Power Structures

Real Journalists Don’t “Just Ask Questions”

It may seem harmless, but “just asking questions” is a bad-faith, politically motivated media tactic that manipulates readers into buying a skewed worldview.

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Right after I did a year-long tour in the CENTCOM theater as an analyst focusing on counter-insurgency work in 2005 and 2006, I remember watching an interview on FOX with Sean Hannity where he badgered a guest on whether Iraqis are better off now than they were under Saddam Hussein. The guest tried to explain the complexities of the question, but Hannity cut him off. “It’s a simple yes-or-no question!” As someone who was deeply enmeshed in the situation, I can tell you: There is not a simple yes-or-no answer.

This is where it first dawned on me that unscrupulous demagogues posing as journalists could use seemingly neutral questions to push a political agenda while being completely uninterested in the correct answer. But having a media outlet, even one like FOX, gave them a thin veneer of respectability: They’re just journalists asking simple questions, right? It was also a “gotcha”: If the guest said no, they’d be accused of being pro-dictator, and if they said yes then it would be used to justify the war. Such was the case with Hannity’s question. After spending a year in theater, I had a fair degree of expertise in the subject and knew far more about the situation than Hannity or his audience, but would never have a chance to convey it.

This faux-neutral “just asking questions” isn’t just a tactic of  Fox News’s, which is currently being sued into oblivion by Dominion for taking the “just-asking-questions” shtick too far. Most people are familiar with push polls, but right-leaning Rasmussen Polling posed a question that may have appeared neutral on its face, but completely loaded in context.

The phrase “It’s ok to be white” started as part of a trolling campaign hatched in the racist bowels of 4Chan. White supremacists had used this line for years as part of efforts to normalize their racist dog-whistle, in the same way they had with “all lives matter” and “blue lives matter.” These mottos clearly telegraph hostility toward Black people.

Thus, people responding to the question “Is it ok to be white” in a Rasmussen poll were presented with a choice in which both answers are awful: Agree with a thinly veiled white supremacist slogan or make a statement that sounds like you hate people based on their skin color. It was the polling version of the loaded question, “When did you stop beating your wife?”

Of course, some people answered “no,” including Black people. Right-wing media outlets cast thinly veiled aspersions against them. “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams went on a lengthy racist rant calling for the separation of the races, which led to his comic being dropped by hundreds of newspapers—of course, the right-wingers cried about censorship, including Elon Musk, who leapt to his defense.

This isn’t a phenomenon strictly limited to right-wing media outlets, however. Many places that label themselves as “moderate” or “center-left” have been engaging in the same bad faith “just asking questions” dialogue for years, especially when it comes to trans youth. And it couldn’t come at a worse time.

Religious conservatives have unironically used the phrase “the transgender question.” They have labeled “gender ideology” as “one of the greatest evils in human history.” At the most recent CPAC conference, prominent conservative pundit Kelly Knowles declared that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” There is no other way to read that than a call for genocide. Just this past weekend, ranks of unapologetic, goose-stepping, sieg-heiling Nazis appeared at a TERF rally hosted by right-wing anti-trans activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, and have been showing up at both anti-trans protests and drag queen events (to intimidate, stoke chaos and violence, and shut down the event) around the world. Republican legislators have worked with these people, who believe that the optimum number of trans people in society is zero, and have made anti-trans youth legislation their top priority across nearly every state they control.

As a trans person, a scholar who has studied fascism, and a researcher into forecasting the conditions for genocide, to say that I’m concerned is a massive understatement.

And yet, “moderate” or “center-left” outlets like the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic have been more than happy to publish “just asking questions” articles, which support the positions of these Nazis. The question is almost always a  variation on “Are there too many trans kids?,” which guides subjects toward helping the writer make the case that  the answer is “yes.”

In these articles, anti-trans people like Matt Walsh, a right-wing host at Ben Shapiro’s media outlet, The Daily Wire, are consistently framed as “concerned citizens.” The parents trying to protect their children from genocidal Nazi-adjacent politicians are described as “activists.” The articles center “detransitioners” as a common phenomenon, although the best studies show only a 2.5% detransition rate, many of whom don’t regret having been given the opportunity to explore their gender. A small number of detransitioners are propped up and used by the far-right wing to make their case, and yet these same media outlets ignore how they too are being manipulated.

This question isn’t neutral, because it is never accompanied by similar questions about lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) youth. Surveys show that even as the number of youths who have a trans or gender non-conforming identity grow, so too has the number who identify as LGBT exploded. A full 20% of Generation Z identifies as LGBT, but only 2% have a trans or gender nonconforming identity. At the same time the percentage of people with trans identities has gone up, so have the percentages who say they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Yet, we don’t see these same outlets publishing multiple above-the-fold page A1 articles questioning whether there’s too many LGB kids these days.

This isn’t to say that asking questions cannot be effective, or that journalists shouldn’t ask questions. Sometimes the answers can be highly enlightening, such as when conservative writer Bethany Mandel couldn’t define “woke” in a softball interview with The Hill. She was given plenty of space to provide an answer, and couldn’t. However, there is a world of difference between this, and when Walsh asked, “What is a woman?” for his pseudo-documentary, where he treated a long, thoughtful and complex answer to a fraught question dismissively. He also ignored the fact that trans inclusive definitions of sex and gender have existed for years, and his entire premise could have been answered by the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the case of the New York Times, concern trolling, hiding the biases of the interview subjects, providing incomplete information, and platforming extremists without context always leads the reader by the nose to the (wrong) answer they want. Should schools “out” trans kids to religious conservative parents? Are treatments for trans youth scary and being administered willy-nilly? Have the transes gone too far? Will they destroy (cis) women’s rights? Are there too many trans people? It’s all part of generating a profitable moral panic. It’s also incredibly reckless, and can lead to horrors, especially as human rights in the U.S. are in free fall after the end of Roe v. Wade.

Consider this historical analogy from 1938 in Germany, when the government was confiscating the wealth of Jews. Imagine the New York Times responded by running a series of articles questioning whether Jews were disproportionately rich, heavily implying that they were. You can see how this contributes to a much bigger problem—and why trans people and their allies are not happy about the way these stories are being reported while Republicans have made “eradicating transgenderism” their number one legislative priority.

So now I will just ask a question: Is it too much to ask of journalists to really consider what you’re asking your subjects and listen to the answers? To really report a story with an open mind and let go of preconceived notions? Know that those clicks are ephemeral. But people’s lives—children’s and adults’—are literally at stake.

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