Dr. V’s Magical Putter

So. Caleb Hannan: Strange stories can find you at strange times. Like when you’re battling insomnia and looking for tips on your short game.

It was well past midnight sometime last spring and I was still awake despite my best efforts. I hadn’t asked for those few extra hours of bleary consciousness, but I did try to do something useful with them.

I play golf. Sometimes poorly, sometimes less so. Like all golfers, I spend far too much time thinking of ways to play less poorly more often. That was the silver lining to my sleeplessness — it gave me more time to scour YouTube for tips on how to play better. And it was then, during one of those restless nights, that I first encountered Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, known to friends as Dr. V.

40 thoughts on “Dr. V’s Magical Putter

  1. Thanks for posting, Ben. Read it and am interested to hear what others think — based on Twitter reactions, I’m sure opinions will vary, to put it mildly. For what it’s worth, I can’t imagine that a story about a golf club could ever justify outing someone who didn’t want to be outed. Too, I think that the writer was propelled by how hard he’d worked during the reporting process, as evidenced by how much of the piece was devoted to detailing all the steps he took to act like a detective. It’s an admirable work ethic, but the best writers I know work just that hard and never mention themselves or their reporting at all in their published pieces. That stuff belongs here, in posts like the one about Wright Thompson’s binders. Time spent reporting shouldn’t compel someone to keep pushing on a story like this, and I get the feeling it did. At the end of the day, was this story worth it? I don’t think so.

  2. For starters, if you are going to write this story, you have to include yourself. While the causes of suicide are complicated, the reporter’s actions clearly played a role in the character’s death. I think, in certain situations, a reporter should break the “fourth wall” and acknowledge that his or her actions (or mere presence in some situations) impacted the story’s outcome. I think it is a more honest way to portray what happened.

    Now the second question: Should Caleb have been reporting on this woman once she asked him to stop? I don’t think there is a definitive answer, which perhaps is the sign that the question is worth debating.

    The best ethical advice an editor has given me deals with the issue of invading privacy. If a subject is a government employee, he said, pursue the story as doggedly as you can. If a subject is a private person, don’t report about that person without his or her consent. Now, there is a third, tricky area: public employees in private circumstances (affairs, etc.), and private people in public circumstances (often violent crimes). These stories should be handled case by case. And, again, there is rarely an empirical correct answer.

    Here, I think Caleb made the correct call. This subject was financially benefitting off others. An investor gave her $60,000 to make these golf clubs, in large part because Dr. V claimed to be an accomplished aerospace engineer with a degree from M.I.T. So Caleb looks into her background, and what he finds is disturbing, and the result of the pursuit is disturbing. But the initial choice to fact-check her background is correct.

  3. Thanks for posting, Ben. As I said earlier today on Twitter, I think there are two distinct conversations to have about this one. The first is about Caleb’s reporting, and how it may or may not have affected his subject. The second is about how the final story was presented to the world. Lots of people on Twitter are conflating the two conversations, but the reality is that nothing Caleb wrote could have affected Dr. V, because he didn’t write it until after she had died. I’m sure she had fears and/or assumptions about what he would eventually write, but the story in its final form and the writing choices he made affected only readers, not Dr. V herself.

    So. The reporting. He sets out to write a profile of a golf club created by an unusual figure – a sort of reclusive “mad scientist” female physicist who used to work on stealth bombers and other top-secret government projects. It seems clear that the club’s odd origin story, and the background of its inventor, is part of its appeal. Then he finds out that the backstory doesn’t add up, and keeps digging. Eventually he discovers that the credentials used to sell the club are all lies, and in the process of that discovery he also learns that the inventor is a trans woman. For me, the only probable mistake he made at this point was outing her to the 60K investor – he could have revealed the false credentials to the man without filling in her full history. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect him to spike the story at this stage, having learned that a high-profile golf club – although it works – is built on a fraud.

    By now Dr. V is facing the possibility of having both her personal history and her fraudulent business credentials exposed to the public by a reporter. She has attempted suicide in the past. She kills herself. Is Caleb Hannan responsible for her death? For me, no, absolutely not. Suicide is extremely complicated and is very rarely the result of a single event or sequence of events. (At this point I should say I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who has spent large chunks of my life worrying – with cause – about the possible suicides of loved ones, and it’s taken me years to understand that I can’t take responsibility for their actions, and ultimately, despite my best efforts, their happiness is not within my control.) Leonora Anton’s follow-up story about the suicide of one of her subjects deals with this at length, and everyone weighing in on Hannan should read it:
    http://www.tampabay.com/features/humaninterest/gretchen-molannens-legacy-suffering-suicide-and-a-journalists/2154587?src=longreads

    There’s lots to say about the story itself – I believe that outing someone posthumously is fundamentally different than outing someone while they’re living, and I’d like to think Grantland would have handled Dr. V’s story differently had she still been alive come pub time – but this is turning into a novel so I’ll leave it here. Caleb Hannan did not singlehandedly drive a woman to suicide. However, as Leonora wrote, there are things for all of us to think about when we’re reporting on vulnerable people.

  4. I found this story way, way over the line ethically. There are all sorts of facts we find during reporting that don’t get published, either because they’re irrelevant or because publishing them would be unethical. Dr. V’s status as a transgender woman was both.

    Others have laid this out succinctly already, so I’ll drop a few links here to give us a baseline:
    http://beautifulterriblestrange.tumblr.com/post/73685185431/dr-v-caleb-hannan-and-grantland
    http://storify.com/handler/dmjreports-on-grantland-s-dr-v-story
    http://storify.com/handler/dansolomon-on-grantland-s-dr-v-story

  5. First, as a non-writer who is very interested in the topic of journalistic ethics but not interested in seeing the debate played out on twitter, I appreciate those of you who’ve come here to talk about this article. Thanks.

