After a weekend of uproar, an apology for Dr. V

Grantland

On Monday, Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons apologized, and took the blame, for a Jan. 15 story that some praised, before many more tore it apart.

“Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” by Caleb Hannan, tells the story of a woman and her invention, the writer’s discovery that she was a transgender woman, and her October suicide.

(You can see the tides of reaction to the piece in this piece, which Paige Williams wrote Sunday for Nieman Storyboard.)

In his piece on Monday, Simmons explains Grantland’s publishing process.

We have a system. Everyone weighs in. I delegate as much as humanly possible and intervene only on the bigger decisions. Rarely, if ever, have we disagreed on actually posting a piece. You always just kind of know. One way or the other.

Did this work? Was this good enough? Could this get us in trouble? Are we sure about the reporting? Was it well written enough? Was it up to OUR standards?

And most important …

Is it worth it to run this piece?


Simmons wrote that Hannan’s biggest mistake was outing his subject to one of her investors.

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.

Kahrl, who writes about baseball for ESPN and is on the board of directors for GLAAD, also wrote Monday about “What Grantland Got Wrong.”

It was not Grantland’s job to out Essay Anne Vanderbilt, but it was done, carelessly. Not simply with the story’s posthumous publication; that kind of casual cruelty is weekly fare visited upon transgender murder victims in newspapers across the country. No, what Hannan apparently did was worse: Upon making the unavoidable discovery that Vanderbilt’s background didn’t stand up to scrutiny, he didn’t reassure her that her gender identity wasn’t germane to the broader problems he’d uncovered with her story. Rather, he provided this tidbit to one of the investors in her company in a gratuitous “gotcha” moment that reflects how little thought he’d given the matter. Maybe it was relevant for him to inform the investor that she wasn’t a physicist and probably didn’t work on the stealth bomber and probably also wasn’t a Vanderbilt cut from the same cloth as the original Commodore. But revealing her gender identity was ultimately as dangerous as it was thoughtless.

The damage, Kahrl wrote, clearly goes beyond using the wrong pronouns. In November 2013, Poynter’s Lauren Klinger wrote “Nine ways journalists can do justice to transgender people’s stories.”

In addition to getting the pronouns right, they include focusing on ordinary moments:

When journalists focus too much on the “heavy” issues and get stuck on medical transitions, they miss the opportunity to show that most transgender people live full lives that don’t revolve around these issues. In a 2010 Poynter Online article, NPR vice president of diversity and former Poynter dean Keith Woods argued that such a misplaced focus leaves people in marginalized communities “frozen in permanent pathology” and causes journalists to miss “the normal parts of their lives that make them laugh, cry, rejoice.”

Learn from your mistakes:

Riese Bernard is the founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com, an online community that describes itself as for “lesbians, bisexuals, and otherwise inclined ladies (and their friends.)” She and her staff make an effort to be inclusive of all women, she said in a phone interview, including transgender women. “When we started, it’s both embarrassing and really revelatory the degree to which we knew nothing about trans issues, particularly trans women’s issues,” she said. “We made a bazillion mistakes when we first started.”

And remember that everyone is human:

“It’s not actually all that complicated,” [Jos] Truitt, [the executive director for development and policy at Feministing.com] said, offering a simple question for journalists reporting on transgender people to ask themselves: “I’m speaking to someone who is a person — is this okay to say to a person?”

I spoke with Klinger, who is working on a follow-up piece for Poynter, and I asked her if she’d add a No. 10 to her list.

She would.

“Don’t out people,” she said. “I didn’t include that because I thought it was obvious. Don’t out people.”

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  • TariAkpodiete

    I think this comment hits the nail right on the head. Certainly the article could have been more ‘trans-sensitive’, but the writer is not a murderer as some on twitter have been screaming abusively at him.

    Also, this fraudulent woman did not hold a doctorate, and the press need to stop calling her ‘doctor’ and helping to perpetuate another of her business-related fabrications. ‘Ms’ is much more appropriate and accurate.

  • sargeh

    This whole business of linking her being outed to her suicide is so bogus. No one could read Hannan’s article completely and reach that conclusion. First, her successful suicide wasn’t her first attempt. She had made her first attempt even before this was written and the truth was known about her. It is obvious she was a head case and had defrauded people including investors and was horrifically in debt due to the court judgements against her. That is more likely the link to her suicide than her outing.

    The Poynter reporter failed abysmally in its handling of this story. Did the writer even read Hannan’s article?

  • sargeh

    Maybe she was more upset that the writer outed her as a consummate liar to an investor rather her gender.

  • Samuel Dijk

    Give me a break: “Dr. Vanderbilt” wasn’t a doctor of any kind, wasn’t a Vanderbilt, and lied about his entire life. There is no evidence HE committed suicide because of his gender.

    Poynter’s propagandists, however, refuse to point any of these facts out. Journalists are such lying scum.

  • http://brainster.blogspot.com Brainster

    Yeah, I suspect the real #10 is don’t out anybody unless they’re Republicans.

  • SteveAR

    So when gay advocates, like GLAAD, out someone for having had homosexual relations, and that someone commits suicide, will those gay advocates apologize and vow never do that again? Somehow, I doubt it.