Fox guest on Pennsylvania school's decision to stop saying "God bless America": "That is frankly not too far away from where those flights went down on 9/11"
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Outlets framed coverage around concern for his job rather than the student’s well-being
Virginia TV news stations dedicated 90 segments to a story about an anti-trans high school teacher who was fired for repeatedly misgendering a student. The school board deemed those actions discriminatory; however, the news segments included considerably more voices in favor of the teacher than the trans student, and all failed to mention why misgendering someone is demeaning or harassing.
On October 31, Virginia high school teacher Peter Vlaming was placed on administrative leave for refusing to identify a transgender student by his proper pronouns. According to The Associated Press, “Vlaming told superiors that his Christian faith prevented him from using male pronouns for the student,” and the West Point School Board voted unanimously to fire him for repeatedly violating the district’s anti-discrimination policy after a public hearing on December 6. Following the board’s decision, students and parents held a walkout and began circulating petitions in support of Vlaming, which have collectively garnered more than 15,000 signatures. Vlaming is considering legal action against the school district.
Despite extensively covering the story with 90 segments between December 4 and 12, not a single anchor or reporter explained why misgendering a trans student would be considered harassment or noted that those actions stigmatize trans folks and erase their identities. However, 33 of those segments did include language that Vlaming's actions were "hostile" or "threatening" -- nearly all of which were from one of two short clips of school administrators speaking during the hearing.
For instance, several stations aired a clip of Superintendent Laura Abel testifying that “by failing to follow the directive” to refer to the student by the correct pronouns, Vlaming was "discriminating" and "creating a hostile environment.” Stations also aired a clip of the school’s Principal Jonathan Hochman during the hearing, saying, “I can't think of a worse way to treat a child than what was happening. That was very threatening.”
GLSEN, an LGBTQ-inclusive education advocacy organization, defines misgendering as “the experience of being labeled by others as a gender other than one that a person identifies with.” Misgendering not only invalidates the identities of trans people, but it can also have negative effects on their self-confidence and mental health. Trans adolescents already experience high levels of attempted suicide -- particularly transgender boys and nonbinary young people -- but a March study by researchers from the University of Texas at Austin found that “when transgender youths are allowed to use their chosen name in places such as work, school and at home, their risk of depression and suicide drops.”
School districts and states around the country have adopted affirming policies to respect trans identities and to condemn bullying based on gender identity or sexual orientation. GLSEN's Model School District Policy on Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students encourages schools to respect students’ names and pronouns to improve their experiences and reduce the harms caused by non-affirming practices like misgendering.
Tech companies have also passed similar policies to prevent anti-trans harassment on social media platforms. In September, Twitter banned “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals” as part of its “hateful conduct” policy, acknowledging that those practices are meant to “dehumanize, degrade or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes.” Media Matters’ Parker Molloy praised the decision in a November 29 op-ed for The New York Times, noting that misgendering and deadnaming are used to deligitimatize trans identities and can discourage trans people from voicing their opinions:
As a transgender woman, I find it degrading to be constantly reminded that I am trans and that large segments of the population will forever see me as a delusional freak. Things like deadnaming, or purposely referring to a trans person by their former name, and misgendering — calling someone by a pronoun they don’t use — are used to express disagreement with the legitimacy of trans lives and identities.
Defenders of these practices claim that they’re doing this not out of malice but out of honesty and, perhaps, even a twisted sort of love. They surely see themselves as truth-tellers fighting against political correctness run amok. But sometimes, voicing one’s personal “truth” does just one thing: It shuts down conversation.
In addition to framing their coverage around Vlaming’s firing instead of how such harassment is harmful to students, Virginia TV news stations also aired considerably more statements that were sympathetic to the anti-trans teacher than the trans student. Virginia stations covered the story a total of 90 times between December 4 -- when station WRIC (ABC) says it broke the story -- and December 12. Throughout those segments, there were 82 clips of quotes or statements read in favor of Vlaming compared to 52 clips of quotes or statements read in favor of the student or the school board’s actions holding Vlaming accountable. (Repeated instances of the same person being quoted in one segment were counted as one statement.)
Furthermore, while the majority of clips supportive of the student came from repeated airings of two short clips of school officials speaking at the hearing or readings from official school district statements, many segments showed lengthy or multiple clips of Vlaming, his lawyer, and students defending his actions. For example, a segment on WVEC 13 featured multiple clips of a student supportive of Vlaming interspersed throughout the segment.