    I guess what I’m struggling with, and what I’ve seen others struggle with, is the issue of how/if the fact “Dr. V. is transgender” has anything to do with the story. With or without it the story, once the writer uncovers the fraudulent background, is that a non-scientist with a fake backstory made what appears to be a scientifically better putter.

    What I realize after thinking about it is there’s an important fact none of us know that Eva kind of talked about above. The writer is the only one who knows whether or not he originally intended to publish the story with the transgender detail or if this only became part of the story in the aftermath of the suicide. I think that makes a difference here and would be interested in the thoughts of others.

  6. Thanks for your post, Kruse. I think it’s the “be a person” part that’s bothering so many people. I think the writer was justified in pursuing the woman’s credentials, but I don’t buy the idea that those were intertwined with her life as a transgender individual. I think Eva is right that he could have been more human there. He chose not to be.
    Ultimately, Jett’s comments about weighing privacy vs. the public good is what bothers me most. If it’s a politician who’s stealing tax dollars, take him/her to task for it, by all means. But a story about a silly golf club? It’s not worth pushing and pushing someone when it’s clear they want to be left alone. It sucks that Yar was making money based on a lie, but, you know, George O’Leary still has a job because he’s a good football coach — we’ve decided in other cases that a falsified background doesn’t justify ruining someone’s life. Caleb didn’t kill anyone, but he certainly didn’t help anyone, either.

  7. Regardless of journalistic ethics Hannen and his editors have written a piece transgender people find offensive. Misgendering and using the wrong labels is what we do to annoy people or in this case a whole group of people.

    The author outed someone casually and was shocked the person he outed Dr V to was not offended – clearly has some personal distaste for them. We all dislike things we should not but to just pump our and one assumes the editors’ bigotry as part of a story and then to offensively describe it as a eulogy makes me wonder what type of sociopaths* we are dealing with here.

    * Many have been shocked by the complete lack of any empathy in the piece which tends to back up such a view of the psyche involved.

    Had this Hannen put 20 minutes into at least using the correct language and respect for transgender people then fine. He clearly did a lot of research into subjects he had agreed not to. Did his distaste for transgenders just mean he did not think them worthy of more respect than his story? Either way uncaring of transgenders or hate filled Hannen and his editors look poor. Maybe to journalists the contempt for transgenders shown by Grantland and Hannen is just good opinionated journalism as inhuman as it appears to the many of us.

    Personally I think it reinforces ordinary people need to understand never to talk to journalists unless you have much to gain and nothing to lose. This was not a person who sort the interview.

    Can anyone who supports Hannen explain how this was a Eulogy?

    eu·lo·gy
    1. A laudatory speech or written tribute, especially one praising someone who has died.
    2. High praise or commendation.

  8. I read the article moments after it published (thanks to twitter) and found it fascinating on about 15 levels. I don’t know how else to characterize my own views of what is ethical when it comes to (potentially) “outing” someone but I can claim no cred from the LBGT or transgender community. And they have very strong, unanimous opinions on the reporting here – it almost seems too difficult to discuss this because someone has died, someone else is getting death threats, and there seems to be almost no rational discourse – just angry people.

    I just wanted to highlight a few things that I think most people are overlooking about the “what did her gender matter” to the story crowd.

    The gender mattered because it uncovered the past she lied about. There being no records of a Dr. Essay Vanderbilt the B2 aero physicist just means there are no records. Digging deeper and revealing the timeline for the name switch and then discovering that the same person that claims to have lived/worked/studied in these areas/industries/universities actually did not and can be traced to different locations/occupations means only this: her story that she created, about being this impressive scientist, is false, because there is another person, that didn’t do any of those things, that we can locate in time and place, and it’s also her. If Dr. Essay Vanderbilt was born Dr. Essay Vanderbilt yet there were no records of her attending MIT, but there WERE records of her attending Greendale community college, then THAT would be how the evidence against the person were presented in this story. This wasn’t a race to out anyone’s gender history, it was race to out someone’s scientific credentials. This much is obvious. Some of those wishing to see the author dead, I think (God I hope), feel that way because they don’t see at all why ANY of her past is relevant. So she lied on her resume, who doesn’t embellish the truth a little? And it’s a putter? Who really cares about this?

    Why this is an intensely intriguing story may be lost on those not very interested in science, “Science!”, how golfer’s think about equipment, and the intense power of positive thinking. The false narrative that Dr. V created allowed all this to happen. Without that narrative, none of this exists.

    No mechanic is going to walk up to a golf club designer, and tell him that his design is “junk science” and wrong, and get said club designer to bow his head in defeat. But an MIT-educated, secret DoD-aero physicist wielding “Science!” has that power. It’s a good lesson for everyone – most people today spout off or parrot the “Science!” with zero knowledge of the science, the experiments, or anything else. And often it’s a winning argument, because who has the time to argue with someone that has presumably mastered the science? It’s exhausting trying fact check something like that. Most people would easily believe Dr. V’s story. That club designers when confronted about their designs didn’t see through it because they were so awestruck is compelling, certainly enough to investigate and report.

    As something of a golf nut, the concept of positive thinking has always fascinated me. I can relate to the idea of having “magic” in a club or a ball – and it all being a figment of my imagination. The author goes to great lengths to introduce this topic and how it affected him personally. He believes he’s wielding excalibur and so he vanquishes those putts. The second he realizes this whole thing is a scam, he can’t putt with it anymore. That’s why Dr. V’s credentials as a scientist matter. No one was picking up the Yar putter at GolfGalaxy, sinking tons of putts, and recommending it to people. This story about a genius rocket scientist that found “the secret” was compelling people to buy this putter.

    A lot of the accusations lobbed at the author are either grossly unfair, or at the very least premature. It’s not a police report, yet so many are playing judge jury and executioner by taking the scant details they have and concocting their own narrative of how the past went down.

