This weekend, Gerri Jordan, proprietor of Yar Golf, agreed to speak with me about the chain of events that led to the October suicide of her partner, Essay Anne Vanderbilt. Today, she declined to carry through. "I have spoken with an attorney," she wrote in an email, "and we are gathering information for potential legal action."
That sudden progression of events, from a willingness to talk to the invocation of an attorney and lawsuits, more or less recapitulates the reaction to "Dr. V's Magical Putter," a story that ran on Grantland last week. It was initially met with praise, here and elsewhere, as a fascinating trip into a vortex of weird science that started with the nearly magical properties of a golf putter and ended with the suicide of Vanderbilt, an inventor who along the way had been revealed to be a possible con carrying fraudulent credentials, as well as a transgender woman. After Shakesville's Melissa McEwan wrote about it, the piece came in for closer scrutiny, under which it was clear that writer Caleb Hannan and Grantland had made serious, avoidable mistakes that may have played a role in Vanderbilt's decision to take her life.
Over at The Toast, there's an excellent roundup of responses to the piece; there were also thoughtful responses here, here, here, here and elsewhere, as well as a voluminous and impossible to summarize discussion that took place on Twitter and over email and in bars and wherever else people talk about trans* issues and/or journalism. There's no real consensus on what happened here—there are people arguing that Hannan really didn't do anything wrong, and that he essentially killed Vanderbilt—but there are several basic points on which nearly everyone agrees.
The first is that up to a certain point, Hannan did nothing worth criticizing. Vanderbilt, the inventor of a supposedly revolutionary putter, had falsely represented herself as a physicist with degrees from M.I.T. and Penn and experience doing classified work on advanced projects for the military. While Hannan did agree to report on the science and not the scientist, any competent journalist who discovered, as he did, that an inventor whose work he was looking into might've been touting phony credentials would dig deeper. His discovery that she was a transgender woman was an accident that came about while investigating claims she'd made.
The second is that Hannan crossed an ethical and moral line when he outed Vanderbilt to an investor in Yar Golf. There was no compelling reason to do so; it took the choice of whether or not to disclose her status away from Vanderbilt—a choice that is, barring fairly extreme exigencies, solely to be made by the person it most affects. As Christina Kahrl put it in her review of the piece that ran on Grantland, "revealing her gender identity was ultimately as dangerous as it was thoughtless."
The third is that several specific choices in the construction of the narrative—the revelation that Vanderbilt had once lived as a man and the abrupt revelation that she had committed suicide, especially—as well as certain uses of language were at best insensitive, and more likely dehumanizing. Rather than the story of a troubled woman who ended her own life, this was, as told, a tale of fraud and science that veered into the sensational and ended with a death as an unfortunate footnote.
Past all of this, there are several more criticisms on which there's a lot less agreement, most of which can be read in the critiques linked above. Rather than cataloguing them, it might be better to note how deeply rooted they are in the story's failure to explain itself.
There's nothing in the text of the piece, for example, to support the idea that Hannan vigorously harassed Vanderbilt, or threatened to out her. As written, it suggests that having honestly come across information about her past, he sought to give her a chance to refute or discuss it, and then more or less let the matter drop, following on in the course of investigating her claims.
Conversely, there's nothing to suggest that he did the humane thing, which would have been, at the point when he sought to verify information about her past, to stress that he had brought it up only to see if it was something she wanted to discuss, and that he had no intention of taking control over choices that were hers alone to make. As Kahrl wrote, it can fairly be assumed, on the basis of what was published, that he didn't "reassure her that her gender identity wasn't germane to the broader problems he'd uncovered with her story."
Understandably, people are going to read their own biases into that kind of ambiguity. A certain kind of reporter or editor who values their craft above all will identify with the writer whose story has gone awry, and read the piece as supporting one interpretation; trans* people and their allies can read it an entirely different way. The ambiguity that allows this is down, fundamentally, to errors in writing and editing.
It may be useful here to define some jargon terms. Reporting, as journalists use it, refers to the gathering of information; writing, to turning that information into a story; and editing, to verifying the reporting and refining the writing so that the end product can be as effective as possible. These are three distinct but related processes.
In terms of reporting, it's difficult, going by what's known, to say that Hannan did much wrong past outing Vanderbilt to one of her investors—which was, to be clear, a terrible mistake. He collected information, sought to verify it, and, going by the chronology he laid out, at certain points backed off. If he made errors of omission—if, for instance, he didn't make it clear that he had no intention of outing Vanderbilt as part of his story—those will weigh on him, but it's not fair to hang them on him until we know that he made them. And it's certainly not fair to draw a causal line between any mistakes he made and suicide, which is far too complex a matter to reduce to straight cause and effect.
