Media critics on Fox News and CNN criticized a recent article that outed the inventor of a golf putter as a transgender woman. The two networks' history of problematic transgender coverage suggests that CNN and Fox could stand to take their own advice.
On January 15, the sports website Grantland published a lengthy article by Caleb Hannan about Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, the founder of Yar Golf and inventor of a “scientifically superior” golf club. In the story, which Hannan described as “the strangest story I've ever worked on,” Hannan outed “Dr. V” as a trans woman. Hannan wrote that during the course of his reporting, Vanderbilt resisted his outing of her. At the end of the article, he revealed that Vanderbilt had killed herself.
Hannan's digging into Vanderbilt's personal life -- and his problematic framing of a transgender woman's identity as “strange” - sparked fierce criticism and generated questions about the role his invasive reporting may have played in Vanderbilt's suicide. On January 26, CNN's Reliable Sources and Fox's #MediaBuzz weighed in on the controversy, with hosts and panelists on both shows agreeing that Grantland should have consulted a trans person before proceeding with the article.
On Reliable Sources, host Brian Stelter invited ESPN.com's Christina Kahrl and GLAAD's Tiq Milan to discuss the story and the ethical questions it raised:
MILAN: What journalists can take away from this is exactly what [Grantland editor-in-chief] Bill Simmons said in his letter ... to consult with LGBT organizations like GLAAD or like the National Center of Trans Equality to see how to better -- what are the best practices to deal with situations like this.
STELTER: It goes back to one of these journalistic maxims that diversity is so important to have in newsrooms. But I wonder if that's easier said than done sometimes for these places. I think you made a point, Christina, that the article was being written for an audience that could have learned a lot about the transgender community if only the research had been done.
Meanwhile, on Fox's #MediaBuzz, host Howard Kurtz dubbed Grantland's story a “media fail”:
The two shows' criticism of the Grantland piece stands in stark contrast to how CNN and Fox have previously reported on transgender issues. After Army Private Chelsea Manning came out as transgender in August, both networks repeatedly misgendered her, disregarding GLAAD's Media Reference Guide, which calls on news organizations to refer to transgender people by their preferred gender pronouns.
Fox is particularly notorious for its transphobia. Host Bill O'Reilly, for instance, has advised parents to punish sons who like the color pink. In a typical display of the network's flippant attitude toward trans people, host Megyn Kelly trivialized a transgender inmate's fight for necessary medical treatment by deriding it as “a get out of male prison free card.” One of Fox's most prominent transphobic faces, “Medical A Team” member Keith Ablow, has said he doesn't believe there's such a thing as being transgender.
Grantland's woefully flawed piece on Vanderbilt underscored the dangers of media ignorance about trans people. Reliable Sources and #MediaBuzz rightfully drew attention to the story's manifold problems, while highlighting the need to have the input of actual trans people when reporting on transgender issues. It's a message that both networks would benefit from heeding.