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‘NYT’s J.K. Rowling Defense Couldn’t Pass a Basic Fact-Check

J.K. Rowling arrives at the "Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore" world premiere at The Royal Festival Hall.

The New York Times would like everyone to know that it is a serious journalism organization doing serious journalism. At least, that’s what the paper argued in its response to hundreds of NYT contributors who called them out for dangerously lopsided coverage of trans issues. So, let’s take a quick look at some of that super serious journalism and see if it stands up to their own standards.

Earlier this week, Aidan Comerford called out some questionable sourcing in Pamela Paul’s infamous column “In Defense of J.K. Rowling.” Since Comerford is an author and comedian (who regularly posts to raise awareness about trans issues), NYT’s editors presumably will just roll their eyes and dismiss him as an activist, but some basic scrutiny shows that, journalistic credentials or not, this dude with a Twitter account has a point.

The paragraph in question in Paul’s piece cites E.J. Rosetta, who claimed to have been commissioned by a publication to write an article called “20 Transphobic J.K. Rowling Quotes We’re Done With.” According to Rosetta’s viral thread on Twitter last November, she spent 12 weeks reading everything Rowling has written, searching for transphobic material, and somehow came up with nothing. (Nothing? Nothing!)

“I’ve not found a single transphobic message,” declared Rosetta (apparently a pen name).

Set aside, for the moment, the fact that anyone looking in good faith could easily find where Rowling’s statements have been damaging to trans people, a topic that has been well covered elsewhere.

As Comerford pointed out, Rosetta has never said what publication commissioned the piece, so we can’t be sure the assignment even existed. Let’s be real, though: The idea that any freelance writer would spend three months researching a listicle is laughable.

As a lesbian writer and member of the LGBTQ+ community, Rosetta describes herself as a “trans ally” and claims to have criticized Rowling in the past. The way she presents herself appears to bolster her credibility; she was someone who changed her mind only after looking at the evidence with an open mind! Now that could be interesting and worthy of mention in Paul’s column—if it were true.

But a scroll through Rosetta’s Twitter timeline quickly blows that story to pieces, although be warned, you might need a shower afterward.

Hardly an ally, Rosetta holds a lifetime membership to Standing for Women, a group that insists the word “woman” means “adult human female” only. Its website declares 2023 to be “the year of the TERF” (trans exclusionary radical feminist). In the summer of 2022, Rosetta attended a party with Kellie Jay Kean, the group’s founder and an anti-trans rights activist.

She doesn’t just associate with TERFs; she is one. Rosetta purposefully misgendered a trans child. She uses the hashtag #LGBWithoutTheT. She hosts a weekly Twitter Place for TERFs. She even posted sarcastically about the genders of her new kittens.

If Rosetta thinks she is an ally, she is beyond confused about what the word means. (And for the record, a person can’t just declare themselves an ally. You’re only an ally to a group if members of that group think you are one.)

The more likely explanation for why Rosetta couldn’t find any transphobic statements by Rowling, if that story assignment existed, is that she agreed with Rowling from the outset. They’re both people with a history of saying they support trans people while going out of their way to make the lives of trans people more difficult.

But the point is not just to pile on one little-known freelance writer/troll. The more disturbing thing is that a New York Times writer used Rosetta as a source, apparently accepting her story at face value, without looking too much further, and then passing it off as fact.

When Comerford questioned this, another Times contributor responded that “Paul is an opinion writer, not a reporter per se,” seeming to suggest that the paper has different standards for fact-checking the opinion page. Are NYT opinion writers entitled to their own facts?

Mistakes happen, but failing to look at the credibility or background of a source goes beyond the more minor errors that can slip by even the most careful writers. It’s also not the first time the paper has been caught using questionable sourcing, including on its news pages. See, for example, the doozy of a correction that had to be added to this story. But at least that one got a correction.

At this rate, the Times might want to revisit its famous slogan, which might better read, “All the facts that fit our narrative.”

By the way, you can still sign the letter criticizing the NYT’s coverage of trans issues. According to an update last week, more than 1,200 NYT contributors and 34,000 media workers, readers, and subscribers had signed.

(featured image: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

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