One of the pleasures of journalism done well is that a story can take you places you never would expect. Such is the fate that befell Caleb Hannan, a writer for the popular website Grantland, who started reporting a story eight months ago about the “Yar” golf putter. What began as a piece exploring the physics behind a new golf club, however, soon grew into a profile of the putter’s enigmatic creator: Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, or Dr. V. She claimed to be a career-long private contractor for the Department of Defense who had worked on top-secret projects like the construction of the stealth bomber. She said she had earned degrees at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. She claimed to be a descendant of none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt, the American shipping tycoon.
But none of that was true. In the course of his reporting, Hannan discovered that practically everything Dr. V had told him about her life was a lie. She had never enrolled at MIT or Wharton. Hannan could find no evidence that she ever lived in Washington, or volunteered at Walter Reed hospital, as she had claimed. Indeed, “It seemed as if there was no record of Dr. V’s existence prior to the early 2000s.” And he found out the reason why there was no evidence of Essay Anne Vanderbilt’s existence earlier than a decade ago is because she legally changed her name—and gender—in October 2003. Born Stephen Krol, Essay Anne Vanderbilt was a transgender woman.
This is where Hannan’s story went from being a highly readable journalistic caper into the Internet’s latest two minutes of hate. Last October, in the course of reporting this story, Dr. V. killed herself. And since Grantland published the piece, a mob of Tweeters, pressure groups, and self-appointed arbiters of civil decency and sensitivity have rushed to denounce Hannan, Grantland, and the site’s founder and top editor, Bill Simmons.
The mob is entitled to its opinion. But so are reporters. I saw no animosity in Hannan’s piece. What I saw was a careful and ingenious reporter ferret out a fraud with care. Having discovered that Dr. V had “faked the credentials that made the science behind her club seem legitimate,” Hannan asked her to clarify the inconsistencies.
Dr. V angrily said that she would show Hannan her degrees if he wanted to fly to her attorney’s office in Arizona, but that he would have to sign a nondisclosure agreement prohibiting him from reporting any of the details he had discovered—in other words, prohibiting him from exposing her as a fraud. Hannan never threatened to “out” Dr. V as transgender, as many of his outraged critics now allege. If anything, it was Dr. V who was doing the threatening. “You have no idea what I have done and what I can do,” she allegedly said in their last conversation. A few days later, Dr. V sent an email accusing Hannan of committing a “hate crime.”
To read some of my fellow writers you’d think Hannan had committed such a hate crime. On the pro-Occupy podcast Citizen Radio, Allison Kilkenny called Hannan a “horrible” journalist and blamed him for Vanderbilt’s suicide, incorrectly stating that she had killed herself “after” the story came out. Cyd Ziegler, co-founder of outsports.com, called Hannan’s article a “badly conceived posthumous hit piece.” Countless others are tarring Hannan as a “murderer” and a “bigot;” he has received multiple death threats.
But how could anyone know why Dr. V. killed herself? Was her suicide spurred by the potential exposure of her transgender identity—something that, again, Hannan never threatened to disclose?
Or was it the numerous, substantive lies she had told about her education and career that led her to make the tragic decision to take her own life? Dr. V. never left a suicide note, and she had tried to kill herself once before in 2008.
Dana Beyer, a prominent transgender advocate and medical doctor, dissents from many of Grantland’s accusers. She said the piece reflects the tragedy of the transgender closet but did not revel in it. “I know. I lived it for half a century,” she told me. Though Beyer has plenty of problems with the way the media portrays the transgender community, she takes umbrage at “people out there screaming and complaining…They’re all playing the victim card.” She went on: “We made progress on gay rights because gay people decided they’re not going to be victimized. They said, ‘stop allowing yourself to be demonized and victimized.’ Trans people still have a tendency to do that. Many of us are very broken because we’ve been closeted for so long.”
