Coulda, woulda, shoulda

I wondered yesterday how Grantland would respond to the outcry over their publication of Caleb Hannan’s piece on Dr. V (not her magical putter, despite what the headline claims). ESPN offered a sort of non-apology (of the sorry people are upset, we’re looking into it type) and word filtered out that Grantland’s editor in chief Bill Simmons would personally address the issue in more depth over the coming days.

On Monday, Grantland published a critique of Hannan’s piece by ESPN sports writer and GLAAD board member Christina Kahrl. Simply titled “What Grantland got wrong“, Kahrl pulled no punches. Opening with a quiet dig at the author, she points out that he’ll be remembered for this article, but for all the wrong reasons. She goes on to analyse the article itself and its myriad issues, before contextualizing the life and death of Essay Anne Vanderbilt in a way that the Grantland editors failed to do. Their failure to view the inventor as a human being worthy of respect and consideration, their failure to look into available information about the trans* experience, or guidelines for reporting on trans* people, their failure to consider the mental state of a subject who had been adamant about not wanting to be a subject in the first place. Her article is also reasoned, and objective, noting that Dr. V did make life more difficult for herself by fabricating qualifications and connections that could be easily debunked in the information age. Kahrl’s piece is well worth reading in its entirety, oh, and not like it’s relevant really, but Kahrl is a trans* woman and knows of what she writes. Actually, I’m wrong there, it is relevant that ESPN has an out trans* woman on staff. It’s relevant because Bill Simmons or one of his editors could have spoken to her about the story they planned to publish. They could have reached out and asked her about the ethics of the story, about the possible effects of outing (and threatening to further out) a trans* person. But they did not, not when it mattered. There is something to be said for them doing so after the fact, but it doesn’t solve any of the problems associated with the original article. It can’t reverse the outing of Dr. V, and it can’t bring her back.

Simmons himself then published a (very wordy) mea culpa, wherein he apologized and outlined several areas where he and his staff failed. Reading through his letter from the editor, the first thing that struck me was that the editor himself is in need of an editor. There is some (perhaps understandable?) defensiveness: We are all very young! We want to take risks! We learn from our mistakes! We let our journalist down! For my money, all of that should have been cut. Objectively, none of it is relevant. It’s emotive, sure, but not germane.

Reminds me of repeated arguments with a co-worker who insisted on putting “We worked really hard on this!” in proposed email blasts about our articles. I would tell him over and over again that no-one cared how hard we worked on it, that it read as almost apologetic (We tried!) or defensive (We worked so hard, please don’t point out any errors!). I’d insist on a cut, he would sulk. Objectively, when you are presenting a story, or any type of content, how hard you worked has no bearing on whether or not the content is complete and serves its purpose. Good intentions and hard graft mean nothing if what you publish is inaccurate, offensive or otherwise flawed.

Simmons outlines the history of the piece, from Hannan’s pitch through successive drafts. Where things start getting interesting is somewhere around here:

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.

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.

Hmmm, First of all, I don’t think anyone thinks Dr. V was right to make up bogus connections or qualifications, that’s not at issue. What’s at issue is the insinuation that living a stealth life as a trans* woman was somehow indicative of a deeper untruth, one at the very core of her character. Secondly, given that Hannan had already outed Dr. V to one of her investors, and given that he refused to sign an NDA about her past, it’s very easy to join the dots and say that it’s eminently reasonable to assume that Dr. V believed that Hannan would out her in his piece, whether he actually “threatened to” or not. This really should have been acknowledged somehow.

Simmons goes on to say that Grantland had no intention of publishing the piece at the time of Dr. V’s death. Not enough of a story there. But Hannan wasn’t about to give up 7 months work and so he came up with another draft, and this one had “a story” (and we all know what that story was). He then outlines four potential problems that Grantland had with publishing the new piece, managing to point out along the way that multiple lawyers read it, and ending with this weird assertion:

Caleb’s reporting had become so intertwined with the last year of Dr. V’s life. Didn’t we have a responsibility to run it?

Really? He was concerned about the piece possibly being exploitative (bingo!), that people might blame Hannan or Grantland for what happened to Dr. V (some did, right or not) but winds up with the notion that it would be somehow disrespectful not to publish?! That’s some contorted thinking right there, not to mention the arrogance involved in thinking anyone connected to Dr V. would be waiting for, hoping for, Hannan’s article to appear.