  9. Hi, Tsu. I disagree that Dr. V’s trans status was necessary to tell the story about a golf club inventor who fabricated her resume.

    1) Even assuming that there was no other way to tell the story than to disclose Dr. V’s trans status, it seems too destructive a disclosure to be warranted by this story. There are many things that we as journalists have a policy not to disclose: the names of rape victims, for example. If Dr. V had cut ties to her family and changed her name after a horrific rape by a relative, that would “explain” why her past was a mystery, but the destructive power of disclosing that information would probably outweigh any compelling public good.

    Disclosing a subject’s transgender status, likewise, can be hugely destructive. As journalists we have to consider the damage our stories can do, and decide whether there is a compelling reason to publish anyway. That does not seem to have been done here.

    If this was the only way to tell the story, the story should have been dropped.

    We do not have to tell all the stories.

    2) That said, the information about Dr. V’s trans status was irrelevant to the story at hand. It’s good that Hannan became curious when he discovered that there was no trace of a Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt before the 2000s. If he had discovered previous fraud charges under another name, for example, that would have been relevant to print. But after discovering Dr. V’s birth name, Hannan was unable to uncover any relevant information from her past, only a series of divorces, jobs, and unrelated lawsuits none of which have any bearing on her claim to be a scientist or add to what he has already discovered, which is that her credentials can’t be verified.

    Her gender is completely irrelevant to the story. Many have said that without the gender change, it’s impossible to understand why there’s no evidence of her existence before the 2000s. But that would not be a question readers would bring up on their own. As far as storytelling goes, once Hannan has written about her lack of verifiable academic credentials, his job is done.

    There was a decent story here. It’s a story about an inventor who falsified scientific credentials to make her product more attractive, and about how the mere perception of a golf club as “scientific” can change a player’s game. This is not as salacious a story as the one that Hannan told, in which Dr. V’s transgender status is implied to be part and parcel of her deception (a story which is in itself a cliché and a damaging stereotype). This is a story that does not have genitals in it. Too bad. It’s the only story that could have been told without crossing some pretty bold ethical lines.

    As an experiment, I did a quick edit of the piece as it could have run without including the fact that Dr. V was transgender. You can read it on my blog, here: http://si.arrr.net/device/2014/01/18/dr-v-an-edit-after-the-fact/

  10. “The false narrative that Dr. V created allowed all this to happen. Without that narrative, none of this exists.”

    I’d also like to point out that Dr. V’s gender was *not* part of her “false narrative.” Reading it that way hinges on a damaging misunderstanding of transgender people.

  11. I have to let this marinate a little more, but my first reaction is that McCord is the story. All biographical info about V other than the brief sketch she provides comes from him (McCord), and he allegedly confirms this info with four-star generals and Dan Quayle. At what other point is V misrepresenting herself? The website doesn’t mention her, the president of the company is Gerri Jordan…so the writers is essentially fact-checking V’s claims as claimed by McCord, with no way to confirm whether McCord’s claims of V’s claims are accurate. No?

  12. Another note, with a tinge of irony: I’m not sure that there was a story there until V committed suicide. A non-public figure with an expectation of privacy specifically demands that privacy while representing herself in private as something other than who she is. She hasn’t harmed anybody, at least if I’m correct in my interpretation of the silent investor’s sentiments. She designed a putter that everybody seems satisfied with. She might not be exactly who she claims she is to other people, but she hasn’t made those claims publicly, and hasn’t made them to the reporter, and in fact has specifically stated that she would prefer not to discuss her private life, so all you really have is a putter designed by a woman who has convinced several folks with cache to vouch for her even if you get the sense that she has oversold herself to those people.

    Once she commits suicide, it becomes a story about the writer, about the soul-searching that I would assume is inevitable but does not reveal itself in the piece as written. The story is the one that all of us are talking through right now. What would we do? Where does the expectation of privacy lie? Are we responsible? Should we feel responsible?

    Instead, as structured, the story feels like a way-too-long oversell of why V, and, specifically, the outing of her, mattered, and was justified.

  13. As a journalist who was, many years ago, taken in by a source, I find myself leaning in favor of the writer.

    The issue is not that Dr. V’s status as a trans-gendered person in any way constituted a deception. It is that Dr. V’s entire life was a fabric of deceptions, of lies crafted to mislead. glamorize, and profit. When the writer pulled on the thread of identity — Who was this Dr. V of whom there was seemingly no record before a certain date? — the whole fabric unraveled. There was no way a reporter or editor or the subject herself could put it back together again.

    The question is, since a coherent and truthful story could no longer be written, should the reporter have dropped the project at this point? What was at stake? Clearly the reputation of Dr. V. The fate of her invention. The money of her investors. The good faith of those who have purchased and used her putter. Weighed against what? The peace of mind of a clearly troubled and possibly unbalanced subject? The possibility of suicide? I don’t think any writer or editor can confidently make such a judgment when even mental health professionals cannot confidently foretell a suicide. Note that Dr. V’s previous suicide attempt involved a romantic matter,not the threat of being exposed or outed.
    Lilke several commenters here, I think the tone of the piece was poorly handled, considering the story’s tragic outcome. As Dave Tarrant has elsewhere remarked, the writer should have spent considerable time discussing the piece with an older, more experienced writer or editor, and it is one of the deepest tragedies of our business these days that such older hands are increasingly scarce in newspaper city rooms and almost nonexistent on blogsites, where the emphasis is all on traffic, eyeballs, and hits. I agree with several others that tone of the piece could have been far more sensitively handled.
    We are, most of us who have good sense, uneasy about this story and its outcome. But should we –or the writer — feel guilty? I don’t think so.

  14. Bill, you say “The issue is not that Dr. V’s status as a trans-gendered person in any way constituted a deception.”

    But in your very next sentence you continue:

    “It is that Dr. V’s entire life was a fabric of deceptions, of lies crafted to mislead.”

