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On Alejandra Caraballo vs. Benjamin Ryan vs. Steven Thrasher
...and the collapse of (some) science journalism
Despite being technically “off” Twitter, I’ve been keeping my eye on a pretty ridiculous blowup involving Benjamin Ryan, a health journalist (whose work I once edited a very long time ago). He got shellacked pretty badly online, and I want to write a bit about it not just because he deserves to be defended, but because one element of this controversy reveals just how broken science journalism is right now — at least on certain hot-button subjects.
This story starts with Alejandra Caraballo and a tweet she published about Ryan. Caraballo is a Twitter activist and instructor at the Harvard cyberlaw center last seen causing Democratic congressional staffers to regret tapping her to give expert testimony. She is someone who, full disclosure, I’ve had pretty unpleasant experiences with, and who has a fairly vicious streak on Twitter.
Her new thing is to express fury at some of her perceived enemies by publishing their phone numbers, albeit in a sleazy, plausibly deniable way: by posting photos of their emails containing that information. There’s a word Caraballo and her allies use to describe this sort of behavior when one of their enemies does it: doxxing. Doxxing is considered, by these types, to be an absolutely horrible thing to do. Caraballo has done it at least twice recently: once to Emily Bazelon, tweeting a screenshot of an out-of-office email that contained her phone number (I’m not linking to that one), and, more relevant to our purposes, once to Ryan.
Obviously, if you point at someone on Twitter and rant about what an evil piece of shit they are, and include a screenshot containing their phone number, you are basically begging Twitter, a giant machine built to amplify rage, to “do its thing” and start harassing them. I don’t want to belabor the point since it’s 2023 and perhaps passé to point out the rank hypocrisy of Twitter’s many “anti-harassment” crusaders, but if Benjamin Ryan posted an angry tweet with a screenshot containing Alejandra Caraballo’s phone number, he would forever be known as The Guy Who Doxxed An Innocent Trans Woman. There are no principles here — the “good” team can do whatever it wants.
Caraballo argued in the tweet in question (which mentions me, but whatever) that Ryan had exhibited truly unprofessional behavior: as part of his reporting for a freelance article for The New York Times, he sent an email in which, after stating he was looking for clinicians practicing youth gender medicine and therapy in states facing bans on these practices, he was also “interested in hearing from physicians who might have misgivings about the gender-affirming care treatment model, or who otherwise have theories about why we have seen such a recent surge in trans-identifying young people.”
(To be clear, Caraballo didn’t block out Ryan’s phone number.)
This is a completely standard way of doing reporting — casting a line and seeing what you can reel in. It isn’t always ideal to do it in the form of this sort of email, and of course you should heed the possibility that exactly this will happen, but Ryan didn’t do anything wrong, and in an email he said he was actually anticipating this outcome. “I sent that email and other versions of it to over 200 doctors and press reps at medical institutions,” he said. “I asked people to send it to others and to email it to listservs. I knew very well that it would probably end up on Twitter and that Alejandra would post it. So I am fine with it being out there.”
As a result of Caraballo’s tweet, Ryan got a series of furious text messages and emails, the most deranged ones accusing him of killing kids, doing journalism in a manner that would please the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, telling him to kill himself, and — this was on Twitter — expressing regret that he beat cancer.
By the time Caraballo posted Ryan’s phone number, the article had actually already been canceled by the Times because, he told me in an email, “the higher ups heard about it and told my editor they didn’t want a freelancer writing a story that sensitive.” Ryan noted in a reply to Caraballo that the piece was dead, but she left her tweet up.
Ryan did nothing to deserve any of this. The widespread shock expressed by Caraballo and other journalists and activists could not be in worse faith, because (1) they know that journalists do this exact same thing, but on the other side: they reach out to GLAAD or the ACLU to find doctors or families that support youth medical transition; and (2) they should know that there is, in fact, controversy over various facets of youth gender medicine, no matter how many times Twitter’s loudest and most ignorant lefty demagogues plug their ears and close their eyes and chant “NUH UH NO THERE ISN’T” (and, you know, dox and threaten people for attempting to do honest and accurate journalism).
