The conservative media's meltdown over a Nebraska school district's effort to train teachers about gender diversity demonstrates how conservative misinformation threatens even basic efforts to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students.
In late September, administrators from the Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) district in Nebraska began providing teachers with informational materials aimed at better equipping them to accommodate and protect transgender and gender non-conforming students. The materials included handouts from the group Gender Spectrum, which works to help develop "a gender sensitive and inclusive environment for all children and teens."
One of those handouts, "12 easy steps on the way to gender inclusiveness," listed recommendations to help teachers make their classrooms more gender-inclusive, including asking teachers to stop gender-based bullying and avoid the use of gender-specific terms like "ladies and gentlemen." Instead, Gender Spectrum recommended teachers use terms like "readers," "campers," or classroom nicknames like "purple penguins."
The school district's distribution of Gender Spectrum's materials sparked controversy when the conservative group Nebraska Watchdog published a report on the handout on October 2. The report was picked up by National Review Online and The Daily Caller before eventually making the jump to Fox News. The network ran multiple segments falsely accusing LPS of "banning" terms like "boys and girls" as part of a "political agenda."
In an interview with Equality Matters, Gender Spectrum's Director of Education Joel Baum criticized the "disingenuous" reporting on his organization's training materials. "They're sharing information about work that's occurring in a school and not being accurate about ... the overall purpose of the work," he said. "[B]y taking various things out of context - like "purple penguins" - they completely trivialize something that's really, really important and misrepresent our work."
Fox's misleading coverage of Gender Spectrum's handouts eventually prompted LPS Superintendent Steve Joel to call a press conference to dispel the network's misinformation. Joel criticized conservative media outlets for peddling falsehoods about the educational materials, calling it "regrettable" and "truly unfortunate" that the school was forced to waste time and resources responding to calls and questions about the handouts.
Conservative media's celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 - October 15 included smearing migrant children as conveyors of disease, accusing the Mexican president of encouraging illegal immigration, and mocking MSNBC host Jose Diaz-Balart for conducting a bilingual interview.
In an article for National Review Online, anti-Muslim activist David Horowitz described the benefits to conservatives of the recent beheadings carried out by the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS). The October 9 article is headlined "Thank You, ISIS" and bears the subhead, "The beheadings have achieved what all the warnings from conservatives never could":
Beheadings of innocent human beings are unspeakable acts reflecting the barbaric savagery of the Islamic "holy war" against the West -- against us. Yet despite the intentions of their perpetrators, they have had an unexpected utility. Their gruesome images have entered the living rooms and consciousness of ordinary Americans and waked them up.
For more than a decade, a handful of conservatives, of whom I was one, tried to sound the alarm about the Islamist threat. For our efforts, we were ridiculed, smeared as bigots, and marginalized as Islamophobes.
And then came ISIS. The horrific images of the beheadings, the reports of mass slaughters, and the threats to the American homeland have accomplished what our small contingent of beleaguered conservatives could never have achieved by ourselves. They brought images of these Islamic fanatics and savages into the living rooms of the American public, and suddenly the acceptable language for describing the enemy began to change. "Savages" and "barbarians" began to roll off the tongues of evening-news anchors and commentators who never would have dreamed of crossing that line before, for fear of offending the politically correct.
This strange sentiment is made stranger by the fact that a writer for NRO previously accused President Obama of advising ISIS.
Horowitz is a former member of the New Left who, since his political conversion, has made a career out of alleging liberal bias on college campuses and accusing anyone who is not overtly Islamophobic of being in league with terrorists. The Southern Poverty Law Center described Horowitz as "the godfather of the modern anti-Muslim movement."
The website of Horowitz's organization, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, says it "combats the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values and disarm this country as it attempts to defend itself in a time of terror."
Conservative media figures have criticized President Obama for sending the U.S. military to help address the public health crisis posed by Ebola in Africa, ignoring experts who explain the critical need for assistance to contain the outbreak and the military's unique capability to support in those efforts.
On September 30, California became the first state to ban the use of plastic bags in stores, leading to a barrage of misinformation from various media outlets claiming the ban would actually hurt the environment. However, these contrarian claims are undermined by research showing that previous bans and taxes have reduced energy use and litter, while doing no harm to the economy.
National Review Online's foremost legal analyst is continuing his colleagues' attacks on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by criticizing her for "speaking publicly on abortion policy," despite previously defending Justice Antonin Scalia's penchant for similar public comments and interviews.
