To be a journalist on Twitter in the past four days has meant taking part, one way or another, in one of the more heated story dissections in recent memory. Last Wednesday, Grantland published “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” by Caleb Hannan, a writer in Denver. The story, borne of Hannan’s insomnia and his desire to play better golf, began as a profile of the inventor of a club called the Oracle GX1.
The inventor’s name was Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, whom friends called Dr. V. She described herself as an MIT-educated aeronautical physicist and her invention as an instrument superior for its scientifically advanced head design. Hannan tested the club and liked it. As he verified Vanderbilt’s credentials, the story changed, in two ways: The scientist’s background failed to check out, and Hannan learned that Dr. V had been “born a boy.” The piece turns heavily on this revelation.
Vanderbilt had agreed to be the subject of Hannan’s story only if Hannan wrote about “the science, not the scientist.” Once Hannan discovered the biographical discrepancies, he told Vanderbilt he could no longer honor the agreement. Vanderbilt emailed him a warning that publishing the story against her wishes would be tantamount to a “hate crime.” She had attempted suicide in the past, with carbon monoxide and prescription drugs, and, in October, as Hannan continued preparing his story, Vanderbilt made another attempt, and succeeded. Her partner and the president of her golf company, Gerri Jordan, found her dead on the bedroom floor, with a bag over her head; in the kitchen was an empty prescription bottle. This was in mid-October, in Gilbert, Ariz. Vanderbilt, according to the funeral home that handled her arrangements, was 60.
Hannan’s story immediately got attention that was positive:
The rage has centered on the ethics of outing a woman who did not want to be outed, and on a line in the story suggesting an authorial attitude of otherness toward Vanderbilt:
Inevitably, there has been professional disagreement:
The novelist and playwright Maria Dahvana Headley, on Glittering Scrivener, made the important distinction between journalistic responsibilities involving a public and private figure:
(Vanderbilt) is not a world-class dictator with a record of oppression of vulnerable minorities. She is not a religious leader who has spoken out against trans* rights. In these cases, perhaps it would be relevant to the story to unearth and publish the facts of someone’s gender history. … Hannan goes on to write this article, an expression of his upset that someone has lied to him and not understood his feelings as a story teller, his responsibilities to the reading public. What responsibilities? Which ones? Why is Caleb Hannan the man assigned to out this woman? Why is he the person whose version of the truth matters? Because he’s a Storyteller. And in the version that’s been sold to nonfiction writing students — and to fiction writers too — if you unearth a good story, man, you have a Giant Responsibility to tell it.
Jezebel‘s Tracy Moore laid out the need for greater awareness and empathy in reporting on trans issues:
This is a tragic death, it raises questions about the complexity of living trans, of reporting on trans issues, the nature of suicide, and about what it means to be honest in a piece while still respecting the privacy of the subject.
I understand why Hannan kept going when he realized there was something sketchy about the putter, but when he realized there was a much more at risk, he might have done more research. Were the real risks of outing a trans person ever acknowledged or weighed? Was that decision to include those details made after the news of her death? Was Vanderbilt ever assured privacy regarding her trans status? Was the possibility of reporting on the subject’s fraud, while respectfully divorcing it from her irrelevant gender orientation, ever even considered?
On Gangrey.com, freelance writer and Storyboard contributor Eva Holland reminded colleagues to remember that suicide is incredibly complex:
Caleb Hannan did not singlehandedly drive a woman to suicide. However, as Leonora wrote, there are things for all of us to think about when we’re reporting on vulnerable people.
Holland was talking about the Tampa Bay Times’ Leonora LaPeter Anton, who asked herself wrenching questions after one of her story subjects recently committed suicide. From “Gretchen Molannen’s Legacy: Suffering, Suicide and a Journalist’s Responsibility:”
If I had possessed some sort of device that could peer inside her brain and pick up some biological trace amongst the billions of nerve cells and circuits that would indicate she was likely to commit suicide, would I have stopped the interview? I don’t really know. I just know that we were both in deep at this point and proceeding toward publication of an article that might help her and other women with her condition.
Today, news began to circulate that last July, Hannan was sued over his role in a Seattle Weekly story about the true-crime author Ann Rule. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Rule sued over the publication’s failure “to do basic research into the reporting of freelance writer Rick Swart,” who wrote a piece, which Hannan edited, called “Ann Rule’s Sloppy Storytelling.”
A most excellent question has hung over the whole discussion: Are online reporters — and editors — and particularly freelancers — trained well enough as reporters?
