Lessons learned from the Grantland “Dr. V” debacle

A journalist’s job is, essentially, to collect and report information. Where there are inconsistencies, the onus to illuminate and explain them falls on the journalist. As Caleb Hannan learned, however, there is a distance that must be kept between reporting and involvement in a story.

While reporting for Grantland on Essay Anne Vanderbilt, the enigmatic creator of a revolutionary golf club, Hannan uncovered a number of discrepancies in Vanderbilt’s supposed education and professional background. After digging a little deeper, Hannan also found that Vanderbilt was a transgender woman.

After Vanderbilt learned that Hannan divulged this information to one of her investors, she strongly urged Hannan to back off with his reporting. Shortly after her final interaction with Hannan, Vanderbilt committed suicide.

Vanderbilt’s status as a transgender woman was not Hannan’s information to share. That was his first and most destructive mistake. Further, the tone of Hannan’s article and its subsequent focus on Vanderbilt’s status as a trans woman violated Hannan’s agreement with Vanderbilt to “focus on the science and not the scientist.”

The argument that Hannan had no business outing Vanderbilt and should have edited his work more thoroughly – the final draft was littered with misused pronouns – is undoubtedly true. Given these horrendous errors, many have suggested that the article should have never been published. I do not see it that way.

The article was published months after Vanderbilt took her own life. I am not normally fond of justifying something by saying it “started a conversation,” but I see a very teachable moment in this whole debacle.

Christina Kahrl, a reporter for ESPN who also serves on GLAAD’s board of directors, discussed the myriad issues with the article in a piece published by Grantland. She points out that Hannan’s story would reinforce the wrong messages about the trans community to Grantland’s readership, comprised largely of older white males.

I see it slightly differently, though. Hannan’s piece, published quietly with little fanfare or promotion, has become notable chiefly because of its flaws. The original reporting is inseparable from the ensuing controversy. In fact, the story runs with both Kahrl’s piece detailing its flaws and an apology from Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons at the top of its page. Hannan’s story reads as much as the story of a new golf club and its creator as it does a tutorial of how not to talk about trans people.

Maybe I am being overly optimistic in thinking that Grantland’s readers will be cognizant of the article’s flaws. I cannot help but feel, however, that this piece has brought issues surrounding the trans community to the fore that would otherwise continue to be overlooked.

The story may have significantly damaged Grantland’s credibility as a publication. Granted, its handling of the fallout has been admirable, but as Simmons acknowledged in his apology, the fact that this piece made it through so many levels of editing without adequate attention being paid to its inherent issues is unacceptable. As long as Hannan’s piece spreads awareness about how to talk correctly about the trans community, however, I will continue to see some positive in this situation.