When you think of a subject that inspires intrigue, probably the last thing you think of is golf. And yet intrigue is exactly what writer Caleb Hannan found when he began looking into the life of a woman who had allegedly created a new kind of putter that promised to revolutionize the game. The end result is a piece published last week over at Grantland which instantly ignited a firestorm of controversy and criticism. If you haven’t read the article, titled “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” I’d definitely suggest doing so. As a story and a work of investigative journalism, it’s riveting. Whether or not it ever should have been published, however, is another matter. The subject of the piece, the titular “Dr. V,” called it a “hate crime” — not long before killing herself. What the article has now done is started a very serious and maybe much-needed new debate on media ethics and empathy in the age of online journalism.
The basics of the story are as follows: Hannan began writing a story on an unusual golf club he’d seen online, one that its creator boasted was scientifically superior to a normal club. But as he delved into the history of that creator, the colorful and occasionally frustrating woman behind this magic putter, he discovered not only that most of the credentials she’d touted to him and her investors were phony, but also that she was transgender and had been born a man. In essence, that nothing about her was as it seemed. The story is written in the style of a mystery, with the whole thing slowly unraveling as Hannan tugs on the string. The problem, of course, is that in the end, Essay Anne Vanderbilt — Dr. V — ends up dead by her own hand, possibly because of the threat of exposure Hannan and his story posed.
If you’re a journalist, there’s a pretty good chance you can understand the dilemma Caleb Hannan and the editors of Grantland faced with the story. It began as a lightweight feature piece and turned into a rather shocking exposé; at its center was someone who was troubled and emotionally unstable, but who had indeed played quite a few people to the tune of thousands of dollars; and after eight months of research, during which time Hannan was never allowed to meet the enigmatic Dr. V, there was suddenly a tragic denouement that changed everything.
The debate concerns whether Grantland should’ve gone with the story at all, knowing how it ended, or whether Dr. V’s transgender status and eventual death was simply handled insensitively within the context of the piece. Sites like Jezebel and Shakesville, needless to say, consider both Grantland and Hannan the embodiment of privileged, politically incorrect evil. (No, I’m not linking to either.) But many journalists are coming to the defense of Hannan, conceding that he was put in a difficult situation by circumstances that were beyond his control. Make no mistake: Caleb Hannan didn’t kill Essay Anne Vanderbilt, and those claiming he did are ridiculously off-base. He did what journalists are supposed to do, which is pursue the facts to their conclusion, regardless of where they may lead.
That being said, the way the story was told, while gripping, may not be defensible morally given the final act. While Vanderbilt’s lies — among them, that she was a descendant of the Vanderbilts — and overall volatility were worth discussing in detail because it painted a necessary picture of her given what the author essentially discovered about her, the fact that she was trans shouldn’t have been written as if it were somehow the ultimate deception. There was a responsibility there to be sensitive and empathetic, because that’s another part of what it means to be an ethical journalist; you’re not operating in a vacuum as a journalist and while facts are facts and they shouldn’t be edited, there are ways to approach a story that are both fulfilling and mindful of the power journalists wield.
Grantland was right to run the piece. It simply should’ve adjusted it, acknowledging from the beginning that the story Caleb Hannan started out writing wasn’t the one he ended up with and publicly expressing, in this case, sympathy and compassion for that fact. No one knows whether Dr. V killed herself because she feared being outed by Grantland, but it was the responsibility of Grantland not to treat her death as one more shocking twist in a story full of them.
Update: Late yesterday, Grantland editor Bill Simmons posted a thorough, unequivocally penitent, and largely stellar apology for the mistakes his site made with the Dr. V story. The piece not only offers a full mea culpa for all that was wrong within the story and the choice to publish it as it was, it explains in considerable and praiseworthy detail what happened during the decision-making process and what could have and should have been done differently. The apology complements another Grantland piece by Christina Kahrl, which is linked within.