Today in despair for the future of humanity: Caleb Hannan writing for Grantland

Caleb Hannan wrote a wanna-be-gonzo journalist-as-protagonist article outing a trans woman, shortly after that woman committed suicide after explicitly warning Hannan that his journalism was leaving her no other option: a woman who was resolutely clear about keeping her public life separate from her private life (how dare she!) and giving permission for interviews to focus only on the golf club she’d invented and not any other aspect of her life.

During the course of the article Hannan repeatedly misgendered Dr V and made a point of revealing her pre-transition name, he also outed her trans history to an investor he was purportedly interviewing about the golf club. He justified this because he discovered that Dr V had padded her resume with respect to her academic achievements and previous work as a physicist, and thus he regarded her other secrets as fair game. Hannan also now doesn’t like to use the golf club that he initially was extremely positive about, perhaps because his unacknowledged transphobia and transmisogny (and maybe just a tiny bit of guilt and shame?) make him feel uncomfortable about it now.

It is not the mandate of a writer to keep pursuing a private citizen’s secrets (secrets which have exactly no impact on the product you are writing about, nor on anything else public good) until they kill themselves. This is not an honorable act.

Caleb Hannan has committed an utterly reprehensible failure to emulate an ethical human being. Grantland’s ethical failure in publishing Hannan’s article is equally appalling.

P.S. As I was googling images to use for the index thumbnail, I saw several screenshots of books and papers asking questions about whether ethics can ever be adequately instilled in a person who has not first been acculturated to value empathy and compassion. That strikes me as an excellent question to be asking.

[P.P.S. 4:45am: My initial version of this post made very little mention of Dr V (I didn’t name her) because I wanted to focus on Hannan’s awfulness. Overnight I became uncomfortable that I was contributing to the broader social pattern of trans erasure and dehumanisation by not including more about her in this article about the man who drove her to her death, so I have rewritten the post to redress this. I apologise for not thinking the erasure issue through more fully before I first published.]

Categories: ethics & philosophy, media

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14 replies

  1. As others have said elsewhere: her golf club design worked. End of story. She was clear from the outset that the story was about the club not about her. I hope Hannan finds that his work dries up completely.

    • Just quoting Beatrice commenting over at Pharyngula:

      A good article about this:
      The ending:

      For now though he [Caleb Hannan] doesn’t want to talk to reporters. He values his privacy. Mysteriously, strangely, oddly, he just wants to be left alone.

      Other commentors have mentioned that apparently Dr V contacted Hannan and offered to give him proof of her credentials earned in her birth-name so long as he signed a non-disclosure agreement specifying that he would not mention her gender transition status in his article. He refused to sign the NDA.

      • Apparently ESPN (owner of Grantland) has nonpologised and Hannan’s article has at least been redacted to correct misgenderings by the author (still retaining the misgenderings that were direct quotes of other interviewees).
        Doesn’t seem like nearly enough.

  2. I thought he hadn’t checked properly for any qualifications gained in her birth name (from what he had written). He obviously decided early on that any thing that she chose not to discuss = lying.


    Which leaves me deeply frustrated. First off because, even though we’re separated by layers of company hierarchy, if I had known this story was in the pipeline, my first instinct is that I’d want to help Bill Simmons and his team get the job done right.

    Hannan’s hackjob was a shitty piece of journalism, but it’s merely reflective of the shitty standards of journalism in this day and age.

    Before we officially decided to post Caleb’s piece, we tried to stick as many trained eyeballs on it as possible.

    So why didn’t they ask Christina Kahrl to read it?
    Hannan fucked up, badly, by pursuing the piece without pursuing advice on how to pursue the piece.
    I have a question, actually:
    after Vanderbilt had committed suicide, if Hannan had written a piece without outing her as trans, would that have been any better? Does it become another trans invisibility coverup?

  4. That letter from the editor is weird. He needs major lessons in “intent is not magic”, and seems to lack some basic understanding of what is a sports story, and what isn’t. Seriously, going on to discuss the fact that the suicide rate is so high among trans folk would have helped the piece? Not unless he now thinks it should have been a public service announcement teaching trans 101 to the golfing community.
    (These are trivial points of course next to the fundamental issue that the editor cares much more about Hannan’s and his own poor liddle fewlings than about the fact that someone is unneccesarily dead.)

