On January 25, a grand jury assembled by the Harris County District Attorney's office in Texas cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing related to the deceptively edited videos of the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) and instead indicted two CMP members, most notably its founder, David Daleiden. Right-wing media has attempted to distract from Daleiden's indictment by reviving an old -- and since debunked -- claim that a prosecutor in the district attorney's office who had affiliations with Planned Parenthood created a "conflict of interest."
Just months after the Supreme Court made the historic decision to legalize same-sex marriage, the LGBT community experienced its most stunning defeat at the ballot box since California's Proposition 8.
Voters in Houston, Texas, voted to repeal the city's non-discrimination protections for LGBT people after months of local news coverage suggesting that those protections might embolden sexual predators to sneak into public restrooms. The defeat is a testament to the power local TV news stations have to poison public opinion in the next major battle over LGBT equality.
While most of the country was celebrating the Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage, activists in Houston were fighting to protect the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a city ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of fifteen characteristics in areas like housing, employment, and public accommodations. HERO's protections for gay and transgender Houstonians earned the ire of conservatives, who succeeded in putting the measure up for a public repeal vote after months of lobbying and legal maneuvering.
HERO's opponents organized their opposition around the false claim that prohibiting discrimination against trans people would allow male sexual predators to sneak into women's restrooms by claiming to be women.
That talking point was debunked by experts across the city, state, and country -- there's no evidence that laws like HERO motivate sexual predators to commit crimes -- but that didn't stop opponents from making it the center of their negative ads.
And on Election Day, it appeared to pay off -- HERO was repealed by a wide margin, handing local and national LGBT groups a major defeat.
Many factors have been blamed for HERO's demise, including ineffective messaging and a lack of diversity in the local LGBT campaign. But shoddy coverage of the ordinance by local television news stations undoubtedly played a significant role in getting voters to turn against the ordinance. Reporters endlessly referenced the "bathroom predator" talking point without debunking it, essentially giving free airtime to HERO's opponents. Segments on HERO were riddled with generic B-roll footage of bathroom signs, often without context or explanation. By November, many Houstonians only understood HERO as a "bathroom ordinance" and not as a broad non-discrimination ordinance -- exactly what opponents were apparently hoping for.
One local news station -- Fox 26 Houston -- stood out in its unique and aggressive peddling of the "bathroom predator" myth. The Fox affiliate made bathroom concerns a central focus of its HERO coverage, uncritically echoing opponents' talking points in segment after segment. Though the station never formally opposed HERO, its coverage was aimed at ginning up concerns about the ordinance's scope. One particularly cringeworthy segment interviewed local parents concerned about whether HERO would endanger their children, failing to mention that similar laws across the country have never posed a threat to children's safety.
In fact, when Fox 26 finally did fact-check a HERO ad, it was to incorrectly criticize supporters of the law for comparing HERO to other non-discrimination laws in Texas. Just weeks before Election Day, Fox 26 devoted an entire segment to pointing out that Texas cities like Plano and San Antonio exclude bathrooms from their non-discrimination laws -- the implication being that HERO's bathroom protections are radical or unprecedented. What Fox 26 failed to mention was that major Texas cities, including Dallas and Austin, have had bathroom-inclusive transgender non-discrimination laws for years and have never experienced issues with bathroom safety.
That kind of dishonest reporting was likely part of the reason that Jared Woodfill, one of the leaders of the anti-HERO campaign, regularly included clips of Fox 26's reporting in his messages to supporters.
Fox 26's adoption of anti-HERO talking points was outside the bounds of good journalism, but it's emblematic of a larger problem with local news coverage of fights over trans-inclusive non-discrimination laws -- the failure to treat lies like lies.
Opponents of LGBT equality know, now more than ever, that they can turn public opinion against non-discrimination laws if they fixate on bathroom fearmongering. Local reporters feel compelled to present audiences with both sides of a controversy, even if that means repeating claims that are baseless or disproven. The result can be a toxic mix, with news outlets becoming megaphones for anti-LGBT groups, creating a public square that is so saturated with horror stories and misinformation that audiences are unable to separate fact from fiction. It's the reason pro-LGBT ordinances are so regularly defeated at the ballot box -- even well-funded and organized LGBT groups struggle to persuade voters in environments where fear-based ads are guiding media coverage. In Houston, a broad non-discrimination ordinance became known as a "bathroom bill" -- not because it was true, but because anti-LGBT groups had taken control of the local media's story-telling.
