Slate Exposes a Huge Pitfall of Modern Journalism

Activist reporter + BS, obviously too good to be true story + lack of editing and fact checking = major publication embarrassing itself

A couple of months ago, a major local controversy erupted in Los Angeles when a pre-op trans woman allegedly exposed herself (and her intact penis) in front of women and children at the Wi Spa, an Asian, gender-segregated nude sauna. One cis woman at the spa complained, and her complaint was caught on video, as was the Spa’s response- that California Civil Rights law permits people who identify as female to use the facilities.

As far as I know, the Spa was quite correct about the legal point. And I don’t question this- I really haven’t formed an opinion as to exactly how far civil rights statutes should go to protect trans women in women’s spaces, but at least in principle, I don’t argue with it, and on the broader issue, I think that there needs to be robust legal protection for trans women.

But after the controversy simmered for a few days, a local publication I had barely heard of, the Blade, published a story by a writer under a pseudonym, which asserted that unnamed sources at the spa and LAPD had claimed it was potentially a hoax and no trans woman ever entered the facility.

I saw the story (it got some play from LGBT folks I follow on Twitter) and didn’t think much of it other than giggling at what I thought were the obvious BS elements of the Blade story. Really, the writer is under a pseudonym? Because you know that LGBT writers in LA are under constant threat! And the Blade, an LGBT paper nobody’s ever heard of, has sources in the LAPD? And not only that, but the Spa confirmed it was a hoax but didn’t want to say so on the record? Obviously if it were really a hoax, the Spa would (1) know this and (2) would trumpet it publicly. The Spa was the site of constant protests and was losing business because of this!

So, OK, a BS story being pushed by activists on Twitter. Happens all the time. But then, a publication and writer I respect- Slate and its LGBT beat writer, Evan Urquhart, himself a trans man- picked up the story. And not only picked it up, but basically credited the Blade account uncritically.

This was too much for me. Now it was all over the Internet, because of course Slate is a mainstream outlet and had now blessed the narrative that this incident never happened. So I posted a comment to the Slate story, in which I pointed out, logically, that the Blade story was unreliable and that in fact, Slate potentially exposed itself to some defamation liability (because its story implicitly claims that the person who complained to Wi Spa about the incident was lying). Slate’s response? It deleted the comment and didn’t change the story.

Apparently a month later (I hadn’t been following the story), Los Angeles Magazine reported that five different people made police reports complaining about the trans woman exposing her penis in the spa. Slate then appended a clarification to its story, reporting that fact but saying it didn’t undermine their reporting that this was potentially a hoax. Which is faintly ridiculous- at this point, did the editors at Slate really not understand that it was highly unlikely either that Los Angeles Magazine was wrong that there were five reports or that five people filed false police reports?

Well, today, the other shoe dropped. The New York Post reported that the trans woman had been charged with indecent exposure. She is, in fact, the same woman who had earlier been charged with exposing herself in a public restroom in West Hollywood. The Post even has the “Wanted” poster from that earlier incident, which says that the suspect “claims to identify as female so he can access women’s locker rooms and showers”. Ouch. Oh, and by the way, the suspect has two prior convictions for indecent exposure.

I don’t want to relitigate this incident. The Wi Spa controversy has caused nothing but pain, both for Los Angeles’ trans community and for the Spa itself, with ideological opponents gathering in front of this innocent business, which followed the law, for their protests and counter-protests.

What I do want to say is that Slate’s reporting has been completely irresponsible. I expect publications like the Blade to do what they do. But in this world of content farming, where even reputable publications simply republish a ton of content from other outlets, those publications HAVE to recognize a BS story for what it is and not republish something simply because a writer would like it to be correct. The Blade story had obvious red flags. But Urquhart is an LGBT activist writer- nothing at ALL wrong with that except if it starts compromising journalistic standards. And unfortunately it did here. And Slate is probably not doing basic fact checking or editing the way mainstream publications used to. So it’s now trivially easy for a BS story to travel from an outlet like the Blade, onto Twitter, into the hands of an activist writer, and straight into a mainstream publication, without anyone calling BS. That’s scary.