“How could you guys run that?”
We started hearing that question on Friday afternoon, West Coast time, right as everyone was leaving our Los Angeles office to start the weekend. We kept hearing that question on Friday night, and all day Saturday, and Sunday, too. We heard it repeatedly on Twitter and Facebook. We sifted through dozens of outraged emails from our readers. We read critiques on various blogs and message boards, an onslaught that kept coming and coming. I don’t remember the exact moment when I realized that we definitely screwed up, but it happened sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning. On Sunday, ESPN apologized on our behalf. I am apologizing on our behalf right now. My condolences to Dr. V’s friends and family for any pain our mistakes may have caused.
So what did we screw up? Well, that’s where it gets complicated.
On Wednesday morning, we posted a well-written feature by Caleb Hannan about an inventor named Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a.k.a. “Dr. V.” Caleb reported the piece for seven solid months. Back in April, he had become enamored of an infomercial for a magical putter, wanted to learn more about it, started digging and pitched the piece. Could there really be a “magical” putter? And what was up with the mysterious lady who invented it?
Caleb pitched the idea to Rafe Bartholomew, our talented features editor and an original Grantlander. Rafe reports to Dan Fierman (our editorial director) and me (I’m the editor-in-chief). Ultimately, the three of us decided to green-light Caleb’s piece. When a feature reaches the point when we want to run it, we include input from Sean Fennessey (our deputy editor) and Megan Creydt (our copy chief). We have a system. Everyone weighs in. I delegate as much as humanly possible and intervene only on the bigger decisions. Rarely, if ever, have we disagreed on actually posting a piece. You always just kind of know. One way or the other.
Did this work? Was this good enough? Could this get us in trouble? Are we sure about the reporting? Was it well written enough? Was it up to OUR standards?
And most important …
Is it worth it to run this piece?
OK, so what makes something “worth it”? For 32 months and counting, we haven’t made any effort whatsoever to chase page views or embarrass people for rubberneck traffic. We want to distinguish ourselves by being thoughtful and entertaining. We want to keep surprising people. We want to keep taking risks. That’s one of the reasons why we created Grantland. As the great John Wooden once said, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything.” Every mistake we’ve made, we’ve learned from it.
Another reason we created Grantland: to find young writers we liked, bring them into the fold, make them better, maybe even see if we could become the place they remembered someday when someone asked them, “So what was your big break?” That matters to us. Just about every writer we have is under 40 years old. Many of them are under 30. I am our third-oldest writer, as crazy as that sounds. For us, 31-year-old Caleb Hannan had (and has) a chance to be one of those writers. That’s why it hurts so much that we failed him.
I remember Rafe forwarding me one of Caleb’s early email exchanges with Dr. V — it might have even been the first one — and being spellbound by her eccentric language. I had never read anything like it. She was the perfect character for a quirky feature about a quirky piece of sports equipment. We first reached the “Is it worth it?” point with Caleb’s piece in September, after Caleb turned in a rollicking draft that included a number of twists and turns. The story had no ending because Dr. V wouldn’t talk to him anymore. We never seriously considered running his piece, at least in that version’s form.
Our decision: Sorry, Caleb, you need to keep reporting this one. It’s not there.
You know what happened next: One last correspondence between Caleb and Dr. V in September, the one that included her threat and the “hate crime” accusation (both covered in the piece that eventually ran). To be clear, Caleb only interacted with her a handful of times. He never, at any time, threatened to out her on Grantland. He was reporting a story and verifying discrepancy issues with her background. That’s it. Just finding out facts and asking questions. This is what reporters do. She had been selling a “magical” putter by touting credentials that didn’t exist. Just about everything she had told Caleb, at every point of his reporting process, turned out not to be true. There was no hounding. There was no badgering. It just didn’t happen that way.
Caleb’s biggest mistake? Outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive. I don’t think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland. That misstep never occurred to me until I discussed it with Christina Kahrl yesterday. But that speaks to our collective ignorance about the issues facing the transgender community in general, as well as our biggest mistake: not educating ourselves on that front before seriously considering whether to run the piece.
We found out that Dr. V committed suicide sometime in October, at least four or five weeks after Caleb’s last interaction with her. Caleb was obviously shaken up. We had no plans to run the piece at that point, but we decided to wait a week or two before we officially decided what to do. When that period passed, Caleb decided to write another draft that incorporated everything that happened. A few more weeks passed, and after reading his latest draft after Thanksgiving, we seriously considered the possibility of running the piece.