But this cycle of misinformation isn't inevitable. Journalism should be about more than merely repeating both sides of a factual dispute -- it should be about actively resolving those disputes through investigative reporting. The Houston Chronicle's Pulitzer-prize winning columnist, Lisa Falkenberg, for example, did her own investigation into the "bathroom predator" horror story, interviewing experts in cities with similar laws on the books and concluding that HERO's opponents were peddling an "urban myth."
The next major battles in the fight for LGBT equality will likely be fought outside the view of national media, with cities across the country following the Houston example and debating their own HERO-like non-discrimination policies. After HERO's defeat, the "bathroom predator" myth will undoubtedly continue to be a central part of efforts to roll back non-discrimination protections for LGBT people. Whether local reporters choose to debunk or lazily repeat anti-LGBT groups' talking points will have a major impact on how Americans understand and value those protections.
On December 9, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (Fisher II), which challenges the university's use of race in admissions policies. Many media outlets connected the case to recent campus unrest and cited research on racial representation in higher education, ultimately urging the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action policies that enhance student diversity and are "crucial to the success of [an] institution and its students," while warning that banning affirmative action would "leave universities without the tools they need" to properly educate future leaders.
An editorial in the Houston Chronicle called out the recent decision by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to cut Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood over deceptively-edited videos, saying the decision "is about politics" not about "fighting for taxpayers or setting good policy."
An October 19 editorial by the Houston Chronicle discussed the circumstances around Abbott's decision to attempt to cut funding to the organization saying the decision was made due "to a series of surreptitiously recorded videos released by the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress" -- videos that have been thoroughly debunked despite being continuously touted by right-wing media. The editorial further explained that it was unlikely the state would find anything unpropitious happening in Texas because Planned Parenthood affiliates in the state do not participate in the fetal tissue donation program and other "[i]nvestigations in Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts and South Dakota found no evidence of lawbreaking." Ultimately, the editorial explained that "the whole fight takes aim at an invented fear" that the reproductive health provider is using federal funds for abortion when "[w]hat Medicaid does fund is family planning services that help make abortions unnecessary":
The reason behind the Medicaid cut, according to inspector general Stuart Bowen, rests upon a series of surreptitiously recorded videos released by the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress. Those videos, which were made public this past July and August, purported to show illegal trafficking of fetal tissue. Abbott quickly responded by instructing the Health and Human Services Commission to launch its own investigation into Planned Parenthood.
Investigations in Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts and South Dakota found no evidence of lawbreaking. The Texas Attorney General's Office has yet to complete its own investigation into those videos, but it isn't hard to guess what they'll find - nothing. That's because Planned Parenthood affiliates in Texas don't currently collect fetal tissue for medical research.
This whole fight takes aim at an invented fear. And even if the Texas Health and Human Services Commission successfully cut Planned Parenthood from its distribution of federal Medicaid dollars, abortion services will remain at the same funding level of essentially zero. The federal family planning program, Title X, provides no money for abortions. The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, prohibits Medicaid from spending money on abortions except in the rare cases of rape, incest and the health of the mother.
What Medicaid does fund is family planning services that help make abortions unnecessary.
But in the war against abortion, fighting Planned Parenthood is easier than actually reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. So instead of better sex education or broader access to birth control, Texas will get another lawsuit. That won't do much to help everyday Texans, but politicians will be able to count it as a win. If only they could share the spoils of victory with a young woman who can't afford basic health care.
The Houston Chronicle and Reuters are helping the Advanced Biofuels Association (ABFA) overstate its membership and downplay its connections to the oil industry, facilitating its advocacy to reform the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). In fact, major developers of advanced biofuels continue to support the standards and are not members of the association - which is largely run by executives with deep roots in the oil industry.
A number of cities in Texas have taken the historic step of passing non-discrimination laws protecting LGBT people, only to see those laws challenged by the extreme right-wing U.S. Pastor Council -- a group that has called Houston Mayor Annise Parker a "sodomite" and labeled gay people "forces of spiritual darkness."
On January 20, opponents of an LGBT non-discrimination law recently enacted in Plano, Texas, announced that they had collected enough signatures to put the measure up for a public repeal vote. The effort had been organized by the Texas Pastor Council, a group that's become a political force for anti-LGBT activists across the state.
In 2003, extremist Texas pastor Dave Welch founded the Houston Area Pastor Council (HAPC) "to bring a united, Biblical voice to the city, state and even nation." Though HAPC is described as an "affiliate" of the national U.S. Pastor Council (USPC) and Texas Pastor Council (TXPC), it's unclear if the organizations are actually distinguishable. All three are run by Welch, share the same website and contact information, and are often lumped together -- even on the USPC website.