    I don’t understand – those two sentences seem to contradict each other. Either her status as a transgender woman (it’s “transgender,” adjective, btw – saying “trans-gendered” is a little like saying “colored”) was irrelevant to the story – and Hannan had ample evidence of her deception without mentioning it – or it was part and parcel of the ‘fabric of deceptions” that Hannan “unraveled.”

    Dr. V was a con woman. That part of the story is legitimate. But unmasking a con does not give us permission as journalists to strip a person of their medical and personal privacy.

    This seems very simple to me. Some things are off limits and this is one. We don’t print the names of minors in some situations and we don’t print the names of rape victims without their permission and we don’t mention someone’s race when it’s not germane to the story and we don’t out people.

    I can ALMOST imagine a situation in which outing Dr. V could be legitimate. I suppose if the product she was selling was, for example, some sort of female birth-control device which she was claiming she had tested on herself, then perhaps it would have been relevant to reveal that she did not possess a uterus. A golf club? No.

  15. SI Rosenbaum — A journalist attempting to report on the putter and its inventor is faced with one overwhelming problem: reliability. As Dr. V’s story came unraveled, thread by thread, it became obvious that almost nothing could be trusted — not her credentials, not who she worked for, probably not the science behind the putter. The question becomes, did she construct these lies to cover up her status as a transgender woman? Or was something wider at work, a systematic effort to reinvent, glamorize — and no doubt monetize — herself and her story? Faced with this tissue, the reporter cannot ignore the transgender issue. The only question that remains is whether the story can be written at all without noting this now conspicuous (in the mind of the writer) fact?

    My instinct tells me, no, it cannot. Would it have been better not to have written the story, then? Perhaps, though there is still the issue of those who have invested their faith — and their money — in the magic putter and Dr. V’s “story.”

    Could the whole story, including Dr. V’s gender change, have been written far more sensitively? Unquestionably. A skillful and sensitive — and mature — editor might have helped, here. But the result would have been the same: Dr. V would have been “outed.”

    These are really difficult questions, and every journalist who is not, in the famous phrase, too stupid or too full of himself will wrestle with them sooner or later. That gender politics are a central issue here makes the story a mine field that some reporters perhaps would perhaps prefer to side-step. I hope this dispute will not discourage writers from taking on issues of gender identity forthrightly.

  16. “The question becomes, did she construct these lies to cover up her status as a transgender woman? Or was something wider at work, a systematic effort to reinvent, glamorize — and no doubt monetize — herself and her story?”

    First: your language continues to imply that the very act of being a transgender woman is either something that one “lies” about — as opposed to something that one simply keeps private — or something that is symptomatic of some kind of larger self-aggrandizing personality disorder.

    Take my earlier hypothetical and imagine that Hannan uncovered that Dr. V changed her name and cut ties to her past after a horrific rape. We don’t usually identify victims of sexual assault. Would you still think that it would be necessary to expose her as a rape victim?

    The only reason it appears to you — to your instincts, as you said — that Dr. V’s transgender status is inextricable from her status as a con woman is that you see her gender as a kind of subterfuge or lie.

    • SI Rosenbaum – You are certainly misinterpreting what I said — or what I intended to say.
      I do not view being a transgender person as involving a deception. One was one thing; one chooses to become another. One could conceivably lie about being a transgender person — to one’s lover, perhaps. But this is not what we’re talking about here, and I want you to be clear about what I’m saying.
      I speculate whether Dr. V felt it necessary to construct a new identity in order to keep private her identity as a transgender person. This might be possible, for example, if she felt it necessary to erase all traces of her pre-transgender past.
      But my own feeling is that her deception went far beyond that, may on fact have had little to do with that, and was, in fact, an edfort to construct an entirely new and glamorous identity as a top-secret government scientist, inventor, and so forth. This new identity would, of course, serve to publicise her invention, attract investors and would surround Dr. V with an aura of mystery and glamor. (Note the appropriation of the name “Vanderbilt.”)
      It would necessarily involve leaving behind her past employment history, her bankruptcy, former spouses and children.
      Once again let me be clear: The reporter had every right and obligation to probe Dr. V’s past and identity. There is a pattern of lies that raises the question, What else is being hidden here? No journalist can ignore that question. Having unraveled the fabric, the only remaining questions are whether to forgo the story entirely or to write the full (but one would hope a far more sensitive) story laying out all the facts.
      I could accept simply putting the story aside on the basis that the damage done is not worth the good accomplished. But I could also see writng this story in such a way that the transgender question is dealt with more sensitively, less sensationally. Either way, it is a conversation writer and editor must have.
      Finally, SI Rosenbaum, your last paragraph, in which you attempt to interpret my motives, are unworthy of a journalist. I hope the subjects of your own stories fare better.

  17. A few things:

    1. Always remember the dignity of your sources/subjects. Minimize harm.

    2. Reporting does not occur in a vacuum. It’s nice to think that change happens only after we publish something. Print a story on the fraud at City Hall, and a week later he’s fired. It doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes the simple act of asking a question or requesting a police report is enough to affect the story. I can tell you all about, after my last few months. It’s unreasonable to assume that a few months after looking into a person’s background, you’ll discover that the subject is transgender and will commit suicide. But we do have to understand that simply reporting – even before you write the first sentence, let alone print it – can have consequences. That holds true with the give/take of sharing information with sources.

    3. Grantland editor Bill Simmons wrote a response here: http://grantland.com/features/the-dr-v-story-a-letter-from-the-editor/
    In that, he calls Dr. V a public figure. I disagree with that. If Yar was a publicly traded company or received government funds from our tax collars, that’s one thing. But this was a private figure at a private company, with some private investor(s). To me, that’s not public. That’s a very important part here, as you weigh the pros and cons of revealing someone’s personal secrets.

