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The ‘New York Times’ Just Refuses To Stop Platforming Bigotry, Don’t They?

Pedestrians walk in front of the New York Times office building.

Well, it’s another day, another story from the New York Times platforming an influential right-wing propagandist.

This weekend, the Times published a profile on Christopher Rufo, a “conservative activist” who is a leading force behind the right’s current war on LGBTQ+ rights, especially in terms of restrictions in schools. Before that, he played an enormous role in shaping and spreading the narrative around “critical race theory,” which was designed for the sole purpose of stoking culture war animosity among Fox News viewers.

Rufo has been very public about the fact that “CRT” outrage is completely fabricated, that the term is essentially meaningless and meant to be a catch-all for conservative anger and insecurities, and that he’s proud of playing such a large role in this movement. Here’s what he wrote on Twitter in March of last year:

We have successfully frozen their brand — “critical race theory”— into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.

This man is dangerous and incredibly influential. More people should know who he is and what he’s responsible for. But what the Times’ Trip Gabriel produced was less an exposé than it was a moderately flattering profile, complete with glamor shots making Rufo look intriguingly pensive and serious.

This is hardly the first time the NYT has presented similarly dangerous far-right figures in this way, and it’s not the only prominent outlet to do so. (The Washington Post went through a bizarre period late last year, publishing multiple articles carrying water for the anti-abortion movement.)

On Twitter, journalist and professor Damon Kiesow posted an excellent thread breaking down how the Times’ obsession with neutrality is actually normalizing and amplifying dangerous ideals.

“The problem is, you can ‘reveal’ without featuring anodyne portraits (these large photos are called ‘hero shots’ by web designers) and using the language of struggle, innovation, entrepreneurship (hero language) on the path to pointing out the subject’s horrid beliefs,” Kiesow writes. “The path to not amplifying hate is to lead with a portrait of the director of a local anti-hate group and have them describe the issue – and then dig into the details of the people pushing anti-civil rights legislation. That is why we teach ‘framing’ in journalism school.”

Once again, we’re seeing a major news outlet struggle with an inexplicable insistence on both-sidesing hate and misinformation. This particular article takes a subtle (and therefore potentially even more insidious) approach to that both-sidesing. Gabriel never presents Rufo’s actions as “good” or admirable or even really acceptable. He presents plenty of criticism (via quotes from others) but he repeatedly places them right alongside talking points from professional bigots, like in this infuriating paragraph:

Critics of Mr. Rufo, and of the broader right-wing push on L.G.B.T.Q. issues, say the attacks represent a new era of moral panic, one with echoes of slanders from decades ago that gay teachers were a threat to children. Some champions of Florida’s law, including Christina Pushaw, Mr. DeSantis’s press secretary, have labeled their opponents “groomers” — adults who want to sexually pursue children.

Moreover, while Gabriel includes plenty of quotes from people offering insightful criticism of Rufo’s role in the right-wing propaganda machine, they are from politicians, professors, and journalists, not from the people most affected by Rufo’s campaign of hate. There are no experts from LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups as Kiesow suggests in his thread. As BuzzFeed News’ David Mack put it: “no gays in this entire story!”

Ultimately, if there is a man out there unknown to much of the public, who is largely responsible for fueling the conservative culture war and providing the biggest buzzwords Fox News and Republican lawmakers have been leaning into hard for the last year-plus—words like “CRT” and “groomers” that they’ve been distressingly successful in getting traction with—major news outlets should probably let their readers who that man is. But if your article ends up sounding more like a celebrity profile puff piece than an exposé, something has gone horribly wrong.

(image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.