El 20 de enero, los opositores de una ley de no discriminación LGBT recientemente promulgada en Plano, Texas, anunciaron que habían recogido suficientes firmas para poner la medida a votación pública para derogación. El esfuerzo había sido organizado por el Consejo Pastoral de Texas, un grupo que se ha convertido en una fuerza política para los activistas anti-LGBT en todo el estado.En 2003, el pastor extremista de Texas David Welch, fundó el Consejo Pastoral de Houston (HAPC) "para llevar una voz bíblica unida a la ciudad, al estado, e incluso a la nación." Aunque HAPC se describe como una "filial" del Consejo Pastoral de Estados Unidos (USPC) y del Consejo Pastoral de Texas (TXPC), no está claro qué distingue a una organización de la otra. Welch está a cargo de las tres, comparten el mismo sitio web e información de contacto, y suelen agruparse - incluso en el sitio web USPC.
Many news outlets are uncritically touting the State Department's conclusion that building the Keystone XL pipeline would not significantly worsen climate change without noting that this determination was based on an expectation of high oil prices. Some media outlets, however, have reported the significance of the recent plunge in oil prices, such as the Associated Press, which noted that "[l]ow oil prices could make the pipeline more important to the development of new oil sands projects in Canada than anticipated by the State Department ... and therefore is more likely to increase emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global warming."
While many national outlets are dismissing the indictment of Texas Gov. Rick Perry as political payback, Texas journalists warn that such claims are misguided, incomplete, and the product of a "rush to judgment."
On August 15, news broke that Perry was being indicted for "abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant," both of which are felonies.
The charges relate to Perry's threatened and completed veto of $7.5 million in state funding for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit.
The case claims that the threat and veto were retaliation against Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat and the head of that unit, who ignored Perry's call for her to resign after she was convicted of drunk driving. At the time Lehmberg's unit was investigating corruption in a program Perry had heavily touted; if she had resigned, Perry would have appointed her replacement.
Following the announcement, a split has emerged among press covering the story. Much of the Lone Star State media has covered it as a valid legal proceeding and part of a greater picture of misconduct, while national media are treating Perry's indictment as mere politics.
The New York Times editorial board speculated that it "appears to be the product of an overzealous prosecution." Liberal New York magazine reporter Jonathan Chait labeled the indictment "unbelievably ridiculous." A USA Today editorial dubbed it a "flimsy indictment," while The Wall Street Journal called it "prosecutorial abuse for partisan purposes."
But Texas journalists say many on the national level don't know the facts and context and are too quick to judge from afar.
"The national pundits -- and some of them are very thoughtful people -- tend to focus first and most easily on the politics," said Wayne Slater, a columnist at the Dallas Morning News. "How does this particular event help or hurt that candidate in the potential horse race? Many reporters in Texas know Perry and are much more familiar with the details in this case, the fact that these are Republicans investigating this and that Perry has a history of hardball politics in forcing people out. This is a much more nuanced story than some in the Beltway understand."
Slater adds, "Rick Perry is getting good press because he has been masterful in the way he has framed this as a matter of partisan politics. Instinctively political journalists and reporters and outlets at some distance understand that Perry is winning the politics at the moment and that his narrative of events really comports with their general sense of how things work, that politicians threaten people and coerce people."
Forrest Wilder, who is covering the story for the Texas Observer, noted in a recent piece that the criminal complaint against Perry filed in June 2013 by Texans for Public Justice was assigned to a Republican judge who then appointed a former prosecutor in the George H.W. Bush administration as special prosecutor. In comments to Media Matters, Wilder said the charges were something "we should take seriously."
A recent national report from the Government Accountability Office found that a higher regulatory standard is needed to ensure that drinking water sources are protected from fracking wastewater practices. But the largest circulating newspapers of the states with the highest levels of fracking production -- therefore among the most vulnerable to its risks -- have ignored this study.
Houston media outlets have failed to hold anti-LGBT activists accountable for the misinformation they have spread about the city's Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), currently the focus of a repeal effort. Media outlets have allowed myths about the ordinance's protections for transgender people to go unchallenged and have disproportionately cited anti-LGBT groups and advocates in their reporting on the measure.
In the thick of virtually every hot-button cultural battle to engulf Texas in recent years has been Jonathan Saenz - the president of a lobbying group called Texas Values, a regular spokesman for right-wing causes in local media, and a rabidly theocratic, anti-LGBT extremist.
This May, during the debate over Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance - a measure that prohibits discrimination based on characteristics including sexual orientation, and gender identity - Saenz emerged as a leading voice against the proposal in local media. Local news outlets described him as an attorney or social conservative, obscuring the extremist worldview that undergirded his fight against the ordinance.