In the past week, National Review "roving correspondent" Kevin Williamson echoed his outlet's debunked insinuations from 2009 that Ginsburg supported eugenics. Williamson accused her of harboring a "desire to see as many poor children killed as is feasibly possible," an argument that NRO editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg offered "three cheers for" and that Williamson later compounded when he argued that women who have abortions should be hanged. NRO legal analyst Ed Whelan continued the attacks on Ginsburg, joining other anti-choice voices in condemning Ginsburg's statements in a recent interview in which she criticized a Texas law that closed down a number of the state's reproductive health clinics, arguing that commenting on legislation that could soon be before the Supreme Court was grounds for her recusal.
But Whelan went on to broaden his critique of Ginsburg, suggesting in a later post that she not speak publicly about abortion policy at all, regardless of whether it is in reference to a reproductive justice case before the court or not. In a September 30 blog post, Whelan complained about Ginsburg speaking "on all sorts of other matters related to abortion policy" and suggested that it was improper for the justice to "speak her mind openly on this matter."
Whelan's condemnation of Ginsburg and her discussion of general "abortion policy" appears inconsistent with his defense of his former boss, Justice Antonin Scalia, who also frequently speaks on contentious public policy. For example, in 2011, when Scalia spoke at a "closed-door session with a group of conservative lawmakers," Whelan balked at the suggestion that Scalia's attendance at a Tea Party function was inappropriate. According to The New York Times:
M. Edward Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former clerk to Justice Scalia, disputed [George Washington University law professor Jonathan] Turley's criticism.
"Does he think it's improper for any justice ever to speak to any group of members of Congress who might be perceived as sharing the same general political disposition?" Mr. Whelan told The Los Angeles Times. "My guess is that, schedule permitting, Scalia would be happy to speak on the same topic to any similarly sized group of members of Congress who invited him."
Right-wing media outlets are complaining about the federal government's announcement that it will provide grant money to legal services organizations willing to represent undocumented immigrant children in deportation proceedings.
Earlier this summer, federal officials reported that a record number of unaccompanied minors were being apprehended while crossing the border from Mexico into the United States. Despite the fact that many of those children made the dangerous journey to escape horrific violence in their home countries, right-wing media still blamed President Obama for the increase in refugees, suggested that the children carried rare diseases, and claimed that they were "fronts for drug dealers" and terrorists. Although the number of unaccompanied minors coming into the United States has dropped over the last few months, children now in custody are entering deportation proceedings, and most of them will face the court with no lawyer -- a potential violation of due process that right-wing media don't seem to care much about.
Federal law allows immigrants "the privilege of being represented, at no expense to the government, by counsel of the alien's choosing." This privilege, however, is no guarantee and often hollow as many of these minors cannot afford a private attorney. As a result, thousands of children -- who have no money -- are forced to represent themselves in complex legal proceedings because there aren't enough lawyers available to take their case pro bono, without a fee. As The New York Times reported earlier this year, minors representing themselves in court "can be comically tragic, with preschoolers propped in leather-cushioned chairs facing off against federal lawyers." Although the grant money will be a step toward addressing this glaring civil rights problem, advocates agree that "it would only touch a fraction of all the unaccompanied minors who appear in court in the coming months."
To try to provide these preschoolers with basic due process, the Department of Justice announced plans to distribute $1.8 million in grants to legal aid organizations that represent unaccompanied minors in immigration court. The DOJ's grants will be awarded through AmeriCorps and "will enable legal aid organizations to enroll approximately 100 lawyers and paralegals to represent children in immigration proceedings." The Department of Health and Human Services also announced that it plans to give out $9 million over the next two years to help fund immigration services for children who face deportation.
But the right-wing media weren't wild about extending civil rights to these unaccompanied minors.
National Review Online complained that the grants hadn't received enough scrutiny in the media because they were "an unprecedented effort to shield illegal immigrants from deportation" and went on to say the grants are "legally dubious" and may be an "illegitimate use of taxpayer dollars." On the October 1 edition of Fox & Friends, host Brian Kilmeade also criticized the federal grants in his "News by the Numbers" segment:
Conservative media figures are accusing the Obama administration of "inventing" the Khorasan group following U.S. air strikes on the terror cell, claiming President Obama is deploying "propaganda" tools to hide the group's connection to al Qaeda. In reality, the intelligence community has been monitoring the Khorasan group for some time, and Obama himself has publicly acknowledged its ties to al Qaeda.
National Review Online launched an ad hominem attack on actress Lena Dunham for writing a piece for Planned Parenthood Action Fund that encourages people to vote, continuing NRO's pattern of denigrating women who advocate for reproductive rights.
