Ted Cruz's victory in the Iowa Republican caucuses is due in part to the vocal support of Steve Deace -- an influential local radio host who spent the past few months urging his listeners to back Cruz in the nomination process. Deace has become a kind of kingmaker in Iowa Republican politics, and Cruz openly touted his endorsement in the lead up to caucus night.
Deace is also one of the most extreme voices in right-wing media -- accusing Democrats of leading a "war on whites," warning of an army of jihadists coming to take over America to argue for a higher white birth rate, and claiming President Obama is a Marxist and not a Christian.
Deace reserves his worst comments for the LGBT community. Deace calls homosexuality an "un-American and pagan ideology," a "sin orientation," and a "death sentence unto itself." He asserts the acceptance of homosexuality and marriage equality have created a slippery slope to pedophilia and has described gay activists as "homo-fascists" bent on promoting a "Rainbow Jihad." He argues gay people should be disqualified from serving as judges, and praised laws that criminalized homosexuality, which he wrote "punished evil" and protected civilization. He describes transgender people as "trannies" and mentally ill. He's even promoted an article that accused Obama of being secretly gay.
If Cruz continues performing well in the GOP primary race, Deace will likely become a constant fixture in mainstream media's election coverage. It's up to media outlets to identify the right-wing extremism of the man who helped secure Cruz his first big victory in the presidential primary.
Student loan debt in America has reached a staggering $1.3 trillion, surpassing even credit card debt. But right-wing media figures have criticized efforts to combat student loan debt by pushing misinformation and blaming students for pursuing higher education.
Conservative media have labeled higher education as a "privilege" and suggested students ought to choose fictional cheaper colleges. Some outlets have even defended schools that take advantage of students and leave them with significant debt. But research shows college matters now more than ever, and the cost to attend is rising across the board. The student debt crisis is especially damaging for poor students and students of color, who more frequently attend cheaper open-access and community colleges and are still forced to borrow in higher numbers to pay for their education.
Blaming students for the student loan debt crisis ignores the facts and distracts from finding real solutions to America's skyrocketing student debt burden.
Nearly half a century after Roe v. Wade, news coverage of abortion stories continues to be plagued by negative and damaging stereotypes about the procedure. Those stereotypes are the product of "abortion stigma," and they pose a real threat to accurate abortion coverage.
Abortion stigma -- the "shared understanding" that abortion is morally wrong or socially unacceptable -- shows up in all facets of popular culture. But it's especially dangerous when it taints news coverage of abortion stories.
But abortion stigma also shows up in mainstream news reporting, often in subtle ways. Whether it's using misleading b-roll footage of babies and extremely pregnant women during abortion segments, or parroting conservative talking points about medical safety while discussing extreme efforts to regulate abortion clinics, media framing of abortion debates often reinforces the idea that abortion is risky cruel, and taboo.
News coverage that peddles abortion stigma has a real impact on public opinion, policy debates, and women's reasonable access to healthcare. It's time media outlets stop treating abortion like something shameful and start treating it like what it is - an important and basic healthcare option for women across the country.
Video by John Kerr, Carlos Maza, and Leanne Naramore.
This week's release of Michael Bay's 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi will likely reignite the right-wing misinformation campaign about the 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya. Conservative media, led by Fox News, have spent over three years trying to find evidence of a Benghazi "bombshell" - something scandalous about the way the Obama administration and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to the attack.
Conservatives have falsely accused the administration of lying about the cause of the attack, issuing a "stand down" order, failing to send aid to the facility, and dismissing the deaths of the victims. But every "bombshell" has turned out to be a dud. 13 Hours may give Fox News the highly dramatized Benghazi story it's been hoping for, but years of actual investigations have thoroughly deflated the right-wing Benghazi fantasy:
Just months after the Supreme Court made the historic decision to legalize same-sex marriage, the LGBT community experienced its most stunning defeat at the ballot box since California's Proposition 8.
