Out of the (water) closet: New York Times surveys backlash on Obama 'bathroom' order

The pushback against the Obama administration's latest directive, to open all school bathrooms and locker rooms to transgender people -- using federal funding as a bit of blackmail -- gets a broad indepth article from the New York Times.

But the Gray Lady raises more questions than she answers -- and doesn't ask some that she should.

The story draws broadly from several front lines. It tells of a march in rural Georgia and a demonstration in Fort Worth over the issue.  Also a vow by the school district in Marion County, Fla., to fight a complaint from the ACLU. And eight states have sided with North Carolina in its legal fight with the federal government, which is suing the Tar Heel State over its bathroom law.

And -- an important fact -- the paper reveals that everyone is pretty much arguing blind about transgender regulations:

Advocates on both sides said they suspect that most school districts did not have explicit policies defining gender. There are districts that allow transgender students to use the facilities that match their identities, and districts that prohibit it, but no definitive count of either group.

The article is thickly referenced with seven linked articles, most of them from the Times itself. But in contrast to many roundup-style pieces, this one adds new info and interviews. It includes at least 10 quoted sources, including interviews and a press conference with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas. And the opinions represent not only both sides, but a few points in between.

Unfortunately, some of the quotes amount to mere posturing:

In Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick appealed to local school boards and superintendents not to abide by the directive, noting that there were just a few weeks left in the school year and time over the summer to fight the policy with legislation or legal action. "We will not be blackmailed," he said.
"I believe it is the biggest issue facing families and schools in America since prayer was taken out of public schools," Mr. Patrick, a Republican, said at a news conference. "Parents are not going to send their 14-year-old daughters into the shower or bathroom with 14-year-old boys. It’s not going to happen."
With a jab at another job Mr. Patrick has held, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said, "I think this does underscore the risk of electing a right-wing radio host to a statewide office."

Both of those quotes are too open-ended. The Times could have asked Patrick: "In what ways can you equate a restroom issue to a church-and-state issue?"

For Earnest, a good question would have been: "Does the President sign off on that characterization of Patrick? Does that amount to a cheap shot on a matter of government and statesmanship?"

It's also unclear why the paper quotes Chirlane McCray saying that Obama's transgender stance "reaffirms a basic human right." McCray is the wife of Mayor Bill DeBlasio of New York City -- not the mayor himself.

The Times also blithely quotes McCray that "No child should face humiliation and embarrassment because of their gender identity, especially during such a private moment." A corollary question: "Might other children feel humiliation and embarrassment when someone of the opposite sex enters his/her bathroom?" But the paper doesn't ask that one.

Some of the article follows the familiar mainstream media template. The "conservative" label is used three times; "liberal," none. Thus, the Alliance Defending Freedom is a "conservative Christian legal group"; but the Human Rights Campaign is well, just the Human Rights Campaign.

At least the newspaper allows some substantive conservative comments. "The Obama administration has absolutely no legal authority to change what a statute means, and that’s what they’re doing," says Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel for the Alliance. He also accuses the administration of "disregard for students’ privacy and safety in these intimate settings."

And (gasp), the Times remembers that there are religious people in the South!

Steve Fallin, a pastor who participated in the march, spoke of a rising anger among many Christians who feel they are not being treated with respect, a fury that intensified Friday with news of the president’s directive.
"What President Obama did with this letter, he just cranked up the heat on the pot just a few degrees too high," Mr. Fallin said. "I can tell you from what I saw last night, most of rural America, particularly the South, is right ready to just boil over."

But that’s all we know about Fallin. What town is he from? What church? Which denomination? It matters whether he's Baptist or Methodist or Pentecostal or other.

The Times says most Americans oppose transgender/bathroom laws, and it cites a CNN-ORC poll from last week as support. But as many people know, it's all in how a question is phrased. The poll asked: "Overall, would you say you favor or oppose laws that require transgender individuals to use facilities that correspond to their gender at birth rather than their gender identity? Do you [favor/oppose] that strongly or somewhat?"

What if the poll had asked something like, "Do you [favor/oppose] requiring people of different genders to use the same restroom, even if they believe identify as the opposite gender?" Often a poll or questionnaire does ask the same question, phrased different ways. This one did not, and the Times doesn't point that out.

In sum, this article is an OK surface treatment of this battle in the culture war. But it's vital to go a little below the surface.


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