In my new book, The Snowflakes’ Revolt, I examine how progressive millennials have infiltrated and influenced American media over the past decade, taking ideas from college campuses into the newsroom and pushing the editorial line further to the left than ever before. Among the many prominent organizations where this has happened is Politico. One sign of the shift at this Washington news mainstay came in December 2020, when staff revolted after conservative commentator Ben Shapiro guest-authored the outlet’s flagship newsletter, Playbook. A few months later newsroom activists, unsatisfied by Politico’s response to their concerns, quickly seized on a new culture war battle — transgender issues.
The showdown centered on a March 2021 article titled “GOP seizes on women’s sports as unlikely wedge issue.” The article, by political reporter Gabby Orr, explored how Republicans sought to position themselves as defenders of women’s sports against transgender athletes. The row over the article didn’t generate as many headlines as the bust-up over Shapiro, but internally it was a decisive moment that marked a sea change in how the publication reported the news.
As a source briefed on the situation explained to me, Orr was informed by Politico’s director of editorial diversity initiatives Robin Turner that two colleagues had voiced concerns about her story. Turner wanted to arrange a meeting to discuss them. During the meeting, Orr was asked about her employment history at the Washington Examiner, a center-right outlet, and asked why the story omitted any transgender voices — though it had extensively quoted Kate Oakley, senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, an activist organization dedicated to LGBTQ+ issues.
Orr’s colleagues also complained that she quoted conservatives, such as American Principles Project director Terry Schilling and former White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, without “contextualizing” their comments. Schilling had pessimistically praised left-wing activists for their ability to convince the American public that transgender people were facing a wave of violence even though when “you look at the numbers… it’s, like, forty people.” Orr, her colleagues argued, should have explicitly told readers that those remarks were offensive and transphobic.
One attendee took issue with the phrase “biological women,” which appeared three times in the piece, but only in direct quotations. Her colleagues again described the phrase as offensive to transgender readers.
At the end of the meeting Turner suggested that Orr’s colleagues serve as “sensitivity readers” — making sure Orr wasn’t causing offense — prior to publication of future stories about transgender issues. Interestingly, the problem didn’t arise when Orr wrote a 5,000-word Politico magazine cover story on the same subject only six months earlier, extensively quoting trans people without drawing internal complaints.
Multiple sources point back to a bad-blooded Zoom meeting about Shapiro guest-editing Playbook as the moment that emboldened Politico staff to start pushing back on colleagues who did not write about issues in the overtly partisan way they desired. The sources also confirmed that multiple other Politico reporters were given warnings about their coverage of transgender issues.
On July 2, 2021, the company held a seminar with three transgender individuals charged with helping the newsroom learn to report on transgender issues in a “more comprehensive and inclusive way.” In yet another Zoom meeting, Tre’vell Anderson, then editor-at-large at Xtra, Bethany Grace Howe, CEO of the TransHealth Data Collective, and Kate Sosin, LGBTQ+ reporter at the 19th, lectured reporters about the inherent transphobia in their reporting.
I obtained a copy of an email from Politico editors summarizing “highlights” from the seminar. The panelists informed reporters that what they consider the “neutral” position on transgender issues was probably created by “white, cisgender men” and thus cannot be trusted to be accurate. Gendered words, they said, can be rooted in “exclusion” and can actually cause “trauma” for transgender and gender-neutral individuals. One former Politico reporter who attended the seminar said the panelists complained that the word “mother” could potentially be offensive when used by reporters, mocking reporters who had a hard time grappling with the grammatical implications of referring to individuals with the plural pronoun “they/them.”
“So many non-trans journalists get caught up in the ‘meaning’ of certain words that they don’t realize the many ways that a certain word can mean different things to different people, and the ways in which various languages carry trauma and carry triggering motivations for folks and how our feelings about the meaning of certain words are rooted in exclusion,” Anderson said.
The panelists warned journalists that they cannot simply cover “both sides” of the transgender issue, because they might be elevating transphobic voices. “The job of journalists historically always has been to speak truth to power and it’s a violation of journalistic ethics to entertain any conversation that paints transphobia as legitimate,” Sosin said.
What do these folks consider to be anti-trans or transphobic? Sosin has said that the phrase “biological male” is an “anti-trans slur” and that it’s transphobic for women not to want to share a bathroom with a man. Howe complained on Twitter that they were called “sir” on the phone by a FedEx employee. Anderson has described bills banning biological males from women’s sports as “anti-trans” legislation. Factual language, honest mistakes and reasonable concerns about deep-rooted biological differences will not be tolerated by the trans lobby.
These radical views on gender permeated the newsroom more generally, according to a source who overheard an editor arguing with colleagues about using “birthing people” over “birthing moms” because the latter could be seen as offensive and exclusive.
