Something has gone very wrong at the New York Times. Unfortunately, no one is allowed to tell you what it is. Since new executive editor Joe Kahn took control in April 2022—hold that date in your mind, because it’s important—the paper has published what a widely-quoted Popula article by Tom Scocca estimates as “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,” amounting to what Scocca (and basically every trans person who reads the paper) calls a “plain old-fashioned newspaper crusade.”
The anti-trans pivot at the Times is sharp. It’s notable. It has been protested in open letters from GLAAD and over 4,000 current and former Times contributors (including me). And—as Kahn reminded colleagues, in a sharply worded memo addressing those open letters—the Times has absolutely no interest in changing course. Nor are staffers allowed to comment on this coverage in social media, interviews or, indeed, any “public forum.” Staffers who signed the open letter have reportedly been subject to “investigation” and disciplinary action; the crackdown has been so harsh that the NewsGuild of New York has stepped in, noting that under its auspices, protest “is concerted activity protected by the National Labor Relations Board.”
It’s not uncommon for legacy media outlets to control their staffers’ public output—witness the Washington Post’s treatment of Felicia Sonmez, who was forbidden to report on sexual assault due to her status as a survivor, then fired for tweeting about sexism at the Post—but it does pose an obstacle to outside reporting and activism. Those who know what’s happening at the Times aren’t allowed to speak about it, and those who speak about it aren’t allowed to know what’s going on.
This matters, because the Times is not just a media outlet: it is an institution, the paper of record, considered by many to be the gold standard of journalism to which most other reputable outlets aspire, and the standard set by its trans reporting is incredibly dangerous. There is no epidemic of trans teens being rushed through medical transition by overly permissive doctors; trans people struggle to access healthcare at every age, and it has never been easy, let alone too easy, to be a trans child in the U.S. The articles claiming otherwise are recycling talking points that recognizably and overtly originate from anti-trans groups, some of whom have explicitly told the Times that their goal is to outlaw any form of medical transition. Representatives from anti-trans groups are sometimes quoted in the pieces themselves, without the Times disclosing their affiliations or agendas. Clueless transphobia is common enough, but what’s coming out of the Times is something else; it is propaganda disguised as objective reporting.
People tend to talk about “the media” as if it were a force of nature, a vast impersonal weather system that blows some stories to the front page and others off the map, but that isn’t true. Media is made by people, and those people have politics and relationships and sympathies. Pure objectivity does not exist, and the pretense of objectivity—the newsroom ideal that all “sides” of an issue should be heard—often harms marginalized people more than it helps them. If you say “I want to live,” and I say “No,” what happens next isn’t a debate; it’s murder.
The New York Times is made by people, too. Someone has made the decision for the paper of record to publish a torrent of anti-trans propaganda, and to do so at a moment when trans people are being attacked in state legislatures. Given the urgency of the situation, it is a matter of public interest to figure out how exactly the situation at the Times got this dire.
The first step in figuring out how the Times broke bad is to figure out in which section the problem exists. The Times is not uniformly hostile or uniformly cis, and the magazine (which is distinct from the newspaper) has at least two great trans reporters on staff: J. Wortham and Jamie Lauren Keiles, both of whom signed the open letter. Both have continued to publish good work throughout the current onslaught. Keiles’s sensitively reported piece on phalloplasty, for instance, was published in the New York Times Magazine in May 2022.
“Lighter” sections, such as Arts and Style, are also reportedly trans-friendly; Harron Walker, one of the organizers behind the Times open letter, got her first Times byline in the Arts section in December 2022. That piece, on the trans literary scene in Brooklyn, is very good and very trans, and Walker tells me that she was treated well by her editor throughout.
Much recent criticism of the Times has centred on the Opinion section, which has made a few glaringly bad decisions. Most notably, the Times declined to renew the contract of its longest-running trans writer, Jennifer Finney Boylan, and, in March 2022—just before Kahn assumed executive editorship—gave a column to former Books editor Pamela Paul, who has been using the platform to spew transphobia ever since. (The day after the open letter to the Times went out, Paul published an op-ed column entitled “In Defense of J.K. Rowling.”)
Yet the focus on Opinion is misleading in some ways. For one thing, when the Times does publish trans coverage by trans writers—Parker Molloy, Thomas Page McBee, Meredith Talusan—it’s nearly always in that section. Opinion head Kathleen Kingsbury has a reputation as a friendly and supportive editor, despite the fact that her signature appears along with Joe Kahn’s on that threatening internal memo. The failure to renew Boylan’s contract has been rightfully concerning to many trans readers, but she says she left on good terms: “I left the page on a high note, with good feelings toward everyone there,” Boylan told me in an email. “We agreed I could send them pieces in the future, and I still intend to do that.” Some of Boylan’s editors have migrated over to the Washington Post, and so has she.
Boylan did not comment on Paul. Yet even Paul arguably has less power as a columnist than she did in her previous position. As an op-ed writer, she has the power to be loud and wrong, and perhaps to recommend other loud, wrong writers. As the former head of the Books section, she had the power to publish what was arguably the first salvo in the current anti-trans crusade—a review of Helen Joyce’s Trans by notorious pundit Jesse Singal, published in September 2021.
So, no: as far as I have been able to ascertain, the rot in the Times is not coming from the Opinion section. (Depressingly, it may actually be easier to get trans writers into the Opinion section because labelling trans experience as “opinion” signifies that transness is up for “debate.”) The problem is where Scocca said it was—in the reporting, specifically the front-page coverage. Not only is that coverage inaccurate, misleading and damaging, it is invariably written by cis people. (Wortham and Keiles are both magazine employees.) Advocacy groups have been pressuring the paper to bring trans reporters on staff for at least a year, with no success.
Kate Sosin, of The 19th News, tells me that they were contacted by a Times recruiter in December 2021 through the Trans Journalists Association (TJA). The recruiter wanted to know “how to attract trans talent,” and Sosin was receptive; when they joined The 19th, they were the only trans person on staff, and they had played a key role in helping the organization build a more diverse roster.
“I recommended a number of different people that the recruiter could talk to, and then I recommended some journalists,” Sosin told me in a phone call. “I [also] committed to putting the recruiter in touch with some journalists.” Sosin sent numerous candidates—all of them “hard news journalists,” not op-ed writers, all of “the highest calibre”—to the Times over the course of a year.
“I was referring people and putting them in touch,” Sosin told me. “I was also telling trans journalists, ‘Hey, I think you should apply to the Times. They’re looking for people.’ And in retrospect, I feel bad about that, because it seems like those folks could not get through the door. The thing that I kept hearing was, ‘Well, you know, we can’t seem to get an interview.’”
In December 2022, the TJA sent the Times recruiter who had contacted Sosin a letter, mostly drafted by Sosin, telling the Times that “we find ourselves unable to collaborate with the NYT unless we see a commitment to meaningful change at the paper.” Once again, they underlined the need for reporters: “NBC Digital has at least two out transgender reporters. The 19th, a newsroom of less than 60, has three trans or non-binary reporters. It would seem improbable that the Times would be able to go so long without hiring trans people.”
The recruiter promised to forward the letter to the relevant parties. To date, Sosin says, there has been no response.
The anti-trans problem at the New York Times was not always an anti-trans problem. It started as a backlash against “wokeness,” and it began in the summer of 2020, after Black staffers and their allies successfully organized to protest a racist op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton.
That op-ed, which recommended deploying military troops against Black Lives Matter protestors, was widely decried on social media by staffers, who tweeted that it “put Black [New York Times] staffers in danger.” Others organized a virtual walkout in solidarity. The Opinion editor at the time, James Bennet, admitted he hadn’t actually read the piece before clearing it for publication; he was forced to resign.
Kahn—the first executive editor named after the events of 2020—made it a priority to impose more restrictive social media policies on staffers, which was widely interpreted as an attempt to prevent a repeat of the Tom Cotton protests. “There is a sense—and this makes a lot of people very happy—that he is much less willing to indulge the complaining and the constant cries of activism,” an anonymous Times reporter told New York magazine. “He is somebody who has expressed little patience for the newsroom culture-war eruptions that have been such a distraction for us lately.”
Publicly, Kahn had been derisive of journalists who pushed the Times to consider the impact of its reporting on the marginalized communities it covered, arguing that those efforts interfered with journalistic objectivity: “We do not see ourselves, and we do not wish to be seen, as partisan media,” he told Vanity Fair in 2018. “Journalism is not about creating safe spaces for people.… It’s not about democratically reflecting the consensus of the staff about what we say on certain issues.”
It is hard to read the Times’ dismissive brush-off of GLAAD—issued by director of external communications Charlie Stadtlander, provided to me, as it has been to many other reporters, through a representative—and its insistence that “GLAAD’s advocacy mission and the Times’ journalistic mission are different” without recognizing something of Kahn’s institutional voice.
This is not to say that Kahn is directly responsible for every poor choice being made at the Times. He can’t be. The organization is too large, and he is too high up for that to be entirely true. Some of the reporting at the Times is bizarre precisely because it contravenes writers’ previously stated politics in a way that suggests direct editorial meddling. Prior to January 2023, Katie J.M. Baker was a top #MeToo reporter who had been sharply critical of U.K. TERFs. Now, she’s the reporter who wrote an article deploring the “plight” of gender-critical parents who wish schools would out trans children.
It’s possible that Baker has somehow been radicalized by the TERFs she used to criticize, or that she was secretly transphobic even while writing pro-trans articles. She is ultimately the only person responsible for letting that article go out with her byline on it. Still, to an experienced journalist, or even someone familiar with her previous writing on trans issues, that piece bore all the hallmarks of a reporter’s work being forced into pre-ordained editorial conclusions, in service of an agenda set from above.
Naming a specific source of editorial malfeasance at the Times is difficult, not least because the writers themselves may not always know who their editors are. Harron Walker, for instance, tells me that she didn’t always know who was calling the shots on her Times article.