Voters in Houston, Texas, voted to repeal the city's non-discrimination protections for LGBT people after months of local news coverage suggesting that those protections might embolden sexual predators to sneak into public restrooms. The defeat is a testament to the power local TV news stations have to poison public opinion in the next major battle over LGBT equality.
While most of the country was celebrating the Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage, activists in Houston were fighting to protect the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a city ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of fifteen characteristics in areas like housing, employment, and public accommodations. HERO's protections for gay and transgender Houstonians earned the ire of conservatives, who succeeded in putting the measure up for a public repeal vote after months of lobbying and legal maneuvering.
HERO's opponents organized their opposition around the false claim that prohibiting discrimination against trans people would allow male sexual predators to sneak into women's restrooms by claiming to be women.
That talking point was debunked by experts across the city, state, and country -- there's no evidence that laws like HERO motivate sexual predators to commit crimes -- but that didn't stop opponents from making it the center of their negative ads.
And on Election Day, it appeared to pay off -- HERO was repealed by a wide margin, handing local and national LGBT groups a major defeat.
Many factors have been blamed for HERO's demise, including ineffective messaging and a lack of diversity in the local LGBT campaign. But shoddy coverage of the ordinance by local television news stations undoubtedly played a significant role in getting voters to turn against the ordinance. Reporters endlessly referenced the "bathroom predator" talking point without debunking it, essentially giving free airtime to HERO's opponents. Segments on HERO were riddled with generic B-roll footage of bathroom signs, often without context or explanation. By November, many Houstonians only understood HERO as a "bathroom ordinance" and not as a broad non-discrimination ordinance -- exactly what opponents were apparently hoping for.
One local news station -- Fox 26 Houston -- stood out in its unique and aggressive peddling of the "bathroom predator" myth. The Fox affiliate made bathroom concerns a central focus of its HERO coverage, uncritically echoing opponents' talking points in segment after segment. Though the station never formally opposed HERO, its coverage was aimed at ginning up concerns about the ordinance's scope. One particularly cringeworthy segment interviewed local parents concerned about whether HERO would endanger their children, failing to mention that similar laws across the country have never posed a threat to children's safety.
In fact, when Fox 26 finally did fact-check a HERO ad, it was to incorrectly criticize supporters of the law for comparing HERO to other non-discrimination laws in Texas. Just weeks before Election Day, Fox 26 devoted an entire segment to pointing out that Texas cities like Plano and San Antonio exclude bathrooms from their non-discrimination laws -- the implication being that HERO's bathroom protections are radical or unprecedented. What Fox 26 failed to mention was that major Texas cities, including Dallas and Austin, have had bathroom-inclusive transgender non-discrimination laws for years and have never experienced issues with bathroom safety.
That kind of dishonest reporting was likely part of the reason that Jared Woodfill, one of the leaders of the anti-HERO campaign, regularly included clips of Fox 26's reporting in his messages to supporters.
Fox 26's adoption of anti-HERO talking points was outside the bounds of good journalism, but it's emblematic of a larger problem with local news coverage of fights over trans-inclusive non-discrimination laws -- the failure to treat lies like lies.
Opponents of LGBT equality know, now more than ever, that they can turn public opinion against non-discrimination laws if they fixate on bathroom fearmongering. Local reporters feel compelled to present audiences with both sides of a controversy, even if that means repeating claims that are baseless or disproven. The result can be a toxic mix, with news outlets becoming megaphones for anti-LGBT groups, creating a public square that is so saturated with horror stories and misinformation that audiences are unable to separate fact from fiction. It's the reason pro-LGBT ordinances are so regularly defeated at the ballot box -- even well-funded and organized LGBT groups struggle to persuade voters in environments where fear-based ads are guiding media coverage. In Houston, a broad non-discrimination ordinance became known as a "bathroom bill" -- not because it was true, but because anti-LGBT groups had taken control of the local media's story-telling.