This sort of outrage is almost entirely performative, in other words, and once it’s uncorked it tends to have a self-reinforcing element, as everyone attempts to one-up the last guy’s five-minute set — “No, check out how mad I am at the evil transphobic journalist: I’m sad he didn’t die from cancer!”
No one performed their outrage as vehemently or convincingly as Steven Thrasher. What makes his own performance different, and worth focusing on, is that he is an established health journalist with a long history of reporting on the intersection of race, health, and sexuality, and he’s the author of an apparently well-reviewed book called The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide. On top of all that, he is the “inaugural Daniel H. Renberg Chair of social justice in reporting” at Northwestern University’s highly ranked Medill School of Journalism. He is a thoroughly mainstream figure within journalism with significant clout.
After Caraballo’s tweet went up, Thrasher got up on stage for his own tight five, attempting to absolutely demolish Ryan’s reputation and ability to get future freelance work in tweet after sweaty tweet. Here’s an excerpt from his tweetstorm (which starts here), captured via the ever-useful Thread Reader App:
Benjamin Ryan is a bad repoter [sic], a bad writer and seems like a bad person and I encourage no one to cooperate with him on this, or any, story. Yesterday, there were horrific anti-trans stories in Wyoming, Nebraska and Missouri. Fuck the NYT & Ben Ryan for seeking “misgivings.” I don’t like to bring up my day job bc it causes headaches but I’ll do so here bc it’s so important: as the holder of the 1st journalism professorship to focus on LGBTQ issues, much of Ben’s work—and this piece specifically—is dangerous to the wellness of LGBTQ people.
I have a big piece in edits now in Scientific American about this matter, which shows how bad this type of “journalism” is. The Times & Ryan have no business shaking the trees to elevate some doctor, somewhere who is opposed to scientific consensus abt the benefit of transcare.
It’s like the NYT looking for a physicist who doesn’t believe in gravity or a[n] oceanographer who doesn’t believe in climate change. Such cranks or bigots ain’t news, and the Times should be ashamed of elevating lone voices out of step w medical and scientific consensus.
It is always mediocre, know nothing white dudes (Singal, Chait, Ryan) who NY mag and the NYT are like “Yes, YES, that’s the person! That’s the voice we NEED! No MD? No MPH? No PhD? Hated by and not a part of the community he’s writing about? But he’s white? Commission HIM!!!”. . . . Benjamin Ryan is a bad repoter [sic] of HIV/AIDS, Covid, queer history, and transcare. He is not the “enfant terrible” “only person who will speak to power” crusading journalist he wants anyone to think he is. He’s just a bad reporter, but one who gets commissioned bc of editors who are homophobic, transphobic and ableist.
. . .
Also, for all its evil, like most things, there is something to be learned in Ryan's email. It’s a good insight into what I forbid my students to do - trying to “reverse engineer” a story.
. . .
Don’t go looking to find sources that will support the story you’ve already decided to tell. Or fish purposefully for a contrarian “character.” LISTEN. STUDY. And as you see patterns, let the story find you. Don’t just say “Can I find one physicist who will say gravity’s bunk?”
. . .
The lack of reporting by the Times on Missouri BANNING TRANSCARE FOR EVERYONE is OBSCENE! That Ben Ryan is out here looking for an MD, any MD, who is *happy* abt this bc they are uncomfortable w providing transcare which saves lives shows that Ryan has poor news judgment!
“I find it shocking that a journalism professor, who should hold himself to high evidentiary standards, doesn’t bother to do the slightest due diligence before smearing a reporter in public,” said Ryan. “What he said about me is libel, pure and simple.” (Caraballo didn’t return an emailed request for comment, and Thrasher declined to comment.)
I don’t think that’s the case, legally speaking — libel is a high bar to clear in the United States, and when I asked Ryan for examples of Thrasher’s supposedly libelous tweets he included some that were pure matters of opinion, meaning there’d be no libel case there (to be clear, Ryan mentioned no specific plans to pursue legal action). Either way, though, this is a bizarre diatribe, not to mention a difficult read because of the sheer, ugly spectacle of an established Medill professor genuinely trying to do everything he can to napalm the reputation and future career prospects of a freelance journalist. But it’s also revealing on a few fronts.
