Normally when I do one of these I try to stuff it full of my own lame attempt at humor, even when I’m talking about something serious, but no jokes here. A person committed suicide in part because of a Grantland investigative report into a freaking golf putter, and that’s not funny. For those who don’t know the background, this Autostraddle summary is a good start. A writer at Grantland, Caleb Hannan, decided to write a piece about the inventor of a new putter, the Oracle (made by a company called Yar Golf), after seeing a YouTube video in which a pro golfer praised the putter and its innovative design. What really made the story interesting is that said inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt (“Dr. V”) had no golf background whatsoever; she claimed that her background was in aerospace physics, with a degree from MIT and years of experience working on top secret defense projects.
Although Hannan had stipulated that his story would focus on the putter rather than on Dr. V (it’s clear that she wouldn’t have agreed to cooperate with him if he hadn’t), several months of investigation into Dr. V’s background led him to conclude that almost everything about her story was at best unverifiable and at worst fraudulent (though it should be said that, for someone who was supposedly lying about her background to fleece investors, Dr. V seems to have done a remarkable job of creating a putter that really does seem to work); she had no degree from MIT that he could find, and there was no evidence that she’d ever worked for the DOD. Instead, she was a former auto mechanic who had changed her name because she was transgender (so she wasn’t a Vanderbilt either).
To be clear, I think everything in that sentence up to “because she was transgender” is clearly fair game for a reporter; if Dr. V had lied to investors about her background, then that ought to be reported. But reading the article itself makes it clear that there was no compelling reason to out her as transgender beyond the salacious click-bait twist it gave the story. From the Autostraddle piece:
At the end, Hannan calls his piece a eulogy. A eulogy, by definition, praises a person for their contributions and life. The only nice thing Hannan has to say about Dr. V in 8,000 words is that she made a golf putter that may or may not be extra special. This falls rather flat, though, given that Hannah stops talking about the golf club in question almost completely after Dr. V’s gender enters the picture. For the rest of the piece, he mocks her way of writing and speaking, misgenders her, and calls into question everything she told him about herself. Her gender is the big “aha moment” of his long-studied mystery, and her death is the falling action of the story. The piece was never about Dr. V, a golf putter, the science, the controversy, transgender experience, or even her death. This story was about Caleb Hannan, his desire to unwind a mystery that perplexed him, and the things he discovered along the way.
That’s bad journalism, and it’s bad humanity. A piece of this length has multiple editors and coaches, and it seems not one thought to question the merit of a piece that was essentially the drawn out tale of a trans woman’s suicide disguised as a piece about golf clubs wrapped in its writer’s own enthrallment.
Yes, not only does Hannan make the revelation about Dr. V’s gender the main focus of the piece, when there’s utterly no reason to do so, he then begins to talk about her using masculine pronouns and phrases like “had once been a man,” which a 10 second Google search would tell you is inappropriate and offensive. It’s clear as the story progresses that Dr. V was increasingly uncomfortable with the direction of Hannan’s piece, and after asking him one final time not to out her (he refuses), she committed suicide before the article was published, an event that is literally buried as a coda at the end of the piece rather than given the prominence you would expect of such a dramatic turn of events; her suicide was evidently less newsworthy than her personal life, as far as Hannan was concerned. Now, is Hannan’s piece “the cause” of her suicide? No, suicides have multiple causes, and Dr. V had already attempted to kill herself once before. But did Hannan’s piece contribute to her suicide? It seems absurd to argue otherwise. Beyond that, it’s an extraordinarily insensitive piece of writing:
Further, he catalogs her deception about her educational and professional background alongside the revelation that she is trans, in a way that suggests her failure to reflexively disclose that she is trans as part of any introduction to a new person is a lie, just like so many others she told.
When she does not agree to become the focus of his story, which was meant to be about the science, he pouts and tasks her with the responsibility for his aggressive invasiveness: “Dr. V’s initial requests for privacy had seemed reasonable. Now, however, they felt like an attempt to stop me from writing about her or the company she’d founded. But why?” He reports disclosing that Dr. V is a trans woman to one of her investors. He publishes her birth name. He describes the scene of her death. And he concludes the piece by calling it a eulogy.
What is the point of all of this? What is the rationale that leads someone to out a person who pointedly asks not to be outed, to help to ruin that person’s life, contribute to her decision to end her life, and then describe her in dehumanizing terms in the article? Why did an article about Dr. V’s alleged fraud have to be centered around the fact that she was transgender, which is, and I can’t believe somebody would have to write this, not in any way fraudulent? ESPN columnist Chris Jones defended outing her:
— Chris Jones (@MySecondEmpire) January 18, 2014
Which is, I suppose, an argument, but not a particularly good one, since all of those things can be explained with a reference to her name change, full stop. If people like Chris Jones are then left wondering why she changed her name, who cares? It’s irrelevant to the story, which, let’s remember, is an investigative piece about the creation of a new golf club. People change their names all the time, for any number of reasons. The only reason to out Dr. V as part of this story is because it gives the piece a big sexy hook, and that’s bound to drive clicks. As for treating a transgender person as offensively as Hannan did in that article, well, there’s really no reason to do that beyond Hannan’s own personal hangups.
While Caleb Hannan certainly deserves all the scorn he’s getting over this piece, a little part of me understands why he outed Dr. V, although the offensive way in which he wrote about her is something I don’t understand at all. He worked on this story for months, apparently, and once Dr. V’s background began to unravel I can see where every new revelation could start to seem like just another piece of the puzzle, another segment in the overall pattern of deception. But this is why reporters have editors. Hell, this is why universities hire preceptors to work with undergrads, because everybody needs a second, third, fourth pair of eyes to look at their writing objectively and see where errors have been made in copy, content, and tone. Somebody at Grantland should have looked at this piece as it was being written and said, “You know, Caleb, you’re handling this topic with a great deal of insensitivity,” or even better, “Caleb, I don’t see how this woman being transgender has anything to do with the real point of the story, so maybe you should get that stuff out of there.” At the very least, somebody at Grantland should have rethought this piece in the aftermath of its subject taking her own life, and either substantially changed it or pulled it altogether. Since the head “somebody” at Grantland is Bill Simmons, he’s the person responsible.
Dr. V is dead by her own hand and Grantland helped drive her to it, and why? Because her new golf putter apparently demanded the harshest possible scrutiny of her professional and personal life. Maybe we should turn our vetting process for Presidential Cabinet appointments over to Grantland; if they’ll go this hard at somebody who invents a golf club, imagine what they’ll do over something that actually matters. Bill Simmons and the people he employs, especially but not only Caleb Hannan, ought to feel a little worse about who they are and what they do today.