    4. A sports reporter I respect once told me that what an athlete does off the field isn’t worth reporting unless the cops/courts get involved or it affects what happens on the field. I’d use that same logic here. I’m fine with a story about an inventor who lied about her credentials to sell this putter. MIT, government contracts – all that’s relevant. To me, the transgender part is not. Interesting? Yeah. Relevant? No. Whether the inventor is male or female or gay or straight or black or white or purple doesn’t affect whether Dr. V knows science and designed an effective putter.

    5. After reading Simmons’ letter and this accompanying piece – http://grantland.com/features/what-grantland-got-wrong/ – I truly believe this is what happened: Caleb has an idea and starts researching it. Things the source volunteered and would be interesting nuggets in a story (Dr. V’s scientific background) didn’t check out. Caleb digs more, because journalists are creative and that’s what we do. He then learns something unexpected – Dr. V is transgender – and simply doesn’t have the background to know how to handle the ethical issues that accompany it. That led to some of the problems in this piece. Unlike some angry readers, I don’t think the problems came out of malice. I think it was ignorance. But Caleb and his editors found the story interesting and kept pursuing it. I don’t think I would have. At some point, to me, when it became clear how much anguish my reporting was causing the subject, I think I would have stopped. The pain did not outweigh the gain.

  18. Matt Baker, This is one of the best comments I’ve read on the Dr. V story and its implications for working journalists. Well done.

  19. As usual I find myself in the position of both agreeing and disagreeing.
    I think Dr. V is very definitely a public figure, in fact quite deliberately set out to make herself a public (if somewhat mysterious) figure by her tales of diplomas, honors, a mysterious past and secret government projects. This was done at least partly to market the putter to sports figures and to potential investors. Party also to weave a glamorous aura around herself.
    Any story about what somebody isn’t — a bogus scientist, inventor, whatever — necessarily raises the question of what they are. You cannot answer one without answering the other. Putting aside the issue of Dr. V’s transgender, there are questions here of employment, of financial responsibilities that cannot be ignored.
    There are really only two possibilities, I think: No story at all, or a far more sensitive story (if that is possible) about the invention and its inventor. If I were editor, I’d go with the former. If I were a writer, the latter.
    This is one area where the writer of fiction has every advantage over us nonfictioners. Fictional characters have no rights to privacy.

  20. Matt, I would respectfully argue that Essay—neither a doctor nor a genuine Vanderbilt, let’s remember—became a public figure when Aaron Baddeley started using her putter, and Gary McCord told the made-up story of the “scientist” behind it on national TV. I believe that once lies were being used to sell golf clubs to an unsuspecting public, those lies needed to be corrected, and Essay opened herself to scrutiny. We can disagree over whether Caleb went too far in his reporting, but to say there shouldn’t have been a correction here, because she was somehow a private person, strikes me as anti-journalistic. Jayson Blair was an ordinary citizen who sold a product based on untruths, and I don’t think any of us would have argued that he wasn’t a worthy subject of investigation, because exposing charlatans—and I’m not talking about Essay’s gender here, before anybody yells at me about that, but everything else about her, made up from whole cloth—is kind of something we’re supposed do.

    I’m totally, totally baffled by journalists saying there was no story here.

    • Jones, I still respectfully disagree on whether Dr. V is a public figure – I don’t think McCord mentioning her on TV is enough to make her an involuntary public figure – but I think that’s only important if someone is suing for libel.

      This is what’s important: We SHOULD try to expose untruths or fraud or con artists or scams. That’s our job. Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, right? I agree with your point a zillion percent. But I think reasonable people (and journalists) can disagree on a few things: How much public damage happened because of Dr. V’s fake credentials? What does the public gain by exposing those phony credentials? What is the potential harm of exposing them? What does the public gain by outing Dr. V? What is the potential harm of doing so? My answers as a daily newspaper reporter might differ from yours as a longform writer, and that’s fine.

      To me, it’s still unclear how much Dr. V was selling herself as part of the product. Gary McCord publicly touted it on TV – not her – and much of what we know about Dr. V in this story came through him, not her. She was adamant that the focus be on the science, not her. There’s nothing in here about her doing commercials or writing about her background on the club’s package you might read at the store, while comparing it to some other putter. I don’t know what Yar’s website looked like before, but now it makes no reference to MIT, or stealth bombers – just that the unnamed scientist was “as intelligent as a PhD.” Caleb writes that “she was far from the first clubmaker to attach questionable scientific value to a piece of equipment just to make it more marketable.” Obviously that doesn’t make it right.

      If Dr. V used her phony credentials more than it explicitly says in the piece, then I agree with you 100 percent. Expose it. But if she’s just some person who designed a putter and wants to sell that putter on its own scientific merits, then I’m less convinced. Regardless, that still leaves us with what to do with the transgender part.

  21. Re: “I’m totally, totally baffled by journalists saying there was no story here.”
    Jones, I’ve been following this controversy closely, and I don’t know of many journalists who say there was NO story here. The arguments I’ve seen among journalists have to do with what kind of story to do in this situation and whether, at the end of the reporting, there’s a story worth publishing. And that’s not splitting hairs. It’s an editorial judgment that we make everyday in newspapers. If this was a story about a fraudulent business, why was there so little nformation about the business itself — how well or badly it was doing. Surely, the investor(s) had something to say about the finances and the books. In the story, we learn that one middle-of-the-pack golfer was using the putter and one “golf analyst” did what amounted to an advertisement about the putter during a tournament. (In fact, his broadcasting partner teased him about his “infomercial.”) Other than that, the story isn’t clear just how big is this business. We’re told that the web site crashed after McCord’s infomercial because the traffic was so heavy. Was that confirmed? There’s no evidence cited that people actually rushed out and started buying these putters. Nevertheless, some 8,000 or more words were written about this business and its enigmatic inventor. However, my chief complaint with the story, what made me sick, is somewhat more intangible: Why the writer/editors used their main source’s suicide as what amounts to a literary device, the Big Reveal, in a narrative of the author’s quest for the truth? Whether you call it a matter of tone or insensitivity or whatever, it was way out of line. I love narratives. I read them religiously. This should never have been written as a quest/narrative. When the writer and his editors learned of the death, they should have written a standard news story about it. If they wanted to divulge that they had been working on a profile of the founder, that might have also been the appropriate time to do it. These aren’t easy issues but they’re worth talking about, and I’m glad there are sites like this one where we can do that.

