former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Grantland’s Insensitivity is a Cautionary Tale for Reporters

In Blog on January 25, 2014 at 1:21 pm

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.

Hannan refers to the strange emails that Dr. V sent him, clearly terrified that his reporting would disclose the details of her private life. In her final email, Dr V accused Hannan of “deportment … reminiscent to schoolyard bullies, his sole intention is to injure or bring harm to me.”

A reporter can be so in love with the journey, the thrill of discovery, that he loses sight of what he’s doing.  Perhaps Hannan was on his own and did not have an editor to confide in. One would have hoped that the emails Dr. V was sending him and her strange behavior and demands would have sent a clear signal that this odyssey was a dangerous one.  An editor with some sense could have pulled the story, the preferred option, or at least helped the writer reframe it.

In the story, Hannan speculated about whether the putter improved performance or whether Dr. V’s sales pitch had been so persuasive people played better because they had more confidence. That would have been a great direction for the piece: Include the fact that the inventor had misrepresented her credentials, but then find experts who could actually judge whether her design worked.

Talking to designers, ergonomics experts and physicists might have given Grantland’s readers some solid answers, but Hannan apparently didn’t pursue this angle.  If the story had focused less on the inventor, and more on the invention, the story may have helped golfers much more than his relentless investigation into Dr. V’s background.

As a journalist, I would have been willing to offer Dr V the assurance that my reporting would examine her resume, but not her private life. Whether such assurances would have changed what happened, no one will ever know.  Nor can we know for certain what pushed Dr. V over the edge. But Dr. V did, indeed, commit suicide last October.

If one of the subjects of my story killed herself while I was working on it, I might well have abandoned the project if it was a feature that was entertaining but had no pressing social value.  And yet three months later, Hannan and Grantland posted the story. Indeed, the suicide was a pivotal part of the narrative, giving an unexpected twist to the reporter’s odyssey, adding drama to the piece, which received more than 6,500 “likes” before thousands of others heard about the story and weighed in with sharp criticism.

To his credit, Grantland editor Bill Simmons posted a lengthy apology.  He kept saying that Hannan and the editors should have known more about transgender individuals.  He contended that his team of reporters and editors lacked the sophistication to recognize the implications of their reporting.

I just don’t buy that.  It should have been obvious to any sentient member of the human race that this subject desperately did not want any publicity about her transgender status, which was her right.  It should have been clear that the subject of this story was emotionally vulnerable.  These journalists should have been mindful that subjects who are deceased have families that also could suffer from this publicity.

Nor was I impressed by NPR’s anemic critique of the story, which began by saying that this bit of long-form journalism initially won “wide acclaim online.”  What really bothered me was All Things Considered host Robert Siegel, who opted to play the devil’s advocate and speculated whether Dr. V. had essentially asked for it, by lying about her credentials, presumably to sell her putter, implying that her misconduct gave a reporter license to report anything he found out. Dr. V wasn’t a public official, or a traitor to her country.  She had not been arrested. She had a right to keep this aspect of her life confidential.

And the praiseworthy tweet from The New York Times’ David Carr notwithstanding, I just didn’t think the piece was that exceptional.  Certainly not worth months of investigative work and a human life.  But then, I don’t play golf.

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