But this cycle of misinformation isn't inevitable. Journalism should be about more than merely repeating both sides of a factual dispute -- it should be about actively resolving those disputes through investigative reporting. The Houston Chronicle's Pulitzer-prize winning columnist, Lisa Falkenberg, for example, did her own investigation into the "bathroom predator" horror story, interviewing experts in cities with similar laws on the books and concluding that HERO's opponents were peddling an "urban myth."
The next major battles in the fight for LGBT equality will likely be fought outside the view of national media, with cities across the country following the Houston example and debating their own HERO-like non-discrimination policies. After HERO's defeat, the "bathroom predator" myth will undoubtedly continue to be a central part of efforts to roll back non-discrimination protections for LGBT people. Whether local reporters choose to debunk or lazily repeat anti-LGBT groups' talking points will have a major impact on how Americans understand and value those protections.
One of Houston's leading sexual assault experts has dismantled the right-wing "bathroom predator" myth about LGBT non-discrimination protections, calling out local media outlets for helping misrepresent the reality of sexual assault.
For the past year and a half, Houston has been mired in a tense debate over the city's Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a measure that prohibits discrimination in areas like housing, employment, and public accommodations on the basis of fifteen characteristics -- including race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
Opponents of HERO have falsely claimed that the ordinance would open the door to sexual predators who might pretend to be transgender in order to sneak into women's public restrooms and commit sexual assault. The "bathroom predator" myth has been thoroughly debunked by experts from cities and states across the country with similar laws on the books, including several cities in Texas with similar ordinances.
The talking point continues to be one of the most popular right-wing attacks on LGBT non-discrimination laws, and HERO's opponents have used it relentlessly to weaken support for the measure among women and parents.
But in May 2014, during a public hearing before the Houston city council, HERO supporters gained a powerful voice in their fight against the "bathroom predator" talking point: Cassandra Thomas.
Thomas has spent thirty-one years at the Houston Area's Women Center (HAWC), an organization dedicated to helping individuals affected by domestic and sexual violence. Aside from serving as HAWC's Chief Compliance Officer, Thomas is also a member of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center Board and sits on the editorial board of the Sexual Assault Report of the Civic Research Center. She's won numerous awards for her work on domestic and sexual violence, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.
Testifying before the city council, Thomas drew on her decades of experience to dismiss opponents' fearmongering. "If you really want to stop sexual assault," Thomas said, "then let's cut out the scare tactics, and let's speak the truth."
With less than a month before Houston voters decide the fate of the ordinance at the ballot box, HAWC continues to play an important role in the debate over HERO. The group appeared at the launch of the pro-HERO "Houston Unites" campaign in August and has worked to debunk opponents' onslaught of bathroom-focused television and radio ads.
In an interview with Media Matters, Thomas described why HAWC got involved in the debate over HERO.
The problem with the "bathroom predator" talking point, she explained, is that it fundamentally misunderstands how and why sexual assault occurs.
"Transgender people are not my bogeyman in the closet. My bogeyman in the closet is the man who is a rapist who has a position of power, that everyone thinks, because he has power or because he's nice or because he's white or because any of those stupid reasons, that 'I'm safe from him.' That is my biggest fear."
Thomas' position has been echoed by sexual assault experts in states and cities with similar LGBT non-discrimination policies, and it's supported by research. Sexual assault is overwhelmingly carried out by people victims know and trust -- family members or friends, religious and community leaders, etc. -- and not random predators who pretend to be transgender.
"It puts a bogeyman face on a group of people who don't deserve it at all, who are, by no account, through what we know, are dangers," she added.
Stereotypical images of shady-looking men sneaking into women's restrooms -- which have become a centerpiece of the anti-HERO campaign -- give women a "false sense of security," Thomas explained. "It makes women think that there are only certain places and certain people that I have to be afraid of and that's not true. We don't know what rapists look like. There's no big R on their forehead. And that misinformation sets women up to be injured."
