All journalists hope that their work will have an impact. But we don’t want that impact to be suicide. I realize that journalist Caleb Hannan did not want his subject — the inventor of a new golf putter who had hidden her identity and misstated her qualifications – to take her own life. It is not fair to say that Hannan’s reporting caused a suicide, but it’s pretty clear that his digging alarmed and upset a very vulnerable individual.
In pursuing his story, which contributes nothing to the welfare of mankind – it’s about the invention of a new putter for goodness sake – Hannan certainly displayed a lack of awareness of the potential consequences of his reporting.
Hannan’s story was published on the ESPN-owned website Grantland.com on January 15. He recounts his reportorial odyssey in trying to discover the truth about the elusive Dr. Anne Essay Vanderbilt, known as Dr. V, the inventor of what she touted as a revolutionary new putter. I am not linking to the story because I don’t want to add to its page views.
I know nothing about golf, but I think most of us will agree that it is a game, and whether or not a putter is revolutionary is relatively unimportant in the larger scheme of things.
But Grantland being about sports, this long-form story seemed appropriate to its editors. However, the writer of the piece and those who permitted it to be posted forgot that not all stories have to be published.
Hannan discovered that Dr. V had lied about her credentials – she was not an MIT-trained physicist, or many of the other things she claimed to be. He ultimately discovered that Dr. V was a transgender woman. What he did not uncover was any proof that the putter she invented did not work, or that she had attempted to bilk any investors out of their money. (In the course of his reporting, Hannan told one of Dr. V’s investors that Dr. V once had been a man, an inexcusable invasion of Dr. V’s privacy. The investor wasn’t nearly as shocked by this revelation as Hannan apparently was.)
Oh yes, he’d also that learned Dr. V had attempted suicide in 2008, after a fight with her girlfriend.