The Observer ran an editorial 10 days ago about the controversy over bathrooms and transgender people. We said the idea of a person with male parts using women’s rooms was uncomfortable, even for some supporters of transgender rights. We talked about the importance of maintaining privacy and detailed what some states and school districts are doing to ensure that privacy.
By last Friday, according to Rush Limbaugh and others, we had instead said that little girls need to get over their fear of seeing male genitalia.
And thus we got a fascinating peek into how truth is sacrificed these days on the altar of a polarized America by those who scheme to stand out at any cost in a crowded digital media universe. Say something factually wrong, like-minded websites repeat it and readers hungry for fodder to confirm their views lap it up and share it. Voila! – a new truth is born.
Our editorial ran in print the day after President Obama’s administration called on U.S. school districts to accommodate transgender students. Of people with male equipment in girls’ rooms, we said, “It’s an image that’s uncomfortable even for some who are sympathetic to the transgender cause.”
We wrote about an administration document that “provides examples of how districts address the privacy needs of all students in bathrooms and locker rooms.” In Washington state, New York and Kentucky, for example, school districts are implementing measures, such as curtains and private changing areas, to give all students privacy. Such provisions, we said, have made accommodating transgender students a non-issue.
We, of course, never said or remotely suggested girls should get used to seeing male genitalia. We said the opposite – that privacy is important and there are ways to maintain it.
The editorial sparked little feedback for five days. Then, a young reporter at the Washington Times named Bradford Richardson wrote a short story that misstated what the editorial said. He said the editorial told girls to get over their discomfort with seeing male genitalia. He did not link to the editorial so readers could read it, normally a common practice.
That’s when the echo chamber cranked up. Richardson’s mistake was quickly picked up by a couple dozen conservative blogs. They all repeated the same error, using the same language. By Friday, Rush Limbaugh awoke to it and the coup of the truth was complete.
Readers and listeners called and emailed the Observer. All were angry. Many cussed us out in graphic terms. Very few had read the editorial itself. They didn’t need to; they had “heard on Rush” what it had said.
We relish differences of opinion. A vigorous public discourse is what we’re all about. But it’s sad to see what can pass for debate in America today. Hyper-segmented, special-interest media warp reality into whatever their side wishes it to be, and their readers and listeners wolf it down like junkies grateful for their next high. How long before the crash?