The shameful, unacceptable media coverage of Chelsea Manning’s transition

When Chelsea Manning announced yesterday that she is transitioning and wants to be referred to by the name Chelsea and with female pronouns, news organizations scrambled to figure out what to do. Many published articles with bizarre headlines like, ”Manning Says He Is Female and Wants to Lives as a Woman.” Which is ridiculous, because Chelsea made it very clear how to refer to her: “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female… I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun.”

NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, the Boston Globe, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, Politico, the Telegraph, Reuters, and the Los Angeles Times all used masculine pronouns (I would typically link to all the articles I’m referencing, but I am not giving away traffic for shitty journalism. I’ve included contact information for these news organizations at the end of this article). The New York Times and the Associated Press used masculine pronouns, and they both have style guides that say you should use the name and pronoun preferred by the subject you’re reporting on. The AP’s standards are too strict – they say to respect the pronouns of people, “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.” Frankly, coming out publicly should count as presenting yourself in a way that doesn’t correspond with your assigned sex. Chelsea has publicly lost her access to maleness, even if folks aren’t respecting her female identity. But also, the AP’s standards should change. The New York Times, on the other hand, has great standards: “Unless a former name is newsworthy or pertinent, use the name and pronouns (he, his, she, her, hers) preferred by the transgender person.” Great standards which The Grey Lady did not follow.

Perhaps the most egregious example of disrespecting Chelsea’s name and pronouns comes from USA Today, which, in addition to their shitty coverage, published an article titled “Media torn in Manning ‘he’ or ‘she’ pronoun debate.” The article quotes the publication’s Editor in Chief:

“This is a tough one and sparked vigorous debate in the newsroom,” USA TODAY Editor in Chief David Callaway says. “Style evolves with the culture, and the latest style recommendations are that transgender people should be described as they want to be described. That said, Private Manning has been known as a male to this day, so should be regarded as ‘he’ at least for the immediate future. We will continue to discuss.”

At least USA Today is being open about the shitty decision the majority of major news organizations are making. Because this is a deliberate, active decision – to disrespect the incredibly clear request Chelsea has made.

By far the worst article from a major publication came from The Daily Beast. All of that site’s coverage has been awful, including sensationalist reporting about medical transition. But their article “How Will Chelsea Manning Be Treated in Prison?” by Mansfield Frazier takes the cake. Here’s a link to a mirror of the original article, which I do not recommend clicking. The article denies the existence of much prison rape, is super homophobic and transmisogynist, and says Chelsea might have a great time in prison where she could become the “queen bee.” The Daily Beast added an Editor’s Note to the article saying it was opinion, removed the most obvious homophobia and the reference to there not being much “true” rape in prison. Which did not change the fact that the article is still homophobic, transphobic, and rape denying. Not to mention that it never, ever should have been published in the first place. Part of why I’m so upset about this article is that it’s so bad it’s taking attention away from the fact that almost every single bit of coverage of this story is terrible.

Even articles framed around getting this story right have been problematic. Margaret Sullivan, the NYT Public Editor, uses the wrong name and pronoun in an article about how her paper should probably get those things right eventually. Amanda Marcotte uses Chelsea’s old name in an article at Slate’s XXFactor (hello biological essentialism, btw) about getting her name and pronouns right. NPR made their deliberate decision to get Manning’s name wrong public: “NPR, like other news outlets, is at this point continuing to refer to the soldier as ‘Bradley Manning’ on first reference. Manning’s name has not been legally changed.” Um, do you have any idea what a costly, time consuming pain in the ass it is to go through a legal name and gender change? And that’s not even while you’re incarcerated in a men’s prison.

I do understand the impetus to mention Manning’s old name at least once so the audience knows what’s being reported on. Personally, I think it’s unnecessary – “Pfc. Manning” should be enough to clue in your audience. Of course, I’m more comfortable with just using Manning or Pfc. Manning because that’s how I’ve been referring to her since 2011. Part of what has annoyed me about the news coverage over the past day is that this is not new information. Chelsea came out publicly, telling us her name and how we should refer to her, which should be more than enough to correct reporters. But she had already been outed through the process of the trial. She’d already said privately she was female, information that then became public. Yet even her supporters continued to default to her given name and masculine pronouns. When I see or hear someone communicate that their gender is different from the one assigned to them at birth, I listen, and I respect that. Most people in this world default to the gender that is coercively assigned to someone at birth. I happen to believe that people know their own genders way better than any outside “expert,” be they a doctor, lawyer, judge, or journalist. And I know how hard it is to go against the gender assigned to you in this transphobic context. It can be particularly hard for women assigned male at birth – the costs of living your actual gender are higher, because patriarchy. When I first read Manning’s words about her gender identity during the process of the trial, I believed her. And I stopped defaulting to her assigned name and masculine pronouns, because I always put self-identification over an identity that’s been coercively assigned to someone. So I didn’t take the announcement yesterday as groundbreaking news – I saw it as Chelsea making clear and public the name and pronouns she wants to use. Which is part of why I’m so disgusted – this announcement is being treated as major news instead of a clarification of how to report on Chelsea.

