Ethical or Simply Untouchable? What’s Right, Wrong and Grey in Journalism

Rightly or wrongly a United States journalist named Caleb Hannan wrote a published piece for Grantland in which he effectively outed a transgender woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt.

In the same week some UK ‘news’ sites wrongly labelled One Direction star Liam Payne as being anti-gay because he tweeted his support of hit television show Duck Dynasty and the family values eschewed behind the business.

Both caused Twitter to go into a meltdown, both saw journalists targeted. Payne got the hashtag #lazyjournos trending worldwide, Hannan received death threats for his piece, which in and of itself was a tour de force of a story that saw twists and turns so schizophrenic it made for compelling reading.

I’ve been an editor of major sports sites, though none of the ilk of Grantland, but if I had of been Bill Simmons or his team of editors my reaction would have been to run the story.

If I was editorial head of one of those UK sites who ran the Liam Payne piece, I would have said no to running it, but then again, in my view publications like those have no business calling themselves the home of journalists or journalism.

The Payne piece was a grab for clicks via the headline and pretty much defamed the character of the 20-year-old singer.

It simply wasn’t and isn’t on. Caleb Hannan’s piece was entirely different.

The key questions coming out of that piece being did Hannan’s proposed article contribute to the subject of his investigation taking their own life? And did it overstep the mark of what is ethical? And if it did who was at fault?

If it did, and I stress if, it is the fault of the editors of Grantland and their Editor in Chief; arguably the most revered sports writer and analyst in the USA; Bill Simmons.

Simmons in the wake of a negative response published an open letter on Monday, USA time, stating he took full responsibility for the article being published and that he felt he had let Hannan down more than anything else, asking for the vitriol be directed at him for “failing” his journalist rather than at the man who wrote the piece.

Simmons also apologised for the piece stating that his team probably should have had ‘someone from the transgender community’ read it before it went live.

However in the defence of Grantland, “13-15 editors” read the piece and none saw the fault in it.

The fault as it seems to have been stated is that not only was a transgender person not asked for their input (one ESPN staffer is transgender) but also that the death of Dr. V was glossed over and the article originally about a ‘magical’ putter that was at the forefront of technology became about a person’s sexual orientation and outing her… but was it?

Yes, that was at the forefront of the piece and Hannan and his editors erred greatly by not really investigating why Dr. V took her own life, but also in running a line that perhaps showed a lack of tolerance from Hannan.

The author writing of the moment he realised Dr. V was transsexual “a chill actually ran up my spine.” And in the world of 2014 anything that can be perceived as an intolerance of a minority group is a dangerous stance to take and write indeed, let alone publish on the best long-form sports and pop culture journalism site in the business.

Hannan’s personal views will likely never really be known, and he certainly won’t out himself as a bigot, nor should he, add to that there is a big chance despite his present predicament that he is not one.

What he discovered along the course of his journey was that while the putter was indeed ahead of its time, changed the way the making of golf clubs was thought about and franked by some big golf names including David McCord, Aaron Baddeley and David Frost, was that at almost every other turn Essay Anne Vanderbilt was, it seems a fraud and chameleon.

Unless of course her past as she claimed was classified; she lied about her education, training, skills and just about everything else including past legal troubles and bankruptcies to cover her deficiencies when entering the cut-throat world of golf club manufacture and also to cover up the fact she was transgender, the last being a right she had.

But ultimately that cover up was one in a huge series of them; each seemingly more incredible than the last.

Hannan was about to expose her and she took her life. Truly it is a tragedy, but it wasn’t the first time she tried to end her life.

Hannan documented a past attempt where her partner found her unconscious in her car, in her garage, having tried to take her life that way; as such Hannan can’t and shouldn’t shoulder the blame, after all he did not make her take her life and there was a history of suicidal behaviour.

Did the pressure of the column weigh on her? It’s certainly possible, but Caleb Hannan did not kill her.

I can only say what I know of the piece and how I may have written it and I in that respect shared the initial view of the Grantland team, I would have said yes to running it; the hiding her orientation being part of a pattern.

In hindsight it likely wasn’t necessary, but the piece ran after she passed and can you posthumously out someone? I guess. Does it have the same effect? I don’t know.

What I do know, but can’t even pretend to understand is that the transgender community in America has a higher suicide rate than any other group. I think Grantland will remember that moving forward – I think they know in that respect there were mistakes made, but the journalist here isn’t the one accountable.

Caleb Hannan told a powerful and well-researched story he dove deep into, he’s jokingly admitted nothing he ever writes again will garner such a response. He wrote the piece amidst threats and a difficult subject, and I challenge you to read it and not find it bizarrely gripping and fascinating.

I think he had a right to tell this story. I don’t think the transgender issue needed to be so central to the piece and he proved himself to appear a little scared and probably naïve, I doubt he meant that or even realised at the time.

But at least his piece was real journalism, telling a story that had an impact. For a brief time Dr. V’s putter was considered to be a brilliant development, some still use it I’m sure.

And in comparison to stories about Liam Payne’s alleged anti-gay stance, well I’ll let you figure out which one tells the true story and is actually to be considered a thought-provoking and excellent if somewhat flawed news piece.

At least Hannan didn’t simply make up a false headline on baseless assumptions. No, Caleb Hannan did some real investigative journalism, he simply forgot to dig further when it came to suicide rates or read his article from a different angle, something his editors should have pointed out.

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One Response to “Ethical or Simply Untouchable? What’s Right, Wrong and Grey in Journalism”

  1. KJ
    January 22, 2014 at 4:51 am #

    Caleb Hannan has a record of participating in dishonest reportage.
    This was public knowledge, and his editors should have been babysitting him from the start.

    Had they done their duty, perhaps they could have stopped him from outing her gender status to her investors without her consent. Perhaps they could have stopped and thought about what outing someone does to the person. Instead Calen Hannan smelled blood in the water and unfettered went in for the kill. He succeeded.

    In light of Hannan’s documented dishonesty, and the fact that he has all the motive in the world to show himself in the best possible light, I find his accusations against his victim less than credible. He does not actually uncover definitive proof of his victim’s alleged fraud. In fact when she offered proof to him, he turned her down, as he admits in the piece.

    Of the two actors in this story only Hannan has a record of dishonest behavior, and yet he gets to and face no professional repercussions while she gets to stay dead.

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