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Did 'Lazy Reporting' in Houston Doom HERO?

Houston Mayor Annise Parker speaks to press about the backlash to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance

Texas LGBT activists are still stunned after Houston voters yesterday decisively repealed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, known colloquially as HERO. 

The ordinance, which was in effect for only a matter of months before numerous legal challenges eventually placed it on Tuesday's ballot, was voted down by 62 percent of the voters, compared to 38 percent in support, according to Houston TV station KHOU. 

Despite the fact that HERO sought to protect a broad swath of Houstonians from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations, opponents of the the ordinance were effectively able to misdirect public attention to HERO's LGBT-inclusive components, notes Media Matters

"When media outlets repeat bogus claims about 'bathroom predators' without fact-checking them, they lend undeserved credibility to the most toxic and ridiculous arguments against LGBT equality," says Carlos Maza, LGBT program director at Media Matters. "Audiences are left assuming the 'bathroom predator' myth has merit because they expect news outlets to let them know when something isn't true."

Indeed, a hallmark of the successful anti-HERO campaign was unabashed transphobia, including campaign slogans and statements from top lawmakers claiming that HERO would allow men, including sexual predators, into women's bathrooms. At Tuesday night's anti-HERO victory rally, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick delivered a gleeful speech from behind a banner reading "No MEN in Women's Bathrooms. Vote NO on Houston's #Prop1."

This repeatedly debunked myth plays on unfounded fears that paint all trans people — and especially trans women — as sexual predators. In reality, while more than 200 jurisdictions nationwide — including three major cities in Texas — have nondiscrimination ordinances that mirror HERO's protections, there has never been a single verified instance of a man "pretending" to be transgender to gain access to women's locker rooms or restrooms and harass the women therein. Of course, any such harassment — in a restroom or otherwise — would be subject to criminal penalties; nondiscrimination ordinances have no bearing on what is defined as criminal behavior. 

But local media in Houston failed to present its viewers with the facts, reports Media Matters. Blasting local media coverage of the controversy surrounding HERO as "abysmal," the media watchdog agency notes that "throughout the debate over HERO, local TV stations uncritically repeated the bathroom predator myth, essentially providing free airtime to HERO opponents."

Media Matters created the following graphic to illustrate how frequently HERO was discussed on local TV news, how often that coverage included the mischaracterization of HERO as a "bathroom bill," and how often that coverage included background footage of bathroom signs, implying that was the primary scope of the ordinance. 

Media Matters HERO local coverage graphic

"Nobody knows how the HERO vote might have gone down if media outlets had done a better job of debunking misinformation, but one thing is for sure: The constant, uncritical parroting of the 'bathroom predator' talking point on local news channels gave HERO's opponents free publicity for their misinformation campaign," Maza tells The Advocate. "Houstonians deserve better from their local news sources."

The Media Matters analysis deals only with television, but a look at Houston print media indicates these outlets did a bit better in their coverage. The city's daily paper, the Houston Chronicle, ran an editorial urging voters to affirm HERO. The Houston Press, an alternative weekly, ran stories denouncing the scare tactics used by opponents of the ordinance and pointing out that they had no basis in fact.

The Texas Tribune, a statewide publication, generally allowed supporters of HERO equal time with opponents, and it capped the fight by reporting the ordinance's defeat under the headline "Bathroom Fears Flush Houston Discrimination Ordinance."

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