On Friday, journalist Caleb Hannan tweeted a link to a recent Grantland story he did, writing, "Not sure what to say other than this is the strangest story I've ever worked on."
The piece, entitled "Dr. V's Magical Putter," was about a "mysterious" physicist and inventor named Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, her company Yar Golf, and the "scientifically superior" gold golf club she'd engineered, a putter called the Oracle GXI. It begins as what seems like a straight-forward but in-depth profile: Hannan contacts "Dr. V," as she was known to her peers, and her colleagues. He outlines the physics that make the Oracle possible—even testing it out for himself—and sketches the beginnings of Yar Golf.
But the article quickly becomes an investigative story into the woman's personal life. Hannan, unable to confirm the time she'd claimed to have spent at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, began to dig more deeply into Dr. V's past life, learning that the time she claimed to have spent on "top-secret government projects" was really spent working as a "struggling mechanic."
But what ultimately made this piece "the strangest" story he's worked on is that is investigation revealed that Dr. V was a trans woman, born with male sex organs, a discovery that gave Hannan "a chill that ran up [his] spine." Halfway through the story, his focus stops being that of a work of sports journalism and becomes—in his words—"the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself."
At the very end of the piece, after writing of the push-back he received when disclosing to Dr. V that he was to out her in the article (an act deemed by Dr. V to be a "hate crime") Hannan writes that she killed herself.
At first, Hannan was receiving praise left and right for his piece, with fans applauding his reporting and the crazy nature of the story.
— fierman (@fierman) January 15, 2014
— Jason Fagone (@jfagone) January 15, 2014
— Patrick Doyle (@patrickcdoyle) January 16, 2014
But it wasn't long before writers and editors started to raise questions about the morality of Hannan's story. Why was the gender of the subject suddenly made the focus of a sports story? Did writing this story "drive" Dr. V to suicide?
This story is unnervingly silent on whether the reporter's investigation contributed to the subject's suicide. http://t.co/m9mSwynOCx
— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) January 17, 2014
Hannan's main argument seems to be "yeah, I seem to have killed this woman, but that makes me a great reporter, plus she's a bitch, so."
— Sady Doyle (@sadydoyle) January 17, 2014
I am stepping away from my computer. I am way too angry to be on social media right now. @calebhannan... what the hell is wrong with you.
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) January 18, 2014
And trans activists and writers were in an uproar over Hannan outing Vanderbilt and it being praised as journalism. On many blogs like Shakesville and personal Tumblrs, writers outlined at length the moral problems and the transphobia evident in Hannan's piece and called out the culture surrounding its defense.
Disturbing to see so many react w/ bemusement rather than horror to @calebhannan's piece. In their guts, trans people are less than human.
— Samantha Allen (@CousinDangereux) January 18, 2014
Dear cis journalist. Please don't out trans women and harass them to a point of suicide and then call them a "troubled man" Thanks!
— Sophia Banks (@sophiaphotos) January 18, 2014
Some wondered if Hannan should have dropped the story entirely in light of the suicide, which few noted felt like a badly placed and mistreated footnote to the entire story.
this whole awful Grantland "Dr. V" thing demonstrates why journalists NEED to be able to drop a story sometimes, or scale it back.
— Al Shipley (@alshipley) January 18, 2014
Sometimes the right thing for us to do as journalists is to honor a life by not telling a story. It's not always ours to tell.
— Jeff Chu (@jeffchu) January 18, 2014
Bottom line on V-gate: Someone is dead & people are lauding the courage of a reporter whose prodding is at least a mitigating factor there.
— Craig Jenkins (@CraigSJ) January 18, 2014
Amid the calls to Grantland for his resignation and arguments, Hannan hardly engaged with anyone on Twitter who wasn't praising his piece. But with some writers back-tracking on their initial compliments to his piece, and a lack of response from Hannan himself, it was clear that he was feeling the pressure of what felt like dozens of journalists scrutinizing the ethics of his piece. And though it doesn't make his piece "right" or take back what he wrote, it seems Hannan is coming around to listening to why his critics are up in arms.
For what it's worth, I haven't blocked anyone today. I'm reading all of this. I'm totally overwhelmed, but I'm reading.
— Caleb Hannan (@calebhannan) January 18, 2014
Just got off the phone with @calebhannan, felt it was a constructive conversation.
— Parker Marie Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) January 18, 2014