And what of the role of Grantland‘s editors?
In other words, at the same time that Dr. V claimed to have been working on top-secret government projects in D.C., she was actually coordinating car repairs for a Phoenix suburb. [At this point in the story, Hannan has established that some or all of Dr. V's biographical claims are false or unverifiable, particularly those which establish her as a scientist. Since those are the only credentials that have any bearing on her claims for her product, and this story is about a golf club, that's enough for the story to be coherent.]
Hannan’s story, and the writer’s defenders, show the dangers of privileging fact-finding and the quest for a great story over compassion and humanity. One of the wisest comments I’ve seen over the last few days came from Steve Silberman, who wrote on Twitter that Hannan’s piece “has structural problems that turned into moral ones.”
One article is not going to destroy Grantland’s reputation, of course. In under three years they have become a valuable outlet for analytically sophisticated yet accessible writing about major sports as well as for exactly this kind of sports story; when Deadspin listed the year’s best sports stories, six Grantland pieces made the cut. Still, it should serve as a wake-up call. Something or someone in the editorial process should have caught the gigantic problems with “Dr. V’s Magical Putter.” There is nothing wrong with being an outlet that places a high premium on this kind of story. But you have to do them right.
When the Grantland story first posted, we reached out to Hannan, to discuss it. He declined. On Twitter, he responded to those who liked the story, and to his growing readership —
— and to those who didn’t —
Then he stopped responding at all. On Friday, he went quiet, with:
The silence has not gone unnoticed.
I spoke to Hannan this afternoon. He told me he has been following the reaction to the story, and that he is working with his editors, to prepare a statement. He said he will discuss the story when he and his editors feel the time is right.
We hope he follows through with the promise. Start to finish, the story bears rational public discussion: the ethics of publishing information that a story subject explicitly asks you not to use; the reporting process; the editing; the tone; the point of view (“I believe that ‘Dr. V’s Magical Putter’ was a story worth telling,” as Levin put it, “but this was not the right way to tell it.”); the structure (most notably, using the transgender discovery as — for lack of a better term — a plot twist). Which impending revelation troubled Vanderbilt more, the information about her academic dishonesty or her gender identity? The story fails to make it clear.
Whatever intentions the writer had — and it is impossible to know them, or to armchair-quarterback this issue, without hearing his side of this story — the piece reads, on the surface, to echo points made by Headley and Levin, like a case of story supremacy, and craft over compassion. What kind of thought went into the portrayal of Vanderbilt’s life as a trans woman? Did the writer and his editors endeavor to understand the complexity of writing about transgender lives — Poynter’s “Nine Ways Journalists Can Do Justice to Transgender People’s Stories” is a good place to start. (Rule No. 9: “Remember that transgender women are women, transgender men are men, and everyone is human,” a rule that’s especially relevant because the story, after the gender-identity revelation, refers to Vanderbilt as “a man.”) What kind of pressures were the writer and editors under, and how might those pressures have informed the decision making? Did Grantland consider dropping the story altogether? It’s something publications and writers — particularly freelancers — may be too dangerously disinclined to do.
As Levin wrote, of the most egregious misstep, “…Presenting Dr. V’s gender identity as one in a series of lies and elisions was a careless editorial decision,” adding:
… Hannan and his editors at least have a responsibility to ask themselves some difficult questions: What, if anything, should they have done differently? Should they have proceeded more cautiously once Hannan learned that Essay Anne Vanderbilt had attempted suicide before? Should they have published the story at all?
The discussion, online and off, in some journalistic circles, has taken on an absolutist tone suggesting that excluding the gender information regardless of the circumstances equates to abandoning journalistic principles of truth. We’ve asked narrative journalist after journalist to discuss the story from a procedural and craft perspective — some who wholeheartedly agree with how the piece was handled, and others who don’t — and all, so far, have declined.
Meanwhile, writer and former 5280 editor Max Potter traded emails with veteran Washingtonian editor Jack Limpert about the story — a fascinating exchange. Limpert wondered “what kind of tortured path the story may have taken” before publication, and said, of Hannan, ”… He’s a talented young man and he needed a better editor.” Potter:
I think that piece is emblematic of so much of what I think is wrong with what’s happening in journalism today. We’ve got journalism and journalists struggling more than ever before to make a name and a living, and thereby more and more pressure on landing an amazing story. We’ve got less and less staff and experience, fewer and fewer “adults” around, more and more talented kids desperate to make a name and very little mentoring. And, seems to me, we still have this (white) male dominated journalism elite, with their myopic, pseudo-macho ideas of what truth and the pursuit of it means. And … this is what we get.
