On January 15th, sports-centric website Grantland published a feature by journalist Caleb Hannan on a scientifically advanced new golf putter and its eccentric inventor, Essay Anne Vanderbilt. This piece, which took an alleged seven months to research and report, begins with Mr. Hannan's inquiring into an aloof woman's background. The writer's increasingly vigorous investigation determined holes in much of Ms. Vanderbilt's professional resume. And finally, as he sought to unravel a rope of fiction around his subject, Mr. Hannan learned that Ms. Vanderbilt was something of a con artist. He learned – and reported – that she was a trans-gender woman living in stealth.
Essay Anne Vanderbilt committed suicide before the Grantland piece was published, allegedly after a series of pleas with the author that he not divulge her secret identity. As a result, the feature that ran last week was subject to much scrutiny – for not only did Mr. Hannan flatly out Ms. Vanderbilt, but he did so in the ethically dubious context surrounding her death.
There's been some astute backlash for the flaws with Mr. Hannan's piece itself (in terms of sensitivity of portrayal, in terms of taste...) – but more and more coverage has begun to spiral around portrayals of transgenders in the media at large. For instance, Grantland writer and GLAAD board-member Christina Kahrl has written an elaborate indictment of the article's disrespect of human rights. Here's an excerpt from her op-ed:
“...He struggled with the question of whether or not she’d actually designed a great putter; if you’re a golfer, that might have been what you wanted to know. It certainly would have been the extent of what you needed to know.
Unfortunately, that isn’t where Hannan stopped. Instead of fulfilling his mission in its entirety, he 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.”
Writers and critics ranging from Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone (who voiced his dissent via Twitter) to Parker Molloy at The Advocate lent some prudent and very intelligent commentary to the debate ongoing since Mr. Hannan's piece ran. But I think Josh Levin at Slate crystallized it best: "Dr. V was a con artist and a trans woman. Hannan conflates these two facts, as if they both represent a form of deceit."
Follow the links below for more on the story. And meditate on Ms. Molloy's use of the term "teachable moment" in her article. We still have so far to go.
Caleb Hannan's original feature, "Dr. V's Magical Putter."
Grantland editor Bill Simmons' apology for the article.
Parker Molloy calls for the writer's resignation here.