WCAX-TV is still in the doghouse, if not the outhouse, for its handling of the situation at Randolph High School. The station aired, and later took down, a story based on one single interview with a volleyball player who claimed to have been harassed by a transgender teammate. The reporter made no effort to fact-check or even talk to anyone else. WCAX aired the inflammatory accusation. Or, as the trans girl’s mother put it, they set a bomb and lit the fuse.
The station’s handling of the situation has been a disgrace. The original decision to run the story, the initial denials that the station was in any way at fault, the cowardly removal of the story from its website without saying a word about it, station manager Jay Barton’s belated blame-everbody-else statement, and the station’s refusal to take part in a “Vermont Edition” show about the story and the damage it has caused. (As of this writing, early afternoon on October 19, the show has not been archived online. It will be later this evening.)
Extra bonus: Barton’s non-apology aired during the news on October 13, and as far as I can tell, it is not accessible anywhere online. By its actions, it’s clear that WCAX is embarrassed. Otherwise, they wouldn’t conceal the story and Barton’s statement.
Barton began by defending his station’s work. He claimed the story was “factual,” which is true, but it still violated journalistic standards. You just don’t do a story like that based on one source. It was clearly inflammatory; a student was allowed to make a serious and undocumented allegation on the state’s most storied TV news operation.
Then he started deflecting, big-time. The story was “weaponized” by others. It “evoked a response from some that has resulted in significant harms to the girl, her family, and other transgender people.”
See, the story itself was blameless. Too bad it was misused by unnamed “others.”
He explained, or not, the decision to remove the story like this:
As we began to understand the scope of this, we removed all social media posts and eventually took the story off of our website, with the goal of preventing further misuse of our reporting.
Poor poor innocent WCAX, the victim of “misuse” at the hands of “others.”
As the one-minute-long statement was nearing its end, Barton stated “unequivocally that we reject the idea that it’s acceptable to bully teens or harass their family.”
Oh really? That’s the lesson you take from this? That bullying is wrong?
Didn’t your mother teach you that when you were in first grade?
He concluded by putting on his Brave Journalist Face and said that WCAX “does not shy away from reporting on difficult issues, and that will not change.”
I have no problem with that. But the question isn’t whether they should be “reporting on difficult issues.” It’s whether they do it responsibly. In that, they failed miserably.
And either they don’t understand that, or they’re too prideful to admit they were wrong. Either way, they are failing to serve the community.
WCAX was contacted by Vermont Public in advance of “Vermont Edition” and offered the chance to participate. All WCAX provided was a word-for-word regurgitation of Barton’s statement. They were unwilling to confront the matter in public.
This is an especially fraught moment to unleash a story like this. Conservative politicians across the country are demonizing transgender people. They are specifically targeting transgender students participating in team sports. WCAX not only set the bomb and lit the fuse, they knowingly did it in a room full of explosives.
But they didn’t get hurt. The girl, her family, and trans people everywhere got caught in the blast. The school district and the community are still dealing with the hateful backlash from all over the country. Right-wing news organizations are still flogging the story as reported, badly, by WCAX.
And it is, Barton notwithstanding, all WCAX’s fault.