In a September 28 post headlined "Five Reasons Why You're Too Dumb To Vote," NRO's Kevin D. Williamson responded to Dunham's piece, published on the Women Are Watching blog, a project of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. In her post, clearly targeted to young women, Dunham asserted that every vote counts and urged young women to vote to protect their reproductive rights.
Williamson started his response by levying a personal attack at Dunham, calling the actress "distinctly unappealing" and describing her piece as "a half-assed listicle penned by a half-bright celebrity and published by a gang of abortion profiteers," directed toward Dunham's "presumably illiterate following." He claimed that "cultural debasement" is the "only possible explanation" for Dunham's career.
The NRO columnist echoed a previous infantilizing attack on feminism, casting Dunham's view of voting as "nothing other than a reiteration of the original infantile demand: "I WANT!" Williamson also took issue with Dunham's encouraging young women to vote on issues that directly affect them, framing an interest in reproductive rights as an "'all about me!' attitude":
Miss Dunham's "all about me!" attitude toward the process of voting inevitably extends to the content of what she votes for, which is, in her telling, mostly about her sex life. Hammering down hard on the Caps Lock key, she writes: "The crazy and depressing truth is that there are people running for office right now who could actually affect your life. PARTICULARLY your sex life. PARTICULARLY if you're a woman. Yup."
Conservative media attempted to revive the "death panels" zombie lie amid several weeks of good news about the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) success.
In a September 17 piece for The Atlantic, former White House health care adviser Ezekiel J. Emanuel outlined his opinions on end of life healthcare and argued that 75 is the ideal age to die.
Right-wing media jumped on Emanuel's comments as an opportunity to resuscitate the thoroughly debunked claim that the ACA would create "death panels" to ration health care and slow the growth of medical costs.
A September 24 post from National Review Online claimed that Emanuel's Atlantic article demonstrated that conservative warnings that the ACA was "a first step toward medical rationing" were plausible: "Read Emanuel's diatribe against living too long, and suddenly Sarah Palin's attack on Obamacare's "death panels" does not seem so far-fetched."
Fox News also used Emmanuel's comments as an opportunity to discuss "death panels" in a September 26 segment on Fox & Friends. Responding to Emmanuel's suggestion that there is an ideal time to die, Fox contributor Dr. Marc Siegel asked if that means they should "write off" patients at a certain age, suggesting the Post Office or IRS may one day get to make that decision. Co-host Steve Doocy added, "Maybe you're talking about those death panels that have been rumored for so long."
While right-wing media twists itself into knots stoking outrage over the long-discredited myth of "death panels," actual news reports have recently underlined the ACA's successes.
On September 18, the Obama administration announced that 7.3 million Americans had enrolled in health insurance plans through the Obamacare exchanges and paid their premiums -- a number that is "much higher than the 6 million that the Congressional Budget Office forecast would be covered this year," Politico noted, and debunks conservative allegations that the administration is "cooking the books."
But this wasn't the only good news for the health care law. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell recently reported that the ACA has reduced the amount of uninsured people in the United States by 26 percent. A recent report from the Commonwealth Fund also found that the health care law had decreased the uninsured rate by as much as 13 percent among Latinos, a group that has "historically suffered the highest uninsurance rate in the U.S," according to the Huffington Post.
Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett wrote a column accurately depicting the college sexual assault epidemic and the fears victims face in reporting these crimes, a stark contrast to his colleagues and fellow conservative media figures who have dismissed, mocked, and stigmatized victims.
In a September 25 column for Fox News' website, Jarrett highlighted the high rate of assault on college campuses, and praised student activists for raising awareness of the often insufficient resources and efforts by colleges to address the problem (emphasis added):
Nearly 20 % of female college students have been sexually assaulted, according to a White House task force.
I suspect the true number is significantly higher. Many young women are reluctant to report it. They keep it secret for fear of embarrassment, shame, retribution, and the trauma of reliving the nightmare during legal or disciplinary proceedings. I get it. There are repercussions. Victims are especially afraid of being stigmatized or ostracized within the tight, insular social circles on campus.
Awareness is on the rise driven, in part, by student activism. Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, angry over how the school adjudicated her claim of rape, has taken to carrying a mattress around campus. Dubbed "Mattress girl" by fellow students and the media, her visually indelible protest has galvanized a growing demand for honesty and transparency. And why not? Schools should be required to publish accurate information about the frequency of assaults. It can be done without breaching individual students' privacy.
Jarrett's column unfortunately stands out among recent commentary about sexual assault in conservative media, where the fact that one in five women are assaulted at college is regularly dismissed. The Daily Caller has called the statistic "bizarre and wholly false," while the Washington Examiner called it "ridiculous."