From the December 6 edition of WVEC’s 13News Now:
Only one segment included a quote from a parent, friend, or student supportive of the trans student at the center of the case, which was read by a reporter on WRIC’s 8News. Additionally, stations aired five quotes that appeared neutral to the story, either calling for more discussion, describing the events, or saying that the situation was not good for either side.
WAVY-TV 10 had particularly one-sided coverage, airing 18 statements or quotes in favor of Vlaming throughout 15 pieces of coverage compared to only 7 statements or quotes in favor of the student or school board’s actions.
While Vlaming’s story plays out in Virginia, several similar cases around the country are already being supported or litigated by the influential and extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). In November, ADF attorneys announced that they had filed a federal lawsuit representing Nicholas Meriwether, a Shawnee State University professor who received a formal warning for not using the appropriate pronouns to address a transgender student. Additionally, an ADF-allied attorney said in June that the group was working with an Indiana high school teacher who also cited his religious beliefs for refusing to address transgender students by their appropriate names and pronouns.
As Vlaming considers legal action and Virginia TV news stations continue to cover developments in his case, it is more important than ever that media contextualize the harms of misgendering trans people and give them a voice in these stories.
Media Matters searched iQ media for any mentions of “school,” “teacher,” “Virginia,” “fired,” “transgender,” or “trans” within 25 words of “pronoun,” as well as any mentions of “Peter Vlaming” or “West Point High School” from December 4-12 in all media markets serving Virginia: Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News; Richmond-Petersburg; Roanoke-Lynchburg; Harrisonburg, Charlottesville; Tri-Cities, TN-VA; Washington, D.C.-Hagerstown; Bluefield-Beckley-Oak Hill; Greensboro–High Point–Winston-Salem; and Raleigh-Durham (Fayetteville).
Additional research by Brennan Suen.
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After embarrassing herself on CBS’ 60 Minutes, one of President Donald Trump’s controversial cabinet appointments, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, retreated to the administration's safe space on Fox & Friends, where she was asked easy questions and not challenged on the specifics of a school safety commission she will chair.
In a March 11 interview with 60 Minutes anchor Leslie Stahl, DeVos struggled to provide evidence in support of “school choice,” her signature issue, stumbled when challenged on her claims, and failed to answer even basic questions about schools in her home state. When pressed to say whether there are as many false accusations as actual sexual assaults on college campuses -- which fits into a long-standing right-wing media myth that the problem of sexual assault is overblown -- DeVos said, "I don't know."
Sec. of Education Betsy DeVos struggles to answer fairly basic questions on school performance on 60 Minutes pic.twitter.com/lFVq3USwUW
— Axios (@axios) March 12, 2018
The next day, Trump’s favorite show Fox & Friends interviewed her as well, feeding DeVos unspecific, open-ended questions and leaving her claims unchallenged. Co-host Ainsley Earhardt simply asked DeVos for her “reaction” to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) criticism of the Trump administration’s inaction on gun safety. Later, Earhardt’s co-host Brian Kilmeade asked DeVos to explain what HuffPost columnists “don’t understand” in response to the outlet’s criticism of “school choice” policies. From the March 12 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends (questions are bolded for ease of reading):
STEVE DOOCY (CO-HOST): Madam secretary, we've been going through some of the things on the agenda that the president and the White House would like to get done. But ultimately it sounds like the ultimate goal would be to harden the schools. Would that be accurate?
BETSY DEVOS: Well, Steve, that's one of the opportunities we have and one of the responsibilities we have, frankly. We have many other venues in our country that are kept safe, and schools have to be a part of that equation as well. And every state and every community is going to do this slightly differently, but we’re going to advance ways in which schools can be made safer for students. And in which -- which works for each community and for each state.
AINSLEY EARHARDT (CO-HOST): Madam secretary, thank you so much for being on with us. Chuck Schumer -- he is not on board with this plan. This is what he had to say., and let's get your reaction. ... It’s a statement: “The White House has taken tiny baby steps designed not to upset the NRA when the gun violence epidemic in this country demands that giant steps be taken. Democrats in the Senate will push to go further, including passing universal background checks, actual federal legislation on protection orders, and a debate on banning assault weapons.” What's your reaction?
