Last week, Houstonians voted to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), marking the end of a year and a half long battle over the city's non-discrimination ordinance. HERO's opponents owe a large part of their success to local media, which helped frame the measure as a "bathroom bill" while uncritically repeating opponents' bogus "bathroom predator" talking points.
For the past 17 months, the city of Houston has been embroiled in a drawn-out battle over HERO, which prohibits discrimination in areas like housing, employment, and city contracts on the basis of 15 characteristics, including race, sex, disability, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
The Houston City Council adopted HERO in May 2014, in the face of fierce opposition from anti-LGBT groups who immediately launched a signature-collection effort to put the ordinance on the ballot for possible repeal. After months of expensive, high profile campaigning, yesterday Houstonians voted to repeal the embattled equal rights ordinance.
HERO's opponents won a stunning victory, turning public opinion dramatically against a relatively popular ordinance. That victory is thanks in part to local media's abysmal coverage of the fight over HERO, which was plagued by the widely-debunked myth that the ordinance would allow sexual predators to sneak into women's restrooms by pretending to be transgender – a bogus talking point championed by HERO's opponents.
A Media Matters study found that, throughout the debate over HERO, local television media uncritically repeated the bathroom predator myth, essentially providing free airtime to HERO opponents.
Local media also depicted HERO as an LGBT non-discrimination law, rarely mentioning that HERO prohibits discrimination on 15 characteristics including race, gender, and familial status – characteristics that are statistically more likely to need HERO's protections. Houston Fox and CBS affiliates went the extra mile of making it a practice to included B-roll footage (scene setting video shown during a news report) of bathroom signs during their HERO coverage. Fox 26's HERO reporting was particularly egregious, with the network's reporters themselves buying into the myth.
Pairing bathroom b-roll with HERO coverage and excluding mention of the measure's broad non-discrimination protections led many Houston voters to think the measure was solely about access to restrooms. As Rice University Political Science Chair Mark Jones noted in August, Houston voters were "focused in on the bathroom issue," but otherwise people "really don't know" HERO's actual content.
The media's unwillingness to debunk opponents' bathroom talking point likely played a major role in turning public opinion against the ordinance. As Rice University political science professor Robert Stein told BuzzFeed News, the bathroom predator myth is "the most effective means to cool support for the law." The talking point has a history of defeating LGBT non-discrimination ordinances, and in Stein's poll, it swung nearly 7 percent of HERO supporters to change their position and oppose the ordinance.
Instead of giving Houstonians the information they needed to make an informed decision about whether to keep or repeal HERO, media outlets contributed to the gross misinformation campaign surrounding Houston's non-discrimination law. Last week, Houstonians voted to strip their LGBT neighbors of basic legal protections out of fear of the imaginary bathroom bogeymen they had heard so much about in the news.