Things move fast on today's internet. A day ago, I'd never heard of Caleb Hannan or Dr. V or a putter called the Oracle GX1. Hell, I was barely familiar with the concept of a putter. That was before Twitter collectively chose to laser focus its rage on the talented young writer and his questionable piece. A piece that many of those shouting the loudest had yet to actually, you know, read. I read it. I didn't like what I read. I said some things on Twitter to no one in particular. I reflected on those things. I felt like I'd been unfair. I heard some more things. I got angry again. I said some more things. I slept on it. And here I am, still a little confused, and still angry.
If you were lucky enough to miss the kerfuffle, earlier this week, Caleb Hannan published a piece on Grantland about a woman who went by the name Dr. V, and a putter of her invention that so impressed some golf professionals that it took on nearly mythic status. What begins as Hannan's investigation into this magic putter quickly deviates into a personal investigation into its creator. As Hannan pulls threads, it becomes apparent that Dr. V may have fudged some details about her background. Hannan quickly finds himself headed down a rathole. Some of these details are arguably relevant to a story about the efficacy of a unique putter: Dr. V's claimed diplomas may not exist; her job history may be exaggerated. It's all quite reminiscent of a number of stories about college football coaches who have engaged in similar resume manipulation. But none of these details are what Hannan focuses on: you see, Dr. V was born in man's body – a revelation that "actually" causes a chill to run up Hannan's spine.
From that point on (and, in retrospect, from the beginning of Hannan's piece), the focus of the story remains entirely on Dr. V's chromosomal makeup. Hannan seems to delight in revealing his discovery to other characters in the story, particularly when those characters are men who confess to believing that Dr. V. was a "pretty woman." (Hannan actually shows disappointment when the man in question "calmly  took the news that the woman he thought was an aerospace engineer had once been a man.") But the story doesn't end with Hannan shaming a pretty woman and her gentlemen admirers. It takes a much darker turn than that. Dr. V becomes extremely distressed when Hannan reveals what he has discovered. She pleads with him to honor his word to focus on the putter. Hannan knows that she's acted in an unstable fashion before, even attempted to take her own life, but he presses on. She begs him to stop before committing a hate crime. Hannan seems to find the suggestion laughable. She takes her life. Hannan seems bitter that she didn't like him. (Almost as an aside, Hannan's own performance with the putter is revealed to be less successful after he finds out Dr. V isn't who she claimed to be.) And, thus, the piece ends: not with a putter having been exposed as less effective than advertised, but with an innocent woman dead and her personal secrets splashed all over the internet for strangers to gawk at like a car crash on the side of the highway.
My first reaction is to be angry at Caleb Hannan. Whether consciously or not, he ignored every warning sign imaginable. He pressed ahead with an exposé on a private figure's life that has no relationship whatsoever to the ability of a putter to cleanly strike a golf ball. It was a story he knew – he had to know – would play as "salacious" and "sexy" because the public loves to gawk at people who are different than they are, particularly when it comes to anything sexual in nature. "Goddamn it," I say to myself, "that is not something worth risking a human's life over."
On the other hand, it's also easy to feel some sympathy for
Hannan. He's young. He's not terribly well known. This was a high profile assignment
his first piece for Grantland, as
big an outlet as any young sportswriter can have. And he was onto something that would surely
be an attention-grabber. Haven't we all
done something we regret when our attention was singularly-focused on some
selfish objective? Isn't that the very essence
of regret? It's possible to construct a
narrative in which Hannan buried his head in the sand, failed to ask himself a
series of basic moral questions, and pressed ahead blindly because
subconsciously he knew that any sort of self-exploration would force him to
pass up a huge opportunity. That's
immature, but it's not necessarily evil.
It's something I've done, something I've done on more occasions than I
can count. And now Caleb Hannan is being
crucified for it in the most permanent and public of ways. That seems lousy, too.
How to resolve this dilemma? One place to start is with our basic expectation of journalists. I'm no journalist, so I approach this from the curious reader's perspective: where does my right to know and to be entertained outweigh Dr. V's right to privacy?