There are, by contrast, clear errors of writing and editing here. By writing the story chronologically, as a mystery where every revelation led to a further revelation, Hannan essentially locked himself into a structure where he had to reveal that Vanderbilt was a transgender woman to make sense of the blanks he'd found in her background. The chronological structure requires that to be the emotional pivot of the story, the moment when the story begins to open up for the author; the death is only a coda. As Steve Silberman put it on Twitter:
— Steve Silberman (@stevesilberman) January 18, 2014
This is all the more troubling given that Grantland's editor-in-chief, Bill Simmons, wrote that the story was filed in something approximating its present form before Vanderbilt killed herself in October. That suggests that in the process of writing, Hannan thought it would be acceptable to out Vanderbilt, by way of buttressing his claims about her background and thus casting doubt on the science behind her putter.
Even so, bad writing isn't published without an editor allowing it, and in the end the most serious problems with the piece have to do with editing. Most obviously, there are matters of line editing—misgendering her in lines related to her past, for instance, or allowing the narrative crux of the piece to be the "chill" that ran up Hannan's spine when he learned that Vanderbilt was a transgender woman. That "chill" has gone in for a lot of criticism, held up as evidence of Hannan's malicious ignorance of transsexuality. A closer reading doesn't bear that out. The "chill" is the story clicking into place for him—he is realizing that the reason he can't check up on Vanderbilt's credentials is because she was born under a different name. As with many problems with the story, the blind spots aren't malicious, but because the structure puts undue emphasis on her gender status, they can come off that way.
More seriously, though, there are issues related to the basic conception of the piece. "Dr. V's Magic Putter" ran three months after its subject committed suicide. This is a tricky thing, a writer confronting the possible observer effect of his own reporting in the most egregious of circumstances, but the final product here comes off as incurious at best about the death itself. At some point, if it was to run at all, someone among the many smart people Simmons says read it before then should have realized that the subject was no longer a piece of golf equipment, but a woman's death. Perhaps Hannan couldn't manage to reframe the narrative in a way that would've matched the gravity of the subject; if he couldn't, someone else should have done it for him. Starting with her death and retracing everything that led to it, even if that included her gender status, would have produced a very different story from the one that ran. Even before that, it would have been possible to reframe the story in the manner described by Gerri Jordan: "the most scientifically advanced Near Zero MOI putter, and the science of the Inertia Matrix ... invented by a lesbian auto mechanic." Jordan was mocking Hannan, but she was essentially stating the précis of what might've been a great piece. Who wouldn't want to read a story about an auto mechanic who faked some credentials so someone would take her possibly useful golf invention more seriously?
How Grantland's editorial staff ran through a complete breakdown here, one that involved multiple missed opportunities to do right by the subject of the piece, is an open question. It's certainly being asked around Bristol. ("Where's John Walsh?" as one source characterized the complaint, referring to ESPN's high priest, and occasional low priest, of responsible journalism.)
You won't find an answer in Simmons's characteristically self-obsessed, if searching, apology, in which he spends a bit more space talking about the ambitions he holds for the site, and a bit less about Vanderbilt, than is really necessary. It serves as an extension of the site's premise, which is that the principal appeal of sports is that sports are what sportswriters write about, and that therefore their doings are of more significant appeal to readers than those of their subjects. This fixation leaves a gap in Grantland's apology that resembles the one in the original piece, a hole suggesting a set of questions that aren't quite answered.
To work up a guess at those answers, though, you might start with the site's ambitions. Grantland is a prestige product, meant less to run quality work (though it does do that) than to run work that's perceived to be quality. It's also a singular reflection of Bill Simmons, a gift from ESPN to him, an entity whose autonomy is meant above all to demonstrate how deeply he's valued.
The breakdown that took place here could have happened at any shop staffed by reporters and editors who aren't as sufficiently attuned to trans* issues as they could or should be, which is to say nearly any of them, including this one. This particular breakdown, though, was a fractal of the Grantland problem in general, which is to say the Bill Simmons problem. It has to do with a set of ideas: that function is a pleasant but in the end unnecessary corollary of form, that the point is less the product than how it's perceived, and that success on a large enough scale is self-justifying.
It's no secret at Grantland that ESPN president John Skipper wants his tasteful loss leader to win awards and to play on the same fields as the slicks, with their twisted-up stories that are too good to be true and yet are. Last week, it found one of those stories; it just turned out that it wasn't so much about Dr. V. and her magical putter as it was about Grantland and all the things it doesn't know, and all the trouble those things can bring.