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"Bad People Might Use Your Journalism for Bad Things" is a Bad Argument
Though it's becoming a common one
If you want to have a terrible time, listen to this “discussion” (scare quotes justified if not absolutely required) between journalist Jesse Singal and The Majority Report’s Sam Seder and Emma Vigeland.
Some background: Jesse Singal is a journalist who is mostly known for his writing on youth gender medicine. Much of his work — most notably a high-profile 2018 Atlantic article — has pointed out that there’s a lot we don’t know about the best ways to treat minors who may have gender dysphoria, and that there’s evidence suggesting that guidelines and best practices are often ignored. This has made him a villain in some lefty circles; “Jesse Singal is a transphobe” is an article of faith among a certain strain of trans rights activists (FWIW, I’ve read Singal’s work and think the charge is unfair). Sam Seder and Emma Vigeland are hosts of The Majority Report, a left-wing radio show/podcast. Before their interaction with Singal — which was the end result of a Twitter disagreement — I didn’t know who Sam Seder and Emma Vigeland were. Having watched the exchange, I envy the version of me who didn’t know they existed; if anyone knows how to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind these clowns out of my brain, please see me in the comments section.
I’ll summarize the bit that’s relevant to this article for those who don’t want to watch the full 21-minute clip (and no-one who wants to enjoy their life and feel good about humanity should watch the full 21-minute clip). I will try to recount Seder’s argument fairly and accurately, so that I may then spend 2,000 words arguing that it’s a pile of shit.
Seder feels that Singal’s writing on youth gender medicine is causing harm. Specifically, he notes that Republican attorneys general from several states filed a brief that cites Singal’s work (Singal says the AGs misrepresented his writing). This isn’t the first time that someone on the left has argued that journalists are giving conservatives fodder to advance an anti-trans agenda: It was a central point of the letter that GLAAD sent to the New York Times in February criticizing the paper’s coverage of trans issues. From that letter:
Think your stories are innocently “just asking questions”? The State of Texas quoted Emily Bazelon’s June 2022 report in the New York Times Magazine to further target families of trans youth in court documents over their private, evidence-based healthcare decisions.
So, please note: My goal here is not to dissect an argument made by a man (Seder) whom I didn’t know existed five minutes ago and whom I will now devote my life to trying to forget. My goal is to dissect an argument that is being made by many people, using Seder’s words as the focal point because he articulated the argument in (frankly way too much) detail.
To describe why he finds Singal’s work harmful, Seder offers an analogy: In 2005, The Huffington Post published an article by Sam Harris arguing that — at least in the abstract — torture is morally permissible in some cases. Seder argues that the article provided intellectual cover for the torture that occurred during the War on Terror. Seder also thinks that Singal’s work — and, we can assume, work like the Times articles that GLAAD criticized — is playing a similar role, because Republicans are citing those articles in their efforts to do things like outlaw the prescription of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones to minors.
Before I explain why I think the “bad people might use your work for bad things” argument is bad, let me explain why I think Seder’s torture analogy is off-base. I see two problems: 1) I find the argument that the Bush administration was influenced, spurred-on, or otherwise enabled by a Huffington Post article completely ridiculous, and 2) Philosophical arguments are qualitatively different from journalistic reporting of facts.
The excesses of the War on Terror did not occur because of a fucking Huffington Post article. We know enough about the Bush White House to know that its thought leaders were not big HuffPo readers; there is no account in any Bob Woodward book of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld barking “Don’t EVER bother me while I’m reading a HuffPo piece by Deepak Chopra about achieving wholeness through the mind-body connection!” at a subordinate. Also, the piece Seder is talking about was published on October 17, 2005. The Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the most infamous recipient of “enhanced interrogation” — was captured in early 2003. So, both the arrow of time and the knowledge that Republican politicians don’t take their marching orders from left-leaning content aggregation web sites discredit the idea that Harris’ article played a key role in promoting torture.