None of this is to say that Vanderbilt wasn’t a victim. But if she was a victim, it was in the broader sense that transgender people are inherently outsiders, living in a society plagued by ignorance and intolerance. “This Vanderbilt person is a perfect example,” Beyer says of the “PTSD” afflicting so many in the transgender community. “She twisted around her life out of paranoia, out of anxiety and fear in a transphobic culture.”
On Monday, Simmons published an article in which he admitted that he “failed” in not asking “someone familiar with the transgender community” to review the piece for publication. Were there mistakes in the story that such a person might have spotted? Perhaps. Simmons lists Hannan’s recalling the moment he discovered Vanderbilt’s transgender identity by writing that a “chill actually ran up my spine” as one such error in judgment. But if that’s how Hannan felt, why should he describe it any other way? To sugarcoat his feelings would be dishonest. Certainly the people criticizing Hannan, who rightly decry our society’s ignorance about transgenderism, would be the first to point out that this indeed is the way most people react when confronted with it.
Dave Zirin, The Nation’s sports columnist, demanded in response to Simmons’ mea culpa that he “Want[s] to know what concrete steps are being taken to make sure errors don’t happen again.” I hope there are no “steps” taken, “concrete” or otherwise. We should hope that a firewall exists between Grantland, The New York Times, indeed, any media outlet, and lobbies seeking to influence news coverage, because the best journalism comes from journalists making their own decisions. Should Muslims offended by cartoons of the prophet Muhammed have the final say in what newspaper editors publish?
Over at ThinkProgress, Alyssa Rosenberg offers “10 Questions Bill Simmons and ESPN Should Answer About Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” offering a slew of inquisitorial suggestions that would have rendered an excellent story much less interesting.
Accusations of imaginary “transphobia” hurled at a team of sportswriters arent’t the most disturbing aspect of this controversy. Rather, it’s the army of outside observers who see their role as guardians and gatekeepers of journalism. Attacking Grantland for posthumously revealing Vanderbilt’s transgender status, they are assailing the printing of public information. Once Grantland decided to publish the piece, how else was Hannan to explain the discrepancies in Vanderbilt’s life, and the impossibility of tracking down any information relating to her pre-2003 existence, without mentioning this salient fact?
Ah, but the critics contend that Vanderbilt was not a suitable subject in the first place. Rosenberg thinks that Gary McCord, the professional golf commentator whose fervent praise of the Yar putter initially interested Hannan in pursuing the story about its creation, makes a far better profile. Somehow, the people attacking Grantland—few of whom, like many credentialed “media critics,” are not actual journalists—know better than the editors of this acclaimed site what constitutes a good story. They insist that, because Hannan started writing about a golf putter, he was obligated to continue writing about a golf putter, even when his dogged reporting turned up something far more interesting. By this journalistic logic, Woodward and Bernstein should have kept themselves content reporting the details of a routine break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters.
Beyer, for her part says, “Caleb did a good job. He followed a mystery.” She favorably contrasts his story, in which Vanderbilt’s gender transition was but a thread in a much larger fabric, with how a similar article might have been written 20 years earlier, when the transgender aspect of Vanderbilt’s life would have been put front and center as an object of ridicule and lurid fascination. “All that stuff was fraudulent, and oh by the way, she’s trans,” is how Beyer characterizes the Grantland piece.
That Hannan did not realize earlier how a 6’3” woman with a deep voice and “spotty history” might be transgender, Beyer says, “speaks to the ignorance” many people have about transgenderism, not malice aforethought. To be sure, editorial independence does not mean giving journalists carte blanche to act maliciously. Revealing the identities of undercover CIA agents, for instance, (something which I doubt many of the people literally clamoring for Hannan’s head are troubled by), would be inappropriate, and it has directly led to people’s deaths. But there’s no evidence that Hannan was acting in such fashion, that he was seeking to “out” and humiliate a transgender woman because she was transgender. On the contrary, in his article, Hannan arrives at a conclusion sympathetic to Vanderbilt: “People had been hurt by Dr. V’s lies, but she was the person who seemed to be suffering most.”