Moreover, the trust and respect Jarrett treats the victims of these assaults with is unusual. Instead, their stories are often questioned or critiqued, with media figures suggesting that a large number of victims are lying about their assault, or are partly culpable.
The same day that Jarrett's column was published, some of his Fox News colleagues suggested that intoxicated women who are assaulted at college fraternity parties are responsible for their own assaults. Several co-hosts of Fox's Outnumbered defended a Forbes contributor who was fired after claiming that drunk women were "the gravest threat to fraternities" because the fraternity would be liable if a woman was sexually assaulted at a party.
This past summer, Washington Post columnist George Will came under fire for claiming that college efforts to curb sexual assaults were making "victimhood a coveted status that confers privilege." In his column, Will disputed the story of a college rape on Swarthmore's campus, implying he didn't believe the survivor's story qualified as an actual incident of assault. The survivor, Lisa Sendrow, told Media Matters about the violence she had experienced, how Will's dismissal of her story was triggering and damaging to her, and that she was diagnosed with PTSD and received violent threats after her story was first reported.
Earlier this year, a Weekly Standard contributor blamed feminism for sexual assault, because victims abandoned "feminine modesty" which had provided women "protection" from rape. National Review Online writers claimed rape was "instinctive" among some young men, that assaults involve "a large degree of voluntary behavior" from women, and that women are "being taught to believe they were raped." A New York Post columnist dismissed rape as "regrettable sex."
And Wall Street Journal editor James Taranto went so far as to claim intoxicated sexual assault victims are just as guilty as their attackers.
While Jarrett's column is sadly something of an outlier among conservative commentary on the issue, survivors now have one more voice in the media supporting their efforts to combat this epidemic.
The announcement that Eric Holder would resign as attorney general was met by renewed attacks on his tenure by conservative pundits, continuing a long tradition of ugly right-wing smears against President Obama's top law enforcer. Here is a selection of the worst villains that right-wing media have compared Holder to over the years:
In a June 5, 2013 fundraising email, Fox News contributor and former Republican Congressman Allen West claimed Holder was a "bigger threat to our Republic" than terrorist Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took control of al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden's death. West also suggested Holder was guilty of treason. On June 7, he appeared on Fox & Friends to discuss his smears with sympathetic co-host Brian Kilmeade.
On the January 10 edition of his radio show, Rush Limbaugh called Holder a "Stalinist" for announcing that the federal government will recognize same-sex marriages in Utah.
LIMBAUGH: Eric Holder, the Attorney General of the United States says that the federal government will recognize same-sex marriage in Utah for the purpose of federal benefits despite the Utah governor's directive not to, pending the Supreme Court's review of the state's ban. So the states, when you've got people like Holder and Obama in office, it doesn't matter what governors do, it doesn't matter what the people of the state want. What Holder and Obama want is what's going to happen. Holder does not have this kind of power or authority but he does if nobody's going to stop him or challenge him.
LIMBAUGH: You have the Attorney General engaging in executive actions, executive orders. Just as if Obama were to do it. Stalinists, folks.
National Review Online published an editorial on September 4, 2013 criticizing the Obama administration's blocking a Louisiana school voucher program. NRO compared Holder to George Wallace, the notorious Alabama governor who attempted to illegally maintain school segregation. From the editorial:
It was 50 years ago this June that George Wallace, the Democratic governor of Alabama, made his infamous "stand in the schoolhouse door" to prevent two black students from enrolling at an all-white school. His slogan was "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"
These many years later, Democrats still are standing in the schoolhouse door to prevent black students from enjoying the educational benefits available to their white peers, this time in Louisiana instead of Alabama. Playing the Wallace role this time is Eric Holder, whose Justice Department is petitioning a U.S. district court to abolish a Louisiana school-choice program that helps students, most of them black, to exit failing government schools.
On the August 22 edition of Fox News' The Five, co-host Andrea Tantaros claimed in a discussion about the protests in Ferguson, MO that "Eric Holder is one of the biggest race-baiters in this entire country." She added that Holder runs the Department of Justice "like the Black Panthers would...allowing them to be outside that polling place was absolutely abominable" -- a reference to a favorite Fox smear that Holder improperly dismissed voter intimidation charges against members of the New Black Panther Party.
Washington Times columnist and National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent claimed Obama's decision to have Holder and Vice President Biden lead the administration's gun safety task force was akin to "hiring Jeffrey Dahmer to tell us how to take care of our children."