There’s also a big difference between arguing that an idea shouldn’t be published and arguing that a fact shouldn’t be published. Personally, I’m not a big fan of suppressing either; in my experience, nothing helps bad ideas metastasize like being labeled DANGEROUS, FORBIDDEN KNOWLEDGE WHOSE NAME WE MUST NEVER SPEAK. Nonetheless, I’ll concede that publications have to decide which ideas are worthy of their column inches, and some ideas won’t make the cut. That’s fine; it’s no tragedy that the theory that Full House is a show about a dead family stuck in purgatory has never been in The Washington Post. I’m not distraught that there isn’t a NOVA episode called Penguins: Profiteers of the AIDS Crisis. You could argue (I wouldn’t) that Harris’ views are so marginal that they don’t deserve space in any publication, even one mostly read by bored 20-somethings in between improv classes.
But to argue that a fact shouldn’t be published is considerably more serious. After all: Aren’t journalists supposed to report things that happened in the world? And doesn’t “things” in that sentence mean “facts”? Ya know…stuff. Journalists have to report on stuff — you can’t declare “stuff” out-of-bounds. A newspaper can’t just be the Wordle and Beetle Bailey; journalists have to be free to report on important things whether those things support our preconceptions or not.
I’m sure that Seder and GLAAD would argue (if you parse their words closely, they do argue) that Singal, Bazelon, et. al. are reporting on extremely rare cases and making it sound like those cases are the norm. That is: Bazelon, Singal, and journalists like them are writing stories about “detransitioners” — men and women who went through some level of gender transition before reverting to their natal sex — and making it seem as though detransitioning is common.
In theory, I think this argument could be sound. “I’m just reporting facts” is not proof of intellectual honesty — you can stick to facts and still badly distort reality. An example would be right-wing media’s obsessions with welfare cheats. There are, without a doubt, people who cheat government programs. But if you focus exclusively on those people, and never provide context about how common those people are or how the program is functioning as a whole, then your reporting is intellectually dishonest. You could argue that we committed this sin on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver when we ran umpteen pieces about the credit industry that collectively gave the impression that people only end up in debt if they suffer a medical catastrophe, shark attack, voodoo curse, or some combination of the three. Emphasis matters; it’s possible to distort reality through a highly selective reporting of facts.whose opinion you should maybe actually care about — the answer is “no”. Singal and Bazelon talked to trans people, put the controversies in broader context, and took pains to point out that many people who undergo gender transition are glad that they did. These articles also need to be considered in the context of broader coverage of the issue; in its letter to employees about GLAAD’s complaints, Times leadership argued that its body of work on transgender issues was balanced. They wrote:
“Our coverage of transgender issues, including the specific pieces singled out for attack, is important, deeply reported, and sensitively written. … The letter also ignores the Times’ strong commitment to covering all aspects of transgender issues, including the life experience of transgender people and the prejudice and violence against them in our society.”
Of course, Seder’s argument doesn’t rest on proving that Singal’s writing is biased. His argument is that Singal’s writing is harmful, hence the lengthy torture metaphor that was at least as torturous as anything the CIA did at a black ops site. Seder even helpfully clarifies that he believes the quality of the journalism being used for political ends is irrelevant. He says:
“Regardless of whether there was merit to the philosophical argument about the value of torture…what that article does is it gives cover for people who were promoting torture in places outside of Huffington Post. The writer is basically positing that they have no impact on this public debate. Because I believe that if you are writing in this manner and if you are promoting ideas in this manner in public than you must take responsibility not just for the specific content as the letters, but its impact and how its heard and how it’s used in a political struggle that’s going on.”
Incredibly, Seder is criticizing journalism purely on the grounds that it has a negative impact. The veracity of the reporting is irrelevant; Seder’s belief stands “regardless of whether there was merit” to the piece. This is consistent with the tendency by some activists to denounce the alleged harm caused by journalism even when their substantive criticism of that journalism is thin or non-existent.
But how would a rule that journalists are responsible for the political impact of their writing possibly work? For starters, how will journalists know how their writing will be used? Seder expects journalists to be professional political prognosticators, despite the fact that even professional political prognosticators are bad at prognosticating politics. To wit: The political impact of reporting on youth gender medicine is far from clear. It could be true — as Seder believes — that reporting on youth gender medicine will lead to a conservative backlash that could cause the whole field to be shut down. Or, it could be true that failing to report on youth gender medicine will make liberals seem willfully blind to the challenges in the still-developing field, and that will lead to a backlash that will cause the whole field to be shut down. I happen to think that the latter scenario is plausible.Maybe you don’t, that’s fine, but the fact remains that “predict the political impact of your work” is not a very helpful maxim.