(7:10 p.m.) Christina Kahrl, who covers baseball for ESPN.com and is on the board of directors for GLADD, outlined her criticisms of the story — on Grantland:
By any professional or ethical standard, (Vanderbilt’s gender identity) wasn’t merely irrelevant to the story, it wasn’t his information to share. Like gays or lesbians — or anyone else, for that matter — trans folk get to determine for themselves what they’re willing to divulge about their sexuality and gender identity. As in, it’s not your business unless or until the person tells you it is, and if it’s not germane to your story, you can safely forgo using it. Unfortunately, he indulged his discovery. The story’s problems include screw-ups you might expect for a writer or editors who aren’t familiar with this kind of subject matter — misgendering and ambiguous pronoun usage upon making his needless discovery of Vanderbilt’s past identity.
And Grantland editor Bill Simmons issued a stunning 2,700-word apology, describing the editorial process and placing most of the blame of the story’s failures on himself and his staff:
To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.
Caleb’s biggest mistake? Outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive. I don’t think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland. That misstep never occurred to me until I discussed it with Christina Kahrl yesterday. But that speaks to our collective ignorance about the issues facing the transgender community in general, as well as our biggest mistake: not educating ourselves on that front before seriously considering whether to run the piece.
So for anyone asking the question “How could you guys run that?,” please know that we zoomed through the same cycle of emotions that so many of our readers did. We just didn’t see the other side. We weren’t sophisticated enough. In the future, we will be sophisticated enough — at least on this particular topic. We’re never taking the Dr. V piece down from Grantland partly because we want people to learn from our experience. We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.
New (Tuesday, 3:02 p.m.): Some of the responses to Simmons’ apology/explanation:
From Alyssa Rosenberg‘s “The 4 Most Important Points in Bill Simmons’ Apology for Publishing a Piece Outing a Trans Woman,” on ThinkProgress.org:
1. Simmons recognizes that this was an organizational failure, and that responsibility doesn’t solely rely with Caleb Hannan: Simmons writes:
Another reason we created Grantland: to find young writers we liked, bring them into the fold, make them better, maybe even see if we could become the place they remembered someday when someone asked them, “So what was your big break?” That matters to us. Just about every writer we have is under 40 years old. Many of them are under 30. I am our third-oldest writer, as crazy as that sounds. For us, 31-year-old Caleb Hannan had (and has) a chance to be one of those writers. That’s why it hurts so much that we failed him.
I recognize that some readers have interpreted this section of the statement as prioritizing Hannan’s career over harm done to Vanderbilt. But in terms of organizational improvement, recognizing the role that editors play in preventing reporters from getting stories badly wrong is critically important. Ultimately, someone has to make the decision to run a story, and the way Simmons himself promoted the piece when it was published makes clear that he didn’t recognize the glaring issues with it as an examination of a transgender woman’s life, and as sports reporting. This doesn’t mean that Caleb Hannan is not to blame for the focus he chose, the way he reported out that interest, and the words he used to present the story. But one of the best reasons for large journalistic organizations to hire staff with a broad range of life experience and expertise, and to treat those perspectives as if they’re valuable and deserve deference, is so someone’s present to step in when a piece fails, to educate the writer in question, and to save subjects of pieces from journalistic malpractice, and publications from damaging themselves. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
From Melissa McEwan, via the feminist blog Shakesville:
If there’s a single observation that can encapsulate what’s wrong with Simmons’ piece, perhaps it is this: Twice—twice—he says he regrets that Grantland’s editorial team failed the writer, Caleb Hannan. “For us, 31-year-old Caleb Hannan had (and has) a chance to be one of those writers. That’s why it hurts so much that we failed him.” and “As for Caleb, I continue to be disappointed that we failed him.” In 2,700 words, Simmons find space to say twice that he is upset by having failed his writer, but cannot find space to express even once his regret at having failed Dr. V.
The aforementioned Potter, writing on the blog of the Washingtonian‘s Jack Limpert:
… The first time I clicked on some of these Grantland stories, I came upon some nice-looking ads—I imagine the web traffic and revenue over at Grantland right about now is, wait for it . . . a killer number. Get it, as in a dead woman. Killer. Not funny? No kidding. I hope that at least the Grantland machine is donating at least a portion of the ad revenue during this high-traffic period to GLAAD or a related victims-support group. So no, this apology doesn’t do it for me. To me, all it does is lay out why words aren’t enough.