When asked about why opponents of HERO had latched on to the "bathroom predator" talking point, Thomas dismissed the idea that HERO's opponents were seriously motivated by a concern for women's safety. "If it was about women's safety then these same people would be involved in the anti-violence movement from the start," she said.
"If these same people were concerned about the safety of women, they would have come out against any number of issues that have come up about sexual violence over the years, but they have been remarkably silent. So all of a sudden women are in danger because of transgender people? No. They're not."
Thomas also took aim at the media's coverage of the debate over HERO, which has been dominated by discussion of the "bathroom predator" myth while downplaying HERO's broad prohibition on discrimination. A recent Media Matters study found that local television media outlets rarely mentioned that HERO prohibits discrimination on fifteen characteristics including race, gender, and familial status -- characteristics that are statistically more likely to need HERO's protections:
"All people know about this bill is that it will allow men to go into women's restrooms and our poor girls and our poor women are in danger. But that's not what the bill is about at all," Thomas explained.
"What they've not done is told us what it is about. And they've not talked about the fact that every single day, people of color, women, veterans, pregnant women are facing discrimination, and this particular ordinance is about making sure they have equal access and equal opportunity under local law."
It's that discrimination, and a commitment to fair and equal treatment for Houstonians, that helped motivate HAWC's involvement in the HERO fight. "Equality is a right that everyone should have. All of us should be treated equally, should be able to equally access services and equally have protection under the law," Thomas said. "None of that should be based on the color of my skin or my gender or my sexual orientation or none of that. It should be because I'm human."
In the weeks leading up to the final vote on HERO, Houston voters will likely continue to be inundated by ads centered on the "bathroom predator" myth -- ads that will continue to shape and dominate the way the media talks about the ordinance.
The ginned-up controversy surrounding HERO's impact on public restrooms continues to make for sensational and enticing local news coverage. But it grossly misrepresents the reality of sexual violence and existing evidence about the real impact of LGBT non-discrimination laws. The sooner that Houston media outlets stops taking the "bathroom predator" talking point seriously, the better equipped their audiences will be to make informed decisions about HERO.
"Let's talk about real safety," Thomas urged. "Let's talk about protecting women from rapists. Protecting women from sex offenders who are out of jail and now walking the street again. Let's talk about those things that are real versus something that has absolutely no bearing on whether women are safe from sexual predators."
Opponents of Houston's LGBT-inclusive Equal Rights Ordinance warn that non-discrimination protections threaten women's safety in public restrooms. But experts -- including law enforcement officials, government employees, and advocates for sexual assault victims -- from three Texas cities with similar non-discrimination ordinances debunk the "bathroom predator" myth, citing empirical evidence and experience working with sexual assault victims.
Kim Davis, the Kentucky country clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, is embroiled in yet another media firestorm following revelations that reports about her private meeting with Pope Francis during his recent visit to the U.S. may have been grossly misrepresented by her and the legal group representing her, Liberty Counsel. But the controversy should come as no surprise to those familiar with Liberty Counsel, which has a reputation for lying in order to elevate its profile and further demonize LGBT people.
Florida-based Liberty Counsel was founded in 1989 by its now-chairman, Mat Staver. For years, the organization has distinguished itself as one of the anti-gay right's most extreme and blundering legal groups, taking on doomed efforts to defend harmful "ex-gay" therapy and slow the inevitable advance of marriage equality.
Before it began representing Davis, Liberty Counsel was perhaps most notorious for representing Lisa Miller. After ending a same-sex relationship with her partner, Miller took their daughter and moved to another state, defying a court order and refusing to allow her former partner to see the child. Liberty Counsel rallied to Miller's defense, creating a public relations nightmare for itself when Miller subsequently kidnapped the child and fled the country.
