Grantland’s story “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” has created a sensation online for its questionable reporting on Essay Anne Vanderbilt, who took her life shortly before the publication of the piece, quite possibly as a result of fear of what the article’s exposure would bring. For those who have not yet read the piece, the author, Caleb Hannan, outed the creator of the Oracle GX1 putter as a transgender woman, both on the piece which ran after her death and before — to one of her own investors.
Not long into the story penned by Hannan as a sort of noir, we’re told that when he reached Vanderbilt, Hannan was told that she would speak with him provided he focused on her product instead of her person. Like many transgender individuals, Vanderbilt was incredibly protective of herself and her life. Perhaps as a way to make this request easier to accept, Vanderbilt told Hannan that the reason for the cloak and dagger routine was a result of being involved in classified research. According to the final draft of the story that we see on Grantland, Hannan did not accept this request — or even assured her that despite the necessary checks journalists must do to verify points pertinent to the article, he would not go into the associated sensitive information and keep whatever information he found about her person off the record.
Instead, we read that he thought her eccentric, and immediately turned to an external source to answer his questions about the putter. Most of the information we have about the Oracle GX1 and the company that makes it, Yar Golf, comes from tournament announcer Gary McCord, not public record, and certainly not Vanderbilt. It’s also McCord who explains the concept of “moment of inertia” on which the putter relies. Further in the article, Hannan himself admits that a document Vanderbilt had supplied him, “The Inertia Matrix,” which explains how the Oracle works, had “looked too confusing.”
That’s essentially what this entire piece boils down to, a writer who’s too confused by science to write about it. The actual question of whether the Oracle actually works is never answered. Readers are not told what “The Inertia Matrix” document says, or what it means, or even if it makes sense to a physicist of similar credentials as Vanderbilt claimed. Short of a slow-motion video created by a golf coach, the readers don’t hear a word on whether the design of the putter might actually work better in terms of the physics involved.
In Vanderbilt’s requests that Hannan leave her out of the story, Hannan decided there was a secret. Indeed, as Hannan went deeper, he discovered some aspects of Vanderbilt’s story didn’t match up. He became convinced that Vanderbilt was a fraud. It isn’t uncommon to oppress transgender individuals with the suggestion that they are committing some sort of fraud by mere virtue of “refusing” to “accept” the gender with which they were identified at birth, and it’s this ignorant line of thinking that led Hannan to write a piece where Vanderbilt’s transgender status became the center of a narrative about fraud — without ever having to prove to the reader that the Oracle doesn’t work.
“He was clearly trying to tell me something, which is why he began emphasizing certain words,” Hannan writes about a discussion with Leland Frische, a risk manager at a company where Vanderbilt had once worked. “Every time he [Frische] said ‘she’ or ‘her’ I could practically see him making air quotes. Finally it hit me. Cliche or not, a chill actually ran up my spine.” There it is, the greatest “fraud” of all.
Would Hannan have left this aspect of the story alone if Vanderbilt had in fact attended the institutions she’d claimed to have attended, under another name? She hadn’t attended them, but was she using these credentials to defraud people or to protect herself? And if her putter worked — if investors could expect to turn a profit from its creation — was it fraud at all?
What many cisgender people (that is, people who identify with the gender with which they are identified at birth) don’t understand about transgender issues is that when you’re transgender, you can either choose to be out and face the hardships that being out represents — horrifying, senseless violence, unconscionable discrimination, among others — or resign yourself to living in a visa of tentative peace that might expire at any moment. There are many reasons to live in stealth, but doing so means that these transgender individuals are denied the opportunity of ever doing something that merits the limelight, because too much attention can bring with it a discovery of their status.
That’s a reprehensible state of affairs. But we can’t expect transgender people to come out if we’re unwilling to enforce laws that make existing among cisgender people safe for them. We can’t even turn on the radio right now to a story about transgender issues without hearing someone talk about how the presence of gender nonconforming children at schools strikes against the bodily integrity of gender conforming children or something equally stigmatizing and absurd. Ours is not a safe environment.
But what’s a journalist to do? ESPN’s Christina Kahrl, who wrote an editorial at Grantland following the uproar over Hannan’s piece, summarized it simply and elegantly:
Upon making the unavoidable discovery that Vanderbiltâ€™s background didn’t stand up to scrutiny, he [Hannan] didn’t reassure her that her gender identity wasn’t germane to the broader problems he’d uncovered with her story. Rather, he provided this tidbit to one of the investors in her company in a gratuitous “gotcha” moment that reflects how little thought he’d given the matter. Maybe it was relevant for him to inform the investor that she wasn’t a physicist and probably didn’t work on the stealth bomber and probably also wasn’t a Vanderbilt cut from the same cloth as the original Commodore. But revealing her gender identity was ultimately as dangerous as it was thoughtless.
What should Grantland have done instead? It really should have simply stuck with debunking those claims to education and professional expertise relevant to the putter itself, dropped the element of her gender identity if she didn’t want that to be public information — as she very clearly did not — and left it at that. “That would have been responsible,” transgender activist Antonia Elle d’Orsay suggested when I asked for her thoughts on this road not taken. It’s certainly the path I would have chosen as a writer making this sort of accidental discovery, or would have insisted upon as an editor.
I wish that has been the course Hannan and his editors had taken. They didn’t. And today, we have one more example of the cost of our irresponsible ignorance.
Header image by Fevi in Pictures.