In response to Potter’s post, Los Angeles magazine’s Mike Kessler wrote:
… What pissed me off about Caleb’s story was how little empathy he displayed. He says at one point that watching Dr. V squirm made him “sad.” That’s it? How about: “It occurred to me that I was dealing with someone who not only likely had a psychological affliction, fueled by past events I couldn’t even dream up, that led her to be a compulsive liar; but on top of that, she spent much of her life feeling trapped in the wrong body, and the remainder of her life hiding the fact she changed her body.” If ever there’s a story that called for a writer’s own voice and presence in a piece, this is it.
There are a few lines that really bummed me out. Like this one: “The darkest discovery was something that occurred after Krol had decided to live as Dr. V.”
“Darkest discovery”? Really? Yes, suicide attempts are dark. The problem is, calling this discovery the “darkest” suggests that Dr V’s trans saga was somehow dark to begin with. The author had no right to characterize it that way — not w/o hearing it first hand from the subject.
Or This: “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself.”
“Invented a new life for himself”? That’s one way of looking at it. But best I can tell, Dr V. was only ever one human, with one life.
New (Wednesday, 5 p.m.): We asked Cris Beam, who teaches writing at Columbia University and is the author of books including Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers and To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, for a few guidelines on writing about transgender issues. She recommended this checklist from Trans Media Watch. (Rule No. 3: “Avoid sensationalist reference to transgender persons or issues especially where their gender history has no direct bearing on the subject at hand. As a naturally occurring and well documented human variation, there is no reason for transness to be viewed as sensational per se.”) Beam writes:
When asked to draft some guidelines for writing about trans topics, I immediately thought of the ones writers use for any subject. I think that in general, it’s important to remember that the pursuit of truth isn’t license to be reckless. And while we always should be thinking deeply about the harm we could cause by disclosing facts about someone’s life, we also need to take the extra step to explore the cultural context in which that person is living. Because transpeople face tremendously high levels of discrimination in our culture right now, we need to be extra conscious that our reporting doesn’t add to someone’s trauma or risk, or contribute unnecessarily to negative societal attitudes. The way to do this, I think, is to make sure that every element you report is germane to the story at hand.
This is where I believe Caleb Hannan went wrong: His source asked him to “talk about the science, and not the scientist.” That request may be impossible to honor — if he’s investigating the validity of the scientist’s claims, he may also have to investigate the validity of the scientist’s credentials, and he owed it to her to tell her so. Hannan discovered Vanderbilt fabricated degrees and experience pertaining to the product he was covering. Was this relevant? Yes. He also discovered she was transgender. Was this relevant? No. If Hannan wasn’t sure, this is the point where he should have asked himself the tough moral questions about the pursuit of truth versus reckless harm. After all, “truth” is a slippery idea: Hannan’s truth wasn’t Vanderbilt’s. Hannan called her a man in the piece; by all available evidence, Vanderbilt never identified as such, so in fact he wasn’t reporting the truth at all.
If you’re not sure about what’s truth and what’s endangerment and what’s simply not related, ask your source, ask people in the trans community, ask and ask and ask. There are some excellent guidelines at transmediawatch.org, but in general, you should ALWAYS use the same pronoun and name that your source does. Read up on transgender stereotypes and make sure you don’t fall into them. And then, be flexible. I have a transgender daughter and a trans partner and I write about trans issues and every story is different. I once wrote a story about being a foster mother and my daughter read it before it ran and complained that I didn’t say she was trans. I didn’t think it was relevant to that particular essay, but she thought it was vital — to our relationship, to our history, to her truth. She read my omission as shame. I made a mistake with that piece, and thankfully was able to fix it, before publication. Essay Anne Vanderbilt wasn’t so lucky.
Not a case of too little adult supervision. The editors were on it. They were all over it. They had been through it a hundred times. They had agonized and called in help. And they all thought alike on some things, even the “outside” help. This is the big reveal for journalists in the Dr. V episode. Events by which “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” came to be published are now the best argument I have for you about diversity — real intellectual and intercultural diversity — in the newsroom. “Here is what can happen when you are not diverse enough. Like it?”
There can be stories where it can be made almost invisible to you: just what you are publishing— and committing to. This happens when you can’t read your own work well enough to edit it properly. Readers are going to notice before the editors know there’s something to notice. And notice: when you have missing knowledge at the editors table, more editors taking a look doesn’t help. All this happened to the editors of Grantland, a rising franchise in writerly journalism. They all had the same sense of smell, and for a time didn’t know what they were serving.