    • Dave, I was writing my reply when you were writing yours. Of course, we can debate whether the tone of the story was right, whether Caleb should have appeared in it, whether more should have been made of Essay’s suicide, whether it should have come at the top of the story rather than revealed toward the end—absolutely agree, and I, too, am glad we have a place like this to debate these things. Do I think the story is flawless? Of course not. I’ll let you know when I read a perfect narrative. Hasn’t happened yet.

      (Personally, I would have cast the story as a story of invention and re-invention, a story of a literal and metaphorical fabricator. I probably would have typed “The Mechanic” at the top of my Word doc and gone from there.)

      But like I said in my too-long post below, I have been told by journalists that there was no story here, and Matt suggested that he probably have let the story go not because it wasn’t a story, exactly, but because the costs of it outweighed the benefits. That, I have a hard time understanding. I’m not saying I’m right; I’m just saying I have a hard time seeing that side of things.

    • Sorry, and to your point about how successful the business was, I have no idea how Caleb might have done that—that’s a literal gap in my reporting knowledge. Is there a way for reporters to find out the sales or revenues of private companies? I don’t think so, but I don’t know.

      The 90,000 hits, likewise. No idea if there’s a way to verify that. Essay told McCord that, who told Caleb that, I’m guessing. I feel fairly safe in saying, Who knows if that’s true?

  22. Except that Gary McCord did publicly tout her in that Baddeley clip: “This is a putter invented by an aeronautical physicist from MIT that designed and helped fly the B1 bomber, Dr. V.” And then her Web site crashed because it got 90,000 hits in the next several hours. She lied to McCord, who (innocently, I’m sure) passed those lies on to the public, and away we went.

    Who gets hurt? Anyone who bought that putter. Gary McCord. Anyone who really designed the Stealth bomber and was like, Who the hell is Dr. V.? Anyone who put the time and work in to actually graduate from MIT. The investor who lost his $60,000. It goes on. Is a putter based on junk science a sin as great as a purposeful chemical spill or tainted meat? No. But if someone was selling some miracle snake oil—didn’t hurt anyone, but didn’t help them either—by claiming to be a doctor, you would consider that worthy of exposure, yes? Because this is sports it doesn’t matter? So you bought a shitty putter. Throw it in the garage like Caleb did. I think that way of thinking kind of sucks. “They’re just golfers. Oh well.”

    There are reasons we don’t allow people to just make up their credentials, no matter who they’re claiming to be or for however small a reason. Did it really matter that George O’Leary didn’t have his masters when he went to coach football at Notre Dame? Did it change the world that Tim Johnson claimed to have fought in Vietnam when he hadn’t? No. But journalists still exposed those lies, because our job is to report the truth. Now, if O’Leary or Johnson had killed themselves in the wake of those revelations, are we suddenly debating whether it was worth it? Do we decide whether to pursue hard stories from now on based on some probability matrix that tells us the risk that our subjects will hurt or kill themselves?

    The co-author of Three Cups of Tea put his head under a freight train, in part, his wife says, because of Jon Krakauer’s revelations about the book. Worth it? So what if people bought a book that wasn’t exactly true? Like Essay, the co-author had a history of depression. Should Krakauer have had that in mind when he did his work? Are people who have exhibited mental illness in the past now off-limits to us?

    Yes, the question of her gender and whether she should have been outed remains. I know how I feel about it, but I understand why there’s a debate about it. I get it. But I don’t get the idea that Caleb should have backed off either because of Essay’s past mental instability—as if he somehow knew in advance that she would kill herself and made some calculation, never mind that we have no earthly idea why she killed herself when she did—or because her fraud wasn’t significant enough.

    I had one journalist tweet at me that the instant Caleb found out that Essay had made up her credentials, the legitimate story was over. (The tweet has since been deleted, but that’s close to a quote.) When I suggested I thought otherwise, the journalist then wrote, “That disturbs me.” What the fuck? Any journalist who found out their subject wasn’t who they said they were and then thought, “Well, no story here”—well, I’ve written a pile of words to get back where I left off: I’m totally baffled.

    • I didn’t intend to get into a mini back-and-forth, but this has been productive and respectful. I think our differences are pretty minor, Jones. I just needed a tiny bit more convincing that she intentionally used phony credentials to try to get Average Joe and Jane to buy her putter. As I look at the piece again, the investor part is more damning than I thought. I see your side more.

      To your point on whether the fraud is significant enough, I do think that matters. Let’s say a few kids down the street set up a Kool-Aid stand in front of their home on a hot day. But – gasp! – the package says it’s not actually Kool-Aid, but a generic brand of grape-flavored drink powder from Target. But the sign says Kool-Aid. That’s fraud. Is it worth a story? Obviously the case is extreme, but my point is that fraud and cons are everywhere, to certain degrees.

      I think we have to weigh the potential gain against the potential pain. Exposing someone’s phony credentials could hurt their reputation, careers and lives. That’s not something to be taken lightly or ignored. It shouldn’t necessarily be a sign to abandon the story, either, regardless of what that one tweet said. I think the potential gain needs to be more than “because it’s a good story.” I mean those things generally, not just with this story specifically.