With an effort underway to repeal the ordinance, which Houston's City Council passed eleven to six on May 28, Saenz is certain to remain in the spotlight as the fight over its LGBT protections continues.
Saenz's group, Texas Values, is the lobbying arm of the Plano, TX-based Liberty Institute, an organization notorious for peddling discredited stories about supposed threats posed by government and progressive activists to religious liberty. Upon Texas Values' launch in 2012, Saenz became its founding president, following a stint as Liberty Institute's top lobbyist in Austin. Texas Values' biography of Saenz notes that he "has been featured in local, national, and international media" including cable networks Fox News and CNN, where he has discussed such topics as school prayer and Texas conservatives' effort to remake the state's social studies curriculum.
But those media appearances only hinted at the far-right vision informing Saenz and Texas Values' work.
Much of Texas Values' work centers on its fight against LGBT equality, which includes opposing even basic protections for LGBT people:
Texas Values also beats the drum of a litany of typical right-wing social causes. The group opposes comprehensive sex education in schools and has attacked Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis for her support for reproductive rights and the gay "anti-family agenda,"
The group also pushes the tired right-wing myth of a "war on Christmas" - but with a distinctly conspiracy-minded fervor. According to the group, that "war" is "a key front in the radical movement to remove all religious expression from the public square" and to create a world in which children are too afraid to even talk about Christmas at school.
The Texas lieutenant governor's recent threat that statehouse reporters could potentially be arrested and jailed if their behavior is deemed "not respectful" of the legislature is being called "worrisome" and "absurd" by Texas journalists.
Several editors and reporters who have been covering the contentious abortion debate in the state Senate, which drew national interest last week during an 11-hour filibuster that derailed the legislation, said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's threats of potential arrest during an interview Friday raised concerns.
During a June 28 interview with HotAir.com's Ed Morrissey, Dewhurst said that his staff was reviewing security tapes of the Senate gallery to examine the behavior of reporters during the demonstration that occurred as Republican leaders failed to pass the bill before the legislative session expired. Dewhurst explained:
"We have reports and I have my staff taking a look at the video, the internet video that we keep, we store, on the proceedings that evening and if I find as I've been told examples of the media waving and trying to inflame the crowd, incite them in the direction of a riot, I'm going to take action against them. That is wrong. That's inciting a riot. That is wrong. And we have a provision in our rules that if people do not deport themselves with decorum, they're not respectful of the legislative process, one of our rules says we can imprison them up to 48 hours. Of course that was out of the question with that many people, but it is, we take a democratic policy seriously."
Within a day, Dewhurst's office backpedaled from the threat, claiming they had reviewed tapes of the session and found nothing worth pursuing.
Still, several journalists are speaking out with concern that such a threat was even made and the option of arresting reporters even considered.
"As I listened to this, I said, 'what the hell is this, you're going to throw us in jail?'" said Wayne Slater, a longtime political reporter for the Dallas Morning News, who posted video of the HotAir.com interview on his blog. "The first thing I thought of is there are other countries that do this, where they arrest reporters whose work they don't like or who don't report things or act in the way the majority likes. It seemed absurd to me because there are countries that do this and we are not one of them."
After Slater posted the interview video on his Morning News blog Saturday, he said Dewhurst's office called him within hours to backtrack on the comments.
"They saw it and made a decision fairly quickly that they had to pull back from this," he said. "To call and say no media did anything wrong."
But that did not stop other journalists from criticizing the original comments and worrying about what they could mean for future reporting.
"As a newspaper editor, the lieutenant governor's statement I found worrisome," said Steve Proctor, managing editor of the Houston Chronicle. "If any action were taken against a Houston Chronicle reporter, they would be defended vigorously. Any editor is going to consider that worrisome."
He said even a hint of such action can be negative to reporters' work: "I want to be able to cover the news without interruption or interference, so you are always worried when there is interference on the information."
As the State Department nears a decision on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, the media is exaggerating its economic benefits and downplaying environmental risks to advocate for the project. Here, Media Matters takes on five of the prevailing media myths about Keystone XL.
Now that the Obama administration and Congress are engaged in a debate over immigration policy, a Media Matters review of major news outlets has found that when it comes to immigration coverage, anti-immigrant commentator Mark Krikorian continues to be the media's preferred conservative voice. Krikorian heads the Center for Immigration Studies, a group associated with notorious nativist John Tanton and whose research has been called into question -- but these facts are routinely ignored in coverage of his remarks.