New (Saturday, 10 a.m.):
The Arizona Republic’s Megan Finnerty scored an interview with Vanderbilt’s ex-partner, Gerri Jordan:
She blames the reporting of the story for “90 percent” of the timing of Vanderbilt’s suicide — but not for the suicide itself. Vanderbilt had attempted to take her own life in 2007 and in 2008, Jordan said, and she lived believing that her friend might try again.
“I don’t hold any grudge, really, since she’s tried it before,” Jordan said as her eyes filled with tears that did not spill over. “So how can I say it’s all his fault, when it’s not really all his fault?”
She paused for a long breath, “I mean, eventually she would have anyway. … It just so happened to be the timing with the article.”
The New York Times’ Jonathan Mahler pecked at the contours of what might have been a valid point had he explored a bit more sharply. He suggested danger inherent in the cultural fetishism of longform:
When you fetishize — as opposed to value — something, you wind up celebrating the idea of the thing rather than the thing itself. …When we fetishize ‘long-form,’ we are fetishizing the form and losing sight of its function.
In “Lessons Learned from Grantland’s Tragic Story on Dr. V,” Poynter’s Lauren Klinger and Kelly McBride wrote:
The Grantland story established that Dr. V fabricated her credentials. A story about a rising company built on the founder’s deception is an interesting story. But equating resume lies with transgender status is a mistake that conflates a legitimate interest and a prurient interest. In doing so, Grantland sensationalized what could have been a legitimate and compelling narrative.
So what options did the writer and editors at Grantland have? Upon discovering the resume discrepancies, the writer clearly had to resolve them or ditch the story. And who wants to ditch a story? It’s possible that the reporter could have determined that the lies Dr. V told about her college degrees and work history, especially while seeking investors, were enough to merit a story. In that case, her status as a transgender person could have been dismissed as a private piece of information that had no bearing on a tale about a novel golf putter and the inventor behind it.
It’s also possible that the writer and his editors could have determined the deceptions were inextricably entwined with the name change and transition. In which case, the news organization would then have to ask if the subject of the story itself was so pressing to Grantland’s audience that it had to be published. It seems unlikely that an upstart golf club company rises to that level.
New (Saturday, Jan. 25, 5:45 p.m.): The Mahler piece started a Twitter brawl about longform “fetishism.” The length ≠ quality argument is old and obvious. Our take: We wish more young narrative writers would fetishize reporting — and thinking — as much as some of them fetishize storytelling. Some good stuff can be found — we can’t believe we’re saying this — in the Comments section, where one reader wrote:
The novelist Rick Moody addressed Mahler’s concerns this way:
New (Tuesday, 8:45 a.m.): ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte wrote that Grantland — an ESPN property — “is a promising site, only 32 months old, with a young staff being shaped by Simmons, a talented, overextended 44-year-old with less traditional, hard-core journalism experience but considerable vision and celebrity.” (We’re curious to know how much “hard-core journalism experience” exists on the entire staff.) Lipsyte warned that Grantland must learn from the mistakes of the Dr. V story “without allowing the lessons to hold it back from edgy, risky journalism.” From his piece:
… Just a few moments into reading that very story recently on Grantland, it was shaping up as another one of those bloated selfies that clog the arteries of sports-lit these days.
Four graphs and I was gone.
Thus, even though “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” was hastily hailed in the Twitterverse as another long-form masterpiece, I didn’t get back to it until after what would turn out to be a powerful backlash — an angry and anguished firestorm captured in this e-mail to the ombudsman from Brenna Winsett of Minneapolis:
“If ESPN writers can hound a transgender person to death over something like a golf club, is there any line they won’t cross?” she wrote. “This garbage makes a mockery of this woman’s life and encourages readers to view transgender people’s identities as frauds.”
Now, the story had my attention. …
Critiques of the piece, in my mailbag, on media sites and in blogs (such as here) were sometimes brilliant in their insights into transgender lives (often their own) and condemnation of the way the corporate media cover communities they so often marginalize. Much of the criticism was generically true, although I don’t think this piece was a conscious persecution of a transgender person as much as it was an example of unawareness and arrogance. It was a rare breakdown in one of ESPN’s best and brightest places, and an understandable but inexcusable instance of how the conditioned drive to get to the core of a story can block the better angels of a journalist’s nature and possibly lead to tragic consequences.
The story lacked understanding, empathy and introspection — no small ingredients. More reporting would have helped. It was a story worth telling, if told right. And aside from its humane shortcomings, I still don’t like it as a piece of writing.