On January 15, journalist Caleb Hannan published a story on Grantland (associated with ESPN) in which he first endeavored to write about a “scientifically superior golf club” and ended up outing Dr. V, the transgender woman who invented it. Her outing in the article is problematic enough. Here’s where it gets deadly: Dr. V committed suicide as Hannan was pursuing the private details of her past.
Hannan’s original goal was to investigate this supposedly perfect golf club, created with the help of physics and sold on an infomercial, but he became increasingly intrigued by the golf club’s inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, or Dr. V. According to Hannan,
The story of Dr. V was getting stranger by the second. An aeronautical physicist with a sun allergy builds the world’s greatest putter by rejecting conventional wisdom, then watches as deep-pocketed competitors try to steal her secrets and shut her out of the market.
Hannan is referring to the information given to him by Dr. V in phone and email correspondence: that she had attended the University of Pennsylvania and MIT, that any record of her existence was impossible to find because she had been working on top-secret government projects in Washington D.C., and that she didn’t play much golf due to her crippling migraines from the sun after spending just a few hours outside. He also grew suspicious when he heard the unexpected low pitch of her voice (her explanation: “collapsed larynx she had suffered in a car crash”), and reports that she was 6-foot-3 with a “shock of red hair.”
So he continued to question about her past. After receiving a rather earnest email from Dr. V pleading Hannan to stop with his investigation about her background. Hannan, clearly well studied in the art of narrative suspense, wrote about the email in his article:
Dr. V’s initial requests for privacy had seemed reasonable. Now, however, they felt like an attempt to stop me from writing about he company she’d founded. But why?
He contacted MIT and UPenn, and there was no record of Essay Anne Vanderbilt’s attendance there. She had never lived in Boston or D.C., and, in fact, there was no proof of her existence prior to the early 2000s.
Hannan dug deeper and found these facts: Dr. V had been born Stephen Krol in Philadelphia, had been married twice with two kids, and had worked as a mechanic around the same time that she claimed to be working in D.C. Hannan also found an official petition in Washington state for a change of name to Essay Anne Vanderbilt on October 14, 2003.
While Hannan was doing his digging, back in Dr. V’s office on October 18, 2013, she was found dead, “lying on the floor curled in a fetal position with a white plastic bag over her head; an empty bottle of pills sat on the kitchen counter.”
Is Hannan responsible for Dr. V’s death? A petition on change.org called “Fire Caleb Hannan for outing a trans woman” believes so. The first line in the petition is, “ESPN killed a trans woman.” Over 2500 people have already signed the petition online. Grantland’s editor-in-chief wrote a response to the backlash:
To our dismay, a few outlets pushed some version of the Grantland writer bullies someone into committing suicide! narrative, either because they wanted to sensationalize the story, or they simply didn’t read the piece carefully. It’s a false conclusion that doubles as being recklessly unfair. Caleb reported a story about a public figure that slowly spun out of control. He never antagonized or badgered anyone. Any mistakes happened because of his inexperience, and ours, too.
Listen, readers, because this is vital: 41 percent of members of the trans community have attempted suicide. This is more than 25 times more frequent than the rest of the national average, which is 1.6 percent.
Perhaps Hannan didn’t outright bully Dr. V, but this inexperience led him to out Dr. V to her associates as he was researching the story (note: while she was still alive), and to pester about her past, which obviously put enormous pressure on her.
This is, to a certain extent, complicated by her other alleged lies (the MIT degree, for instance). When a journalist finds a story where a supposed genius physicist’s invention might be a scam and her credentials might be fraudulent, the journalist should report and investigate. The original point of his story, after all, was to examine the claim that this golf club was scientifically superior. But Hannan should not have pushed to find her identity as a trans woman (which ultimately became the focal point, the climax, of the entire article). That’s obvious. Surely Hannan could have distinguished the point of his ethical boundaries when Dr. V told him that he was “about to commit a hate crime.”
“The other question to consider was if the lies actually mattered,” Hannan writes in his article. But as Hannan’s narrative unfolded, it seemed that he was interested in uncovering her mysterious identity in order to validate his investigative reporting skills, brandish his journalism-y journalism like a knight wielding off his lance in a jousting tournament. He concluded, “writing a eulogy for a person who by all accounts you despised is an odd experience,” couching Dr. V’s story in his own while adding insult to injury.
Journalism isn’t simply a matter of “investigate at whatever cost.” It’s story about a golf club for goodness’ sake, hardly a reason to so persistently pursue someone’s gender identity—there are boundaries of personal privacy, especially with group so well acquainted with tragedy as the trans community is. Hannan’s behavior was might not strictly be labeled as bullying, but the act of writing in itself was already a step too far.