Almost as soon as Caleb Hannan’s story about an unconventional putter and the bizarre and fraudulent circumstances that led to its closeted transgender creator’s suicide was published on Grantland on Wednesday, it spread like wildfire throughout the social sharing echo chamber.
The piece was lauded by gobs of well-respected sportswriters inside and outside of Grantland, getting tweeted out by the likes of Bill Barnwell, Bruce Arthur, Bruce Feldman, Dan Le Batard, and countless others. Deadspin, who sees Grantland’s parent ESPN as the “Death Star”, unironically and uncritically linked it on its main page and Richard Deitsch, who has since re-considered his stance, proclaimed that it might be the best thing he’d read all month.
But after being largely heralded for a day or two, the substance of the story began to get picked apart and now that everyone has had time to digest the criticism it’s pretty obvious that it had some very glaring editorial flaws.
Outing Dr. V, the putter’s inventor, as a fraud and as transgender pretty directly led to her taking her own life, and the tone and sequencing of the story reads with a severe lack of empathy. There’s a lot to work through, but these were some thoughts I’ve had after observing the rise and fall of Hannan’s narrative.
1. I didn’t read the piece until after the backlash. As a voracious Twitter consumer, I of course saw it getting passed around repeatedly, but it was my first full day of work here and I was focused on learning protocol. If it had been a typical day, I probably would have opened it and kept it in a tab, jumping back and forth. I think I would have skimmed the middle, and perhaps skipped ahead to the dramatic reveal. I don’t believe I would’ve read it closely enough to notice what was wrong with it, and I might’ve even shared it.
2. I therefore have a hard time throwing stones at anybody outside of Grantland who perused the story, didn’t read it all that carefully, admired the thorough reporting, found the discovery of fraud to be fascinating, and felt compelled to pass it along. This story would take about a half hour to read straight through in its entirety, and I suspect very few people gave it their undivided attention. We don’t do that — look how many tabs/windows you have open right now.
3. While casual sharers can be partially excused, Grantland’s editors can’t. Here was what they wrote when the story dropped:
— fierman (@fierman) January 15, 2014
— Rafe Bartholomew (@Rafeboogs) January 15, 2014
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) January 15, 2014
Bartholomew is a staff editor, Fierman is the site’s editorial director, and Simmons is obviously the editor-in-chief. In all, Grantland’s masthead boasts 12 people with “editor” in their title, and they were collectively negligent in their responsibility to protect Hannan — a young freelance contributor — and their publication from the shame they now face. You can see why they all would have been enthralled with the narrative, but it’s mind-boggling that they didn’t preside over it with more tactful structure, tone, and word choice.
4. The biggest issue with the piece is the cavalier way it treated its subject’s suicide. Dr. V is described almost as a character in fiction as opposed to the tragic case of a human being battling apparently harrowing psychological issues that led to her professional fraud:
Writing a eulogy for a person who by all accounts despised you is an odd experience. What makes it that much harder is that Dr. V left so few details — on purpose, of course. Those who knew her in her past life refused to talk about her. Those who knew her in the life she had created were helpful right up to the point where that new life began to look like a lie.
The suicide is the culmination of a story that builds and builds towards it. Again, this isn’t fiction, and the piece would hold up much better if the death were mentioned near the beginning and the broader tone contained even a shroud of sympathy. Maria Dahvana Headley did an exceptional job at thoroughly explaining why it was journalistic malpractice to focus on telling the best story, collateral damage be damned.
5. The other big reveal was the outing of Dr. V as transgender, both to an investor in her company and in the piece. I don’t envy Hannan for making this discovery, and can’t even conceive of how I would’ve personally handled it, but the presentation of the information looks terrible in hindsight.
He was clearly trying to tell me something, which is why he began emphasizing certain words. Every time he said “she” or “her” I could practically see him making air quotes. Finally it hit me. Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine.
“Are you trying to tell me that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was once a man?”
“The journalistic integrity in terms of outing people in general is unethical,” The International Homosexual Conspiracy author Larry-bob Roberts tells The Big Lead. “The only exception that can possibly be made is when politicians who are actively working against a group that they’re a part of.”
Roberts also notes that Dr. V was misgendered in this passage:
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.
As Mike Gallego points out, the story would have been appropriate, and still quite fascinating, if the transgender detail were omitted entirely. This invasion of personal privacy was uncalled for, and Grantland’s editors have the salary and status to know better. If any good comes out of all this, it will hopefully be more widespread education and awareness of the plight of the transgender community.
6. You can’t let Hannan completely off the hook, because these were ultimately his words and he comes across in the story as highly unlikable. He never seems at all concerned with his role in the emotional distress and subsequent suicide of his subject, and demonstrates no introspection as to whether he could have gone about his investigation any differently. But, a quick peer through his mentions shows he is taking a disproportionate brunt of the Internet’s outrage.
7. Even though Dr. V explicitly asked, at the outset of Hannan’s research, for the work to be about the science behind the putter (and it really is bananas that this whole thing arose over a fucking putter) and not the scientist, Hannan was well within his right as a journalist to expose the fraud that almost certainly enabled the golf club’s popularity to take off.
After CBS broadcaster Gary McCord touted the putter and its creator’s purported military engineering and elite education background — and the club was used successfully by notable professionals — it’s good reporting to expose that narrative as a complete crock of shit and imply that the placebo effect is responsible for golfers’ apparent preferences for it. This information could have carried a very strong piece if the suicide were treated sympathetically.
8. Would it have been shared as much without the transgender revelation and thrilling narrative format, though? Probably not, and this presents a moral hazard for all of us in web publishing. Just as when we fall for fake stuff, it’s not as if the pageviews and ad revenue get taken back.
Update: Via Richard Deitsch, ESPN has issued the following statement on the story:
“We understand and appreciate the wide range of thoughtful reaction this story has generated and to the family and friends of Essay Anne Vanderbilt, we express our deepest condolences. We will use the constructive feedback to continue our ongoing dialogue on these important and sensitive topics. Ours is a company that values the LGBT community internally and in our storytelling, and we will all learn from this.”
And there’s also this:
ESPN spokesperson sends comment about Grantland story, says @BillSimmons plans to address it via Grantland in the coming days
— marc tracy (@marcatracy) January 19, 2014