In The Echo Chamber: Reactions to Transphobic Journalism


By Tanya Silverman

Grantland Editor-In-Chief Bill Simmons. Photo courtesy of The Big Lead.

In the time since the widespread outrage for a Grantland story titled “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” reached the far corners of the internet, it’s hard to imagine that it was, at first, ever positively received. The controversy has since prompted a letter of apology from Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons, an analytical article from an ESPN contributor, plus an ongoing stretch of debates about ethics, transphobia, character judgment, and analyses of the overlying journalistic approach.

Published Jan 15 on the ESPN-owned sports and culture blog, Hannan’s controversial, almost 8,000-word narrative that took months to compile was originally supposed to focus on something quite neutral and inoffensive: a golf putter.

Check out our conversation about Grantland’s controversial reporting with John and Molly Knefel of the Radio Dispatch podcast on BTR:

In the course of researching the story behind the sports device, he communicated with its inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt (aka Dr. V) via email and phone. Dr. V requested that Hannan focus the article about the putter and not the inventor, though provided the background information that she was an aeronautical physicist who studied at MIT. Upon looking into Dr. V’s credentials, Hannan found falsehoods in her educational and professional qualifications, and, amongst other biographical details, that she was a transgender woman.

Hannan outed Dr. V to one of her investors. The author received pleas and threats from the inventor not to reveal her personal information. At the end of the story, Hannan discovered that Dr. V commited suicide for reasons unknown.

Acknowledging the volume of consequent negative reactions, Grantland inserted an italicized disclaimer above the current version of “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” that contains a link to a letter from Grantland’s editor, Bill Simmons. In the letter, Simmons apologizes to Dr. V’s friends and family, explains Grantland’s editorial process of approving then running the story, tells the public to stop threatening and blaming Hannan (but blame Simmons himself as the one in charge of the publication), and admits the staff was not sufficiently sensitive to, or wary of, trans issues. He points out that Hannan should not have outed Dr. V to her investor, but contends that the reporter never intended to out the inventor publicly during the process, even though he did so posthumously.

Another link preceding the article takes the reader to “What Grantland Got Wrong”, an account by Christina Kahl, a transgender woman who contributes to ESPN. She describes the notoriety of Hannan’s of story as a “permanent exhibit of what not to do, and how not to treat a fellow human being,” going on to say that Dr. V’s gender identity was irrelevant to Hannan’s golf-putter story. Kahl asserts that by all means (and probably more importantly) is not his information to share. The author also highlights the outstanding suicide rate that occurs throughout the trans community.

While these are the only articles that the “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” webpage links to, numerous other interpretations have since been published about Hannan’s work, many of which also make reference of Simmons’ and Kahl’s writings on the piece.

For instance, much attention has been drawn to a quote from the original article that has transphobic connotations: “a chill actually ran up my spine,” Caleb Hannan writes this description about when Dr. V’s gender identity is revealed.

Bill Simmons, in his letter, defends Hannan’s “chill” line by saying that the author was really just trying to express that the overall story was getting weirder, not to read it that he was grossed out that “’she used to be a man.’”

Not all people accept the claim Simmons presents, though. Josh Levin of Slate called the line “inhumane,” writing that Hannan merits the gender-identity revelation as being deceitful, on the same level as being a con artist. Saeed Jones, in his BuzzFeed piece, points out how Hannan did not experience a “chill” when Dr. V warned him about committing a hate crime by revealing her personal information. Authors on numerous blogs, comment boards, forums, and Twitter accounts expressed further responses to that specific line alone.

Additional questions of ethics have been examined. Dave Zirin urges that Grantland take down “Dr. V’s Magical Putter”—an action that Bill Simmons announced the publication would never do—labeling the article a “defective” and “dangerous” product that ought to be removed from circulation. He discounts Simmons’ claims of being more attuned to transgendered interests when he still keeps a posted article that treats the concluding death with “such callousness.”

Jonathan Mahler interprets the fact that the story received such praise initially being that people did not bother to scroll to the end of it to realize the subject had taken her own life. In his New York Times op-ed, the author dissects the “long-form style” that Hannan employs—writing how the format was formerly popular with printed magazines, and then lapsed for a bit before it was recently revitalized by online media. He argues that readers initially just presumed the Dr. V piece was a worthy story because its content was so extensive.

The printed text of Mahler’s article is broken up by large, lower-case remarks like “sooo long,” “much reading,” “woooow,” and “hip” (such phrases only appear in a subtle animated box on the side of the online form). The succinct colloquial interjections seem to mock today’s caliber of readership, or at least, those who did not intricately delve into their reading of “Dr. V’s Magical Putter”.

One reader who claims to love long-form journalism and did care to read the whole piece was Michael Handler – though, he took the 7,000-plus words in with “openmouthed disgust, and with increasing horror as it built to its conclusion.” Handler’s blog post includes a list of links that he has deemed to be insightful. Though Christina Kahrl’s piece is amongst the catalog of what to read, underneath, Handler composes a critical letter to Caleb Hannan and the Grantland editors (implicitly, Bill Simmons) that outing and using Dr. V’s gender identity was wrong, as was using such information as a narrative peak in the article.

Handler also denounces Caleb Hannan’s Jan 16 post on his Twitter handle, a terse statement which read: “Everything you guys have been saying is true: Blocking people feels fantastic.”

As of now, Hannan’s last Tweet was on Jan 17: “For what it’s worth, I haven’t blocked anyone today. I’m reading all of this. I’m totally overwhelmed, but I’m reading.”

What has Hannan read since then? A great deal has been said, so could Hannan possibly read “all of this”, whether it’s the incoming tweets, third-party articles, or the plethora of posts his article has sparked? If so, how is he reacting?

The author probably did not foresee his article starting up so much controversy, but at this point, we can assume without knowing his reaction that at least some of the backlash has come to his attention.