How to learn from the disaster of Grantland’s Dr. V story
The Grantland story “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” published last Wednesday and initially widely praised on social media, ended up this weekend at the center of one of the most heated ethical discussions around a sports story I’ve ever seen.
I won’t recap the whole episode here because the whole point of this post is that I want you to go read up on it so you can learn from it. But I’m planning to talk about it for two days, so, very briefly:
Writer Caleb Hannan, curious about a “revolutionary” putter, looked into its mysterious inventor, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, known as Dr. V, who agreed to cooperate as long as the story was about the club, not its inventor. Hannan found that Dr. V had lied about her scientific credentials, and also that she was a trans woman—a fact that had no bearing on the story, but which Hannan chose to make a central issue.
He also outed Dr. V as trans to one of her investors, an outrageous violation of her privacy. She pleaded with him to stop his reporting into her background, and eventually committed suicide, something she’d attempted before.
Hannan’s 8,000-word story detailed all of this—saving the suicide for the very end—without an ounce of self-reflection about his possible role in Dr. V’s death or the ethics of his reporting, writing and disclosure of Dr. V’s private information. The piece also contained language that was offensive to the transgender community.
Grantland editor Bill Simmons wrote a piece headlined “The Dr. V Story: A Letter From the Editor,” with the subhead “How ‘Dr. V’s Magical Putter’ came to be published.” It served as an apology, though it reads more like what the headlines advertise: an explanation. It’s a must-read if you want to learn from this situation, because Simmons details Grantland’s process, which was broken.
An even more important read is What Grantland got wrong by ESPN baseball writer Christina Kahrl, who delivers exactly what that headline promises. Kahrl, who is transgender, is on the board of directors of GLAAD. Disclosure: I have worked with Kahrl and we are virtual friends, commenting on each other’s Facebook posts and so on, but we’ve never met.
If you’re only going to read one piece, read that one. Unless you want to read this one, “Sinatra’s Cold Is Contagious: Hostile Subjects, Vulnerable Sources & The Ethics of Outing” by author Maria Dahvana Headley. Trust me and look past that oddball headline. It refers to a famous profile of Frank Sinatra by Gay Talese in the 1960s. Headley is writing about the decisions writers make when they report on and write about their subjects, and I can almost guarantee it will make you rethink the way you approach writing.
But I urge you not to only read one piece. Read a lot of them, if you haven’t already. Read Hannan’s piece, read Simmons and Kahrl, read the critiques listed in those roundups, and let those lead you to others. Take an hour or two and immerse yourself in this story.
Learn from it.
If I can get all war-story on you—briefly, I promise—I hired on at the old San Francisco Examiner in 1989. The newsroom employed about 200 people, and a few of them had been working there since 1945, when they came home from the Second World War. Many others had been there since the ’50s and ’60s.
There were collectively a few thousand years of journalism experience in that room. Any conceivable situation, no matter how unlikely or far-fetched, had been experienced multiple times by multiple people. There was an institutional wisdom and memory there that was capable of saving someone like me from an unimaginable array of rookie mistakes. And the people who held that wisdom and memory weren’t shy about telling their own war stories. I learned a lot, quickly. Only an idiot wouldn’t have.
That kind of opportunity, always rare, is all but extinct these days. You have to make your own education. That’s why it’s important to dig in on a story like the Grantland Dr. V mess and learn from it. Pay attention to the chatter around media when an issue flares up like this, participate in it if you’re so moved and doing so is appropriate. Make it one more situation in your own institutional memory.
The people at Grantland would have benefited from paying attention in August 2013, right in the middle of the investigation into Dr. V.
On Aug. 22, the day after Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for espionage for leaking classified documents, Manning’s attorney issued a statement announcing that Manning is a trans woman and she had asked to be referred to as Chelsea and with feminine pronouns. There were several days’ worth of chatter in the media about this request and how to handle it.
In his apology, Simmons writes that failing to consult someone in the trans community about the Dr. V story was Grantland’s “one massive mistake.” I believe that if the gang at Grantland had been paying attention to the media discussion around the Chelsea Manning story, which included talk about why certain language was offensive and why Manning’s trans status was not some kind of caper designed to annoy the press, they would have had a better idea how to handle the transgender issue in the Dr. V story. They at least would have been aware that gender is a complex issue that they didn’t fully understand and needed to consult someone who did.
I know it’s a lot to ask, to pay attention to media issues while you’re trying to stay current on whatever you’re covering, not to mention all the other tasks and responsibilities you might have in your life. But it’s not too much. It’s just that journalism is hard to do well.
I use Twitter to ensure I don’t miss these conversations. I think of it as a kind of safety net: I follow enough journalists, news feeds and journalism institutions to be sure that if there’s an issue swirling around in media circles, I’ll see it in my feed.
Here are a couple of good Twitter lists to start with: Top Journalism Linkers by media scholar Jay Rosen and Key List for Journalism Students by Journalism.co.uk. Follow them, or pick and choose some folks you see there to start building your own safety net.
Most of us don’t have a newsroom full of veterans to teach us the ropes. But we do have a world of them at our fingertips. They only do us any good if we pay attention.