Fox News is waging a hate campaign against trans college swimmer Lia Thomas, airing 32 segments about her in just 6 weeks
As part of its campaign to defame transgender athletes in order to slander the trans community as a whole, Fox News obsessively covered University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas. From December 3 to January 12, the network aired 32 segments about Thomas’ swimming career. Throughout Fox’s coverage of the story, hosts and guests spewed dehumanizing rhetoric about Thomas and went so far as to claim that “it’s like everyone took a crazy pill and no one wants to admit it’s wrong.”
During a swim meet in early December, Thomas came in first place in the 500-yard freestyle, 200-yard freestyle, and 1,650-yard freestyle races, setting conference records in each event. Thomas’ performance has drawn the ire of conservative pundits determined to cast her success as symptomatic of the allegedly unfair advantage transgender women have when participating in women’s sports.
Thomas has exceeded National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules, which require him to take testosterone suppressants for at least a year before competition, and has the support of the Ivy League conference and its school.
Nonetheless, Fox News relentlessly called Thomas’ participation a serious threat to women’s sports — even when she didn’t win. At a swimming meet on January 8, Thomas placed sixth in the 100-yard freestyle with Iszac Henig in first place (Henig is a trans man who competes on the women’s team as he has postponed the hormone replacement therapy.)
Fox News has a long history of spouting anti-trans rhetoric, and in recent years has focused that hate on individual trans athletes. In 2021, the network aired more segments about trans athletes in the first three months of the year than in the previous two years combined.
Fox News has aired 32 segments on Lia Thomas since December 3
From December 3, when Fox first mentioned her after winning a swimming race, until January 12, Fox News aired 32 segments about Thomas’ swimming career. Key findings include:
(As per the Trans Journalists Association’s style guide, Media Matters replaced Thomas’ dead name and pronouns in the quotes below.)
- Fox’s so-called “direct news” broadcasts aired 9 segments on Thomas, which is more than a quarter of the total segments. The remaining 23 segments were from his opinion programs.
- Fox and his friends and its weekend counterparts as well as Fox and Friends First, the network’s weekday morning show, aired the most segments (12) on Thomas together. American Newsroom with Bill Hemmer and Dana Perino aired the second largest segment on the topic (9), followed by Ingraham’s Angle (4), and Tucker Carlson tonight (3).
- Fox News characters have repeatedly named Thomas dead and misgendered. Dead names and gender errors are forms of harassment that involve using a trans person’s old name against their will or referring to them as the incorrect gender. The misidentification of trans people goes against journalistic best practices.
- Lawyers and clients from the extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom appeared on Fox News during three of the segments on Thomas. During the edition of December 14 Ingraham’s Angle, ADF attorney Christiana Holcomb misinterpreted trans athletes and alarmed that “woke ideologues are silencing women like these University of Pennsylvania athletes for saying no to men in their sport.”
Fox’s coverage of the story was full of anti-trans hate and dehumanizing rhetoric about Thomas. On January 9, a day after Thomas placed sixth in the 100-meter freestyle, right-wing specialist Buck Sexton denounced the impacts of the “trans agenda” on women’s sports and lamented: “We in the industry information, we’re all using female pronouns for males as a no-brainer. I’m also not sure why we conceded that. On the same day, Fox host Rachel Campos-Duffy misinterpreted Thomas and claimed, “Everyone sitting there in the stands is participating in this lie. Lia is not a woman.
Fox hosts and guests have also used the story to fuel broader anti-trans attacks, including lying about best healthcare practices and promoting conversion therapy. During a January 11 Fox and his friends segment, right-wing writer Cynthia Millen lied, saying that “statistics have shown that if a teenager with gender dysphoria is allowed to go through it with proper therapy, they end up not wanting to transition when they is an adult”. Millen also incorrectly asserted that gender-affirming health care “involves the mutilation of the body”. Fox dubiously referred to Millen as merely a “former American swimming official,” even though she is also a staff writer for the Catholic Stand website, where she has documented extreme views on reproductive health care, same-sex couples and critical race theory.
In fact, gender-affirming medical care for trans people is accepted as a safe, effective and life-saving treatment, widely supported by medical professionals and with clear mental health benefits.
In the December 7 edition of Tucker Carlson tonight, Carlson brought in Kara Dansky from the anti-trans organization Women’s Human Rights Campaign. Dansky has argued against federal protections for trans students as well as the inclusion of trans people in women’s restrooms and prisons, even going so far as to oppose the word transgender itself, saying, “Republicans hold the line on material reality. This all goes out the window when you use the word like transgender. It just doesn’t exist, and I beg viewers to stop using it.
Right-wing media is leveraging the story to fuel broader anti-trans attacks
The Fox hosts weren’t the only ones to exploit Thomas’ story to push the transphobic talking points. Conservative radio host Clay Travis tweeted an article about Thomas from his website OutKick.com that dubbed her and claimed that NCAA policy on trans athletes was to tell “biological women…to suck it up and take care of it”. Travis has also appeared on Fox News several times to comment on the story and oppose trans inclusion in sports.
Print and right-line media took on a similarly antagonistic tone, including Townhall, the New York Post and the Washington Examiner. The Examiner published an article online titled “Liberals Leading the Way in Transforming Women’s Swimming into More of Men’s Swimming”, in which writer Christopher Tremoglie claimed that “as a result of this transgender destruction, collegiate women are the collateral damage”.
Other right-wing cable networks also saw the story as an opportunity to anger their base, with Newsmax’s Chris Salcedo saying on his show that competition from Thomas was a “new form of political correctness pushed exclusively by Democrats.” socialists”. One America News Network host Dan Ball said of Thomas’ participation, “Speaking of things that are just wrong, like a grown man trying to have sex with teenagers,… how about a real biological man beating women, all women, in their own sporting events? It’s not fair either.
Far from hollow attacks, this type of rhetoric goes hand in hand with legislative efforts by conservative lawmakers to impose new restrictions on the rights of trans youth, with the participation of trans students in sports being a key target. After 2021 saw a historic number of bills targeting trans children introduced in state legislatures, the threat remains high as 25 bills specifically targeting trans student athletes are currently being considered in state legislatures in across the country.
A recent Trevor Project poll shows how this new reality can impact the lives of trans youth, with 85% of transgender and non-binary youth saying the debates around these bills have had a negative impact on their mental health. As long as the right-wing media continues to capitalize on stories like Lia Thomas’s, manufacturing outrage through misinformation and hate, trans children will remain victims in Fox News’ culture war.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original shows on Fox News Channel for any of the terms “Lia Thomas”, “Leah Thomas” or “gender” or any variation of the term “trans” at proximity to any of the terms “Penn”, “UPenn” or “NCAA” or any variation of the word “swim” from 4:00 a.m. EST December 3, 2021 to midnight January 12, 2022.
We included segments, which we defined as instances where Lia Thomas was the stated topic of discussion or when we found meaningful discussion about Thomas. We defined meaningful discussion as instances where two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed Thomas among themselves. We didn’t include mentions, which we defined as instances where a single speaker mentioned Thomas without another speaker engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances where the anchor or host promoted a segment on Thomas that was to air later in the show. .
We’ve split Fox programs into “news” and “opinion” sections. We defined “news” programs as those with presenters, such as Bret Baier or Shannon Bream, while we defined “opinion” programs as those with hosts, such as Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham, at the bar. We have used the designations of each anchor or host author page on FoxNews.com. We also considered the format of the program; we have defined those that use a panel format, such as Outnumbered and The Five, as opinion programs.