Next, he says how terrible they all felt about what happened to Dr. V and points out that no-one knows, or can know, why she took her own life. That’s true. What boggles the mind is the notion that her death seemed to have made the piece more of a story than it was before. The dead can’t sue? Outing a deceased trans* woman is perfectly fine? Publishing a potentially slanderous article than outs that woman as a “eulogy” is good journalism?  (I should be clear here, in the original article Hannan makes Dr. V appear overly litigious, making fraudulent discrimination claims, filing nuisance lawsuits. When you know that Dr. V was a trans* woman, those lawsuits look a bit different. She was living in stealth, going forward with those cases would have drawn attention to her, and made stealth impossible. She would have had to declare herself as a trans* woman, in public. And it was very evident that this was something she absolutely was not prepared to do. Reference to those cases should have been cut from the article for that reason, but they weren’t cut, and were instead used to buttress Hannan’s allegations of dishonesty. Did she tell some lies? Yes, she did. Were her allegations of discrimination false? Probably not.)

Apparently everyone who read the story at Grantland, and there were many of them, was “blown away” by the piece. This seems to be the “why” many of us were asking for. But it’s not enough of a reason. It’s especially troubling that the death of the subject is what made it “a story” in the first place.

Simmons, to his credit does apologize for not having run the story by someone who could offer a different perspective, he does acknowledge the clumsiness of phrases like Hannan’s “a chill actually ran up my spine” (even if he misquotes it), how those phrases could be read, and how they could shade the ensuing narrative. He takes responsibility for the detachment of the final paragraphs, and apologizes repeatedly for his errors. He takes ownership of those mistakes, personally.

However! He still doesn’t believe that the story could have been told without outing Dr. V, still believes that her being a trans* woman had to be included in order to explain the name-change and the trouble finding information on her background. But the story could have been told without that information – in fact S.I. Rosenbaum has already done so, here.

Simmons does take issue with how people attacked Hannan on social media and points out the hypocrisy of making threats against someone you perceive to be a bully. He’s right, and that’s one of the problems with social media: people can and will directly contact people with all kinds of threats and insults (hello, Anita Sarkeesian) often on the flimsiest of pretexts. No-one has considered reactions anymore, it’s all RAGE -> TWEET with very little thought in between. It’s not right, it’s extremely unpleasant, and it’s all too prevalent. It’s hard to have any sort of meaningful discourse around an issue when so many are so quick to shout invective, repeatedly, with no consideration for the people they are bombarding. This whole mess is about a journalist, and his editors, not considering the personhood of the woman at the center of an article. Depersonalizing them in return actually makes it harder to have a discussion. It’s why some of Simmons’ defensiveness is understandable. It’s why he tells people to attack him and leave Hannan alone. That could have come across as macho posturing (Come at me bro!), but it doesn’t. He’s sincere, and sincerely concerned about his journalist.

Ultimately though, they’re leaving the original article up on the site. Lest you have any doubt there are links in the text of Simmons’ apology, and in the sidebar. Simmons offers the following justification:

We’re never taking the Dr. V piece down from Grantland partly because we want people to learn from our experience. We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.

I’m not sure I buy that. The controversy has garnered many page-views. Simmons (earlier in the piece) says that Grantland has never chased page-views, and I did wonder why he felt the need to include that. Anyone who creates any sort of online content is well-versed in the all-important page-views, engagement levels, and click-through rates. Simmons may not care about those metrics, but you can bet that some suit at ESPN does, and is grateful for the attention the site has gotten.

While it seems fair to leave the piece for a while, so that people can consider the apology and Kahrl’s critique in context, or so they can read it for themselves rather than just reading about it, it also makes the apology seem a little less sincere. I don’t know, it’s hard to tell, maybe if he said, “We should have spiked it, and now we’re taking it down because we can see how wrong we were to go ahead with publishing it.” people would accuse him of trying to cover things up? Personally, I think he should have yanked it, as soon as possible, but that’s just my opinion. Maybe taking it down now would be an exercise in futility, or maybe it would be a gesture of respect. In a very real sense, the damage has already been done.

What we can hope is that not only Hannan and Simmons and the rest of the Grantland staff have learned a lesson from this, we can hope that others have too. That maybe all of this has raised awareness in the wider community, that journalists will no longer consider trans* people “quirky” and their lives fair game for excessive, prurient scrutiny. That people (whether cis or trans*) will always be seen as human beings first and foremost, and accorded equal consideration and respect.

Raised awareness is great, but it shouldn’t always have to come out of tragedy.

We can hope, but we’re not there yet.

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