The only thing keeping me from assuming that Grantland, which published that awful outing of a transgender woman, is a haven of unethical wankerism, is that one of their writers, Christina Kahrl, seems to get it.
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.
What should Grantland have done instead? It really should have simply stuck with debunking those claims to education and professional expertise relevant to the putter itself, dropped the element of her gender identity if she didn’t want that to be public information — as she very clearly did not — and left it at that. “That would have been responsible,” transgender activist Antonia Elle d’Orsay suggested when I asked for her thoughts on this road not taken. It’s certainly the path I would have chosen as a writer making this sort of accidental discovery, or would have insisted upon as an editor.
The editor of Grantland, Bill Simmons, on the other hand…ouch. He’s got a long, long mea culpa out that at least clearly admits that they screwed up, but also admits that the problem runs very deep.
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. Don’t blame Caleb or anyone that works for me. It’s my site and anything this significant is my call. Blame me. I didn’t ask the biggest and most important question before we ran it — that’s my fault and only my fault.
So it was run past more than a dozen editors at Grantland, and none of them had a problem with the fact that it was all about othering a trans woman, a woman who killed herself over the story? Wow. Grantland really sucks.
He’s also still making excuses for Caleb Hannan.
As for Caleb, I continue to be disappointed that we failed him. It’s our responsibility to motivate our writers, put them in a position to succeed, improve their pieces as much as we possibly can, and most of all protect them from coming off badly. We didn’t do that here. Seeing so many people direct their outrage at one of our writers, and not our website as a whole, was profoundly upsetting for us. Our writers don’t post their stories themselves. It’s a team effort. We all failed. And ultimately, I failed the most because it’s my site and it was my call.
That’s nice. Right. As he explains, Hannan was writing this long independent piece on a putter that didn’t gel for them until he added this twist that the designer was exposed as one of those weird trans people, making it supposedly compelling and interesting…to a large team of editors that didn’t include one member of the trans community. Yeah, Grantland has a big problem, but that doesn’t excuse Hannan at all.
I’ll also point out the assessment of the article by Boing Boing. The story wasn’t that good; it relied on bringing out a string of gotchas culminating in the big weird reveal of a dead trans woman.
Another thing: critics keep saying that Hannan’s article was great storytelling, hiding terrible ethics. No. It’s a lurid mess. It’s written and paced like a 90’s-era daytime TV thriller, copying the structural and sensational qualities of other works without caring for how and why they work.
As for me, I continue to be disappointed that Grantland failed Dr V.