But what about situations in which the political impact of journalism is clear? In those situations, Seder’s viewpoint ceases to be impractical but remains unethical. Suppose that a journalist came across hard proof that Sonia Sotomayor is a cannibal. Should the journalist bury that information? If your principle is that journalists should report true and important information, then the clear answer is “no”. But if you follow Seder’s principle that journalists should “take responsibility” for how their journalism will be “heard and used in a political struggle”, then the answer might be “yes”. Of course, that’s only true if you think Sotomayor is “good”; a conservative journalist would be compelled to bury the same set of facts if discovered about Samuel Alito. The idea that the public has a right to know if a Supreme Court justice is eating people — and possibly people with interests before the court! — is irrelevant if we accept Seder’s principle that political ends are paramount.
There’s a word for journalism that prioritizes political ends over truth: propaganda. We can either want journalists to report the truth, or we can want journalists to filter the truth with an eye towards politics, but we can’t want both. Those goals work at cross-purposes. It’s ironic that some people who (rightly) decry the post-truth MAGA fever swamp are trying to dislodge “write what’s true” as a guiding journalistic principle.
If conservatives hadn’t cited Singal and Bazelon’s work in their various attempts to restrict youth gender medicine, then they would have cited someone else’s work (and they did cite other work in every case that I’m aware of). There are major reports on this topic from the likes of Reuters, 60 Minutes, The Economist, and the BBC. There are books and affidavits and congressional testimony about youth gender medicine. There was a huge scandal in the UK that contributed to the Labor Party’s abrupt pivot away from trans activists’ positions, and there were reviews of youth gender medicine by the British government and governments in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and France that led to major changes in how gender medicine is practiced in those countries. The cat is out of the bag — it is factually true that there are debates about practices in this field. The idea that the conservative push to restrict youth gender medicine is fueled by or dependent on the work of a few journalists is utterly ridiculous.
"Bad people might use your journalism for bad things" is a bullying tactic. Activists have struggled to argue that work they don't like is shoddy or untrue — GLAAD’s attempts to discredit Bazelon’s work are, in my opinion, laughable — so they're taking a different approach. But that approach chastises journalists for doing journalism. It's a threat that says: “If you publish stuff we don't like, you will lose your Good Liberal card.” And people want to keep that card! It gets you free scoops at Ben & Jerry's and automatic admission to orgies at Warren Beatty's house (blackout dates apply).
Ironically, the articles that Seder and GLAAD are trying to suppress are some of the work that convinced me that the laws Republicans have passed in many states — laws that make it illegal to prescribe puberty blockers or hormones to minors — are bad laws. Because my takeaway from those articles was this: How to best manage a possible case of teenage gender dysphoria is a highly personal decision. Many tough calls need to be made. I think those decisions should be made by the teenager and their parents, with guidance from well-trained clinicians informed by the best science we have. The state should stay out of it. The government shouldn’t insert itself into a delicate medical decision; it shouldn’t rule out options that will be the best path for some teens. There are valid concerns about the quality of care many kids receive, and youth gender medicine desperately needs more research. But these bills are a bad response to those problems — they’re an overcorrection.
That’s my opinion, and it’ll remain my opinion until new information pushes it one way or the other. And I’m always in the market for new information; I don’t understand people like Seder who seem to aggressively not want to know things. I wonder if Seder ever considers that if facts are that damaging to his position — if there’s certain information that must never be published because it empowers his opponents — then the problem might be his position, not the facts. He probably doesn’t think that; he seems to be committed to the idea that some true things are out-of-bounds. I just hope that journalists don’t agree with him, because then they won’t really be journalists anymore.
Wemple’s critique is about the Times’ coverage, specifically; he doesn’t comment on Singal’s Atlantic article (which was written five years prior to Wemple’s column).
Jonathan Chait recently wrote a column arguing that liberals should fear a backlash to the rapid changes in youth gender medicine.
In the brief that’s the subject of the discussion between Seder and Singal, the AGs cite an academic paper and an article from a think tank journal in addition to Singal’s Atlantic article. In the brief linked to in GLAAD’s letter criticizing the Times coverage, the AGs cite articles in The Economist, Medscape, the Washington Post, and CBS News in addition to the Times.