Requiem for Journalistic Integrity

Last week, Grantland.com, which is ultimately controlled by ESPN, ran a story ostensibly about a well designed golf putter and its inventor. The actual story was about much more, namely the counterfeit credentials of the inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, which led the author of the piece, Caleb Hannan to discover that she had a transgender history. The very beginning of the piece frames the tone, as Mr. Hannan writes:

Strange stories can find you at strange times.

He remarks that in his early investigation about her revolutionary putter design, he couldn’t find any photos or videos of her on the Internet. Because of course women should be plastered all over the Web, but no matter. He digs. He’s an earnest, unknown journalist (so new, he’s never heard of the word “communique”). But I get it. Mr. Hannan finds out that actually, “Dr. V.” didn’t earn a doctorate at MIT, and actually, she didn’t exist on paper before 2000. And then, after he’s told us how brazen she was to get her club design past the world’s top club maker, he tells us that when he tried to contact her, she was obfuscatory; please focus your piece only on the design and not me. The author goes on to describe her in turn as quirky, with a strange vocabulary, a history that was both colorful and absent, and an extremely tall physical frame. Mr. Hannan may not have known it as he was researching this story or writing it, but the piece screams transphobia in its insistence on and obsession with her differences from his expectations for women. He wants them knowable, archived, ordinary, and visible. Dr. V. is none of those things, and so he persists in his probe.

Through a number of  increasingly terse communications, Mr. Hannan disrespected this request from Dr. V., finally outing her to one of her colleagues. After which she committed suicide. Did Grantland decide not to run the piece, a full eight months in the making (about a putter, remember)? No, they ran it. Without apology. And with the following paragraph:

What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the 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?

That is hardly the biggest question, but it brings to bear the starting point for Grantland’s editors—that uncovering a stealth trans person is itself a story. If that person is involved in sports somehow, it’s a sports story just as much as writing about the fastest sprinter would be.

Backlash descended onto Grantland, Mr. Hannan, and Grantland’s Editor-in-Chief, Bill Simmons, himself a popular, veteran sports writer and broadcaster. Four days after Jezebel, Feministing, and other progressive critics unleashed a wave of derision and critique (you could almost call them “communiques”), Grantland issued an apology.

It is insufficient, and it misses the point. And here is why. I’ll take Mr. Simmons’s points in turn.

We made one massive mistake. I have thought about it for nearly three solid days, and I’ve run out of ways to kick myself about it.

First, it only occurs to him that he made a mistake in the last three days. Let that sink in for a minute. He didn’t think that Grantland or Mr. Hannan made a mistake when a woman killed herself? After she’d provided boundary after boundary to the journalist? After she asked him to back off? Once they realized they’d uncovered a stealth trans woman? At no earlier point than Flavia Dzoden and upteen other activists told him they made an irretrievable, unfixable error? That is unconscionable, to use Mr. Simmons’s own language.

That mistake: Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft. This never occurred to us.

So the solution, according to Grantland, was to ask a trans person for feedback on the piece? This is wrong. First, the trans community is not responsible for preventing bad reporting by multibillion dollar companies and their associated Web sites. And what this thought really tells me is that there’s no active recruitment of trans people within the Grantland organization, nor of any people with cultural competency in LGBT issues to whom they could have turned at some point before Dr. V’s suicide.

Had we asked someone, they probably would have told us the following things … 1. You never mentioned that the transgender community has an abnormally high suicide rate.

Let’s reframe this to something more accurate. The transgender community doesn’t have “an abnormally high suicide rate,” which puts the onus on trans people’s failure to survive. The transgender community has a reasonable collective response to abnormally high harassment and murder rates. Trans people lead the FBI’s hate crimes statistics in homicide, especially trans people of color. It’s not that we’re “prone” to suicide, it’s that cisgender people very often completely fail to recognize the extremely stressful stakes present in many of our dealings and activities as people, period. Even after this horrible death, Grantland insists on its innocence in exploring Dr. V.’s background. That exploration was terrifying to her. I would hope that one wouldn’t need to consult a trans person to understand that.

2. You need to make it more clear within the piece that Caleb never, at any point, threatened to out her as he was doing his reporting.

But Mr. Hannan did out her, to one of her investors. How should the piece make it clear that his actual outing of her was somehow okay because he didn’t threaten it? What kind of sense does that make?

The rest of his points are equally unhelpful in that they miss the point of the critique. Mr. Simmons rounds out his apology this way:

To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.

More importantly, I realized over the weekend that I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community – and neither does my staff.

This is unacceptable, frankly. It is the year 2014. Sports writers have covered the following before Mr. Hannan ever took up this story about a putter:

Not to mention pieces in popular sports columns on LGBT athletes and their lives, the well documented harassment in Russia against LGBT people as the Sochi Olympics get nearer to the opening ceremonies, and many, many pieces about LGBT people on the margins who do extraordinary things in sport. There is simply, in the final analysis, no way Grantland should have “missed” that this piece was exploitative, potentially damaging, and that it went far beyond responsible investigatory journalism.

But also, the day before the Dr. V. piece was posted, Grantland wrote this about a trans punk rocker. How do they claim ignorance about trans issues? Because much agency is placed in the hands of the writers, I presume, with little editorial oversight.

If Grantland is interested in an apology that means something, then we’ll hear about it from ESPN, not just Mr. Simmons. We will hear that they are doing cultural competency training, and who is conducting that training, and that it will be mandatory for all editors. We’ll hear that ESPN is starting a Dr. V. scholarship in journalism for trans-identified students who want to go into sports writing. We’ll hear that Mr. Simmons is stepping down as Editor-in-Chief. Or I, like many other trans people and writers, will consider this a simple non-apology, made only so that the harsh criticism abates.

Abates, Mr. Hannan, is a word that means stop.

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2 Comments on “Requiem for Journalistic Integrity”

  1. evmaroon
    March 5, 2014 at 8:53 pm #

    Ooh, I’ll go take a look. Thanks.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Nowhere for trans women to hide: What Bill Simmons’ apology gets right and so very wrong - January 22, 2014

    […] V’s partner, Gerri Jordan, that might best honour the wishes of the late inventor. Alternatively, as was suggested by Everett Maroon, some or all of the money could be used to fund a scholarship for aspiring transgender sports […]

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