(Photo: Grantland screenshot)
On Wednesday, Jan. 15, the ESPN-owned sports and culture website Grantland published a feature called "Dr. V’s Magical Putter." The 7,770-word article, by Caleb Hannan, profiled Essay Anne Vanderbilt, the titular Dr. V., and examined her claims about the "magical" putter she'd invented. As he was researching the story, Hannan uncovered numerous inconsistencies in Vanderbilt's story and credentials. He also discovered that Vanderbilt was transgender, a fact he revealed to one of her investors in the course of his reporting.
In October, while the story was still in development, Vanderbilt committed suicide.
Soon after the piece was published, Grantland became the target of criticism from the transgender community and beyond for its treatment of Vanderbilt, who kept her status as transgender private. Others criticized the piece for switching back and forth between male and female pronouns when referring to Vanderbilt. Here's a selection of the reactions to Hannan's story, including the in-depth apology that Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons posted last night on the site.
The lesbian culture site Autostraddle pointed out that the piece likens Vanderbilt's deception about her credentials to her request for personal privacy:
Just like that, Hannan did what so many people do: he called into question the reality of Dr. V’s gender as if her being trans was as suspect as her missing degrees, engaging in the deplorable and time-honored practice of depicting trans* people, and especially trans women, as duplicitous and deceitful.
And on Slate, Josh Levin accused Grantland of a lack of basic empathy:
As much as we try to understand other people’s emotions, this is what empathy looks like in real life: It’s easier to relate to people who are just like us. That’s not how journalism is supposed to work, though. Yes, every reporter strives to uncover the truth. But we’re also supposed to call on our reserves of emotional intelligence to comprehend the people we’re writing about.
Following the outpouring of criticism for the article, Grantland's editor Bill Simmons offered this apology yesterday:
To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.
Grantland also published a column by Christina Kahrl, an ESPN.com baseball writer who is also transgender, detailing the "serious errors" in the article:
Instead of fulfilling his mission in its entirety, [Hannan] lurched into something that had nothing to do with his story, but that he was excited to share, repeatedly: Vanderbilt was a transsexual woman. By any professional or ethical standard, that wasn’t merely irrelevant to the story, it wasn’t his information to share.
The breakdown that took place here could have happened at any shop staffed by reporters and editors who aren't as sufficiently attuned to trans* issues as they could or should be, which is to say nearly any of them, including this one. This particular breakdown, though, was a fractal of the Grantland problem in general.
Finally, on Outsports, co-founder Cyd Zeigler argued that Grantland had "desperately failed the trans community:"
This story is sports entertainment — one person's quest to help people tap a little white ball into a hole in the ground. As sportswriters, we sometimes lose sight of that, embroiled in our own self-importance... The gender of a golf-club inventor is of prurient interest and no other.