On January 20, President Joe Biden signed an executive order telling federal agencies to protect LGBTQ Americans from discrimination in numerous areas of public life, such as housing, health care, employment, public accommodations, and education. Despite the order’s myriad protections, over the following week, Fox News aired 19 segments -- totaling 51 minutes -- that miscategorized the order as a move that would destroy women’s sports; only one of those segments even alluded to its nondiscrimination protections.
The order mentions sports only one time, saying, “Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports.”
In actuality, the executive order recognizes and implements across agencies a landmark June 2020 Supreme Court ruling that LGBTQ Americans are protected from sex-based discrimination in the workplace. In Vox, reporter Katelyn Burns wrote that the order would apply the decision “wherever sex is a protected class in federal law. That means that LGBTQ people can no longer be discriminated against in housing, education, and health care as well as employment.”
Gillian Branstetter of the National Women’s Law Center explained that it is “a critical recognition of what was the historic decision from the Supreme Court last June. … It is important to know that this is not a radical step. The Biden administration is merely enforcing the Supreme Court’s ruling as it was written.”
Fox News spent 51 minutes over 19 segments mischaracterizing the executive order in the week following its signing
From January 20 through 27, Fox News aired at least 19 original segments that mentioned the executive order, amounting to a total of 51 minutes. In every segment, Fox hosts and guests misleadingly framed it as focused on trans athletes, falsely claiming it would allow boys to play in girls sports and that it would destroy women’s sports. The Fox personalities also repeatedly misgendered trans athletes as “biological males.”
In fact, only one segment of the 19 alluded to the broader nondiscrimination protections covered by the executive order. In that segment, anchor Sandra Smith asked, “President Biden signed an executive order aimed at eliminating discrimination based on gender identity, but instead of leveling the playing field, could this move threaten the future and fairness of girls sports?”
In some of the mentions, Fox framed the executive order around locker rooms and bathrooms in addition to athletics; right-wing media have long and falsely suggested allowing trans people to use the restroom would pose a threat to women’s safety and privacy.
Notably, nine of the 19 segments were on Fox’s so-called “news” side programs (as opposed to opinion shows), and every single one of the guests or commentators who discussed the executive order held either right-leaning or anti-trans views. These included Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Beth Stelzer of anti-trans group Save Women’s Sports, and The Federalist’s Ben Domenech.
Responding to Blackburn’s comment that the order allowed “boys into girls’ sports if they identify as a girl,” “news” side anchor Jon Scott misleadingly said, “It's hard to believe that that is seen at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. as one of the most pressing needs of the nation in this incredibly difficult time." Once again, the order is aimed at prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people in all areas of life -- including health care at a time when LGBTQ people have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, an episode of apparent “news” show The Story with Martha MacCallum featured National Review contributing editor Deroy Murdock, who called the executive order the “transgender athletic declaration.”
Tucker Carlson covered the executive order three times. In one segment, Carlson lied, “For the first time in history, men will be allowed to compete in, for example, girls field hockey, and then change in the girls locker room afterward. Joe Biden has signed an executive order requiring it.” His guest Kara Dansky claimed that the order will “have the impact of ... obliterating women and girls' sex-based rights at a federal level.” In another episode, anti-trans author Abigail Shrier said, “This order spells the destruction of women's sports. It's probably the greatest blow to women's rights we've seen in decades.”
Fox also hosted extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and its clients three separate times to discuss the order. In one appearance, ADF lawyer Christiana Holcomb said that the order “effectively eviscerates women’s sports for young women.” In another interview, she said, “Unless we push back and this is declared unlawful, we really could see the beginning of the end of women’s sports in our country.”
Fox News and other right-wing media obsessively attack trans athletes to oppose LGBTQ equality
Right-wing media, especially Fox News, have spent years targeting trans athletes in an attempt to skew public opinion against LGBTQ people and to oppose nondiscrimination protections for them, including the Equality Act, a comprehensive bill set to be considered by Congress in 2021.
This obsessive coverage has made the topic of trans athletes one of the most dominant narratives about trans issues online. In fact, Media Matters studied Facebook content about trans topics that earned over 100,000 interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) over a one-year period and found that 24% of that content was about trans athletes and came from right-wing sources. That right-wing content earned about 21.21 million interactions or nearly one third of all Facebook engagement on top trans-related content studied.
Despite the right’s best efforts to demonize them, trans athletes “have been competing in women's sport at every level of competition all over the world for decades” yet have still not dominated high-profile athletics, as noted by trans advocate and ACLU attorney Chase Strangio.
Fox News and right-wing media have focused on trans athletes to distract from the critical protections that LGBTQ Americans are lacking and have similarly lied to their audience about Biden’s January 20 executive order, misleading them about what the order actually does.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream database for all original programming on Fox News Channel for any of the terms or any variations of the terms “transgender,” “trans,” “transphobe,” “transphobic,” “transphobia,” “gender identity,” “women’s sports,” “girl’s sports,” “Selina Soule,” “biological male,” “biological man,” “biological men,” or “biological boy” within close proximity of any of the terms or any variations of the terms “sport,” “athlete,” “athletic,” “competition,” “scholarship,” “unfair,” “advantage,” “dominate,” “game,” “Biden,” or “executive order” from January 20 through January 27, 2021.
We conducted a similar search of transcripts in the Nexis database for the above grouped terms appearing within the same paragraph as one another; however, this search was limited to 5 p.m. to midnight each day as transcripts for Fox’s daytime programming are not available in Nexis. We also searched transcripts in the Kinetiq database for Fox for all of the above terms between 7 p.m. EST January 22 through midnight EST January 23, 2021, due to maintenance of the SnapStream database during that time.
We did not include previews of upcoming segments.
Ideological leaning of guests and commentators was determined by self-identification or affiliation with any publicly or openly partisan or ideological organization or institution.