Sometimes a journalist will write something, and sometimes people will die.
This is a sad fact about this business, the small squeaking fear in the back of any reporter’s mind: you never know exactly how any story will shake out. You cannot know exactly what the repercussions will be, for the subject. Perhaps the spotlight will burn too bright, perhaps the feedback will too much for an employer — or for a human psyche — to withstand.
Yeah, you can guess how things might go, but until it happens you will never truly know.
So a few lights to guide a writer then, as they plunge into the unknown: first, any writer must thoughtfully consider what information they reveal. The natural instinct of many journalists is to disseminate information, but we must be curators too, weighing the public interest of a piece of information against its level of invasion, and against the chance of harm.
These scales will weigh out different ways, on different days.
For example, it is one thing to dig into the past of a police chief, or of the President of the United States. It would be quite another to dig into the personal life of the woman who owns an ice-cream shop down the way, when all she knew is that you wanted to profile her new sundae machine.
This should be self-evident: journalists do not enhance a public dialogue by prying into the lives of the quiet public. And most of all, writers must mind the line between journalist and badgeless detective.
This isn’t always an easy thing to do. Sometimes, you stumble on to a trail of clues, and it lights a certain fire in you. That is the turning point: you can either harness that heat thoughtfully, and perhaps do some exquisite reporting. Or you can fan the spark into a personal flame, and begin to feel the star in your own detective story.
The problem with vigilante detectives is that they do takedowns, not journalism. They find proof to vindicate a hunch. Once that happens, you’re sunk. Once that happens, something is almost certainly going to go wrong.
I’ve fell down that path myself, once, when I was in news and following the breadcrumbs of some long con. I was lucky to have an editor who pulled me back, though I didn’t like it at the time; an editor who judiciously excised information that was too personal, too aggressive, too insensitive to what the story was actually about. “We do not want to appear as if this is a vendetta,” my editor said gently, and I pouted but knew he was right.
I see so clearly now how the idea of taking down a liar felt so romantic, in my mind.
So yeah, I get why sometimes journalists are suckered into veering off the path, and crossing that line, and also how that can open up the risk of harm. Exhibit A: this week, in Grantland, Caleb Hannan did not mind that line, and the results… well, they should not have happened. They didn’t need to happen.
Other writers have covered this awful situation far better than I could. The title of Melissa McEwen’s incisive “Careless, Cruel and Unaccountable” just about sums it up. Maria Dehvana Headley’s strong critique is an important read too. I don’t expect to add anything here that their voices and others — particularly the voices of trans folks and allies on Twitter, of which you can find many on the hashtag #justicefordrv — have not already done.
Still, I’m all tied up in the thought of it, so I may as well let those thoughts out to run.
The basics are thus: a golf guru tipped Hannan off about an unconventional new golf putter, and Hannan jumped on the story, as he should. In the course of exploring the invention, he began to probe into the background of its inventor, Dr. V — despite forging an agreement with her to report on the “science” of the putter, “and not the scientist” — and discovered big inconsistencies in her purported education and professional credentials.
From there, he also learned that she was a transgender woman, a fact he proceeded to share with one of her investors.
This was not just unethical, but it flat-out dangerous. Trans folks, particularly trans women, are at a heartbreaking risk of harm if they are known to be trans: they are much more likely to be murdered, to lose their jobs, to end up homeless, to be pushed to the margins of society in every possible way. They are massively more likely to take their lives, as these harms add up.
Every year, in a grim refrain of how serious this is, the trans community grieves its dead.
So I will put in big bold letters now, just to make it clear:
It is never acceptable to out a trans person to anyone, ever. Full stop, end of story, nothing more to say.
If Hannan had realized this, if he had even paused long enough to think clearly about the harm he was about to do, maybe this story would have turned out differently. Maybe Dr. V would not be dead. Maybe she would have had reprieve from a writer who, after agreeing to write about her putter but not her personal life, proceeded to out her as a trans woman, call up her ex-wives, review a police report of her past attempted suicide and pry, pry, pry into things that had nothing to do with her putter, or about her professional or educational credentials.
Instead, he pushed forward with these explicitly unwanted invasions, and Dr. V took her own life.
Then, in a decision so poor it almost defies description, Hannan and his editors went ahead and published the story. Put it up online for everyone to read, for everyone to gawk at. In this story, Dr. V is presented as more sideshow than human, seen only through her clearly growing fear of Hannan’s dogged personal invasions.
And for what?
Look, I can completely empathize with a desire to explore the story of a mysterious inventor. That curiosity is what informs the best journalism, and helps dig up the most powerful stories.
But every time I review this story, what leaps out to me is this: at some point, Hannan started to take the reporting too personally. He tightened his blinkers enough to barge past every red flag that the subject was vulnerable, that he was trespassing on territory neither he nor Grantland’s readers had a right to know. He dropped the scales of responsible journalism, stopped balancing public interest against harm, and picked up the imaginary badge of a self-appointed detective.
I feel like you can tell the exact moment this happened, while reading Hannan’s piece. It’s right here:
He was clearly trying to tell me something, which is why he began emphasizing certain words. Every time he said “she” or “her” I could practically see him making air quotes. Finally it hit me. Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine.
“Are you trying to tell me that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was once a man?”
So, upon realizing that Dr. V might be trans, “a chill actually ran up (his) spine.” But for what? And why?
The fact that Hannan’s “chills” hinged on learning Dr. V was trans is telling. This is the point that pushed Hannan from a writer fact-checking an inventor’s purported professional background, and into an aggressive investigation into a private citizen’s personal life. He is clearly titillated by the discovery that she is trans, a feeling that lingered in his Tweet announcing the story last week: “the strangest story I’ve ever worked on,” he called it.
We use other words than “strange” for stories that are inextricably linked to a woman’s death: “tragic” usually works.
Because Hannan’s evident titillation drove the rest of his investigations, the harm that flowed next was inevitable. After that point, the story is no longer about a putter, or even about professional misrepresentation by its inventor. Suddenly, it is about “a troubled man (sic) who had invented a new life for himself (sic),” even though Dr. V’s personal life — her trans identity, her past relationships — is irrelevant to the putter or the company.
Hannan didn’t pause, and apparently no editor made him pause, and ask what really mattered here, and whether it weighed enough to justify the risk of harm. From where I stand, it doesn’t, and it never could.
Here’s how those scales balance out, to me: Dr. V was a private citizen, who ran a small and struggling business selling a unique type of golf club. She was not the mayor of Toronto, and she wasn’t bilking people out of millions through a sketchy hedge fund. She had a handful of investors who bought in to her company in part because they believed she was a Vanderbilt and a physicist, but the investor Hannan spoke to didn’t seem especially wounded by the loss. He loved the putter, after all.
Oh God, remember, this could have been a great story about a cool new golf club.
Look, I won’t go on too much longer. Suffice to say this: journalists should always aspire to speak truth to power. Where there is no power, though, and little justice to be done, journalists should always aspire to remember who truths ultimately belong to.
Yet though they may have been spoken by a desperate person at one of the most desperate times in a life that had apparently seen many, it’s hard to argue with Dr. V’s conclusions. “Nobody knows my life but me,” she said. “You don’t know what the truth is.”
If only the author, in this case, hadn’t indeed argued with that conclusion.
“We do not want to appear as if this is a vendetta,” my editor told me. It was the best advice he ever gave.