  5. I think, after the fact, it was better that he (albeit unknowingly) fessed up to what he did to Dr V. Even had she not taken her own life, outing her against her will even digging into her background against her will was really bad journalism. The story was the golf club and whether it worked not her life.

  6. Grantland isn’t exclusively a sports magazine; it’s a magazine with a sports bent, in the same way that the NYRB is a magazine with a literary bent.
    I find the journalistic ethics questions (and this ties in with the ‘ethics of scolding the dying’ thread) more interesting:
    – is reaction journalism (taken to its greatest extreme with Jerry Springer type shows) ever acceptable?
    – how much information, not gleaned in confidence, are you permitted to reveal to an interviewee that they might not already know? If you discover that a priest had a child that they were secretly supporting, are you allowed to ask their bishop whether he knew about the child?
    – given that there was a story here (Vanderbilt potentially fraudulently claiming professional qualifications she didn’t have), how much do you allow the subject to shape the story?

  7. Mindy, I don’t agree that digging into a person’s background against their will is bad journalism; it seems to be at the core of investigative journalism.
    [off-topic question/link deleted ~ tt]

  8. Jerry Springer was scripted and used actors. Not quite the same thing.

    Vanderbilt potentially fraudulently claiming professional qualifications she didn’t have

    I don’t think he proved this at all. He alleged this but offered no proof that he had checked out her qualifications in her birth name. She offered to show him proof of her qualifications and he declined her offer. That isn’t journalism, that is someone who had already decided what tale they want to tell and refusing to countenance any proof that they are wrong.
    This comes down to him believing that because Dr V was trans everything about her was suspicious. His transmisogyny became the story. That isn’t journalism.

  9. I agree that he hasn’t proved it, but there are tidbits that he offers which, in the narrative he is selling, are strongly suggestive – such as a fabricated work history. It countenanced at least further investigation, sniffing at a story.
    Is the outrage at the investigation, the death, or the publication? All were shitty, but not egregiously so.

    • Hildy: Is the outrage at the investigation, the death, or the publication? All were shitty, but not egregiously so.

      The initial investigation is understandable in a typical arsehole journalist way – he sniffed a more interesting story than just the new golf putter story to which he’d been assigned, so he dug deeper. Once he found out that the big secret was her trans status though, why did that justify digging still further other than sensationalist views about trans women as freaks?
      * * *
      How about disclosing her trans history to one of her investors? Does that seem ethical to you?
      How about making it obvious to her that he was going to out her to the world as a trans woman when that had nothing to do with whether the putter does what it’s claimed to or not? Does that seem ethical to you?
      How about refusing to even look at her offered proof of her credentials because she wanted an agreement that he would not disclose her trans status first (because he’d already decided that was the big reveal he wanted as the heart of his story)? Does that seem ethical to you?
      How about him shrugging off the email where she warned him that his actions were likely to lead to her harming herself? For the sake of a story about the inventor of a trivial piece of sporting equipment FFS? Does that seem ethical to you?
      How about the way that after her suicide he wrote the whole article as a Caleb’s Strange Adventure: Discovering The Truth About The Mysterious Dr. V story, misgendering her all the way through once the big trans* reveal was made, instead of actually being the eulogy of a brilliant woman he claimed it to be? Does that seem ethical to you?
      How about apparently not one single member of Grantland’s editorial team having a problem with any (let alone all) of these above? Does that seem ethical to you?
      See those three asterisks above there? That’s the point where I start calling Hannan’s ethical breaches not just shitty but egregious. Do you not draw the line anywhere at all in any of the above?

  10. It also strikes me as one of those cases where a trans woman (or a cis woman, or someone not white, or someone disabled, or, etc into intersectionality) is getting judged much more harshly than presentable white cis men on claiming qualifications they don’t have. Particularly as part of advertising and marketing.
    I do feel for all the trans people who chose stealth and as a result had to be brilliant twice independently, like Lynn Conway, and it seems entirely possible currently, Dr V.

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