DEVOS: Well, the point is there are pieces of legislation before Congress today that can take significant steps in the right direction. Background checks, the Stop Violence Act. They have broad bipartisan support. And the president wants to see Congress act now, take these steps today, and then let's look at what we can do as next steps beyond that. But every time we’ve had a situation like this, we’ve had a lot of discussion, and camps go into their various corners. And then we sit and don't get anything done. The president is committed to taking action and to ensuring that we do what we can at the federal level to protect kids.
BRIAN KILMEADE (CO-HOST): Do you like what Florida did last Friday?
DEVOS: I think Florida has done an amazing job in a very short period of time of tackling some very difficult issues, and I think that every state is looking in that same direction, though Florida had obviously immediate motivation.
DOOCY: Sure. And one of the things that Florida did -- and now they are being sued by the NRA -- is they raised the age for buying a long gun to age 21. The president had said shortly after Parkland he would like to see that happen. But that's not in the proposal. Any idea why?
DEVOS: Well, everything is on the table. And part of the job of this commission will be to study that and see if that is advanced ultimately as a recommendation in next steps. The point being there are many steps to be taken now, and additional steps that will be taken down the road as we do the work of the commission.
EARHARDT: The president had mentioned making our schools similar to airports where you have to go through metal detectors, you have to show IDs. Any details on that?
DEVOS: Well, you know, some schools actually do that today. And perhaps for some communities, for some cities, for some states, that will be appropriate. There is not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution to this issue and this problem. There are going to be many different solutions, and one of the things the commission has been charged to do is to really do an inventory and raise up all of the best practices across the country because some communities are getting it really right.
KILMEADE: If I'm governor, I’d like to do it myself. Governor [Rick] Scott was not waiting for anything from Washington. That's probably what you should do. But I want us to switch to something else that really is the hallmark of your secretaryship, if that's a word, and that is giving kids a school -- give choice, vouchers for kids to be able to go to schools, some of which are excellent schools, and out of schools that might be failing. Well, Huffington Post says, “School choice is a lie that harms us all.” What don't they understand that you do?
DEVOS: Well, they obviously haven't talked to the many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands or millions of parents, who want to have the chance to choose the right education for their child. And we know today there is just a fraction of families in this country that are able to make that choice. And we need to make that choice much more broadly available to ensure that every child is in a school and in a learning environment that works for him or her.
KILMEADE: And some can't afford it and that's where the vouchers come in, correct?
DEVOS: That's right. And a voucher is just a mechanism. There are many mechanisms that can be used. The key is giving parents freedom for their kids' education. Freedom to make the decisions and the choices that are right for their child or their children.
EARHARDT: Is that any type of school? Does that include religious schools?
DEVOS: It does indeed. There are many programs already today in states that are serving small numbers of families of kids, and if they select a school, a faith-based school, that is certainly their option and choice. But, the idea, again, is giving parents the kind of freedom that those who have means and those who are wealthy are able to make those decisions on a daily basis.
DOOCY: Well, we like the idea, but of course the teachers unions don't because they feel their jobs are at stake.
DEVOS: Well, there are some very powerful forces that are arrayed against changing the status quo. And that is what we are up against. But the reality is that the majority of people in this country support the idea of giving parents that kind of freedom. And so this legislation is going to continue to advance at the state level. At the national level, we’re going to continue to push this conversation, and to encourage our lawmakers to look at ways that they can encourage it both in their states, and take steps nationally that will help parents be free to make those decisions for their kids.
A recent Vice report detailed Alliance Defending Freedom’s (ADF) stealth years-long effort to chip away at the separation of church and state in public schools and take away the rights of LGBTQ students. Most recently, as Vice reported, ADF was a “major force” behind the Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri violated the church’s First Amendment rights by denying it access to government grants meant for secular use. Trinity v. Comer was viewed as a “major First Amendment decision” in terms of the separation of church and state.
Media Matters identified ADF as the anti-LGBTQ hate group leading the national campaign against transgender students in November 2015. Since then, ADF has kept up its assault on the rights of transgender students to access a fair and equal education: It has drafted a model policy to deny transgender students equal protection in school, repeatedly sent representatives to testify at school board meetings to advocate against protecting transgender students, and even sued school districts for implementing transgender-inclusive policies.
Vice reported that ADF has “an army of over 2,600 private attorneys and assets of around $40 million” to work on clawing back the rights of LGBTQ youth in schools:
Why has the organization dedicated so much attention to schools in recent years? According to [Angelo] Carusone at Media Matters, maintaining control of the country's education system is part of ADF's long view of the fight to control public policy.
