Caleb Hannan, Gender Identity and Journalistic Ethics
Writing at Grantland, Caleb Hannan has given us a fascinating, and tragic, exposé of the woman poised to revolutionize the world of golf, one putter at a time. In his research of the Oracle GX1 putter, Hannan’s story of an unorthodox golf club turned into an investigation of its creator, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, or Dr. V, for short.
Dr. V’s putter had gained prominence when used by PGAer Aaron Baddaley and talked up by PGA personality Gary McCord. As Hannan writes:
While calling the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship, he [McCord] singled out the club being used by golfer Aaron Baddeley. “Now, this is one of the greatest putters in the world,” he said. McCord then gave a quick sketch of Yar’s origins — Dr. V, rocket science, zero MOI. Even though Baddeley unhelpfully missed his putt, McCord was acting as Yar’s most vocal unpaid booster. He raved about the putter so much that his fellow announcers teased that he was filming an infomercial.
McCord was the one who arranged the communication between Dr. V and Hannan, but throughout Hannan’s investigation, there was always one stipulation from both McCord and Dr. V; Hannan was to “focus on the science and not the scientist.” And this is where trouble occurs.
Hannan spends much of the initial story outlining not only the physics of the putter, but the credentials of Dr. V. She is, we are told, an MIT grad and a prominent government scientist who worked on the Stealth bomber. It was, we are told, her work on the stealth bomber that inspired her work on the Oracle GX1 putter. As any good journalist, Hannan had to do some fact-checking. Unfortunately, it was going to be difficult–if not impossible–to confirm the identity of a scientist working on secret government projects. This would surprise no one. The surprises came as he investigated what should have been the more mundane aspects of her story.
Essay Anne Vanderbilt never graduated from MIT. Her other academic credentials didn’t pan out, either. Her employment record was surprising, as well. She wasn’t a government scientist; she was a former mechanic.
Twice divorced, her personal life gave Hannan his greatest surprise. Dr. V had been born Stephen Krol. Dr. V was a trans woman.
This, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with the story. It was an unexpected twist, but Dr. V’s gender identity neither added nor detracted from her credentials (or lack thereof), her deceit, or the performance of her putter. Regardless, abandoning his agreement to “focus on the science”, Hannan was now focusing on the scientist.
This has caused much backlash.
As a journalist, Hannan had valid reasons for focusing on the scientist. Through her deceit, Dr. V had made herself the story. A journalist is not a PR flak, and an article is not a press release. Dr. V had crafted a narrative about herself and her putter. She made herself the story.
Disgracefully, Hannan went a step further than focusing on the scientist. He focused on her gender identity, and while doing so, he demonstrated the ignorance and intolerance that our cis society so often displays to trans women and trans men.
Throughout most of the article, Hannan shows common sense and decency, referring to Dr. V as “she” and “her”, but in one paragraph detailing parts of her past, he is quite deliberate in abandoning female pronouns:
What little else I know about Stephen Krol in the years before and after he changed his name comes from people who knew him, but didn’t know him well. My attempts to get in touch with members of his family and his ex-wives were unsuccessful. Some people didn’t pick up or return my calls. Others, like Ewa Kroll, whose name showed up alongside his in searches and whose relationship to Stephen I still haven’t been able to parse, hustled me off the phone as quickly as possible. “I have not talked to him for years,” she said. “I’m just going to have to say ‘good-bye’ now.”
Even a charitable reading of this would not reflect well on Hannan. His switch to “him” and “he” demonstrates a startling ignorance towards gender identity. This ignorance comes into sharp relief when you consider that he is not writing abstractly about a subject with whom he has no personal connection. At the time of publishing this piece, Hannan had spoken with and met Dr. V. To meet a person—real life, in the flesh–and still decide to drape them in incorrect pronouns–pronouns which represent deep personal struggles that, no doubt, contributed to Dr. V’s past suicide attempts–is callous. It is uncaring verging on cruelty. I assume no malice, but I detect no basic decency.
Hanna goes out of his way to play up this aspect of Dr. V’s life. His writing is, in fact, subtly and overtly derisive and mocking of his subject. Writing about Dr. V’s silent investor, Phil Kinney, Hannan feels it necessary to juxtapose Dr. V’s appearance with the truth of her past, as if a trans woman can’t really look like a beautiful woman:
It wasn’t that Kinney didn’t love Yar’s putter or have high hopes for its future. He had loved it from the moment he met Dr. V at a convention four years ago. (Before I told him about her past, he told me that because of her height and vivid red hair, it was hard to miss the “pretty woman walking toward me in a miniskirt.”)
Hannan gives away his true feelings about Dr. V’s gender when he describes his conversation with Kinney:
Maybe the most surprising thing about my conversation with Kinney was how calmly he took the news that the woman he thought was an aerospace engineer had once been a man, and a mechanic. “I’m pretty dang gullible, I guess,” he said.
There are three offensive aspects to this paragraph. Writing “had once been a man” demonstrates that Hannan does not take Dr. V’s gender identity particularly seriously. Being a trans woman, Dr. V had not “once been a man” (other than in a legal sense), but had been born male. Hannan either does not care enough to understand this, or he understands but does not care at all.
Second, Hannan decides that the cruel twist of biology that led to this woman being born a man was, in fact, part of her deception. There is no other reason for him to include the offensive phrase, “had once been a man,” as part of the juxtaposition. And not only does he feel the need to include it, he puts it first. As if her gender is a bigger lie than her hiding the fact she was a mechanic.
Finally, Hannan demonstrates his disdain for transgendered people in his reaction to Kinney’s reaction. The fact that Kinney remains calm when learning that Dr. V was born male is the most surprising thing about the conversation. Hannan, apparently, is unwilling to think that others might not gawk at a trans woman. Can he not comprehend that others might recognize Dr. V was a person, not a freak?
Hannan broke his word to Dr. V, but Dr. V forced his hand by lying to him. A promise based on deceit is hardly a promise at all. No one can fault Hannan for that. However, his focus on, and treatment of, her gender was thoroughly disgusting.
On October 18, Dr. V killed herself.
(H/T: Alex Wong.)