Are there Journalism Lessons from Bilerico’s Blow-Up?

A major controversy has erupted in parts of the transgender–and general LGBT– community over a column written by Ronald Gold that was published and then yanked down by Bil Browning at Bilerico Project after Gold’s comments on gender fluidity set-off a firestorm of protest.

The discussion about the Gold piece, which is available in part at Pam’s Houseblend, focused on the allegedly transphobic comments made by one of the founders of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.  Autumn Sandeen has done a nice job of outlining concerns about the post, as has Bilerico’s Jillian T. Wiess.

But there is a larger journalism problem here that’s worth analyzing. While the blogosphere has erupted with criticism of the piece, the piece no longer exists on the website.  So how are readers, who are new to the controversy, supposed to evaluate the merits of the criticism?

Browning initially defended his decision to keep the post up by saying that Gold’s positions–while considered offensive by many–were held by many people and the Gold deserved some leeway given his role in the LGBT movement.

The Bilerico community has done a great job of pushing Mr. Gold to re-evaluate his language choices, stereotypes, assumptions and conclusions about trans people. Several people have said the pain the op-ed caused some of our readers is too high of a price to pay. Is it?

To quote Zoe Brain from her comment on Mr. Gold’s post, “Just because the ideas are unpopular doesn’t mean they should not have been expressed. Monocultures where everyone thinks alike are prone to go astray. Our most cherished ideas should be able to withstand a little challenging if they’re so very correct.”

We won’t be removing the post from the site and would instead encourage readers to join the conversation there to ensure that we make clear this one point: Transgender people are not mutilated or deluded; they are not damaged in any way. Instead, all of our friends, family, and internet acquaintances are beautiful and worthy of respect just as they are.

As the Editorial Team works together to shape a more concrete decision making process on posts we know could be controversial, how would you advise us? At what point does a post go from “challenging” to “offensive?” What made this post stand out over other controversial posts?

It was my decision that this post would challenge our readers more than it would offend them. It was my responsibility and I made a not-fully-considered decision. I’m sorry.

Despite the mea culpa, Browning and his team decided to yank down the piece about six hours later.

The Bilerico Project editorial team has unanimously decided to remove Ronald Gold’s contributor status and have taken down his previous post from the site. We regret that his words have caused so much hurt to so many in our community.

We appreciate all of the heartfelt responses and shared concerns about the post. This is only the third time a post has been removed from the site since the Bilerico blog started over five years ago; it is not something we take lightly.

We are very proud of our record of trans inclusion and participation and would never intentionally seek to harm anyone. We let you down this time and it won’t happen again.

All of that is fine and good. But there’s a larger problem. Because the piece was removed, the record becomes one-sided. Activists and readers can attack the story, Bilerico can publish a number of posts slamming the piece and accusing people of transphobia, yet there’s no way to evaluate the criticisms.

As citizen journalists emerge, one of the challenges is how to deal with these kinds of controversies. In traditional journalism, it would be unheard of to yank a published story off a website no matter how much controversy had erupted. Once it is published, it is published.

This is not the first time that citizen journalists and online journalists have faced the problem of what to do with bad publishing decisions. At the now-deceased conservative website Culture 11, a controversy erupted after an article was published, and then yanked, that praised “hooking up.” Ultimately, Culture 11 reposted the piece because the decision to yank it was done by a single editor.

So should Bilerico have pulled the Gold piece?  Was it a good journalism decision to yank a piece Browning stood by six hours earlier?  And what message does it send to other writers at Bilerico who may write on topics that are unpopular?

10 Responses

  1. The post was beyond “unpopular.” The article was straight-up hate speech. This is not about bad journalism. It’s about whether transphobic statements should be permitted on a (supposedly) queer site. Such a post should have never gone up in the first place. However, it should be left (imo) as a scar on bilerico’s reputation. They shouldn’t be able to bury the evidence. They should be ripped to shreds for endorsing such an idea.

  2. Unfortunately, most readers will never know what Gold said because the story was yanked. If the publisher thought the story had merit and even stood by it–at one point–why then yank it so no one can see what all the disagreement is about.

    IOW, do critics get to decide for me what’s objectionable, or shouldn’t the reader be given the chance to make that decision themselves even if it’s 99% to 1%?

