At over 7700 words and with all sorts of nutty stuff going on in golf, it's been tough to commit to the Grantland story titled "Dr. V's Magical Putter" by Caleb Hannan that many of you sent in last Wednesday (thanks).
By Friday, after early rave reviews, things started unraveling behind the scenes at Grantland.com and parent ESPN as the story of the mysterious inventor who built a "scientifically superior" golf club who committed suicide perhaps in part because she was driven to do so due to the possibility of being outed as transgender.
Here's the story as I read it, in a nutshell: clever 31-year-old wordsmith pitches story of breakthrough putter to website featuring generally great original writing, spends great time with Gary McCord learning about the putter and its inventor "Dr. V," then learns the inventor is a charismatic but unusual character who cooperates as long as her personal life is not written about. Writer decides he is apparently covering national security issues instead of writing about a putter, doggedly pursues the woman's background, finds out she's transgender and maybe not entirely honest about her resume, yet still has an ingenious product he adores. Writer pushes and pushes in a narcissistic pursuit to make the story award-worthy by pushing the boundaries of an agreement not to write about her personal life. Tragically, the woman in question, who the writer knows has been suicidal in the past, is pushed over the brink and kills herself in October. With three months to mull whether to run the story, Grantland still runs it on January 15, 2014.
Ed Sherman broke down the early praise for the story and the subsequent fallout, as did Richard Deitsch at SI.com, and so did Ryan Glasspiegel at The Big Lead. All three have linked, analyzed and documented the fallout from this complicated, and ultimately heart-wrenching debacle.
As I read "Dr. V's Magical Putter" tonight with little knowledge of the depth of the criticisms leveled against it, the story immediately made me sick as the writer presented information making the case against himself. And as someone who loves our profession and respects what Simmons was doing with his site, I'm horrified that so many people had such poor judgement.
Simmons went off radar since Friday according to The Big Lead's Ty Duffy, all while his beloved Patriots were in the AFC Championship game, finally surfacing Monday night with an apology. Before we get to Simmons' Point Misser Hall of Fame apology column, Duffy explains in a nutshell why this story was a calamity of insensitivity that will haunt all involved.
With Hannan’s piece, it meant ensuring the life of a relatively private human being was treated with appropriate empathy and decency. That didn’t happen.
What Hannan wrote and did was deplorable. But the crucial question is how and why his piece was vetted by Grantland, published and promoted uncritically. Not just uncritically. The site’s editorial director claimed he was “incredibly proud” of it. Was the ignorance about transgender issues that pervasive while chasing a racy premise? Or, was it a breakdown with Grantland’s editing when confronted with matters more weighty than sports stats and pop culture minutiae?
The Simmons apology (posted around 7 pm ET Monday, January 20th) unfortunately makes matters worse instead of making things better.
Simmons repeatedly says the editors "failed" Hannan but I'm not sure I entirely buy that based on what is presented.
To be clear, Caleb only interacted with her a handful of times. He never, at any time, threatened to out her on Grantland. He was reporting a story and verifying discrepancy issues with her background. That’s it. Just finding out facts and asking questions. This is what reporters do. She had been selling a “magical” putter by touting credentials that didn’t exist. Just about everything she had told Caleb, at every point of his reporting process, turned out not to be true. There was no hounding. There was no badgering. It just didn’t happen that way.
The story reads as if he's badgering. To the point of absurdity. This is a golf putter he was writing about, not an NSA leak story! The subject spoke on the condition that her personal life not be probed.
Caleb’s biggest mistake? Outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive. I don’t think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland. That misstep never occurred to me until I discussed it with Christina Kahrl yesterday. But that speaks to our collective ignorance about the issues facing the transgender community in general, as well as our biggest mistake: not educating ourselves on that front before seriously considering whether to run the piece.
This is not a transgender issue, this is human decency issue. Especially when the story is the source of the key piece of information that is so horrifying: the subject did not want her personal life discussed, scrutinized or asked about, and she put that in writing. The writer ignored this. The editors published anyway.
More point-missing from Simmons:
When anyone criticizes the Dr. V feature for lacking empathy in the final few paragraphs, they’re right. Had we pushed Caleb to include a deeper perspective about his own feelings, and his own fears of culpability, that would have softened those criticisms. Then again, Caleb had spent the piece presenting himself as a curious reporter, nothing more.
I disagree. He came off as having suffered a narcissistic blow for buying into Dr. V's story, then finding she wasn't entirely what he'd hoped she would be, and was encouraged (or forced?) to doggedly pursue her story for his own self-aggrandizement with prodding from his editors to get to the bottom of this story about...a putter! A putter.
This next part does not bode well for Team Grantland's sensibilities..
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, including every senior editor but one, our two lead copy desk editors, our publisher and even ESPN.com’s editor-in-chief. 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.
How did none of these people think to say, my gosh, we might have driven this woman to take her life, we need to preface this story by suggesting our sheer horror at the slightest possibility this is how things played out and if we played any role, we're so, so sorry? Oh no, they were "blown away." Fifteen to 20 people edited this and not one thought, what do we gain by pursuing the story and three months after her suicide, what do we gain by running it?
Simmons then goes into seven points about the transgender community and using the wrong pronouns, having not consulted GLAAD's style guide, and feeling bad about not better understanding transgender people. The Point-Miss Express eventually winds down and he writes:
To our dismay, a few outlets pushed some version of the Grantland writer bullies someone into committing suicide! narrative, either because they wanted to sensationalize the story, or they simply didn’t read the piece carefully. It’s a false conclusion that doubles as being recklessly unfair.
The entire episode seems recklessly unfair to one person, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, aka Dr. V.