In addition to Davis, the group is also defending Scott Lively, an American evangelist facing charges of "crimes against humanity" for his involvement in promoting Uganda's extreme anti-LGBT law, which threatens gay Ugandans with life in prison.
Apart from its ham-handed legal work, Liberty Counsel is a run-of-the-mill anti-gay group that regularly makes asinine and hateful proclamations about the LGBT community. Liberty's Staver has linked homosexuality to pedophilia and disease, and predicted that marriage equality could cause society to "cease to exist." In 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) added Liberty Counsel to its list of anti-gay "hate groups."
The Kim Davis marriage-license story offered Liberty Counsel an opportunity to capitalize off of the national media spotlight trained on the law-breaking clerk - a chance for it to raise its visibility and carve out a niche for itself alongside more successful anti-LGBT legal organizations. Staver became a regular fixture in the media's coverage of Davis, cited in nearly every major mainstream media report about the controversy.
But that increased media attention also brought with it increased media scrutiny and vetting, especially as it become clear that Davis would face jail time for refusing to do her job. Commentators began openly wondering whether Liberty was cynically taking advantage of Davis to raise its profile. Others noted Liberty's penchant for pursuing dead-end, extreme anti-gay litigation. Even on Fox, media figures were suspicious of Staver's arguments and intentions. A panel of Fox commentators mocked Staver's "ridiculously stupid" suggestion that Kentucky isn't bound to follow the Supreme Court's orders. In an interview with Staver, Fox's Neil Cavuto seemed sincerely perplexed by Staver's legal reasoning, admitting he was "thoroughly confused" by the end of the segment.
That doubtfulness about Staver and Liberty Counsel's credibility turned out to be well-warranted. Since Davis' release from jail, Liberty Counsel has been embroiled in several PR controversies, almost exclusively attributable to Staver's own incompetence. During the September 17 edition of Liberty Counsel's Faith and Freedom broadcast, Staver claimed that the hosts of ABC's The View had called for Kim Davis to be killed, a blatant falsehood he was later forced to apologize for.
A few weeks later, while speaking at the conservative Values Voter Summit, Staver displayed a picture of what he claimed was a 100,000-person prayer rally in Lima, Peru for Davis. The photo was met with immediate suspicion from media commentators, who could find no evidence on social media that such a massive rally had taken place. After days of doubling down, attacking its critics, and revising its defense of the photo's authenticity, Liberty Counsel was forced to admit that the image actually came from a completely unrelated event in 2014, calling the mix-up "an honest mistake."
And then came Pope Francis' visit to the United States. On September 29, Liberty Counsel announced that the pope had met privately with Davis in Washington, DC to thank her for her "courage" and encourage her to "stay strong." In interviews with major media outlets, Liberty Counsel depicted the meeting as a de facto endorsement of Davis' case, telling CBS News that the meeting "sends a huge message worldwide that [the pope] stands for the inherent right of religious freedom." Staver also told CNN's Jake Tapper that the pope "did encourage [Davis] for standing."
But on October 2, the Vatican released an official statement clarifying that the meeting was not an endorsement of Davis' case:
Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope's characteristic kindness and availability.
The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.
One official said there was "a sense of regret" at the Vatican over the meeting, while an advisor close to Pope Francis tweeted that the pope was "exploited" by a "meeting that never should have taken place." Liberty Counsel has responded by disputing the Vatican's description of the event, effectively throwing more fuel on the media fire.
Liberty Counsel's recent PR crises aren't anomalies -- they're characteristic of an organization run by a man whose only real claim to fame is spewing vitriol and championing fringe, losing legal battles against LGBT equality. LGBT activists who have followed Liberty Counsel's work for the past several years probably aren't surprised that the group is again embarrassing itself in the national media's spotlight. But major news outlets, which have largely been reluctant to dig in to Liberty Counsel's history of extremism, are less likely to treat the group with the skepticism and hesitance that it deserves.
