies as LGBT.

Instead, it focused on perspectives like that of Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute. Haynes argued, “We don’t judge claims of conscience on whether we like the content of the claim,” insisting that anything that promotes nondiscrimination must also protect “the right of people to do what they feel they must do according to their God.”

There were also just blatant errors. For example, the piece claims that the arrival of marriage equality in states like Massachusetts “made it illegal” for Catholic Charities to deny adoption services to same-sex couples. That’s actually not true. In fact, marriage equality was irrelevant to the controversy except that it increased the likelihood of same-sex couples creating families. It was Massachusetts’ 1989 law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientations that prevented child-placement agencies like Catholic Charities from being licensed to provide adoptions (and accepting state funding) while continuing to discriminate.

Point in fact, Catholic Charities in Massachusetts actually continued operating for two years after marriage equality was the law of the land — and served same-sex couples. Then, over the unanimous wishes of the 42-member board, four bishops arbitrarily decided to shut down the agency rather than continue to serve same-sex couples. Likewise, in other states, Catholic Charities chapters voluntarily shut down when they were no longer eligible for state funds because they insisted on discriminating. In Colorado, Catholic Charities even threatened to shut down just in an attempt block civil unions legislation, even though the bill it was opposing included a religious exemption that would have allowed the agency to continue refusing service same-sex couples.

This misrepresentation in the Morning Edition piece favored the narrative that anti-LGBT religious people are victims of persecution, when, in fact, they invented that persecution narrative in an attempt to maintain discrimination against LGBT people. If a single person had been interviewed that could have spoken on behalf of LGBT people, this could have been elucidated.

News coverage of LGBT issues is only worthwhile if it’s actually done well. Providing a platform for opponents of LGBT equality to spread their propaganda without correcting any of their claims is dangerously shoddy journalism. By elevating their myths and fear-mongering, NPR is actually reinforcing the LGBT injustices it’s attempting to cover.

UPDATE: After this post was first published highlighting the above three examples, it was pointed out to ThinkProgress that there was, in fact, a fourth case this week of NPR favoring anti-LGBT perspectives.

On Monday’s Morning Edition, host Steve Inskeep interviewed former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) about transgender students and bathroom concerns. McCrory was one of the most vocal champions of HB2, his state’s law mandating discrimination against trans people in schools and public buildings, and it cost him reelection.

McCrory unsurprisingly applauded the Trump administration’s decision to rescind guidance protecting trans students in schools, reiterating the hackneyed and unfounded claim that inclusion for transgender students somehow disrespects the privacy of all other students. He described a trans person as “someone who likes to express themselves [as] the opposite gender” — as if gender identity was just a gimmick or a ruse — and described trans protections as “changing the definition of gender.”

At no point did Inskeep address any of these claims. After McCrory said, “I firmly believe that in a middle school or a high school, a male should not be able to use the females’ locker room or shower facility. And I’m not apologizing for that,” Inskeep simply wrapped up the interview, not even pointing out that McCrory was blatantly misgendering trans students and rejecting the validity of their identities.

That’s four times in just one calendar week that NPR provided a platform for anti-LGBT beliefs.

UPDATE: This post has been updated to clarify that the decision by Catholic Charities to refuse to place children with same-sex couples meant that it could no longer be licensed by the state of Massachusetts as an adoption agency. It remains true that Catholic Charities placed children with over a dozen same-sex couples before it arbitrarily decided upon a policy of discrimination. Moreover, the law it was violating by making that decision was not the Supreme Judicial Court’s 2004 decision allowing marriage equality, but the state’s 1989 law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.