  3. Hat tip to Rex Wockner for passing this on:

    The deleted Bilerico post:

    “No” to the notion of transgender
    by Ronald Gold

    http://community.livejournal.com/ontd_political/4811873.html

  4. I am a longtime Bilerico Project contributor and former editorial team member. The post was pulled because not only Bil but also contributors, including myself, were getting nasty and threatening emails and tweets because of it. Once there was a clear safety issue, they pulled the piece.

    I would note that this is only the third time in Bilerico’s five-year history that they have pulled down an already published piece.

    Further, I can tell you from personal experience that they are proactively inclusive of transpeople. I was brought on as an editor because Bil, Jerame, and Alex wanted more trans representation on the site, and one of my duties was to seek out and nominate high-quality trans bloggers for guest and contributor slots. We have the large and active community of trans contributors and site users we do precisely because these guys were proactive about making it that way.

    This post was a massive error in judgment on Bil’s part, one which he has taken responsibility for. He’s been called out for this on by many trans contributors, including myself, as well as many of the site’s users.

    One thing I can tell you for a fact: This is not an event that will repeat itself at the Bilerico Project. Steps are already being taken to ensure that, not the least of which will be adding trans perspectives to the editorial team (no transpeople have been on the edteam since I stepped down about a year or so ago).

    Many excellent conversations on these issues have started on the site in the wake of this, which to me is the one single saving grace here. It was hardly worth the price, but at least it’s something.

    There will be changes, improvements, and the site and the staff will learn, grow, and improve as a result. This much I can tell you with certainty.

    It was an awful mistake, but one that I believe will help Bilerico become better as a result in the long run. At this point, that’s what we are all working toward.

  5. Pulling the piece from the ‘active’ part of the website was probably the righ decision, looking at all the pain and hurt it caused.

    However, as a suggestion for the future, it might make sense to have an ‘archive’ section somewhere on the site so that those who are interested can go back and see exactly what it was that caused such controversy. Just a thought…

  6. I’m interested in the suggestion that editorial board members felt threatened by the tweets and emails they were receiving. Are you talking about physical threats?

    • I did not personally get any physical threats, they were more along the lines of “we’re going to destroy your credibility.”, “you’re a sellout / hatemonger / community betrayer / etc.”, “I have no respect for you if you don’t quit immediately”.

      Others got even more direct threats, especially Bil, but I am not personally aware of any threats that were provably physical. That’s not to say there weren’t any, I just don’t know for sure either way. We have a lot of contributors, and it is the Internet after all…

  7. Thanks for adding a link to the original post, Steve.

    Michael, you say that “In traditional journalism, it would be unheard of to yank a published story off a website no matter how much controversy had erupted. Once it is published, it is published.”

    That’s not completely true. During my time as an editor at azcentral.com, I remember three instances when we took down a published story. One had to do with personal information that identified a police officer who feared for the safety of his family.

    Two others were early versions of election stories that had been completely revised and reposted in different formats. These were beyond editing changes. The original files were stripped and left with a “This story has been taken down” note to be picked up at the next google cycle.

    Yet, I have a hard time classifying the Gold piece as journalism. So that point may be moot.

    • That’s a fair point, Robin. The danger in saying never.

      I do think a newspaper wouldn’t pull an opinion piece that was controversial, for instance. Or they would replace a story with errors with a new story (or updated one). But for a story to completely disappear without a replacement wouldn’t happen.

  8. I am saddened to read that Bil and the Bilerico staff succumbed to pressures, but I understand it probably was a business decision. Steve, thank you for posting the article.
    Is the article transphobic? I would say it is ignorant. Ignorant because it comes from the perspective of a person, who is not a transgender, similar to a heterosexual’s opinion about a homosexual or a homosexual’s opinion about a bisexual.
    Is their opinion valid? Maybe not, but isn’t it worth creating discussion about the subjects? After all, countering the status quo only can be achieved through discussion, as unpopular as this may be.
    We ask ourselves, why in 2010 gays and lesbians still are considered second class citizens who aren’t allowed to marry or receive other partner benefits, and perhaps it is that lack of dialogue dominate a subgroup of people, who often act in congruence to their oppressors and fail to reach out to discuss and dialogue their differences. Rather, it’s more important maintain an isolatory world where everyone must agree with them, then cry murder once they have been subjected to discrimination.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: