By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | January 22, 2014 |
By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | January 22, 2014 |
As a former newspaper reporter and proud owner of a journalism degree from [REDACTED] University, I follow the continually revised, inherently individual rulebooks governing modern media with great interest. I’m not referring to the “AP Stylebook”; rather, the subjective but generally acceptable standards by which responsible writers should conduct themselves. The lack of definition surrounding these fluid, shifting parameters is what makes the following controversy worth exploring.
Last Wednesday, the sports/pop-culture site Grantland published a lengthy feature by writer Caleb Hannan about the inventor of a supposed “magical putter” appearing in numerous YouTube videos and endorsed by well-known former golfer Gary McCord. The club’s brainchild, Essay Anne Vanderbilt - or Dr. V - claimed to be an aeronautical physicist at MIT who developed a revolutionary putter by rejecting golf’s conventional wisdom. When Hannan began researching Dr. V’s credentials and background, discrepancies appeared.
Turns out that Dr. V did not receive aerospace engineering degrees from MIT or the University of Pennsylvania. As Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons would later write, “Just about everything she had told Caleb, at every point of his reporting process, turned out not to be true.” There was something else Hannan learned inadvertently: prior to 2003, Essay Anne Vanderbilt was Stephen Krol, a former mechanic and restaurant manager. Toward the end of the piece, Hannan reveals that Dr. V committed suicide on October 18th, 2013.
I read the story Thursday, and like many others, was floored by both the reporting and the revelations. Nothing struck me as untoward. Accolades for Hannan’s work poured in.
Then Friday came. And a lot of people were very upset. The narrative shifted to one of gross negligence. Many were enraged that a reporter outed a transsexual woman against her wishes. Expletive-laden accusations - including “murderer” - flooded Grantland’s inbox and Hannan’s Twitter feed.
Monday, Simmons penned a thoughtful, enlightening, and candid apology piece where he took sole responsibility for the content and explained in great detail the methodology behind the editorial process. Grantland also ran a companion editorial penned by ESPN.com contributor and GLAAD board member Christina Kahrl that meticulously — and sometimes harshly — examined the areas where the writer and the site erred. After reading Simmons’ breakdown, it’s awfully hard to conclude that Grantland or Hannan willfully outed a transgender individual for the purpose of sensationalizing a story. They are, I believe, guilty of poor decision making and ignorant about transgender issues - a fact Kahrl starkly illustrates and Simmons acknowledges.
Others disagree, including Kahrl, who writes that Hannan was “excited to share” the news that Dr. V was a transsexual woman and characterized his story as reinforcing “several negative stereotypes about trans people.” If you require a pop-culture tie-in, she also calls Jared Leto an “unsympathetic ass” for his “caricature of a trans woman” in Dallas Buyers Club.
Overall, I disagree with several of Kahrl’s positions, although she does raise very legitimate points concerning noun/pronoun usage — Hannan described Dr. V as a “troubled man” — and a seemingly cavalier attitude toward her secret, as evidenced by Hannan’s offhand mention to an investor that Dr. V used to be a man (I urge you to check out the original and both analysis pieces. There’s much more than what I’ve summarized here).
This being the Internet, divergent camp arose, each viewing these actions and reactions through opposing prisms. Critics argue that Cannan’s language, phrasing, and subsequent revelations exhibit a callous and borderline-malevolent disregard for transgender issues, including the fact that more than 40 percent of all transgender individuals attempt suicide. Supporters feel that because Hannan stumbled across the transgender knowledge rather than seeking it out, and that he presented the information in the context of a larger story, adding the controversial subject matter was appropriate.
To me, the inclusion of Dr. V’s gender in the story comes down to two things: relevance, and intent. First, was the fact that prior to 2003, Dr. V was a male living under a different name germane to a story investigating potential deception in the golf world? In my opinion, yes. There were too many open questions about her background. How Hannan could delve into her fabricated backstory without mentioning her years under a different name and gender is beyond me. At the very least, I understand why Hannan and over a dozen Grantland editors considered the info pertinent. Could the story have run without the reveal? Perhaps. But if you agree the information supported the story, I’m not sure it should have.
Grantland was boxed in. Publish the story without the transgender portions, and the site could be credibly accused of attempting to whitewash their direct involvement in a tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine that Dr. V’s fate - and secret - would remain buried in the Twitter age. A cursory Google search turns up an obit.
Simmons touches on this in his apology: “Even now, it’s hard for me to accept that Dr. V’s transgender status wasn’t part of this story. Caleb couldn’t find out anything about her pre-2001 background for a very specific reason. Let’s say we omitted that reason or wrote around it, then that reason emerged after we posted the piece. What then?”
Fair. So then why not yank the story altogether? Perhaps that was the better option, and the one most deem appropriate in hindsight. A few nuggets here, though. One, it’s hard to imagine someone close to Dr. V wouldn’t publicly mention that she was worried a Grantland writer was about to out her in a nationally published piece, particularly after her suicide. Two, spiking the piece raises almost as many concerns as it solves, albeit less publicly.
Does a heartbreaking outcome supersede a story’s merits? Even if the suicide was directly related to Hannan’s line of inquiry, would pulling the piece wipe away its sins? That’s challenging if for no other reason than precedent. Should stories with objectionable resolutions sit on the shelf? Do we not investigate those with a high likelihood of suicide, even if the subject is, say, a morally reprehensible criminal rather than someone who merely embellished facts in order to better market a putter? Hell, would the reaction be the same had Dr. V not committed suicide? I can’t begin to answer those questions. An editor must consider them.
The second piece is intent. I don’t know Caleb Hannan. He comes across as thoughtful and curious from what little I’ve read about him. While several of his decisions create ground for legitimate debate, there’s little doubt that he made a career-altering mistake in outing Dr. V to one of her investors when it wasn’t yet clear his story would include the gender reveal or even run at all. To some, that’s an unforgivable error, and I won’t attempt to dissuade anyone from holding that viewpoint.
Personally, it’s hard to string him up. Maybe it’s because we’re the same age. Maybe it’s because I’ve written stories that painted subjects with less-than-flattering colors and asked questions I’ve later come to regret. Regardless, I can’t imagine the doubt and anguish Hannan is experiencing right now, both on a personal and professional level. It terrifies me partly because I can easily see myself reporting this story in an identical manner, oblivious to the consequences of an outwardly innocuous question. As much as I’d want to believe I didn’t cause someone to take their life, the fact that I’d never truly know with any certainty would haunt me for as long as I breathe.
Furthermore, if I ever made a mistake with a story published here, my first concern wouldn’t be for my own reputation. It would be for Pajiba’s. A scandal’s half-life varies by participant. My name would be forgotten after a few Internet news cycles - approximately point-four seconds - and I could always write again under a pseudonym (spoiler alert: this isn’t my real name anyway). Fair or otherwise, Pajiba would remain known as “that site that caused someone to take their life” for far longer. Few things are harder to rebuild than reputation. The realization that Hannan dented Grantland’s almost certainly crossed and re-crossed his mind a million times since last Friday.
At the same time, I couldn’t begin to put myself in Dr. V’s shoes, faced with the petrifying reality that a deeply personal secret is about to be involuntarily exposed. Like Hannan, I’m essentially unfamiliar with transgender concerns. My singular experience involves an old friend of my wife’s. She came out on Facebook a few months back, and while we haven’t met, I was incredibly impressed with her eloquent post, her bravery, and the outpouring of support exhibited by the online community, particularly considering where we live. That mostly positive experience is probably an outlier, though I didn’t realize it until reading Kahrl’s piece. I know nothing of that world, so to pretend that Dr. V could have handled the disclosure differently is naïve.
The ability to successfully navigate turbulent waters is a skill often acquired through failure. Without experience, we’ll continue to trip over the same rocks. Collective ignorance around transgender difficulties isn’t limited to Grantland. It’s a societal flaw. We rightfully laud the rapid progress made toward gay and lesbian equality, yet transgender awareness still exists on the margins. As such, widespread criticisms that this story was clearly mishandled at every possible turn ring hollow for me. Kahrl’s opinions carry weight because she’s a part of the culture. She’s been through it. Most everyone else - including national sports columnists who initially loved the piece then pulled an e-brake 180 once public perceptions shifted - lack the understanding to call foul. Especially post-publication.
Look, I’m no wise sensei. As I said, I know as little about the transgender community as anyone, and my opinions on this have evolved over the last 48 hours. While I’ll likely never find myself in an identical situation, the takeaways here transcend profession. Draw whatever lesson you feel is prudent, even if it’s as elemental as “be careful.” You never know when it might matter.
Note: This topic may generate a fair amount of conversation, so I’ll try to participate in all reasonable discussions and provide additional context for my opinions wherever possible. However, anyone who takes the position that the writer or Grantland is a murderer - or believes Dr. V deserved her fate because she was exposed as a fraud - will be ignored. Gleefully. Be better than the parties you choose to criticize.
Brian Byrd is a prolific tweeter of subpar tweets. Follow him on Twitter.