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And on Election Day, it appeared to pay off -- HERO was repealed by a wide margin, handing local and national LGBT groups a major defeat.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.