According to a new study from Media Matters, CNN has spent more than seven times as much airtime on coverage critical of University of Pennsylvania trans swimmer Lia Thomas than it has spent discussing the onslaught of anti-trans legislation under consideration in the majority of states.
From the first mention of Thomas on the network on December 7, 2021, through February 22, 2022, CNN dedicated more than 19 minutes to discussing Thomas, with nearly 15 minutes spent on segments critical of her participation on the University of Pennsylvania women’s swim team. During that same time period, CNN spent less than two minutes discussing the dozens of bills being considered in 27 states that would bar trans student athletes from competing on sports teams aligning with their gender identity.
Legislation targeting trans youth has already reached a zenith this year, with at least 54 bills being considered in 27 states to place restrictions on trans student athlete participation, along with other legislation that would ban trans people from using restrooms that align with their gender identity and make providing gender-affirming health care for minors a felony. Some of these sports bans specifically target trans minors, such as South Dakota’s Senate Bill 46, which earlier this month became the first anti-trans law passed this year, while others, like a bill being considered in Iowa right now, would also ban trans college athletes from competition. As noted by the Human Rights Campaign, these sorts of bills “effectively [exclude] transgender girls from all sports activities, increasing their isolation and denying them the social, physical and emotional benefits of sports — benefits which are especially important as the country emerges from a pandemic that has isolated youth from their peers.”
At the center of this furor over trans athletes is Lia Thomas, a trans swimmer who has been the target of a right-wing smear campaign since December that has seen conservative networks like Fox News use Thomas’ story as a cudgel to broadly attack trans inclusion in sports and beyond. Fox News has mocked and harassed Thomas, using her to continue its record of obsessively maligning trans athletes.
However, right-wing networks have not been alone in arguing to exclude Lia Thomas from competition. CNN has aired three segments on Thomas – with discussion of anti-trans bills coming only from passing mentions – two of which were on the show Smerconish. Both segments on Smerconish exclusively featured proponents of excluding trans girls and women from competing on girls and women’s sports teams, with host Michael Smerconish tacitly, and at times openly, endorsing their arguments.
CNN’s Michael Smerconish has spent almost 20 minutes covering Lia Thomas – most of it opposing her participation
On February 5, host Michael Smerconish brought on retired British swimmer Sharron Davies to discuss Thomas. Davies is a vocal critic of trans athletes in the British press and has expressed support for, and spoken at events for, organizations that push trans sports bans and seek to bar trans girls and women from women’s restrooms and changing rooms. During the interview, Davies argued that “we can't be fair if we allow male biology into female races,” with Smerconish offering little pushback.
A week later, on February 12, Smerconish brought on Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympian and vocal critic of trans-inclusive policies who had previously compared the push to exclude trans athletes to the fight against sexual abuse by gymnastics coach Larry Nassar. She had also claimed Thomas could be guilty of sexual harassment for changing in the women’s locker room. During the interview, she struck a similar tone as Davies, arguing that Thomas should not compete with cis women and expressing concern that she would break records, saying that “it really should be a biological woman’s record.” Smerconish concluded the segment by expressing support for excluding Thomas, saying, “I've said before, I'm for fairness and inclusion. I don't know if that's possible in this case.”
The first segment to discuss Thomas on CNN aired on December 7 of last year and was also hosted by Smerconish, this time while he was guest hosting CNN Tonight. The segment, which featured trans athlete Veronica Ivy, was roughly half the length of the segments that would later air on Smerconish and featured considerably more pushback than the host has given his anti-trans guests. Throughout the interview, Smerconish repeatedly argued against points Ivy made supporting Thomas, at one point interrupting Ivy mid-sentence to ask, “But do you not concede any advantage held by Lia Thomas? I mean, the margin of those victories are pretty astounding, right?”
Thomas was also mentioned during a segment on CNN International’s Amanpour, a show that does not air in the United States.
In total, CNN has spent almost 20 minutes and three segments discussing Lia Thomas, as opposed to less than two minutes and zero segments discussing anti-trans legislation being considered nationwide. Comparatively, during the same time period, MSNBC has spent less than a minute discussing Thomas and more than 11 minutes on the anti-trans legislation between four segments – thanks in large part to the network’s Hallie Jackson Reports.
While the negative coverage of Thomas on CNN can be chalked up to a singular host, Smerconish’s amplification of anti-trans figures and arguments carries significant weight because of the relative lack of opposing viewpoints or coverage on struggles faced by trans youth and trans athletes. When you pair that with around-the-clock anti-trans coverage on right-wing media, the American public could be left to surmise that one single trans college athlete’s supposed advantage poses a graver threat than legislation denying every trans kid in 27 states the right to compete whatsoever.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN and MSNBC for any of the terms “Lia Thomas,” “Leah Thomas,” or “gender” or any variation of the term “trans” within close proximity of any of the terms “Penn,” “UPenn,” or “NCAA” or any variation of the word “swim” from November 30, 2021, when the first article on Lia Thomas appeared in national media (as determined by a search of the same keywords on Nexis), through February 22, 2022.
We also searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN and MSNBC for any of the terms “trans," “transgender,” “transphobe,” “transphobic,” “transphobia,” “gender identity,” “gender nonconforming,” “gender fluid,” “nonbinary,” “transsexual,” “biological boy," “biological male,” “biological man,” “biological men,” “biological girl,” “biological female,” “biological woman,” or “biological women” within close proximity of any of the terms “representative,” “senator,” “congressman,” “congresswoman,” “house,” “senate,” “chamber,” “bill,” “assembly,” “delegate,” “policy,” or any variation of the term “legislate” from December 7, 2021, the date of the first mention on CNN, through February 22, 2022.
We counted segments, which we defined as instances when Lia Thomas or any state-level legislation seeking to ban trans students from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identities was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of either topic. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed Lia Thomas or any such anti-trans legislation with one another. In our time count, we included the above segments as well as mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned Lia Thomas or any such anti-trans legislation without another speaker engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about Lia Thomas or any related anti-trans legislation scheduled to air later in the broadcast. We rounded all times to the nearest minute.
We then reviewed all identified segments for whether coverage included the perspective of a trans person, uncritically covered an anti-trans perspective, or discussed the broader trend of anti-trans legislation at the state and local level. We considered a segment critical of Lia Thomas if it uncritically covered an anti-trans perspective and did not include the perspective of a trans person on the issue.