For one, it shows just how unprofessional and cruel even well-established journalists and activists writing under their own names can be these days, with no consequences. Between starting this article and finishing it, I reread Freddie deBoer’s essay, “That One Side Would Like to Utterly Destroy the Other Side Seems Significant, To Me,” which was pegged to an interview between Ezra Klein and David Shor touching on the “popularism” debate (see here if you don’t know what that means, but the following excerpt doesn’t require foreknowledge of it).
This part jumped out at me:
But the popularism debate is a perfect example of how progressives simply can’t have the debates they need to have when the boundaries of the debate are hemmed in by the fear of vindictive reprisals. Should the party moderate? Should the party push left? How should it accomplish either? These issues involve everyone in the Democratic coalition. The rules of the game, though, tell us that some people have to mind their Ps and Qs while others get to engage angrily, vengefully, jokingly, and immaturely, as for some bizarre reason we have carved out a total exemption to basic rules of conduct in argument within left-of-center spaces for those who claim to speak from the standpoint of “the marginalized.” Unfortunately, their grasp on who actually holds that status is a little. . . motivated.
Tweak a few words and this paragraph could have been about the dispute between Benjamin Ryan, Alejandra Caraballo, and Steven Thrasher. Ryan is at a fundamental disadvantage here because he is operating in a milieu in which it is considered fine and good and virtuous to call someone a piece of shit or a bad person or to dox them as long as it’s For The Right Reasons, but in which even the most milquetoast expression of an opinion in the other direction — say, trying to find doctors with qualms about the affirming model as part of a broader article that will also tell the stories of doctors happy with that model and seeking to protect it — is seen as tantamount to violence.
So what punishment will be inflicted on Benjamin Ryan for the crime of Doing Journalism In The Second Degree? He will suffer meaningful reputational damage, for sure. A lot of people will read Thrasher’s tweetstorm, or Caraballo’s tweet, and instantly believe Ryan erred badly, without checking any of the facts.
Caraballo, on the other hand, will suffer no meaningful reputational harm for doxxing Ryan, and Thrasher will, if anything, only be more celebrated for the blinding heat of his moral clarity, an innate blessing that conveys upon him the power to, like so many other Twitter crusaders, effortlessly sift the world into good people — he himself happens to fall into that category — and bad people like Benjamin Ryan.
It doesn’t matter how incoherent this is, but incoherence does abound. Like: you have to be a part of the community to write about trans people — unless you’re Steven Thrasher, in which case you don’t. Or: as Thrasher teaches his students, “reverse-engineering” a story by determining your conclusions before your reporting process is complete is a cardinal sin in journalism — except that doesn’t apply to Thrasher publicly announcing, while working on a story for Scientific American, that anyone who questions these treatments is the equivalent of a climate change (or gravity!)–denier and that it’s a bad act for a journalist even to consider their perspective (to be clear, if multiple European countries found the evidence for anthropogenic climate change was weak, then of course it would be valid for a journalist to seek out different viewpoints on that question). Even a casual reader can see the projection and the hypocrisy here: Thrasher is doing exactly the thing he is falsely accusing Ryan of doing. Ryan’s email, the one everyone is pretending to be vomiting and fainting in rage over, is orders of magnitude more professional and careful and thoughtful than Thrasher’s social media effluvium.
Why don’t Steven Thrasher’s own rules about what’s good and moral journalism apply to Steven Thrasher himself? At the risk of repeating myself: because fuck you, that’s why. He has the right views, so he’s allowed to conduct himself with as much searing judgment and cruelty as he can muster. He has Right on his side, and nothing else matters. How do we know his perspective is correct? If he wasn’t, why would he be screaming at all of us about how we’re pieces of shit for not seeing the world the way he does? Think about it!
When I say nothing else matters, I mean that: nothing. Not even getting the facts right. It isn’t the worst or most salient part of his diatribe, for example, but toward the end of it Thrasher complains about “The lack of reporting by the Times on Missouri BANNING TRANSCARE FOR EVERYONE” — he’s so frustrated he calls it “OBSCENE!” Thrasher is somewhat misrepresenting the “Emergency Rule” in question, which does impose onerous and unecessary restrictions on adult trans healthcare in Missouri but which doesn’t ban it. More to the point, by the time Thrasher tweeted his accusation, the Times had already published an article on exactly that topic. Attorney General Andrew Bailey announced the rule on April 13 and the Times article went up April 14, meaning it’s hard to see how the paper could have responded any quicker. You would think a journalism professor would be careful about an easily checkable accusation before leveling it, but alas, that is not the age in which we are trapped.