“They see this as a generational fight, and you target kids when you're fighting a generational war,” he said. “They think they can turn the tides of culture, and they're willing to fight this for decades... They're not fighting individual skirmishes over individual policies. They see this as a battle in a decades-long, multi-generational effort to make sure every member of the LGBT community is not just pushed back into the closet, but put in jail.”
The report also highlighted efforts by LBGTQ organizations and coalitions, such as the Eliminate Hate campaign, to push back against ADF’s actions:
That the ADF has taken such an active role in manipulating educational policy has not gone unnoticed by LGBTQ organizations. Recently, a coalition of LGBTQ advocacy groups launched a campaign called “Eliminate Hate,” dedicated to exposing ADF interference in school districts and bringing attention to other anti-LGBTQ hate groups.
“It's bad enough when you're not accepted at home,” said Sara Grossman, communications manager at the Matthew Shepard Foundation (MSF), which advocates for an end to violence against LGBTQ people. “Sometimes school is your safe space. To take that away is atrocious. They're just kids.”
Besides media outreach, coalition partners are also placing op-eds in major news outlets, and working to connect supportive parents with school officials so that their voices can't be ignored.
But it’s going to be difficult to counter the ADF’s vast legal and financial resources, particularly now that they've been successful in the Trinity case. With a sympathetic administration in the White House, it’ll be easier than ever for states to reduce funding for public schools and increase funding for discriminatory private schools.
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Journalists have spent months investigating the complicated connections of education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, attempting to untangle her financial dealings and ideological stances on public education. In light of DeVos’ January 17 Senate committee confirmation hearing, Media Matters highlights some of the findings from quality investigative reporting on the billionaire Republican mega-donor.
It’s been one year since news figures seized on the story of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old Muslim American child in Texas who was taken from his school in handcuffs for bringing a “suspicious” homemade alarm clock to class. Last September, Fox News’ coverage of Mohamed’s arrest revealed a long-held tendency to selectively invoke the language of “school safety” to conveniently push conservative stances on immigration, national security, LGBT rights, and guns, while ignoring threats to the safety of the most vulnerable populations in our schools.
When Fox News talks about “school safety,” the ensuing conversation is exactly what you’d expect from a network with a median viewer age of 68 and a prime-time viewership that’s only 1.1 percent black. For Fox and its viewers, a predictable line exists between those individuals worthy of protection and those who represent perceived threats. Here’s what we’ve seen on Fox since Ahmed’s arrest made headlines last fall.
In September 2015, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested at his Irving, TX, middle school and brought to a local police station in handcuffs after he was reported for bringing a “suspicious” homemade alarm clock to his classroom. In the weeks of national media coverage of the incident that followed, Fox News figures dismissed Mohamed’s traumatic experience and used the incident to justify profiling.
The network aired segments vilifying the child, claiming that progressives were hypocritical or willfully exploitative for suggesting Mohamed’s arrest was influenced by Islamophobia, and hyping so-called connections between Mohamed’s family members and terrorists. The Five co-host Greg Gutfeld summarized this convoluted position: “Try bringing a clock that looks like a bomb to the White House. Actually, no, don’t try it; you’ve seen what they do to people who jump fences. So why is this school’s safety a joke, but President Obama’s isn’t? Because for [Obama], and the media, the story fits the assumption of an America that hates Muslims. Yup, it’s our fault for reacting when a kid brings a wired-up box to a place filled with kids in a state where terror has occurred.”
According to a survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, classroom teachers are reporting more incidents of identity-based bullying and fear particularly among students from immigrant and Muslim families, a trend that appears to be connected to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric -- which Fox News has actively legitimized for years. A California study released just months after Mohamed’s arrest found that the majority of American Muslim students in the state reported experiencing physical and verbal bullying because of their faith in 2014. An in-depth report from The Guardian explained the trend:
Words are the most common weapon of school bullies, but in the past month, anti-Muslim sentiment in schools is increasingly manifesting in physical attacks, particularly against girls who wear the hijab. On 19 November, three boys allegedly beat up a sixth-grade girl wearing a hijab, calling her “Isis”. A 2014 study by Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) study found 29% of students who wore hijab experienced offensive touching or pulling of their scarves.