One former Politico staffer said constant newsroom tensions over questions of diversity and inclusion spiraled into attempts by younger staffers to unionize. The newsroom union, this staffer explained, was merely an extension of the woke crowd showing their true colors after the Shapiro firestorm. According to reporting by the Daily Beast, unionization advocates were forced to address questions about whether they were the “woke police” after some White House reporters expressed concerns about the effort. During early discussions, the union considered asking Politico to allow reporters to attend political activism events in their free time, but that idea was scrapped. Politico officially recognized the union, which was formed under NewsGuild, in November 2021.
A few weeks after the transgender seminar, Politico appointed a new standards editor to oversee the tone of editorial content. Anita Kumar, a former White House correspondent, was made senior editor for standards and ethics. Her biography says the standards editor’s focus will be on “accuracy, fairness, clarity and nonpartisanship.”
A style guide sent to staff in January 2022 reads more like a game of Media Matters mad libs than a document for journalists. It suggested some noninclusive words that Politico reporters should avoid using in their work.
YOU CAN’T SAY THAT: Politico’s banned words
- Crack the whip: unacceptable because of origins in slavery
- Waiter or waitress: server should be used instead
- Biological gender, biological sex, biological woman, biological female, biological man, or biological male
- Illegal immigrant or illegal alien
- Cake walk: “originated during slavery” and thus perpetuates “racist motifs”
- In reference to illegal migration: onslaught, tidal wave, flood, inundation, surge, invasion, army, march, sneak and stealth
- Anchor baby
- Chain migration: this is a term used by “immigration hard-liners”
- Peanut gallery: “the cheapest seats often occupied by Black people and people with low incomes”
- Third-world countries: too “derogatory”
The guide also warned that reporters should not say that a transgender person “identifies as” a certain gender, or describe the current situation at the border as a “crisis,” because “while the sharp increase in the arrival of unaccompanied minors is a problem for border officials, a political challenge for the Biden administration and a dire situation for many migrants who make the journey, it does not fit the dictionary definition of a crisis.” It also cautioned reporters against portraying migrants as a “negative, harmful influence.”
In a special section for “Standards on Culture & Inclusivity,” the style guide warned reporters not to use “pro-choice” or “pro-life” outside of quoted material and instead use “abortion rights,” “abortion rights supporter” or “anti-abortion.” “When describing abortion issues,” the guide explained, “consider using gender-neutral language like ‘people who seek abortions’ or ‘patients who seek abortions’ rather than ‘women who seek abortions,’ as there are non-female-identifying people who are able to become pregnant.” “Late-term abortion” was to be avoided too — they should opt for “abortion later in pregnancy” instead.
“Generally, avoid references to a transgender person being born a boy or girl, and opt for phrasing such as ‘identified at birth as boy/girl,’” cautioned the guide. “A person’s biology does not take precedence over their gender identity, and such oversimplifications can invalidate the person’s current, authentic gender.” It also urged reporters to “consider using gender-neutral language like ‘pregnant people’ or ‘people using birth control’… as there are non-female identifying people who are able to become pregnant, require reproductive healthcare, etc.”
When it came to race, the guide explained that “Unlike Black, white should not be capitalized in any instances.”
Kumar sent out another email to staff in March 2022 promising that she and other senior editors “have been engaged in conversations” on the topic of transgender coverage “with many journalists in the newsroom for several weeks.”
“We’ve been working on identifying ways to strengthen our content, including updating our stylebook, holding small group discussions and organizing additional training,” Kumar wrote.
Thanks to the constant complaints by woke staffers, transgender coverage at Politico now reads like pure propaganda rather than well-informed and reasoned reportage. A late-March piece in Playbook Nightly by Renuka Rayasam “explained” the issue of medical transitions for children. The article referred to puberty blockers, hormone therapies and surgeries for children as “gender-affirming medical care” and quoted three “transgender health experts,” all of whom downplayed potentially life-altering and damaging side effects of such treatments. Effects of hormone therapy on future fertility and bone density, one of the doctors claimed, for example, could be “reversed.”
Politico continues to make poor choices that will accelerate its descent into madness. The same month Kumar sent her email assuring staff that more would be done for the trans lobby, Politico hired Dafna Linzer from NBC News. Linzer now serves as the publication’s executive editor. In March 2019, Linzer allegedly tried to bully HuffPost reporter Yashar Ali out of reporting on a scoop about the dates of that year’s Democratic National Committee primary debates. After Ali reached out to the DNC for confirmation, he received a call from Linzer, who demanded he wait an hour to publish the story so the DNC could have time to call its delegates first. Ali said Linzer got “exasperated” when he wouldn’t agree. NBC News and Linzer declined to comment on the story.
Given all the power seized by left-wing activists in the newsroom over the past few years, the last thing Politico needs is an editor that’s willing to shill for the DNC. It seems unlikely that Linzer will try to halt the woke left who have seized editorial control.
This article will appear in The Spectator’s April 2023 World edition.