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See Something, Say Something #20

Media criticism from The Shoestring: the Gazette goes full trans panic, and the superintendent debacle snowballs.

By Brian Zayatz

See Something, Say Something is The Shoestring’s long dormant media criticism column, which recent events have compelled us to revive. We critique media because we hope that someday all journalism professionals will take seriously the power of the words they put into the world and consider their consequences. As far as we know, we’re the only local publication turning the spotlight back on the news outlets that influence local discourse. If you see news coverage of a local issue that doesn’t look quite right to you, drop us a line!

Just asking questions or just vilifying trans people?

As someone who is still under 30, I have found there is little to be gained from trying to understand what causes a “lifelong liberal” or a “feminist at her core” to dive headlong into far-right talking points. But as a journalist, I feel there is something to be gained from calling out publications who uplift these talking points uncritically.

I turn to J.M. Sorrell, who as recently as 2018 identified as a “gender non-conforming lesbian” and has been a spokesperson for Northampton Pride. Unfortunately, Sorrell seems to have fallen for the latest trans panic, understanding transgender women competing in sports against cis women as some sort of existential threat. Even more regrettably, the Daily Hampshire Gazette chose to publish a screed from Sorrell without any consideration to its consequences. (We will not be linking to it).

Reading Sorrell’s column, one gets the impression that “transgender activists” are a murderous, bloodthirsty gang whose goal is to sideline cisgender lesbians and lesbian history for no other reason than an identification with centuries of misogyny. Sorrell calls “gang rape” a “trans tactic towards feminists of all kinds,” and name drops Brazilian lesbians allegedly driven to suicide by mobs of trans people armed with words like “TERF” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist, for the uninitiated).

It is so easy to flush out bullshit arguments like this. An editor might have asked Sorrell to define what the “transgender ideology” is. Is it the idea that trans people should be able to live their lives expressing their gender however they like? If the answer is something different, you might be dealing with a straw man. An editor might have asked for evidence of trans activists using gang rape as a tactic to silence feminists. Or that editor might have taken the initiative to conduct a basic internet search of the terms “transgender rape statistics” to learn about these supposed “gang rapes”; they would have instead learned that transgender people are more than four times as likely to experience sexual violence in the course of their lives as cisgender people are. A similar search for “transgender suicide statistics” would bring a responsible editor to studies that have found that 40% of trans people have attempted suicide — a number that is almost certainly an undercount, as many trans people do not identify as such openly.

Sorrell claims that “lesbians are not threatening to rape and torture transgender activists,” which I’m sure is true, since most queer people see that our struggles are connected and whatever disagreements we may have, it is imperative that we support each other against forces who would murder us by the gun or by neglect. Importantly, if someone does feel threatened by trans people, they need not threaten rape or murder against anyone, because those things already happen quite frequently. Just as The New York Times has done with unhoused people, writers and editors can just sit back at the computer and publish whatever unfounded garbage they want about trans people, contributing to a political landscape in which early trans deaths are unremarkable but inconsequential arenas like sports and public bathrooms are treated like armageddon.

The superintendent candidate who cried “ladies”

The Daily Hampshire Gazette and Western Mass News set a bold example of how not to cover a single-source story last month when reporting on Easthampton’s bid to find a new school superintendent. Candidate Vito Perrone alleged that the city’s School Committee abruptly rescinded an offer made to him because he addressed committee members as “ladies” in an email.

The Gazette’s initial reporting on the matter extensively quotes Perrone’s narrative of events and emotional reactions, noting that members of the School Committee would not comment as the executive session in which the decision was made was intended to be confidential. Western Mass News went on later that weekend to air clips of Perrone reciting his fond memories of his time as principal of Easthampton High School.

When a journalist is unable to get another side of a story, they might turn to context: reporters could have looked into whether the fourteen weeks of paid time-off Perrone was requesting was standard. Or could have looked into what Perrone’s tenure at Easthampton High School was like, and noted that it coincided with the period the state AG’s office used in determining the school had racially discriminatory discipline practices.

Eventually, the Gazette did publish perspectives from School Committee members, but the cat was already out of the bag: the one-sided, decontextualized story that local outlets chose to tell served as ammo for community members to protest and berate the School Committee, tipped off a far-right TurtleBoy spinoff site to share the personal social media accounts of school committee members, and led to coverage from national outlets like Fox News and the National Review.

There will always be opportunists who know how to manipulate media outlets that don’t do their due diligence. Perrone told Western Mass News that he didn’t want there to be “division and discord.” But if that were really true, he wouldn’t have given that interview.

Brian Zayatz is a co-editor at The Shoestring.

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