Fifty-five percent of Muslim students surveyed by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) last year reported that they were bullied at school in some form because of their Islamic faith. That’s twice the national percentage of bullying reported by all students, regardless of their religion. According to the CAIR survey, verbal harassment is the most common, with non-Muslims calling Muslim students terrorists or referencing bombs. But physical assaults also occur.
These incidents are taking a psychological toll on Muslim youth. “At a crucial time in their identity development, they’re suffering from chronic trauma,” says Dr Halim Naeem, a psychotherapist and president of The Institute of Muslim Mental Health. Dr Naeem says that in the past few months alone, he has seen increased cases of depression, anxiety, image issues, paranoia, and substance abuse among Muslim American youth. In the short term, the constant stress wreaks havoc on students’ immune systems and destroys their focus, disrupting learning ability.
In the wake of recent mass shootings, Fox News figures voices have repeatedly pushed arming educators or allowing more guns in schools as a way to improve student and teacher safety, and irresponsibly spread dangerous misinformation about school safety best practices. Immediately following the 2012 mass shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, Fox News began calling for teachers to be armed -- even as school security experts, educators, and others argue that bringing guns into schools would make classrooms more dangerous and worsen learning environments for students. When a Texas school district moved to arm some of its teachers in 2014, the network devoted at least two segments to celebrating the decision and pushing the long-debunked myth (peddled by the NRA) that “a good guy with a gun” would prevent mass shootings. Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade praised the initiative: “If you want to drop your kid off and know that they are going to be protected, you know at least in that school they are going to be protected.” Last year, Fox & Friends co-hosts again demonstrated a misguided understanding of school safety when they encouraged young children to physically confront gunmen, rather than first try to escape, and then hide -- and only confront the guman as a last resort -- as experts advise in the event of an active shooter situation.
As the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, wrote back in 2014, educators have long expressed an overwhelming desire to keep firearms out of classrooms and to strengthen gun violence prevention measures. Research has shown that greater access to guns in general creates greater risk for accidents and misfires. Gun access corresponds with increased risk of homicide, and gun-related deaths in the home are now the second most likely cause of death for children and teens. There’s also little evidence the presence of armed security staff in schools makes them any safer. Advocates are pushing for better training and reformed responsibilities for these positions to emphasize restorative justice and de-escalation techniques, as well as student and community needs, in order to combat current racial disparities in schools’ use of armed security officers.
Fox News figures have been instrumental in pushing the right-wing myth that gender-inclusive bathrooms in schools allow adult men to prey on children. The network has routinely either fearmongered about schools’ efforts to make their bathrooms safe for all students to use or mocked inclusive bathroom policies altogether. More than two years after Media Matters first debunked the “bathroom predator” myth, Fox News continues to push dangerous rhetoric about nondiscrimination policies. In April, Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt hyped the disingenuous claim that nondiscrimination laws could lead to “a grown adult man” with “bad intentions” sneaking into “the little girls’ bathroom.” In May, Sean Hannity mocked inclusive bathroom policies on his radio show, proposing “liberal bathroom areas” where “you can have all the transgendered back-and-forth that you want.” In June, Tucker Carlson called the Democratic National Convention’s gender-neutral bathrooms “disgusting.”
After speaking to officials at 23 school districts and four universities that allow transgender students to use facilities that correspond with their gender identity, Media Matters failed to find any evidence of incidents of inappropriate bathroom behavior. Law enforcement experts and people who work with survivors of sexual assault have referred to this persistent myth as “beyond specious” and “the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
In fact, school officials and educators’ groups continue to support efforts to boost nondiscriminatory bathroom policies and have pointed out the need for LGBT students to have these types of basic protections. Research shows LGBT students overwhelmingly report experiences of bullying in schools today, and efforts to distract from the needs of LGBT students with fearmongering and mockery certainly don’t help. In its guidelines for supporting transgender and gender diverse students, the American Psychological Association recommends that schools provide accessible facilities that match a student’s gender identity as one way to address the high rates of victimization and hostility transgender students report. In fact, opposition to nondiscrimination policies can further stigmatize and single out transgender students, leading to more reports of bullying and an increased risk of suicide. Advocates for survivors of sexual assault have also pointed out that perpetuating the “bathroom predator” myth can have dangerous consequences: Relying on stereotypical predator imagery to talk about sexual assault diverts attention and resources from finding solutions to keep women and girls safe.
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