      If the CEO of Nike Golf sells putters and shows up on commercials touting a PhD he doesn’t have, obviously the gain of exposing it is huge. Golfers everywhere need to know that the guy leading a multi-million dollar company is bogus. If a guy at his garage sale is selling his putter and says he won a mini golf championship with it (when he actually finished second), the gain is minimal. Dr. V is somewhere in the middle.

      I’d never heard of her or her putter before this story. I’d imagine that during the reporting phase, most of us would realize that printing a story would cause her great harm, personally and professionally. Again, I don’t think it’s a stop sign. It’s a flashing yellow light – let’s pause and think about it. Like you, I don’t have a feel for how big the company is. If it’s a million-dollar company, or she touted herself more than I initially thought, or the science is that bogus, expose it. The gain to the golfing public is worth it. If she’s just some person very few people know about who sells a hundred putters a year, is her fraud worth several thousand words on a national website? That’s the pain-gain decision I was trying to explain. And to be clear, I don’t think it’s reasonable to anticipate a subject committing suicide as a potential consequence of your reporting. Suicide is far more complex than that. We agree there.

      The other thing I take away from this piece (and fruitful discussion) is the need to be sensitive to transgender issues. If I’m honest, I might have approached the piece like Caleb. She’s transgender! Another deception! Surprise! To many of us, that’s a shocking “twist.” Aside from seeing one post by a former college acquaintance on Facebook, I’ve had no experiences with someone who is openly transgender. I was ignorant. Now, after reading a lot about this piece, here and elsewhere, I see that my initial reaction was wrong. In that community, to out someone as transgender is insensitive and potentially very hurtful. I didn’t know that before. I’m glad I know that now, so I don’t make that mistake if I ever encounter a similar situation.

      So to end this novel of a post and unfairly play arm-chair quarterback, I think this is what I would have done: Report the story as Caleb did. Discover that her claims are bogus, and keep digging. Learn that Dr. V was transgender, because you have to know her entire background to know whether she is indeed a fraud. At that point, have a long conversation with my editor(s) about how to proceed. Is the fact that she’s transgender relevant to the story? Why/Why not? Is it worth bringing up to her, or anyone else? What is the pain/gain from doing so? With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I think I would have called her to confirm that she used to go by that other name, because you have to know the name she previously used to check her claims and background. I think I would have told her that I would not reveal that she is transgender, because her gender isn’t relevant to her putter or phony PhD. That part of her personal life isn’t relevant to what happens on the golf course or on her business calls. I wouldn’t have outed her to the investor, and I wouldn’t have mentioned it in the story. I think you could write around it by saying she changed her name and leave it at that. Again, all of that is with the benefit of hindsight.

  23. One of the things that troubles me about this story is the idea that the reporter got the cooperation of the subject without making it clear where the story would go. Obviously the writer didn’t immediately know where the story would go. But it seems to me that Caleb knew as soon as the first email came back that his interest was shifting toward Dr. V. That’s completely understandable, but it’s something a reporter needs to make crystal clear to the subject. True Dr. V was deceptive about her credentials. Still, that doesn’t make it OK for the reporter to leave his intentions murky. That golfers were deceived frankly doesn’t make this rise to the level of an investigation of Spiro Agnew. At the end of the day, there ought to be higher priorities than telling an interesting story. I know it’s easy to say that when you’re older and have more stories under your belt. But I’m just not convinced that this was a story that needed to be told. After Dr. V’s suicide, I’m not sure I see what the point was. That said, I have to admit when I was younger this would have been a difficult rabbit hole to avoid. I’m glad I didn’t face the decisions Caleb did.

    • If he doesn’t make that agreement (it’s about the science, not the scientist), there’s far less controversy, right?

      I’d be interested to get your thoughts on agreements like that. Have you ever made an agreement with a source in the early stages of reporting? Do you negotiate at all?

      Also, I’m reminded of something David Barstow said a few years ago about staking out the moral high-ground early on, about being transparent from the outset so nothing feels like a gotcha. Good lesson.

  24. Jones, I believe that was my tweet you’re referencing. I deleted it because I’d said the same thing at greater length here and elsewhere. I do want to clarify that what I meant was not that there was no story there, but that the story could only be about her relevant credentials, not her unrelated private life. If you take a look at the edit I linked to above, you’ll see a rough version of the story I think Hannan and Grantland could have ethically pursued.

  25. Baker, your analysis is excellent.

    One of the lessons of this whole debacle seems to be that malice is not necessary for a reporter’s choices to be unethical or destructive. Ignorance, insularity, and lack of insight are sufficient. I think it’s vital that we as reporters guard against those things, and when we don’t, it’s not an accident – it’s neglectfulness.

  26. Great question, Ben, about agreements with sources. In general, I’m wary of agreeing that something will be off-limits. As soon as someone ask for it to be off-limits that seems to put the issue front and center. One important distinction is between a narrative and a profile. It’s certainly possible to write an accurate, faithful narrative that doesn’t mention certain personal things about a character. It’s much harder to do that with a profile. Most times if the subject of a story insists on something being off-limits, I’ll walk away from the story right then. There are plenty of stories to write that don’t have limitations and it’s better to cut and run before you get deeply invested in a story. If I do make an agreement, I have to stick to it. Any agreement you make must be as sacred as off-the-record. People have to be able to trust a reporter absolutely.

    One thing, I seldom do is warn a source about how many times I may be calling or how much of a pain I may become in the course of a story. That level of honesty, while admirable, seems likely to talk a source out of being part of a story. I don’t think that’s necessary. If someone gets tired of talking, they can just stop.

  27. The more I think about this story, the more I think you could teach an entire J-school course based on the ethics and process behind it. And I think it’s important that we’re all examining this with the benefit of so much hindsight. Caleb was confronting these questions directly, without many of our benefits. It’s easy for any of us to say what we would have done given the comfort of distance. Being in the middle of it is an entirely different thing, and I think it’s unfair to ask for perfection.

