Dr. V writer Caleb Hannan talks about the mistakes he, Grantland made
Caleb Hannan, who wrote the controversial Grantland story Dr. V’s Magical Putter in January 2014, has spoken about it for the first time.
His big takeaway: He should have stopped and thought about what he was doing. That sounds obvious, and it might even sound like I’m being sarcastic by calling it “his big takeaway.” But it’s actually a hell of a takeaway.
“At every point, there was something more to investigate, something more to look into,” Hannan told Lauren Klinger at Poynter.org. “There was always this next thing to do rather than think about ‘Should I stop doing this?’”
I attended an ethics seminar for college journalists at the Poynter Institute in Florida in 1988, and the one lesson I remember from that week is that most ethical problems in journalism come not from journalists being evil or mean or greedy. They happen when journalists simply don’t stop, or even slow down, to think about the ethics of their story.
Here’s the background if you’re not familiar with the Dr. V story: Hannan had set out to tell the tale of a supposedly revolutionary putter invented by a mysterious woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt, known as Dr. V. The inventor agreed to cooperate as long as the story was about the club, not her. Hannan agreed, but he learned that Vanderbilt had lied about her scientific credentials to investors, and that she was transgender, and he made her the center of his story.
Vanderbilt, who had attempted suicide in the past, begged him to stop reporting on her life, even telling him at one point that he was “about to commit a hate crime.” Eventually, before the story was published, she committed suicide. The story revealed her suicide only at the end. Speaking to Poynter, Hannan admitted his story treated Vanderbilt’s death “as an afterthought.”
I wrote two blog posts about the story a week or so after it was published. Though the story was initially praised on social media, outrage began to spread after a few days. By the time I read it and wrote the two posts, they were part of a massive online conversation around Hannan and the story that eventually came to include an editor’s letter by Bill Simmons and an examination of What Grantland Got Wrong by ESPN baseball writer Christina Kahrl, a trans woman.
Here are those two B/B Blog posts:
Hannan appeared on a panel last week at a journalism conference in Texas, discussing what went wrong with his story, and then spoke to Klinger of Poynter. Klinger writes:
Hannan also said he was familiar with what it meant to be transgender but had not had enough experience with transgender people to know truly how it might feel to be outed. When other journalists call him for advice about writing about transgender people, which they do now, he redirects them.
“I say ‘I know someone at GLAAD you should talk to.’ I’m being glib, but that’s basically it. If they have specific questions, I try to answer them,” he said. “But I also reiterate that screwing up has not made me an expert and that they’d be better off talking to someone who is.”
I’ve invited Hannan to come on my SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio show, “Content Is King,” to talk about the story and what he’s learned. I’ll update this paragraph if he responds.