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Dr. V story understandable, inexcusable

1/27/2014

A young golfer’s obsession with an oddly shaped putter invented by a mysterious scientist and endorsed on YouTube? I will give that kind of story no more than a few paragraphs to grab my interest before I bail out, even if it is featured on a site known for compelling storytelling.

Just a few moments into reading that very story recently on Grantland, it was shaping up as another one of those bloated selfies that clog the arteries of sports-lit these days.

Four graphs and I was gone.

Thus, even though “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” was hastily hailed in the Twitterverse as another long-form masterpiece, I didn’t get back to it until after what would turn out to be a powerful backlash -- an angry and anguished firestorm captured in this e-mail to the ombudsman from Brenna Winsett of Minneapolis:

“If ESPN writers can hound a transgender person to death over something like a golf club, is there any line they won't cross?” she wrote. “This garbage makes a mockery of this woman's life and encourages readers to view transgender people's identities as frauds.”

Now, the story had my attention. And, given the noisy reaction from many quarters in the past week, the nearly 8,000-word piece by freelance writer Caleb Hannan is destined to become a lesson in journalism, workplace dynamics and plain old humanity.

Critiques of the piece, in my mailbag, on media sites and in blogs (such as here) were sometimes brilliant in their insights into transgender lives (often their own) and condemnation of the way the corporate media cover communities they so often marginalize. Much of the criticism was generically true, although I don’t think this piece was a conscious persecution of a transgender person as much as it was an example of unawareness and arrogance. It was a rare breakdown in one of ESPN’s best and brightest places, and an understandable but inexcusable instance of how the conditioned drive to get to the core of a story can block the better angels of a journalist’s nature and possibly lead to tragic consequences.

The story lacked understanding, empathy and introspection -- no small ingredients. More reporting would have helped. It was a story worth telling, if told right. And aside from its humane shortcomings, I still don’t like it as a piece of writing.

The idea was classic

Yet, with fewer revisions than one might think, “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” could have been a classic. It began classically: with a quest.

A 31-year-old writer with an inconsistent golf game sets out to find his Excalibur, in this case the innovative YAR putter he first spots being promoted by a TV golf announcer. His game improves, he thinks, but he wonders whether it’s real or an example of “positive contagion,” a belief that can confer unwarranted confidence. He soon becomes fascinated by the elusive inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a 60-year-old, red-headed 6-footer with a deep voice who claims connections to the Commodore Vanderbilt family, MIT and the Department of Defense. He connects with her, promising he will concentrate on “the science not the scientist,” as she demands.

Hannan never meets Vanderbilt in person, but, in his due diligence, he discovers that she probably has lied about her scientific and government credentials -- at least he is unable to verify her degrees and work record. He finds out toward the end of his reporting that Vanderbilt is transgender, with two ex-wives and three children. Almost accidentally, he later learns that she has committed suicide. His reaction seems careless, even callous.

Because he knows little about the besieged transgender community, he conflates all her personal lies and apparently comes to believe -- if he really thought about it -- that, as a presumed con artist, she was fair game and had no right to privacy.

The story itself is structurally clumsy and flabbily edited. Yet Grantland’s gatekeepers – including Bill Simmons, the site’s founder and editor-in-chief, and more than a dozen editors in all -- waved the story on through seven months of meetings and drafts and tweaks. They might have been blinded by the idea that had captivated them in the first place, the self-absorbed young man looking for his quick fix, a metaphor for the times and perhaps Grantland’s demographic. But that was not the story anymore. The twists and turns were the story, the possible lack of resolution and some serious reflections on responsibility and death.

“The story kept changing, but the writer and editors did not,” said Jay Lovinger, who was not involved in the piece but is one of ESPN’s most respected editors. “This could have been a fascinating look at the human condition. Even with its flaws, there was a lot to learn here. I’m glad they ran it.”

That view certainly was not shared by critics, especially in the LGBT community, where the piece quickly became symbolic of corporate media’s ignorance if not hostility. Vanderbilt’s suicide was blamed by some on Hannan’s ambition and lack of compassion. In an excellent article in The Arizona Republic 10 days after the Grantland story was posted, knowledge of the factors around Vanderbilt’s suicide -- as well as other events -- became even more nuanced.

In the kind of deep, empathetic reporting Grantland might have achieved had it really stayed with the story to its core, Megan Finnerty of the Republic interviewed Vanderbilt’s post-operative patient care assistant as well as her business partner and former girlfriend, Geri Jordan. The two women offered portraits of Vanderbilt as a real person, loving and troubled; an aggressive businesswoman; and, wrenchingly, a mother who would be grieved over by her grown children.

Jordan said that Vanderbilt was depressed and that she had attempted suicide at least twice before. She said the impending Grantland publication contributed to the timing of the suicide, three months before the story appeared, but not necessarily to the suicide itself.

