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?