The Corporate Media Failed to Warn Us About the Trump Admin’s Attack on LGBTQ Workers

Andy Lee Roth and April Anderson

Activists rally in support of LGBTQ rights at New York City Hall on October 8, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sex,” Kather­ine Franke, a law pro­fes­sor at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, told the New York Times, is a con­found­ing term in our cul­ture, in our lan­guage and cer­tain­ly in the law.” As the Supreme Court opens a new ses­sion, its jus­tices are set to tack­le the conun­drum of defin­ing sex.” At issue is whether Title VII of the land­mark Civ­il Rights Act of 1964, which bars employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion because of sex,” applies to gay, les­bian, and trans­gen­der employees.

There are many rea­sons why LGBTQ Amer­i­cans deserve fed­er­al pro­tec­tion against employ­ment and work­place dis­crim­i­na­tion. Sim­plest and most glar­ing: In a major­i­ty of states, it is per­fect­ly legal for an employ­er to refuse to hire some­one, or to fire them, sim­ply because of their sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der iden­ti­ty. In its pre­view of Bostock v. Clay­ton Coun­ty, Alti­tude Express Inc. v. Zar­da, and Har­ris Funer­al Homes v. EEOC, SCO­TUS­Blog described the trio of cas­es as some of the biggest” of the Court’s forth­com­ing term. The Court’s deci­sions will be con­se­quen­tial for how secure all work­ers—whether straight or queer; trans­gen­der, cis­gen­der, or non­bi­na­ry — are in their jobs, because the cas­es will also test a 30-year-old deci­sion that estab­lished gen­der stereo­typ­ing as a form of sex discrimination.

It is dis­tress­ing that cor­po­rate news media have not deemed employ­ment pro­tec­tions for LGBTQ work­ers to be news­wor­thy until the Supreme Court decid­ed to hear these cas­es, but it is no sur­prise to us. The inad­e­quate news cov­er­age fits a pat­tern we found in a study of sev­er­al hun­dred news reports on LGBTQ issues pub­lished by four major news­pa­pers between Jan­u­ary 2016 and Novem­ber 2018. The study, Stonewalled: Estab­lish­ment Media’s Silence on the Trump Administration’s Cru­sade against LGBTQ Peo­ple,” appears in Cen­sored 2020: Through the Look­ing Glass (Sev­en Sto­ries Press, 2019).

Our study con­clud­ed that, dur­ing that peri­od, cor­po­rate news media con­sis­tent­ly mut­ed, mar­gin­al­ized or ignored the steady roll­back of LGT­BQ pro­tec­tions and rights under the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. Anoth­er recent study, focused on tele­vi­sion news cov­er­age, reached sim­i­lar con­clu­sions: Since Trump became pres­i­dent, news cov­er­age of LGBTQ issues has all but disappeared.”

From the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign through the midterm elec­tions of 2018, we found that cor­po­rate news cov­er­age of LGBTQ issues focused on two main issues: the president’s pro­pos­al to ban trans­gen­der peo­ple from mil­i­tary ser­vice and so-called bath­room bills.” Togeth­er these two top­ics account­ed for more than forty per­cent of all LGBTQ-focused news arti­cles in the New York Times, Wash­ing­ton Post, Los Ange­les Times and Wall Street Jour­nal. By con­trast, dur­ing the same time peri­od, the inde­pen­dent news out­lets in our study cov­ered a much wider range of issues fac­ing LGBTQ Amer­i­cans, devot­ing less than 10% of their cov­er­age to the pro­posed trans­gen­der mil­i­tary ban and bath­room bills.”

Based on the find­ings from our study, we fore­cast three trends in news cov­er­age of the Supreme Court’s hear­ing of the Title VII anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion cas­es. The first pat­tern we expect to hold is a pos­i­tive, encour­ag­ing one; the remain­der are caus­es for concern.

News cov­er­age will cen­ter LGBTQ voices.

LGBTQ peo­ple — includ­ing spokesper­sons for lead­ing LGBTQ rights orga­ni­za­tions, such as Human Rights Cam­paign, Lamb­da Legal and the Nation­al Cen­ter for Trans­gen­der Equal­i­ty — will achieve what soci­ol­o­gist William Gam­son calls media stand­ing.” Stand­ing, in Gamson’s use of the term, goes beyond being cov­ered or men­tioned in the news; the fig­ures that jour­nal­ists quote direct­ly are posi­tioned as agents whose insights and actions matter.

In our study, we found that at least 7.5% of quot­ed sources iden­ti­fied as gay, les­bian, or bisex­u­al. Although the actu­al num­bers of LGBTQ peo­ple in the Unit­ed States are dif­fi­cult to deter­mine, that fig­ure is high­er than recent esti­mates of the nation’s adult pop­u­la­tion indi­cate, sug­gest­ing that jour­nal­ists are mak­ing good faith efforts to rep­re­sent the diver­si­ty of opin­ion and expe­ri­ence with­in the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty,” as rec­om­mend­ed by Sarah Kate Ellis in her intro­duc­tion to the GLAAD Media Ref­er­ence Guide.

This point about the inclu­sion of LGBTQ voic­es may seem obvi­ous, even triv­ial, but a long his­to­ry of sys­temic prej­u­dice against LGBTQ peo­ple by the nation’s most promi­nent news out­lets makes the achieve­ment of media stand­ing by LGBTQ peo­ple note­wor­thy. As recent­ly as 1996, for exam­ple, Edward Alwood, author of Straight News, con­clud­ed that U.S. news media rarely focus” on the lead­ers of gay and les­bian rights organizations.