For me, there's a simple equation that addresses that question. Begin with a presumption that all people are entitled to privacy in their personal affairs. Weigh the harm that would be caused by violating their privacy against the public interest in revealing the information. If the public interest outweighs the privacy interest, then it's newsworthy in my view. I recognize that this equation will occasionally lead to personal information being splashed all over the public domain, and people being hurt. It's even conceivable that revealing newsworthy private information could lead to a person's death (for example, revealing the truth about torture in Abu Ghraib likely resulted in increased militant action in Iraq and Afghanistan that cost some of our best and brightest their lives). That doesn't mean the media should stop digging. If the public interest is sufficiently large, the harm to the subject should not stop a reporter from releasing that information.
When, for example, politicians publicly campaign against behavior that they personally engage in, it might be appropriate to reveal that fact. The ability of a politician to influence public policy has a significant impact on society that can outweigh the individual politician's right to privacy. Moreover, dishonesty or hypocrisy by a political leader is almost invariably newsworthy, because it goes to their fundamental qualifications to lead.
But what did Dr. V's gender have to do with a putter? Nothing, so far as I can see. One could report that Dr. V's putter didn't work, or even that her personal qualifications were exaggerated, without getting into her personal life. If Hannan somehow believed that a Y-chromosome in Dr. V's genetic material made a difference in her ability to design an effective putter, he surely doesn't say so. No, the only reason I can conjure to include those details is because they might titillate some readers or draw attention to the otherwise not-terribly-unusual story of a golf product that doesn't actually perform miracles.
And that's only half the equation. The other half is even less defensible, and that was Dr. V's right to privacy. First, Dr. V cooperated from the outset on the condition that her private life be kept out of the story. Hannan accepted that condition, and was able to road test the putter and gain personal access to its inventor only because he did so. Second, Dr. V specifically implored him to keep confidential the details he uncovered. Third, Dr. V was not a public figure whose personal life is a matter of public concern (sorry, Kim Kardashian, anything you do is fair game after you decided to sell your personal life to the universe). Fourth, and most importantly, Dr. V's history strongly suggested the need for extra discretion in this case, given that she had already made an attempt on her life. When one balances the newsworthiness of revealing her gender history to the world (non-existent) against her compelling need for privacy, the scales tip overwhelmingly in favor of just shutting the hell up.
That's why I can't absolve Caleb Hannan, as much as I'd like to. I'd like to do so, not only because I know what's it's like to say something stupid and regret it from the bottom of my heart (though there is, as yet, no indication of regret from Hannan) but because it takes away from the bigger story here, which is that the general public still treats transgender people as objects of curiosity to be gawked at. At the end of the day, Hannan knew he was hurting someone who was emotionally fragile and did so anyway, with no benefit to the public at large. It was not journalism, it was high school gossip broadcast to the world. It was bullying someone for being different. That, not Dr. V's gender, is what "actually" sends a chill up my spine.
Equally complicit in this is everyone's favorite Sports Guy, Bill Simmons. I don't pretend to know Grantland well enough to know if he so much as glanced at the story prior its publication, but it's his site, and the buck stops with him. If Caleb Hannan deserves a break because he's young and desperate for the opportunity, then Simmons deserves an especially strong rebuke for being the opposite of that. And it is Simmons who stands to profit most as people tune in to read the story and make snarky comments about Dr. V to their dim-witted friends. Yup, those are your readers. And, thanks to you, each of them is now an unwitting accessory in the death of a woman they never met and never would have heard of without your site.
There's a certain cowardice in passing moral judgment about others in the way I've done here. The floodgates are already open. Caleb Hannan has taken a beating from people far more significant than me. Part of me wonders why I've even bothered to write this. It isn't because I think I'm a better person than Caleb Hannan. It isn't because I think I have some unique insight into morality or journalistic ethics – I don't claim to know much about either. It's just because someone is dead for a simple reason: no one stopped to really think about what they were doing. I believe – I have to believe – that neither Simmons nor Hannan would have knowingly pressed ahead with this non-story had they known the harm it would cause this person. Maybe by writing this out, someone will think about that next time, even if the only person who does so is me. That's reason enough for me to write, and as fitting of a eulogy for Dr. V as I can offer.