So here’s the story. A new putter, said to be “scientifically superior” to all other such golf clubs, is being touted by a well known television pro golf analyst. A young journalist, also a golfer, sees an online video featuring the analyst raving about the putter, which, it just happens, was invented by a mysterious woman who, it just happens, was also a brilliant physicist.
But, nothing was as it seemed. The physicist was actually an auto mechanic and a transgender woman, who did not want her secrets revealed.
It isn’t surprising that a furor has arisen over “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” published online on ESPN’s Grantland site. After all, the subject of the story committed suicide before the piece was posted, which in itself would show something far amiss. The story, ostensibly about examining the claims about a piece of golf equipment, turned into the author’s investigation of the club’s inventor’s past and present, which revealed that a woman and scientist known as Essay Anne Vanderbilt had lived much of her life as Steven Krol and that more than her identity had been changed to fit present circumstances.
Once the piece was published — and it’s riveting and well written, even as the author keeps an almost cold detachment from the fate of the article’s subject — Grantland and writer Caleb Hannan were denounced for “transphobia” and a lack of compassion toward Essay Vanderbilt, not to mention outing her after she killed herself.
Earlier this week, Bill Simmons, the ESPN basketball analyst and editor of Grantland, wrote a lengthy apology for the story, and said he was taking full responsibility:
“Before we officially decided to post Caleb’s piece, we tried to stick as many trained eyeballs on it as possible. Somewhere between 13 and 15 people read the piece in all … All of them were blown away by the piece. Everyone thought we should run it. Ultimately, it was my call. So if you want to rip anyone involved in this process, please, direct your anger and your invective at me. Don’t blame Caleb or anyone that works for me. It’s my site and anything this significant is my call. Blame me. I didn’t ask the biggest and most important question before we ran it — that’s my fault and only my fault.”
But in a stinging rebuke to Grantland and to Hannan, Christina Kahrl, an ESPN baseball analyst who also on the board of directors of GLAAD, wrote that Hannan and his story will become “a permanent exhibit of what not to do, and how not to treat a fellow human being.”
Kahrl went on to write that much of Hannan’s work was legitimate, especially looking into the claims about the putter. But he betrayed both an insensitivity and callous disregard for another human being with his misuse of gender pronouns — and “carelessly” outing Vanderbilt to an investor in her company. “It was not Grantland’s job to out Essay Anne Vanderbilt, but it was done …”
This isn’t a case of some celebrity mindlessly tweeting out insensitive or stupid comments. No, it appears to be a well-vetted piece of journalism, for an online publication trying to make a name for itself and an author who in all likelihood brought what he believed to be traditional journalistic tools and methods to his information gathering.
What he missed, and it’s a grievous error that Simmons and crew should have caught, was that in dealing with vulnerable people — he knew Vanderbilt had tried to kill herself before — it’s not enough just to show your reporting chops and investigatory zeal. In addition, knowing that his focus on Vanderbilt’s transsexuality was going to be painful, it would have been wise to include voices from people who know that issue and community. Instead, in a particularly unfortunate turn of words that was allowed to make it into the published version, Hannan said when he learned of Vanderbilt’s secret, “a chill ran down my spine.”
And here’s another chilling secret: Even journalists have identity issues, and matters they hope never see the light of day, much less a national publication. All the more reason to tread carefully when dealing with troubled people.