In 2011, Mike Vanderboegh, a blogger featured on Fox News, repeatedly posted a manipulated photograph of Eric Holder dressed in a Nazi uniform:
A new interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that will appear in Elle magazine has given National Review Online an opportunity to once again twist the justice's views on the importance of equal reproductive rights for everyone, regardless of their financial means. As it did in 2009, NRO claimed that Ginsburg's frequent observations that poor women are disproportionately affected by anti-choice legislation may be proof of her support for eugenics -- even though that misinterpretation of her comments has been debunked.
After hundreds of thousands of people participated in what may have been the largest climate change protest in history, National Review Online criticized the event, attacked environmental justice law that seeks to ameliorate health disparities, and misrepresented a study to argue "the effects of pollution on health have been exaggerated."
On September 21, an estimated 310,000 demonstrators took part in the People's Climate March, a multi-city event protesting inaction on climate change and its harmful effects on the planet. Although the Sunday news shows ignored this historic event, National Review Online was quick to condemn it. Editor Rich Lowry called it a "symbolic protest," questioned the settled science of the human causes of climate change, and dismissed advocacy on the dangers of climate change as "anti-industrial apocalypticism."
Lowry's NRO colleague Katherine Timpf specifically criticized protestors in Harlem who were calling for legal action that would protect communities of color from toxic pollutants, a type of civil rights advocacy that is based on decades-old precedent. Timpf complained that "environmental-justice legislation does more harm than good" because "demonizing corporations is not the best method for bringing economic development to a struggling city." Timpf also claimed that "the impact that pollutants actually have on poor communities is questionable," and because of that, she argued, communities of color should embrace the potential economic benefits that a pollution-causing factory might bring:
During one of the march-preparation meetings, the deputy director of the Harlem-based group WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Cecil Corbin-Marks, tells me he's fighting for "global climate policies that focus on the challenges that local communities are confronting."
"Not all communities have the same resources," he says. "People of color are disproportionately affected." He believes that world leaders must unite to stop destructive corporations from spreading the pollutants that sicken minority neighborhoods by causing asthma and cancer.
I don't support his cause. Am I callous and cruel? Am I just ignorant of the suffering of the residents of these areas?
"There is pollution, and it should be cleaned," Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce says during an interview. "But to say that it's happening because of race? No. That's crazy to think corporations sit in boardrooms and design strategies to pollute races. That's Nazi stuff."
Politicians are responsible for keeping the neighborhoods clean, Alford says, so they're the ones who must be held responsible when they're not. All environmental-justice laws do is give these politicians more power.
National Review Online contributing editor Jim Geraghty suggested that President Obama "set the tone" for high profile leadership scandals including disgraced NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and embattled General Motors CEO Mary Barra who he claimed were influenced by Obama's alleged lack of "accountability."
Geraghty's September 22 National Review Online blog highlighted a number of recent scandals involving "leaders of large organizations" and compared their missteps to the purported example set by Obama, "the unaccountable leader." Geraghty asked, "Does our president just reflect a broad cultural trend in the behavior of leaders, or does he set the tone from the top?" He continued:
Consider some recent examples of leaders of large organizations with important responsibilities, once they find themselves in the public eye:
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told CBS This Morning he never saw the second tape of Rice striking his wife before Monday. He said, "when we make a decision we want to have all the information that's available. When we met with Ray Rice and his representatives it was ambiguous about what actually happened." Friday afternoon, he announced the league would be making a new effort in dealing with unacceptable player conduct... by forming a special committee.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra, whose company has recalled of 2.6 million cars with defective ignition switches. The faulty parts have been linked to at least 13 deaths and 54 accidents since 2009 and have led to numerous lawsuits. She said, "I don't really think there was a cover up. I think what we had, and it was covered in the report, there were silos of information, so people had bits and pieces and didn't come forward with the information or didn't act with a sense of urgency, and it simply was unacceptable."
These are all private sector scandals, of course. Every administration and every era has its scandals. What our current moment seems to feature is a bumper crop of (alleged) leaders insisting they can wait out he storm, often displaying a glimpse of indignation at suggestions that they resign because something terrible happened on their watch. Somehow tapes of criminal behavior never reach the folks at the top, nor reports of a defect in ignition switches.
Everybody's got rogue low-level staffers in Cincinnati, it seems.
The message has been sent, far and wide: Accountability is for suckers.
Right-wing media figures continue to misleadingly link Obama to unrelated scandals in order to attack his presidency. Not only have conservatives falsely accused Obama of attempting to help GM cover-up its ignition defect, they have baselessly linked the NFL domestic abuse scandal with the terror attacks in Benghazi, falsely suggesting the Obama administration was insufficiently transparent about the September 2012 attacks.