An Open Letter to National Public Radio

NPR radio national public radioThis is the second day in a row I’ve taken to the keyboard to write about the unnecessary and hurtful treatment from the media toward Chelsea Manning, the Army private who leaked government secrets about our country’s involvement in Iraq and other activities around the world. Chelsea Manning is a declared transsexual woman, which we all know now because of her public announcement to the media and the rest of us. I was bothered by several news outlets yesterday which continued to use masculine pronouns and her former first name, but most of those organizations have a history of transphobic and insensitive reporting (I’m looking at you, Daily Beast).

What I did not expect was that National Public Radio would be one of those media institutions to so ignorantly take up its reporting on Pvt. Manning’s declaration. Your position was very clearly stated by your spokesperson:

“Until Bradley Manning’s desire to have his gender changed actually physically happens, we will be using male-related pronouns to identify him.” —Anna Bross, NPR Spokesperson

My issues with this statement are the following:

  1. This is not in concurrence with Associated Press guidelines for reporting on transgender individuals—Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly. [Source: AP Stylebook]
  2. NPR’s statement to wait until “actual physical” [sic] changes happen is without precedent in journalism, has not been used by their organization for other articles about transgender individuals, and is nearly impossible to define. What counts as a change? Is it after Chelsea begins hormone therapy, or until that therapy results in breast growth? Will she have to wait until she receives sexual reassignment surgery, unlikely for her in the next 35 years while she serves her sentence in federal prison? Further, as she is a prisoner, any of her medical changes are dependent on the prison system. Is NPR really comfortable adjusting their reporting until the government takes a specific action in her case?
  3. NPR is showing some bizarre interest in refusing to comply with Pvt. Manning’s clearly articulated request, as if using feminine pronouns and her chosen name would what, demean your reporting? Impinge journalistic integrity? This request, after all, is only about her, not a request for NPR to give all of its subjects randomly assigned pronouns, or switch their pronoun usage for anyone else. NPR somehow managed to accurately report on Lana Wachowski’s gender transition without balking. And life went on for your news agency.

Unfortunately, NPR’s  poor reporting did not stop there. On The Diane Rehm Show, broadcast on August 23, the day after Chelsea Manning’s announcement, guest host Tom Gjelten referred repeatedly to Chelsea as “Bradley” and “he,” going so far as to suggest that transgender people shouldn’t be given security clearances in the first place. NPR’s link to the show also uses masculine pronouns for Manning (unsurprising, given the above statement from Ms. Bross). And although several people called into the show to complain about the ways in which Mr. Gjelten and the show’s guests were talking about Pvt. Manning, they continued to use archaic and offensive terminology, like “gender confusion.” GLAAD has an accessible, easy to administer guideline on this:

DEFAMATORY TERMS

Defamatory: “deceptive,” “fooling,” “pretending,” “posing” or “masquerading”
Gender identity is an integral part of a person’s identity. Do not characterize transgender people as “deceptive,” as “fooling” other people, or as “pretending” to be, “posing” or “masquerading” as a man or a woman. Such descriptions are defamatory and insulting.

Defamatory: “she-male,” “he-she,” “it,” “trannie,” “tranny,” “shim,” “gender-bender”
These words only serve to dehumanize transgender people and should not be used.

I would also like to note that many transgender people work in government jobs across the country, with varying levels of security clearance. I myself used to work at the Social Security Administration, and not only did I never breach any citizen or resident’s identity information (we call it the numident), I had a 4.5 (out of 5) rating as an employee. Transgender people are trustworthy, reliable, intelligent, and capable, as much as anyone else. To suggest during the Diane Rehm Show today that transgender people are any less is offensive, not based on science or evidence, and poor journalism. One of the show guests made a parallel back to the middle of the last century when CIA operatives were not “allowed” to be gay because it was seen as a potential security breach. This was both not a useful comparison (in that Pvt. Manning was never a covert CIA operative during the Cold War), and it served strangely to reinforce the same logic that kept gay government employees in the closet, rather than discrediting that (already discredited, no less) policy. To the average listener today, both the guest host and the guests on the show seemed very uninformed about terminology, LGBT history or culture, and didn’t have enough basis to be taking on this story.

National Public Radio struggles for funding, I know. I’m a long time listener, and by long time, I mean 25 years. NPR is not The Daily Beast or The Guardian, or The New York Post. I know better than to listen to FoxNews for progressive or objective reporting, but NPR? And yet after yesterday and today, I may now hold your news organization in the same regard. I expect a full mea culpa from the top of your administration, and a full turnaround on the way in which you’ve reported the Chelsea Manning story. Or I suppose I and many people I know will stop listening to you altogether.

UPDATE: NPR’s Ombudsman blog released this statement just now—

Thursday, NPR decided to use male pronouns and explained its decision to The New York Times. On Friday, NPR’s Managing Editor for Standards and Practice Stu Seidel issued new guidance, saying that NPR’s “thinking has evolved” and that the network will honor Manning’s preferences.

From here on out, on first reference, the network will refer to the private as Chelsea Manning, while in the “near term” noting that she came to prominence known as Bradley Manning. The network also will use female pronouns.

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Categories: LGBT Civil Rights, Pop Culture, Uncategorized

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One Comment on “An Open Letter to National Public Radio”

  1. August 23, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

    I’ve left a comment on the NPR Ombudsman’s Facebook page. Please like/comment on it to show your support if you agree with what I wrote. The ombudsman is the independent investigator in charge of keeping NPR’s reporting honest, accurate and ethical by pointing out their lapses.

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