The Republic also offered some telling statistics: Forty-one percent of transgender people attempt suicide, and 97 percent report harassment. Those statistics alone, had Hannan looked them up, should have been a warning. He was dealing with a vulnerable, fragile personality, no matter her intimidating phone and email persona. At the least, he should have reached out to his LGBT colleagues at ESPN, if not to outside individuals and groups, for greater understanding of a community of which he apparently knew nothing. That’s not even empathy; that’s craft.

The choices

Beyond that were two choices.

One, the story could have been written without ever mentioning gender – a choice that makes old-school journalists blink; how could you not go there once you knew her history? Hadn’t Vanderbilt opened herself up to a total discovery with her lies? Isn’t a journalist’s obligation to inform the reader rather than protect the subject?

And yet … it’s a surprisingly easy editing exercise to remove that aspect of the story, which, in Hannan’s hands, becomes more of a prurient sideshow than an integral piece of a puzzle. It also excises Hannan’s misuse of gender pronouns, his use of the phrase “a chill actually ran up my spine” to signal his realization that Vanderbilt had once identified as a man and his outing of Vanderbilt to one of her investors. Critics maintain they prove Hannan’s antagonism toward Vanderbilt and toward transgender people.

To the contrary, to me they prove he was way over his head and somehow didn’t know that he had no right to out anyone, certainly not without a lot more contextual information and a confrontation with Vanderbilt. But one of those dozen editors should have known.

Two, the story could have been spiked, which is an interesting minority opinion from Kelly McBride, an ethicist at The Poynter Institute and a former ESPN ombudsman. McBride and her co-writer, Lauren Klinger, write: “It’s also possible that the writer and his editors could have determined the deceptions were inextricably entwined with the name change and transition. In which case, the news organization would then have to ask if the subject of the story itself was so pressing to Grantland’s audience that it had to be published. It seems unlikely that an upstart golf club company rises to that level.”

That takes us out of the golf course and into a minefield of choices -- which stories and facts should be run or squelched based on their potential effect? We are always complaining that journalists protect favored politicians, celebrities and athletes. Who makes that call: The writer? The editor? The ethicist? Is the choice clearer here because Hannan should have known that outing a transgender person can be considered, by some, an act of violence, potentially putting her in statistically proven physical and emotional danger?

If Hannan didn’t know that, shouldn’t his editors have known? They failed him, as Simmons admits in his extraordinary stand-up apology on Grantland.

“We definitely screwed up,” Simmons wrote. “Caleb’s biggest mistake? Outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive. I don’t think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland. That misstep never occurred to me until I discussed it with Christina Kahrl yesterday. But that speaks to our collective ignorance about the issues facing the transgender community in general, as well as our biggest mistake: not educating ourselves on that front before seriously considering whether to run the piece.”

The education process continued in Grantland with an accompanying column by Kahrl, an accomplished ESPN.com baseball editor who is transgender. Kahrl writes that Hannan’s story “figures to be a permanent exhibit of what not to do, and how not to treat a fellow human being.”

Specific to the posthumous outing, she continues, “By any professional or ethical standard, that wasn’t merely irrelevant to the story, it wasn’t his information to share. Like gays or lesbians -- or anyone else, for that matter -- trans folk get to determine for themselves what they’re willing to divulge about their sexuality and gender identity.”

Grantland is a promising site, only 32 months old, with a young staff being shaped by Simmons, a talented, overextended 44-year-old with less traditional, hard-core journalism experience but considerable vision and celebrity. Grantland is a leader in so-called long-form journalism on the Web (as opposed to short-form Twitter), which is being attacked lately for being ubiquitous and trendy.

It is a treasure when it’s in the right hands (see ESPN’s Wright Thompson and Grantland’s own Bryan Curtis, among others), mostly boring when not -- and sometimes, as we’ve seen, even dangerous. As are all forms.

“I feel really bad about the impact the piece had on transgender readers,” Simmons told me. “I read all those anguished emails about how badly the piece made them feel, the dark places it took them to.”

Some people feel that “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” should be taken down from the site, although, by now, with so many references, it would merely be a symbolic gesture.

"I would hope Grantland would defer to the wishes of the trans community on that issue, especially since, as I understand it, the story causes so much pain,” said Kate Fagan, an ESPN.com writer who is gay. “I understand Bill's impulse to leave it online as a learning tool, but having the story stay up seems as if we are valuing Grantland's right to learn over the trans community's right to not feel anguished. As many members of the trans community have said on social media, 'My life is not your teachable moment.'"

I suspect Grantland will not make similar mistakes again, that it will tighten its editing process, create more oversight and reach out more often from its Los Angeles-based headquarters to the broader resources at ESPN. But, if it is to grow and flourish, Grantland has to keep in mind what it learned from “Dr. V’s Magic Putter” without allowing the lessons to hold it back from edgy, risky journalism.

“We are not in the business to be safe,” said Lovinger, summing up the role of journalists at ESPN and elsewhere. “We are here to make a difference and open up lines of inquiry. You have to question what you do, but you also have to go where the story takes you.”