To be fair, this problem isn't unique to Liberty Counsel -- a number of extreme anti-LGBT hate groups have duped the media into taking them seriously. As LGBT equality becomes less and less controversial, media outlets have a shrinking number of radical anti-gay charlatans to rely on as representing the voice of the opposition. And in the case of Kim Davis, Liberty Counsel has cast itself as a central character in the drama.
Staver's repeated missteps and embarrassments are a worthwhile reminder of why these kinds of organizations are labeled "hate groups" in the first place. They're not just ideologically extreme - dishonesty, exaggeration, and propaganda are core components of their brands. Given how frequently hate groups like Liberty Counsel lie about LGBT people on a daily basis, media outlets should anticipate that same level of dishonesty when they're the subject of major news stories, and treat them accordingly.
Tony Perkins is the head of one of the most extreme anti-gay hate groups in the country, yet media outlets continue to give him a platform that enables him to play a major role in mainstream conservative politics.
In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) labeled Perkins' group, the Family Research Council (FRC), an anti-gay hate group, due in part to Perkins' history of making inflammatory comments about the LGBT community. Perkins has called pedophilia "a homosexual problem," accused gay people of recruiting children, and compared gay advocates to terrorists.
Despite FRC's extremism, mainstream media outlets have treated Perkins as a credible and legitimate conservative commentator, regularly inviting him to speak on behalf of Christians without identifying him as a hate monger.
The media's forgiving treatment of Perkins has allowed him to establish himself as a powerful force in Republican politics, using his national platform to pressure politicians who don't act in lockstep with FRC's extremism. Perkins' influence is especially evident at FRC's annual Values Voter Summit, a conservative political conference that has become a must-attend event for rising GOP politicians. This week, Republican presidential candidates will attend FRC's Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. to vie for social conservatives' support. And they'll likely do so without worrying that major media outlets will scrutinize them for cozying up to a known hate group.
Failing to hold Perkins and FRC accountable for their anti-LGBT extremism isn't just bad journalism -- it proactively lends credibility to an organization that works tirelessly to attack and dehumanize LGBT people. As SPLC's Heidi Beirich explained, "If people were better informed about what FRC has said in the past... they'd be much less likely to be snowed by anything that comes out of Perkins' mouth or comes out of FRC."
It's long past time for media outlets to stop giving Perkins a pass and start giving their audiences the full story behind who's leading the fight against LGBT equality.
Video created by Leanne Naramore.
Fox News hosts have used the controversy surrounding Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis to repeatedly hawk the new book from a man considered one of America's most extreme and prominent anti-gay hate-group leaders.
Tony Perkins is the president of the Family Research Council (FRC), an organization that has been labeled a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center for spreading damaging lies about gay people, including the myth that they are more likely to engage in pedophilia.
Perkins' latest book, No Fear, was published on September 8 and tells the stories of "young people who have taken a stand for Biblical truth," including Aaaron and Melissa Klein, the Oregon bakers who were fined after refusing to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. The book is a collection of misleading culture war stories aimed at depicting conservative Christians as the victims of religious persecution by liberals.
That's a popular narrative on Fox News, so it's not surprising that the network has promoted the book repeatedly during its news programming, playing off the controversy surrounding Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples:
Fox's knee-jerk endorsement of Perkin's book is also self-serving: Perkins himself admitted that many of the stories in No Fear were pulled from Fox's reporting.
Perkins and the Family Research Council have long benefited from their relationship with Fox News. Todd Starnes, the network's serially misinformed culture war reporter, regularly turns FRC press releases into national news stories, while FRC touts the network's reporting to reinforce its Christian persecution narratives about LGBT equality.
Perkins has also found a close ally in Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, who has hosted the hate group leader more frequently on her show than any other Fox News program has, regularly giving his anti-gay extremism a veneer of mainstream credibility.
With Fox News giving Perkins free airtime to promote his book, the network has become both a political and financial asset to one of the country's most extreme anti-gay hate groups.