By now you’ve probably already heard about Dr. V, Caleb Hannan, and “Dr. V’s Magical Putter.” It’s an 8,000 word Grantland piece that begins with writer Caleb Hannan describing his late night viewing of YouTube videos about golf and ends with him announcing the death by suicide of a trans woman named Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt.
A few hours later, when Wire editor Bill Wasik suggested on Twitter that Hannan’s investigation of Dr. V’s work and life contributed to her death, he replied “ouch.”
The story purported to be about a fancy, physics-defying golf club created by Dr. V, who is initially presented as mysterious and reclusive. She agreed to an interview for the piece only if Hannan promised to focus on the product and science and not write about her as a person. He agreed, but as he continued reporting he began to find details did not add up — she claimed advanced degrees that he couldn’t verify, and one investor said he was worried he would never see a return on his money. Hannan continued to dig, and Dr. V became very resistant to working with him. When a source indicated Dr. V was trans, Hannan writes, “A chill actually ran up my spine.” As feminist blogger Shakesville wrote, it was “a piece of information he found so interesting that he broke his agreement to focus on the science and not the scientist.”
Hannan details Dr. V’s history of lawsuits, relationships and a suicide attempt. He describes outing her as trans to at least one investor without her consent, and without any acknowledgement of the fact that that’s what he was doing. And then, as the linchpin of the piece, he writes “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into a tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself. Yet the biggest question remained unanswered: Had Dr. V created a great golf club or merely a great story?”
“A tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself.”
A troubled man.
Just like that, Hannan did what so many people do: he called into question the reality of Dr. V’s gender as if her being trans was as suspect as her missing degrees, engaging in the deplorable and time-honored practice of depicting trans* people, and especially trans women, as duplicitous and deceitful.
It’s not the first time a journalist — especially one used to a mainstream “beat” like sports — has written about trans* people in an inappropriate and dehumanizing way. In fact there was an epidemic of this very recently, when Chelsea Manning disclosed her trans status in August and a legion of news and politics reporters realized they had to figure out how to write about a trans woman. Many of them did so very poorly, misgendering Manning and writing about her in cruel, sensationalist ways. But even then, those reporters were in the wrong and engaging in poor journalistic practices they could have easily corrected; in order to write about Manning the way they did, they had to ignore easy-to-find resources, like the Trans Media Watch’s helpful style guide for cis journalists. Hannan deserves even less benefit of the doubt than those journalists did. According to his Grantland story, the piece took at least eight months to put together before it went to press, which means that Hannan was working on it all through the Manning story — a story that was so big no one, let alone a professional journalist, would have been able to ignore it — less than six months ago and learned nothing from it, or the public conversation around good reporting practices that followed it. At no point in the story does Hannan ever refer to Dr. V as what she was, a trans woman, choosing instead to use offensive, inaccurate and dehumanizing terms like “born a boy” and “used to be a man.” Thirty seconds of Googling would have given Hannan at least enough information to know how inappropriate that was.
But Hannan didn’t just make line-level copy mistakes as a cis journalist — getting someone’s pronouns wrong or using their dead name is inexcusable, but it’s not even the whole story of what Hannan did. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics makes it explicitly clear that a journalists’ responsibility is to minimize harm, which includes:
— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.
— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
It’s difficult to understand how Hannan, or his editors at Grantland, could have thought that any of these ethical requirements were being met. It’s technically possible that Hannan could have not understood the gravity of what he was doing by outing Dr. V to her investors and to the entire American public — the degree to which she would be “affected adversely” and would without doubt experience “harm and discomfort.” But the only way that could be true is if Hannan hadn’t bothered to do even the barest minimum of research into trans* experiences and realities, and the real danger that trans women deal with from cultural stigma and transmisogyny. He would have to have looked for literally zero information about the lives of trans women and the challenges they face. Given that Hannan was willing to devote almost a year of his life researching every private detail of Dr. V’s, ranging from her interpersonal behavior at previous jobs to her personal financial history, it strains belief that he was unable to do the basic level of research that would have brought him to something like this National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Given how eager Hannan was to connect disparate dots about Dr. V’s schooling, personal life, family, court records, and business in order to paint a portrait of her as a con artist, it strains belief that he wasn’t able to connect the dots and conclude that someone who had already attempted suicide once, who put a great deal of effort into remaining private, and who explicitly warned him that he was “about to commit a hate crime” might be a suicide risk. If he were that committed to research, it seems like he should have been able to find out about Lucy Meadows, who committed suicide after being outed by a journalist last year. In fact, these things strain belief so much that it seems much more likely that Hannan was fully able to do both of those things; he just didn’t want to, because a trans woman’s life was less important than his byline potentially making it onto Longform (which, yes, it did).
We’ve emailed Hannan to ask for comment, and I’ll update this piece if he replies.
Friday, after the backlash began in earnest, he tweeted again:
For what it’s worth, I haven’t blocked anyone today. I’m reading all of this. I’m totally overwhelmed, but I’m reading.
— Caleb Hannan (@calebhannan) January 18, 2014
The fact remains that even if Dr. V had been a fraudulent businessperson selling scam golf clubs, her gender would have remained completely irrelevant to that potentially newsworthy story. She may have been a con artist in her business and academic life, but being trans is not a con.
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 Hannan 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.
Neither Hannan nor Grantland have apologized. The story is still up on Grantland’s website. On Twitter, users are organizing with the hashtag #JusticeForDrV. Some people have said the author may be legally culpable if it can be proved his actions contributed to her death, though I won’t hold my breath. It would be great if this story set off a greater awareness and call to action among cis people for compassionate, human treatment of trans women in journalism and in the real world. Even if that comes to pass, however, it won’t make Dr. V’s death worthwhile. No more trans women should die because a journalist fell down a rabbit hole and couldn’t find his own way out.