In a room full of writers, Caleb Hannan was remarkably honest and candid about his mistakes.
At the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, Hannan discussed his 2014 Grantland story that sparked national controversy and discussion about transgender portrayal in the media. In a session about mistakes ranging from Stephen Glass to Rolling Stone, Hannan’s story dominated the conversation.
Other panelists were S.I. Rosenbaum, senior editor at Boston Magazine and one of the most vocal critics of Hannan’s story, and Slate’s Hanna Rosin, who worked alongside Glass at The New Republic and interviewed the writer of a recently discredited story in Rolling Stone about a gang rape.
Reporting for Grantland, Hannan researched the creator of a supposedly scientifically superior putter — a woman who went by Dr. V. In the eight months of reporting, he found out that she had lied about her academic resume and was transgender.
In October 2013, Dr. V took her own life. The story ran the next January.
“Did you have a sense she was unstable?” Rosenbaum asked Hannan on Saturday.
“Yes,” he said.
Hannan said he and his wife had multiple conversations about V’s instability. They had a friend of the family who took their own life earlier that year, yet at every chance to drop the story, Hannan felt — at the time — justified in his reporting.
“My wife brought it up whenever she could,” he said. “There’s a momentum to a story that’s hard to stop.”
He also said he regretted that he and Grantland editors didn’t take the time to restructure the story after Dr. V’s suicide. He filed his first draft months before, and never altered the basic outline.
There were many times when Hannan had concerns, he said. When a freelance fact-checker was worried Dr. V may hurt herself, Hannan said he was “scared shitless,” but that he and his editors were “lulled into a sense of, this is a con-artist first and a transgender woman second.”
“The bones of that draft barely changed. That narrative draft barely changed,” Hannan said. “Everybody in this room has had the feeling of just, ‘get this out,’ which is the last feeling you should have.”
Rosenbaum re-edited the story after the controversy started, a version which avoided the fact that Dr. V was transgender. Rosenbaum said it was partially the fault of editors who didn’t have the right kind of experience to properly address trans issues.
“I felt sick. I felt my stomach turn over,” Rosenbaum said. “It felt like a horror novel.”
At the time, Hannan felt like his aggressiveness was simply doing his job, but now questions if Grantland was the best place for the story – and if it should have existed in the first place.
“Are they the people equipped to deal with this emotionally? Am I?” Hannan said. “There’s a momentum to a story that’s hard to stop.”