The few folks in the media who have worked to cover this story decently (yes, there are a few journalists out there actually doing their jobs) are finding out how willing folks are to be virulently transmisogynist in public. Our own Katie Halper, who wrote about Chelsea’s incarceration at PolicyMic, was one of the folks I saw reacting to the hateful comments on her article yesterday. Well friend, welcome to my internet. Hell, there’s a whole essay out there about how I’m “rapey.” This is the sort of hate trans women regularly face for just existing. So it would be nice if the news media could do their damn job and write about us with at least a minimum level of respect. I’m glad at least friends in the media are starting to see what my community faces when we’re just trying to tell our stories and get written about with respect. As Maureen O’Connor notes in a great call-out of this shitty reporting over at New York Magazine:

Why is it so hard for people to type an extra s when they write about Manning? We updated our nomenclature for “Snoop Lion” and “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” “Ali Lohan” and “Lil’ Bow Wow” became “Aliana” and “Bow Wow” to reflect personal growth. We accept typographical requests from branded products like iPhone, PowerPoint, and eHarmony — and from branded humans like Ke$ha, A$AP Rocky, and ‘N Sync… The idiosyncrasies of capitalism, apparently, are more compelling than a human’s self-professed gender.

Exactly. Just get it right, people. It’s honestly not that hard. In fact, news organizations are putting way more time and energy into deciding to get Chelsea’s name and pronouns wrong, and publicly explaining this hateful decision, than it would take to stop being assholes and report this story well. I spent much of my first year of blogging at this site calling out shitty coverage of trans-related news stories. For much of 2009 and 2010 I wrote about news articles that used the wrong name and pronouns for trans folks – overwhelmingly trans women of color who had been murdered (my fellow bloggers, notably Editor Emeriti Vanessa Valenti, have posted similar stories as well). While some media organizations have gotten better, I mostly stopped writing the same article over and over again because I just couldn’t any more, and felt the need to put my own energy towards encouraging more positive media portrayals. But clearly the problem has not gone away, and very much still needs to be corrected.

For the record, I am incredibly proud of Chelsea Manning. She’s been a hero of mine for a while now. Her decision to come out publicly at this moment, despite the fact that she’s starting a prison sentence, is yet another badass action from this incredible woman who is obviously guided by her conscience and strong sense of justice. I want Chelsea to be pardoned, and you can sign a White House petition to that effect here (the petition still uses her assigned name, probably for legal reasons). Sadly, this is increasingly unlikely (I have to ask, as someone who never supported Obama the candidate or president: is anyone out there still a supporter after he called for immunity for Bush administration war criminals while Chelsea Manning faces 35 years in prison?). For now, the news media in this country could at least get their act together and use Chelsea’s correct name and pronouns, a privilege extended even to cis people who’ve done actual horrible things. Even if you disagree with Chelsea’s heroic actions, she still deserves that much.

Here’s where you can contact these news organizations to let them know they should report about Chelsea Manning and all trans people with basic respect:
For comments about Daily Beast editorial, contact editorial@thedailybeast.com, or tweet @thedailybeast.
You can tweet USA Today Editor In Chief David Callaway @DCallaway or @USAToday.
Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times Public Editor, can be reached at public@nytimes.com, or tweet @NYTimes.
You can email the Associated Press at info@ap.org or tweet @AP.
You can tweet NBC News @NBCNews.
You can tweet ABC News @ABC.
You can tweet CBS News @CBS News.
You can email Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory at mcgrory@globe.com or tweet @BostonGlobe.
You can email the New York Daily News at voicers@nydailynews.com or tweet @NYDailyNews.
You can email the NY Post at online@nypost.com or tweet @NYPost.
You can tweet @Politico.
You can tweet @Telegraph.
You can tweet @LATimes.
You can tweet @NPR.
You can tweet @Reuters.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted August 23, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Chelsea Manning is an American hero who should have won the Nobel Peace Prize, but in this bizarro Kafkaesque universe is instead sentenced to a longer prison term than even Nelson Mandela. The idea of Manning apologizing to a military command for telling the truth is upsetting beyond words. How murdering innocent civilians is not a crime, but telling the truth about it is, would be a great question to ask Candidate Obama who claimed to supported whistle blowers in 2008. Given the upsidedownfulness of this universe that doesn’t deserve Chelsea Manning, it should come as no surprise that the media here also fucks up her name.

  2. Posted August 23, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    I just don’t understand how so many news outlets could spend so much ink (or so many pixels) agonizing over this, when the proper course of action is plainly obvious. It’s equally ridiculous that so many news outlets spent all that effort to reach the wrong conclusion.

    To add to Maureen O’Connor’s list, if sports outlets can handle the transitions from “Chad Johnson” to “Chad Ochocinco” back to “Chad Johnson”, then I think it’s reasonable to expect news outlets to respect Chelsea Manning’s clearly articulated wishes.

  3. Posted August 24, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I read the Beast article. What backwater did this person grow up in? History will vindicate Manning. She acted at a time when the country was in the grip of one of its periodic paranoid frenzies. There are signs tht we are coming out of it. A commutation of her sentence to time served would be a good way to continue our return to something like a rational policy toward terrorism.

  4. Posted August 24, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I get that they are trying to avoid confusing their readers, some of whom might be a little slow on the uptake about issues like this, but seriously, how hard is it to use the new name and the female pronoun, with a quick nod of “formerly known as Bradley Manning” or “(formerly Bradley)”? Not that fucking hard, people.

  5. Posted September 5, 2013 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    I am a 67-year-old, post-op (Oct., 2002) transwoman. When a person first begins transition, there is a difficult period where people get the name and pronouns wrong. However, there are those who intentionally get it wrong, and others who are just plain vicious about the whole thing.

    I worked at a community health clinic as a medical assistant. The clinic was one of the main Seattle health providers to the trans community. One of the founding physicians was still working there, after about 25 years. Even so, he constantly used the wrong name and pronouns for me (he was the only one in clinic who did.) When he did it in front of patients that I had dealt with, they looked confused, and it was very uncomfortable. The clinic manager finally had to tell him to correct this.

    The media should investigate what they write about and actually try to work from facts. Of course, in this day and age, real reporting is a thing of the past.

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