Dr. V Is Dead, Caleb Hannan Is Celebrated: Why We Can’t Accept Lazy, Transmisogynistic Journalism

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.

Not sure what to say other than this is the strangest story I’ve ever worked on. http://t.co/3x9FXS2dy1— Caleb Hannan (@calebhannan) January 15, 2014

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:

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.

Adrian is a writer, a Texan and a divinity student at Vanderbilt University. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Adrian on Twitter @adrianwhitetx.

Adrian has written 149 articles for us.

48 Comments

  1. Caleb Hannan, a purported journalist, states in his article that he had to look up the definition to many words Dr. V used such as, “Communique! Nuncupative! Collogue!” Perhaps Dr. V wasn’t the only one beefing up her resume and credentials. And before the trolls come out and try critique my spelling and grammar, don’t waste your time. I’m not the “journalist”. I majored in aviation and don’t get paid to write 8,000 word pieces of tabloid fodder under the guise of sports journalism.

  2. I don’t know if anyone is interested in reading Grantland’s excuses as to why they posted the article, but here it is:

    http://grantland.com/features/the-dr-v-story-a-letter-from-the-editor/

    I’m still angry so this is in no way enough for me. They still completely forgot the simple fact that Dr. V’s gender had NOTHING to do with her invention. This could have been a simple article about “magical putters” that magically work. I’m pretty sure I don’t give a single fuck who invented the pencil and eraser or their gender. I’m just glad it’s here for me to fix mistakes. Grantland can’t erase this, though.

    • I also found the editor’s apology insufficient. Particularly the pieces like this: “Caleb reported a story about a public figure that slowly spun out of control. He never antagonized or badgered anyone. Any mistakes happened because of his inexperience, and ours, too.”

      To me, this reads as “it could have been worse.” And I just don’t think you get to use that excuse when someone’s life is taken. As Audrey said, Hannan knew that Vanderbilt had previously attempted suicide, and that she’d explicitly asked for privacy. How can people not see that these things connect?

      I keep coming back to this story and I feel utterly sick.

      • pure old boy cover for the piece of waste – with no other message besides: i’m sorry you think we’re to blame. Hate him almost as much as the POS who actually pushed the woman into suicide – and who was offered an opportunity to see her credentials but refused in hopes to earn more money by outing her.

  3. So having gotten a chance to catch up on this a bit the last few days, I want to point out in addition that Hannan’s article violated the journalist code of ethics before the trans stuff entered into it. When a journalist agrees to work with a source, the source has a right to state what are their terms for participating in the story. A journalist then has the right to agree to those terms and move forward with the story, or reject them and not work with that source. Hannan agreed to Dr. V’s terms, then broke them and in doing so he violated the code of ethics.

    This whole thing is just utterly infuriating. Reading over all of the responses reminds me of why we were so furious in response to the UK press when it plastered Lucy Meadows story all over the tabloids– despite the fact that it had zero news content or relevance to anyone not directly connected to Lucy in the first place.

    I still haven’t read the piece itself, and probably won’t (I’m not planning to write a detailed response, and that’s the only reason I would subject myself to that trash), but I just want to point out:

    the title, “Dr V’s Magical Putter”… that’s innuendo, right? I just want to make sure I’m not the only one who sees it??

  4. Gina’s opening comment about Hitler reflects a repeated theme most who are trans discover: nothing is more dispicable to cisgender people then a transperson, and from my paradigm, a transwoman.

    Almost all transwomen I have met have had someone tell them they would be better off dead then trans. My SO had her ex say she would have been less upset if she beat her, was a drug addict or alcoholic than confessing to being trans.

    Unfortunately, many of us trying to protect our identity, or in many cases our lives, have had to play with the truth about our past leaving the general public to perceive transpeople as duplicitouis and deceptive. But as seen from this story, when the truth of our lives is discovered it is hardly appreciated.

    So we learn, as W.T. Sherman said, “The truth is not always palatable, and should not always be told.”

  5. I agree with the comments about the fumbling apology (which honestly reads like “Sorry we REPORTED SO HARD and that you didn’t educate us about stuff in advance. Our bad.”)

    They have also posted this on there: http://grantland.com/features/what-grantland-got-wrong/

    Which I actually appreciate further because a) it’s actually written by a trans woman and b) it finally points out that the correct thing to do was to bring up lack of credentials but that there was no reason for Dr. V’s gender to be mentioned at all.

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