The silent spots speak loudest in NYTimes story on Houston battle

Conservatives used fear-mongering tactics to turn back an equal-rights ordinance in Houston.

What tactics did their liberal opponents use? Oh, who cares?

The New York Times doesn't totally ignore supporters in writing up the referendum to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). But the story does pretty much fixate on who the opponents were, what they did and what the consequences might be. And what the newspaper chose not to say spoke volumes.

A bit o' background from the Times:

The measure banned discrimination in housing, private employment, city contracting and businesses such as restaurants, bars and hotels for 15 protected classes. These included minorities, women, gays and transgender individuals.
Restrooms are not specifically mentioned in the measure, which is why conservatives were accused of fearmongering. Still, it was the ordinance’s supporters, not its opponents, who appeared to first raise the issue of bathrooms last year. A draft of the bill included a section, later removed, that would have let transgender people use the bathroom that best reflected their gender identity. Opponents seized on the issue and never let go.

The article goes way back in sketching out the battle. More than a year ago, Mayor Annise D. Parker and her supporters first proposed the ordinance. Since Parker was the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city, they expected smooth sailing.

Meanwhile, the opposition Campaign for Houston was polling various emphases and decided on bathrooms:

This reframing cast the issue as a matter of public safety, with claims that the measure would allow men who were dressed as women or who identified as women to enter women’s bathrooms and attack or threaten girls and women inside. The measure’s critics called it the Bathroom Ordinance and simplified their message to five words: “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.”

How ironic to see the Times talk about reframing, then saying that opponents "seized" on the issue. The newspaper also frames the story with standard labeling. Various forms of "conservative" were used seven times; "liberal," zero.

Besides "conservatives" and "pastors" -- and in one place, "religious conservatives" -- the Times says the ordinance foes include Ed Young, a Houston pastor and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. It also names Tony Perkins of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council. How about the faith of the supporters? Were they all atheists or those multiplying "Nones"? Did any of the four reporters on this story ask?

That's one of several silent spots I see in this story.

I liked the part about the comparative money -- $1 million for the ordinance opponents, a third of that raised by supporters -- and "fewer contributions flowing in from out of state," the Times notes. Sharp reporting there. Even sharper would have been to say who wrote the biggest checks for the supporters.

Because the Times does say who gave the most to the opponents -- and then took it back. Robert McNair, owner of the Houston Texans, asked the ordinance opponents to return his $10,000 donation. He accused the group of making "unauthorized statements" about his opposition to the ordinance, the Times says. Like what, though? Another silent spot.

The article also should have looked at other cities that have passed similar ordinances, including several in Texas. Have they seen the kind of incidents that the Coalition for Houston fears? A previous Times story says that Fort Worth hasn't logged any such attacks since it passed its ordinance in 2009. That should have been in this piece, too.

But the biggest sin of omission was silence about the city's subpoena of sermons last year against five pastors who opposed HERO.  The Times was aware of the effort; when Parker called it off two weeks later, the newspaper reported it. In fact, the paper made a glancing reference to it last Sunday. Why was it dropped in the latest article?

None of my comments are an attempt to put the HERO opponents above scrutiny. If they used tactics that approached fearmongering, that’s a valid facet of this story. But so is the blatant attempt to use governmental power to chill dissent -- and, I suggest, it's the larger danger. To report one without the other amounts to focusing on tactics of one side while giving a pass on the other.

A final beef: The article reports that Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign called for an "emergency meeting" -- the Times' quote marks, BTW -- with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to reconsider holding the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston.  Then the newspaper quotes an NFL spokesman saying that 2017 plans were still going forward. But that last fact is at the end of the story -- 20 paragraphs after the first. Why?

At least the Times included the fact. Omar Villafranca of the CBS Evening News didn’t.


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