The row over the New York Times' transgender coverage embroils its union
The New York Times Guild has become embroiled in an internal debate over its response to the open letter that some Times staff and contributors signed this week criticizing their colleagues' coverage of transgender issues.
That letter, which singled out several articles and authors who the letter said gave legitimacy to conservative anti-trans legal activism, prompted executive editor Joe Kahn and opinion editor Katie Kingsbury to email staff defending the paper’s coverage, and calling some employees who signed the letter into meetings to reprimand them for openly criticizing their colleagues.
In response, the New York guild president Susan DeCarava posted a public letter affirming the right for Times staff to criticize the paper and its masthead, stating that “employees are protected in collectively raising concerns that conditions of their employment constitute a hostile working environment. This was the concern explicitly raised in the letter at issue here.”
But that letter, too, caused friction internally among union members. In an exchange that filled Times’ union Slack all weekend, several journalists complained that the Guild had crossed a line, and brought the union into a public protest that implicitly pitted it against some of the Times’ own union members.
“Susan has no right to send out letters regarding editorial content without consulting with the membership,” reporter Stephanie Saul wrote. “Criticism of workplace conditions does not include attacking the journalism of other members. I strongly object to this letter and I would hope other members of the unit agree with me.” (The local leadership responded that its four-person committee, which includes Times journalists, had signed off.)
One Times source told Semafor that the several members wrote notes to DeCarava expressing frustration over the Guild’s public statements around the letter. Others in the Slack exchange criticized NewsGuild national president Jon Schleuss, who posted a tweet on Friday endorsing a separate NewsGuild letter (letter five, if you're counting) that expressed concern about bias in newsrooms, including at The New York Times.
“This is awesome!” he wrote. “Just to be really clear to New York Times management and any manager: workers have a right to engage in concerted activity. Engaging in an effort to discuss and change editorial policies are protected activities because those are workplace issues.”
Still, others in the unit defended the Guild’s note, saying the union was simply doing its job by defending staff threatened with discipline from management.
“The guild has an obligation to protect those facing discipline,” another member said.
The Times is not a monolith, and internal opinions about this week’s saga vary widely. Over the last several days, I spoke with rank-and-file staff who signed the contributor letter who feared they faced retribution, and one trans staffer at the Times who was deeply upset with the paper's coverage. I spoke with others who supported Kahn and Kingsbury's response, and were outraged that the paper’s staff would openly criticize reporters who they felt were doing their best to cover a sensitive topic.
But Friday’s intra-union dispute comes at a moment when members of the Times Guild are hoping to maintain the unit-wide solidarity around a contentious contract negotiation process. Two members told me that they were concerned that the friction between Guild members this week could jeopardize unity around the contract renewal.
The aggressive pushback on the contributor letter from the Times reflects a growing boldness by leaders at news organizations who seem willing to push back against internal staff revolts, regardless of the flak they may take among rank-and-file staffers and on Twitter. The note and decision to reprimand staffers is not dissimilar to the one that Washington Post made earlier this year when it fired reporter Felicia Sonmez for criticizing the paper and some colleagues.
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In a statement to Semafor, Schleuss emphasized that he welcomed criticism from members, and his tweet was intended only to support Guild members hoping to address workplace issues.
“I pointed out that all Times employees have a federally-protected right to engage in concerted activity to address workplace conditions,” he said “It's a violation of federal law for New York Times managers to threaten, restrain or coerce employees from engaging in such activity. I'm always open to criticism and welcome any member to reach out to me to express their concerns with anything I do.”
- A day after the contributor letter was delivered to the Times, the paper published an opinion piece defending J.K. Rowling, who is seen as a champion by many opposing trans rights.
- Two days after that, the Times published a reported opinion piece about the human impact of anti-trans legislation making its way through legislatures in many red states.