What jumped out at me most about Thrasher’s tweetstorm was simply that Scientific American will soon be publishing an article by this guy on this subject, despite the screaming lack of professionalism with which he approaches the subject, and despite the fact that he is unfamiliar with the most basic contours of the debate. If, in 2023, you think skepticism of youth gender medicine is tantamount to climate change denial, you should not be writing about this subject for a major news outlet, full stop.
There’s a pattern here, because Scientific American’s work on this subject has been consistently sloppy and consistently eager to regurgitate activist claims with little skepticism or genuinely independent journalism. I could cite multiple examples, but let’s keep this to a paragraph and stick to the authoritatively headlined “What the Science on Gender-Affirming Care for Transgender Kids Really Shows,” published in 2022 and written by Heather Boerner. It botches basic aspects of this issue, such as by claiming that “Access to gender-affirming hormones and potential access to gender-affirming surgery is available at age 16,” when both have been provided to kids significantly younger than that for years. Borner also writes that “Data suggest the effects of denying that care are worse than whatever side effects result from delaying sex-assigned-at-birth puberty,” a strong claim for which we have absolutely no solid “data” of any sort — which is why she links to a Lancet editorial (which itself cites the Bustos et al. study I wrote about here as a credible estimate of surgical regret rates!) rather than any sort of research. Perhaps worst of all, Boerner treats the Tordoff et al. study as valid research without raising a single critical question about it, let alone noting that the kids in that cohort who went on blockers and hormones medication simply didn’t get better, according to the researchers’ own findings (buried in a supplemental table).
But that’s par for the course. If you read the magazine’s other output on this issue, you’ll see that Scientific American has decided that the science is totally settled on youth medical transition, and that bigotry and ignorance are the only reasons anyone could doubt these treatments. So it’s no wonder that Steven Thrasher got this assignment: he will repeat the party line, updated for recent developments. He has already announced, for all to see, that he refuses to engage with any clinicians who have any qualms about these treatments. Is there any question about what angle his article will take? I feel like I could write a reasonable facsimile of it right now, before it even comes out!
Anyway, I do try to avoid getting sucked into all this social media nonsense, but the fact is that it has an impact because journalists are so addicted to online life. Any journalist who steps out of line will get the treatment Ryan got — in this case, not even for writing anything objectionable about this subject, but for signaling he was seeking out multiple sides of the controversy. Can’t have that. Others have gotten it worse, of course: whatever complaints I have about my own annoying interactions online, the gross attempt to smear New York Times writers, who, like Ryan, really are just trying to do journalism, dwarfed my own experiences. To a bunch of actual, real-life journalists and academics, Emily Bazelon is now an evil reactionary. Emily Bazelon! I don’t know how many times I can use words like insane and deranged, but that’s what all this is.
There’s a point to it, though. These increasingly hysterical campaigns all seek to send a simple message: if you’re a journalist who is considering writing about this issue while adhering to your usual standards of critical thinking and investigating, you really might want to reconsider. Are you ready to have your reputation absolutely Swiss-cheesed in front of all your friends and colleagues on Twitter? Is it worth it?
Of course it isn’t.
“I am not an activist,” said Ryan. “Thrasher is one. We differ on that front.” I really think that’s what this comes down to, and I wish more journalists would exhibit a bit of courage and make the same decision Benjamin Ryan did about what it means to do this for a living, the consequences from Twitter’s multitudinous loudmouths be damned.
Questions? Comments? Brain-numbing tweetstorms by accomplished journalism professors? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image: “A burning dumpster fire, as part of a fire fighter's training exercise. Squamish BC, Canada. April 29, 2018.”
I’m obviously not saying journalists need to always be open-minded about everything, but Thrasher is correct — even if he is violating his own guidance — when it comes to genuine controversies like youth gender medicine: you can’t decide beforehand exactly what you’re going to write.