    All that being said… Regarding that agreement—and we don’t really know what Caleb did or did not agree to—but I often think of my work, at least, as a faith-based exercise. I’m trusting that my subjects will be honest and forthright with me, and they’re trusting that I, in turn, will be honest and forthright with them and to relay that truth faithfully to my readers.

    So, in this case, who broke that agreement, whatever it was? I’m reminded of Tom Junod’s terrific story “Mercenary” in this instance. My feeling is that once Caleb discovered Essay’s frauds, his loyalty shifted from protecting his subject to protecting the unwitting victims of her deception. We always say that, right? That our loyalty is to the story and to the reader? I mean, if Caleb knew that she was lying and didn’t pass that along—if he condoned those lies by not exposing them—isn’t that the greater journalistic sin?

    Lots of other outlets wrote about Essay without checking into her credentials—repeating her claims as fact. I think that, to me, is perhaps more worrisome than what Caleb did here. You could at least make that argument, I think. If he’d just taken everything at face value here, or, worse, had not revealed everything he knew, we’d be crucifying him for that instead.

  28. To raise a different matter, a poster at sportsjournalists.com found that the Yar Golf web site has been changed sometime recently… Essay went from being “a Ph.D” to “as intelligent as a Ph.D,” and a reference to her as “the good Dr.” was scrubbed. I’m going to read Caleb’s story again, in case I missed something, but I do wonder what Gerri Jordan knew about Essay’s background and when she knew it: Was she also a victim or did she know the truth all along? That’s a pretty important question in all of this.

  29. Jones, a few points.
    1. There’s a suggestion in your comment that the agreements between source and reporter are tied together. No. If your source lies, you don’t get to lie or break agreements. If we’re writing about Nixon and we don’t play by his rules. Readers expect something better.
    2. I think ethics go beyond loyalties. It’s not that you owe it to your sources to be fair and abide by agreements. You owe that to yourself and your readers and journalism in general.
    3. You’re correct that we all have the benefit of hindsight in this case. I think the point is to learn from mistakes — the ones we make and the ones our colleagues make. Caleb was confronting ethical questions in practice rather than theory. But he and his editors had time to think, much more time than most newspaper reporters get.
    As tough as this must be for Caleb, we all make mistakes. This one wasn’t anywhere close to a career-ender. The important thing is being able to acknowledge, as his editor did, that a mistake was made.

    • I think for journalists—and I’m not singling you out here, Mark, I’m speaking in general—a lot of leaps have been made in the analysis of this story. A New York Times reporter had a tweet today that started like this: “Grantland reporter Caleb Hannan, whose ethical failures lead to a story subject’s suicide…” Really? You call yourself a reporter and you make a leap like that? Stack has no idea why Essay killed herself. That’s some serious bullshit there.

      The same thing is happening with this so-called “agreement.” It’s become part of the narrative surrounding this story. But we have no idea what agreement was made here, if any.

      In Caleb’s story, he says that he writes Essay an email, and she writes him that bizarre email about protocols (lying from the start).

      A confused Caleb then calls Gary McCord. McCord then sets up Caleb and Essay on the phone. They start talking. “Though she insisted that she would only talk if the focus was on the putter and not herself, Dr. V. willingly volunteered some background information,” Caleb writes. These include the first lies about MIT and “top-secret projects.”

      Now I think it’s Caleb’s job to verify that information. I don’t see the misstep here.

      But setting the specifics aside, I still think I disagree with you—gently and without certainty on my part, because unlike just about everything else in my eyes, this isn’t black-and-white—about the reporter-subject agreement. If I’m hanging out with a subject and he says, “I want to show you something in my basement, but you can’t tell anybody about it,” I would probably say yes. Then we go down to the basement and he shows me something horrible—a torture chamber, a body, whatever. I think I’m probably breaking our agreement. I’m probably calling the cops and writing about the arrest.

      Right? Or wrong?

      • Well put. It’s impossible to make hard and fast rules for reporter-source relationships. Things come up that we don’t expect. I agree too that we don’t know the exact nature of the agreement in this case, although it seems to have involved at least a passive understanding on Dr. V’s part that the story would focus on the science not the scientist. (If this wasn’t going to be the case, I’d argue it’s the reporter’s responsibility to make that clear). Any attempt to pin the suicide on the reporter also seems way off base to me. Suicides are seldom about one thing. They’re about a combination of things, some of which go back years, some of which the victim didn’t spell out anywhere for our convenience. I do think the suicide of a source ought to get reporters and editors to re-evaluate the purpose of the story. That doesn’t mean you kill the story under all circumstances. But don’t you think there ought to be a very strong reason for going ahead and publishing? To be brutally honest, I have yet to hear anything close to a strong reason.

  30. Jones,
    Right — if it’s something horrible. And as this piece has been dissected, I think most people agree that while the initial agreement to not write about the subject’s background was voided when the lies about credentials were discovered, the right to privacy regarding her gender was not. That seems pretty clear-cut to me. (To the argument that you can’t get to the business lies without divulging her whole background, I’d go back to my first post to start this thread. It seems like the only reason to include the transgender element is so the writer can prove how good of a detective he is. Had Dr. V’s name been the same throughout her life, the story would have been just as good, and a sentence like, “When Dr. V claimed to be at MIT, she was in fact selling cars…” would have sufficed.)
    On an altogether different note, I also am pretty surprised that Grantland’s other story profiling a transgender woman hasn’t received any attention. It’s here: http://grantland.com/features/a-true-trans-soul-rebel/
    For all those who claim that the editors were at fault with Caleb’s piece, I think this one shows that even if you’re writing for a publication — like Grantland — that’s admittedly new to this territory, the best journalists do the background work on how to be sensitive themselves.

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