The Internet is abuzz with conversation and disputation over a long article published last week on Grantland. “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” written by Caleb Hannan, tells the story (spoilers follow) of a woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt who invented an odd-looking putter that certain golfers came to swear by, based in part on its special design. Vanderbilt advertised the putter as based on scientific-sounding principles such as “moment of inertia.” Reporting the story, Hannan realized that much of what Vanderbilt said about her own credentials is fraudulent. He also learned that she is transgender, a fact that shocked him—“a chill actually ran up my spine”—and apparently influenced his larger view that she is a fraud. At the very end of the story, we learn that Vanderbilt has recently killed herself.
As week turned to weekend and as, perhaps, a wider set of people had time to plow through the story’s nearly 8,000 words, the reaction turned from positive to negative. The Toast had a good, early round-up; Jezebel published a long meditation yesterday. Both centered around what seems basically indisputable: Hannan evinces an extremely distorted view of what it means to be transgender. At best, Vanderbilt’s gender identity and her—I was about to write “efforts to cover it up,” but actually it’s more just an ordinary, passive privacy—is erroneously lumped in with her very real lies about her educational history and business background. At worst, the piece is transphobic, with Hannan so weirded out by Vanderbilt that he acts surprised when a Vanderbilt business partner is not aghast to learn that Vanderbilt was born biologically a man. At that moment, I was embarrassed for Hannan.
But embarrassment isn’t the only feeling Hannan deserves. Slate’s Josh Levin laid out several of Hannan’s errors in reporting and writing. I agree with him that those who have accused Hannan of abetting Vanderbilt’s suicide are taking it too far (including Jezebel). But if anything I’m inclined to see the story as yet more problematic. This was not just prizing fact-finding over compassion, as Levin writes. This was a reporter entering a story with fundamentally flawed, not to mention bigoted, premises and letting those premises guide his reporting and his writing—a problem magnified since Hannan and his reporting are an essential part of the story.
“This is the kind of story, though, that breeds cynicism about journalists,” Levin writes, hitting upon an essential point. My initial reaction before reading and digesting the piece was that of many journalists on Twitter: to defend it in order to defend the writing of such stories. Ultimately, though, I hesitate even to cite this article as a deeply flawed instance of a valuable kind of story. The bathwater is dirty enough that I’m willing to lose the baby, too.
Still, when someone on Twitter said, in effect, “All this just for a putter,” I cringed. That attitude basically stipulates that journalists should shy away from delicate subject matter unless they are writing about, say, national security, the economy, and maybe concussions. In fact, even journalism about something as seemingly banal as a funny-looking putter can be valuable. It can tell us something about how we think and how we approach the world. It is so important that it can justify dealing with topics such as the gender identity of a mostly private person (Vanderbilt does offer Hannan some details about her life voluntarily, according to Hannan). This is a crucial takeaway, and not only because the alternative is for me to find another line of work.
This is also the kind of story that could breed cynicism about Grantland, the Bill Simmons-run ESPN site that revealed a redesign one day before Hannan’s story ran. A story about a weird-looking putter, whether it is effective or not, and its fraudulent inventor has all the makings of a classic Grantland story: long, magazine-y, sophisticated, interested in a subculture, extrapolating from an odd detail about a bizarre corner of the world of sports to tell a broader human story. In this case, they completely botched it. In my opinion, they almost never do. But now Jezebel is calling them a “sports blog” that helped abet Vanderbilt’s suicide, and I wouldn’t be shocked if we hear similar, largely unfair sentiments in the non-sports Internet in the coming days.
An inquiry to Grantland’s editors was redirected to an ESPN spokesperson. He said that Simmons will respond via Grantland soon, and wrote: “We understand and appreciate the wide range of thoughtful reaction this story has generated and to the family and friends of Essay Anne Vanderbilt, we express our deepest condolences. We will use the constructive feedback to continue our ongoing dialogue on these important and sensitive topics. Ours is a company that values the LGBT community internally and in our storytelling, and we will all learn from this.” Hannan did not reply to a request for comment. Robert Lipsyte, ESPN’s ombudsman, declined to comment, citing policy that he not discuss ESPN things with reporters (he can and does, of course, write about such things himself).
One article is not going to destroy Grantland’s reputation, of course. In under three years they have become a valuable outlet for analytically sophisticated yet accessible writing about major sports as well as for exactly this kind of sports story; when Deadspin listed the year’s best sports stories, six Grantland pieces made the cut. Still, it should serve as a wake-up call. Something or someone in the editorial process should have caught the gigantic problems with “Dr. V’s Magical Putter.” There is nothing wrong with being an outlet that places a high premium on this kind of story. But you have to do them right.