“When you’re working on a story, you [normally] have your editor and then you might have a top editor for the story along with fact-checkers, copy editors, whatever,” Walker told me in a phone call. “I don’t know how it works actually being there, but as far as I can gather from being on the other side of my email account and on the other side of my Google Docs, there’s an editorial board that essentially serve as the top editors.”
Decisions that come down from above may, thus, come through several layers of plausible deniability. There is no possibility of blame, only reasonable conclusions drawn through proximity. There is, however, at least one person whose work is directly connected to many of the problems at the New York Times—reporter recruiting, diversity initiatives and news coverage—and that person has a spotty record on trans issues. She also has reason to know better.
Carolyn Ryan, the co-managing editor of the Times along with Marc Lacey, came into her position in late April 2022, shortly after Kahn assumed executive editorship. The Times article announcing the appointment describes Lacey’s and Kahn’s duties as being slightly different, but, when I contacted Ryan to clarify this and other details, Times representative Danielle Rhoades Ha told me via email that “our executive editor Joe Kahn and managing editors Marc Lacey and Carolyn Ryan all share responsibility for overseeing the breadth of our coverage and news operation.”
Ryan, unlike Lacey or Kahn, was also responsible for reporter recruiting: “Beginning in 2017, she oversaw a recruitment blitz for the newsroom, rethinking our approach to hiring and recruiting more than 400 new staff members in the newsroom.” A memo from October 2021—about two months before the Times contacted the TJA—has her taking responsibility for the “newsroom culture and careers” department. She co-crafted the company’s D.E.I. plan, which does not include any initiatives aimed specifically at trans people; in her email, Rhoades Ha did not name any further diversity initiatives aimed at hiring trans or queer people. Ryan, herself, is a success on this front: as per the announcement of her position, she is the first “openly gay journalist” to become managing editor of the New York Times.
Then, there’s this: in 2012, while serving as editor of the New York Times Metro desk, Ryan was protested by trans advocates and allies including Janet Mock, Jos Truitt of Feministing, s.e. smith and—wait for it—GLAAD, after an article on the death of trans performer Lorena Escalera, which called her “curvaceous” in the first sentence (Escalera died in a fire) and made note of how many men had been in her apartment. Mock continued to track and protest the Metro desk’s coverage of trans women under Ryan, calling it “dehumanizing” and “an exercise in staring taken as fact.”
“As we said in a public comment at the time, we certainly did not mean any disrespect to Ms. Escalera or those who knew her. The Times’ stylebook and reporting standards are continually updated and have changed markedly since 2012,” Rhoades Ha told me via email. Ryan has not made many public statements on trans people or issues in recent years, and those she has made are broadly supportive. But that public comment—which has Carolyn Ryan’s name on it, specifically—did not go over well, even back in 2012. GLAAD was particularly harsh, noting that “not only does [Ryan’s apology] not show an understanding of what the problem with the original article was, it also makes no assurances to the community that [the Times] will educate its writers and editors about how to report on transgender people in the future.”
In 2012, GLAAD promised to “continue putting pressure on the Times until they offer assurances that changes will be made.” It’s 2023, and here we are.
There are many people—educated, informed people; experts, even—who will tell you that the Times anti-trans coverage is not informed by transphobia. They will say that the Times merely wants to seem “unbiased” by presenting trans people’s rights as one side of a “debate,” or grab traffic over a hot-button issue or maintain its pretensions to serving a “universal” readership, which the Times still defines the same way it did 100 years ago, as a readership composed of white, straight, middle-class, politically centrist men.
You could buy that. Or you could note that Kahn’s magazine profiles still include the evidently amusing anecdote that he once interviewed a “transgender kickboxer”; you could look up the interview with the kickboxer (for the Times, in 1998) and note that “transgender” is not precisely how he describes her. Sure, that was 1998, and times and people have changed since then. But if you look at the front page of Kahn’s New York Times, they evidently haven’t changed that much.
Transphobia has been an unacknowledged norm of “objective” journalism for a very long time. It’s been an unacknowledged cultural norm for much longer. Yet it is still transphobia—still bigotry, still lethal—no matter how unconscious it may be. In 2023, when trans people are at the red-hot centre of a culture war and trans healthcare is being attacked in dozens of state legislatures across the nation, it is not a form of ignorance that any journalist can afford.
The people steering the transphobic coverage at the Times may not believe themselves to be bigots. That’s the entire problem: if they are able to believe this, it is only because they failed upward. This is what happens when people with privilege refuse to take feedback from the marginalized communities they report on. It’s what happens when transphobia is tacitly accepted, and those who espouse it are permitted to climb the career ladder without learning from their mistakes. It’s a story about a man whose virulently transmisogynistic coverage of a trans athlete is brought up in profiles as a quirky anecdote, not a serious failure of judgment. It’s a story about institutional flaws that are overlooked, because they are not seen to matter, until those flaws come to define the institution itself.
It’s a story about mediocrity, and that might ultimately be the worst possible outcome. What the name “New York Times” signifies to the world is journalism’s gold standard, the paper of record. That’s what happened at the New York Times: it stopped living up to its own standards. There is no paper of record. Not anymore.