As cov­er­age of the LGBTQ cas­es argued before the Supreme Court will show, in 2019 news orga­ni­za­tions have improved in this regard.

Cor­po­rate news will pro­vide lim­it­ed his­tor­i­cal con­text for under­stand­ing these cases. 

News sto­ries are geared toward cur­rent events and jour­nal­ists often fail to pro­vide the long-term his­tor­i­cal view nec­es­sary to ful­ly under­stand those events.

If news cov­er­age frames the Bostock, Alti­tude Express and Har­ris Funer­al Homes cas­es in terms of the his­to­ry of civ­il lib­er­ties in the Unit­ed States, this will be due to the advo­ca­cy of civ­il lib­er­ties orga­ni­za­tions and their allies.

In Octo­ber 2018, for exam­ple, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion pro­posed to define gen­der as a bio­log­i­cal fact, deter­mined at birth. In our data, we found that spokes­peo­ple for civ­il lib­er­ties groups, such as the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union, artic­u­lat­ed their oppo­si­tion by link­ing pro­tec­tions of and inclu­sion for LGBTQ peo­ple to the his­to­ry of the civ­il rights move­ment, includ­ing the racial inte­gra­tion of the mil­i­tary by Pres­i­dent Tru­man in 1948, and the deseg­re­ga­tion of schools, as man­dat­ed by Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion in 1954.

Had the news­pa­per arti­cles in our study not includ­ed the voic­es of civ­il lib­er­ties advo­cates, read­ers would have had no his­tor­i­cal con­text with which to make sense of the Trump administration’s auda­cious proposal.

To what extent will news cov­er­age of the Supreme Court cas­es on employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion be enhanced by his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive? Our study sug­gests that the answer to this ques­tion depends on whether that cov­er­age fea­tures the voic­es of civ­il lib­er­ties organizations.

Cor­po­rate news cov­er­age will white­wash anti-LGBTQ advo­cates’ most vir­u­lent posi­tions.

In our study, estab­lish­ment news­pa­pers fre­quent­ly quot­ed Tony Perkins, pres­i­dent of the Fam­i­ly Research Coun­cil, as a news­wor­thy oppo­nent of state laws and ordi­nances that would pro­hib­it LGBTQ discrimination.

Quo­ta­tions pub­lished by the New York Times and Wall Street Jour­nal, for exam­ple, por­trayed Perkins as a fair par­ti­san, engaged in legit­i­mate debate, but failed to inform read­ers of Perkins’ more vir­u­lent anti-LGBTQ state­ments or that, in 2010, the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter list­ed the Fam­i­ly Research Coun­cil as an anti-gay hate group.

Sim­i­lar­ly, Media Mat­ters has doc­u­ment­ed how estab­lish­ment media out­lets have high­light­ed Mike Pence’s civil­i­ty with gay men in pub­lic and pro­fes­sion­al meet­ings while down­play­ing his long record of anti-LGBTQ posi­tions, first in Con­gress, then as Gov­er­nor of Indi­ana, and now as Vice President.

Numer­ous stud­ies show that hate crimes against LGBTQ peo­ple—includ­ing vio­lence that is often dead­ly—is on the rise, while accep­tance of LGBTQ peo­ple in every­day sit­u­a­tions is erod­ing. But cor­po­rate news cov­er­age of the trio of Supreme Court cas­es is like­ly to down­play these real­i­ties, in part by depict­ing the oppo­nents of employ­ment pro­tec­tions for LGBTQ Amer­i­cans as rea­son­able and prin­ci­pled fig­ures — even when they have tak­en vir­u­lent homo­pho­bic or trans­pho­bic posi­tions in the past. Call it the Tony Perkins Syndrome.

At its best, jour­nal­ism pro­vides insights into com­plex issues, puts news into con­text, and high­lights abus­es of author­i­ty. We would be hap­py for estab­lish­ment news out­lets to report on the Supreme Court’s LGBTQ cas­es in ways that prove our crit­i­cal pre­dic­tions wrong. But, based on our study of recent news cov­er­age, we expect otherwise.

The Supreme Court is not like­ly to rule on the trio of LGBTQ employ­ment cas­es until June 2020. We do not have to wait until then to judge the estab­lish­ment media’s cov­er­age of cru­cial LGBTQ issues, or to hold news orga­ni­za­tions account­able when they fail to pro­vide the kind of cov­er­age we need to act as informed mem­bers of our communities.

Andy Lee Roth is asso­ciate direc­tor of Project Cen­sored, a media watch­dog orga­ni­za­tion estab­lished in 1976. His research, includ­ing the study described in this arti­cle, focus­es on the pow­er of news to shape pub­lic opin­ion. He is the coed­i­tor of in Cen­sored 2020: Through the Look­ing Glass (Sev­en Sto­ries Press, 2019) and nine pre­vi­ous Cen­sored year­books.April Ander­son is the lead author of Stonewalled: Estab­lish­ment Media’s Silence on the Trump Administration’s Cru­sade against LGBTQ Peo­ple,” which appears in Cen­sored 2020. A mem­ber and advo­cate of the LGBTQI+ com­mu­ni­ty, they work as a Research and Instruc­tion Librar­i­an at Macalester College.
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