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What can we learn from the life and death of Dr. V?

What can we learn from the life and death of Dr. V?

Has anyone been following the saga of the story involving Grantland, a home for long form sportswriting that is part of the ESPN empire and edited by Bill Simmons, and its story on Dr. V’s Magical Putter. In the process of writing about a golf club whose backers made far too enthusiastic claims for it, the author of the story discovered that not only was its inventor’s resumé heavily fictionalized, but that she was a transgender woman.


The author didn’t write that, or threaten to write it, but he did mention it to one of the woman’s investors. From there the story took an especially dark turn and Dr. V killed herself. This all happened in October. The story ran last week.

Grantland has come in for pretty intense criticism and is taking it seriously. The piece below is by Christina Kahrl, an ESPN.Com baseball writer, co-founder of the website Baseball Prospectus, and herself a transgender woman.

What Grantland got wrong

And this is Bill Simmons’ letter, posted today, about how the whole thing happened:

On Wednesday morning, we posted a well-written feature by Caleb Hannan about an inventor named Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a.k.a. “Dr. V.” Caleb reported the piece for seven solid months. Back in April, he had become enamored of an infomercial for a magical putter, wanted to learn more about it, started digging and pitched the piece. Could there really be a “magical” putter? And what was up with the mysterious lady who invented it?

We made one massive mistake. I have thought about it for nearly three solid days, and I’ve run out of ways to kick myself about it. How did it never occur to any of us? How? How could we ALL blow it?

That mistake: Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft. This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up. Had we asked someone, they probably would have told us the following things …

Read it all here.

What are the lessons we can learn?

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Murdoch Matthew

Here is a dispassionate discussion from a journalism viewpoint of the issues raised by the Grantland story:

Grantland made the mistake of equating something intrinsic about a human being (gender identity) with a character flaw (con artist.) In outing Dr. V to her investors and ultimately the entire world, Grantland invaded her privacy and took away her dignity. In failing to find alternatives while Hannan was reporting the story, before the harm had been caused, Grantland employed an echo chamber rather than a healthy ethical decision-making process.

But as subsequent observers take steps back from the situation, every step reveals another damaging assumption. Here is a bitter analysis of how investment in a story can overcome ethical and compassionate concerns:

Not to Write this story would be some sort of betrayal of…what? Hannan’s own journalistic ethics? He’s already stalked an unwilling source, and outed her as transgender to an investor. He’s already chased her friends and family. He’s already informed her that he Knows Her Secrets. Ah, he must write it, because to not write it, would be a betrayal of A Good Story. He cannot betray his Art.

Grantland’s editors didn’t know what they didn’t know — in future they pledge to consult more widely and consider more deeply. But their first error was in not seeing the person in the story as a person.:

For a basic rule, remember that the people you are writing about are people, not something else. To assess trans* subjects as other than human is an incredibly hideous tradition. Do not be the writer who continues it.

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