Here’s why we made that decision …
For us, this had become a story about a writer falling into, for lack of a better phrase, a reporting abyss. The writer originally asked a simple question — So what’s up with this putter? — that evolved into something else entirely. His latest draft captured that journey as cleanly and crisply as possible. As editors, we read his final draft through the lens of everything we had already learned over those eight months, as well as a slew of additional information that ended up not making the final piece. When anyone criticizes the Dr. V feature for lacking empathy in the final few paragraphs, they’re right. Had we pushed Caleb to include a deeper perspective about his own feelings, and his own fears of culpability, that would have softened those criticisms. Then again, Caleb had spent the piece presenting himself as a curious reporter, nothing more. Had he shoehorned his own perspective/feelings/emotions into the ending, it could have been perceived as unnecessarily contrived. And that’s not a good outcome, either.
As we debated internally whether to run the piece, four issues concerned us. First, we didn’t know about any of the legal ramifications. That’s why we had multiple lawyers read it. Second, we were extremely worried — obviously — about running a piece about a subject who took her own life during the tail end of the reporting process. How would that be received externally? Was the story too dark? Was it exploitative? Would we be blamed for what happened to her? And third, we worried about NOT running the piece when Caleb’s reporting had become so intertwined with the last year of Dr. V’s life. Didn’t we have a responsibility to run it?
The fourth issue, and this almost goes without saying: Not only did we feel terrible about what happened to Dr. V, we could never really know why it happened. Nor was there any way to find out.
Maybe that should have been enough of a reason to back off. In fact, we almost did. Multiple times. We never worried about outing her posthumously, which speaks to our ignorance about this topic in general. (Hold that thought.) We should have had that discussion before we posted the piece. (Hold that thought, too.) In the moment, we believed you couldn’t “out” someone who was already dead, especially if she was a public figure. Whether you believe we were right or wrong, let’s at least agree that we made an indefensible mistake not to solicit input from ANYONE in the trans community. But even now, it’s hard for me to accept that Dr. V’s transgender status wasn’t part of this story. Caleb couldn’t find out anything about her pre-2001 background for a very specific reason. Let’s say we omitted that reason or wrote around it, then that reason emerged after we posted the piece. What then?
Before we officially decided to post Caleb’s piece, we tried to stick as many trained eyeballs on it as possible. Somewhere between 13 and 15 people read the piece in all, including every senior editor but one, our two lead copy desk editors, our publisher and even ESPN.com’s editor-in-chief. All of them were blown away by the piece. Everyone thought we should run it. Ultimately, it was my call. So if you want to rip anyone involved in this process, please, direct your anger and your invective at me. Don’t blame Caleb or anyone that works for me. It’s my site and anything this significant is my call. Blame me. I didn’t ask the biggest and most important question before we ran it — that’s my fault and only my fault.
Anyway, we posted the piece on Wednesday morning. People loved it. People were enthralled by it. People shared it. People tweeted it and retweeted it. A steady stream of respected writers and journalists passed along their praise. By Thursday, as the approval kept pouring in, we had already moved on to other stories and projects.
So what happened on Friday afternoon … amazing.
The piece had been up for 56 solid hours before the backlash began. The narrative shifted abruptly, and by Friday night, early high-profile supporters were backtracking from their initial praise. Caleb started getting death threats. People came after us on social media. You know the rest.
Like everyone else involved with this story, I spent my weekend alternating between feeling miserable, hating myself and wondering what we could have done differently. The answer lay within that 56-hour gap between “GREAT PIECE!” and “WHY WOULD YOU POST THAT????” We read every incarnation of that piece through a certain lens — just like many readers did from Wednesday morning to Friday afternoon. Once a few people nudged us and said, Hey, read it this way instead, you transphobic dumbasses, that lens looked totally different.
Suddenly, a line like “a chill ran down my spine” — which I had always interpreted as “Jesus, this story is getting stranger?” (Caleb’s intent, by the way) — now read like, “Ew, gross, she used to be a man?” Our lack of sophistication with transgender pronouns was so easily avoidable, it makes me want to punch through a wall. The lack of empathy in the last few paragraphs — our collective intent, and only because we believed that Caleb suddenly becoming introspective and emotional would have rung hollow — now made it appear as if we didn’t care about someone’s life.
We made one massive mistake. I have thought about it for nearly three solid days, and I’ve run out of ways to kick myself about it. How did it never occur to any of us? How? How could we ALL blow it?
That mistake: Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft. This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up. Had we asked someone, they probably would have told us the following things …
1. You never mentioned that the transgender community has an abnormally high suicide rate. That’s a crucial piece — something that actually could have evolved into the third act and an entirely different ending. But you missed it completely.
2. You need to make it more clear within the piece that Caleb never, at any point, threatened to out her as he was doing his reporting.
3. You need to make it more clear that, before her death, you never internally discussed the possibility of outing her (and we didn’t).
4. You botched your pronoun structure in a couple of spots, which could easily be fixed by using GLAAD’s style guide for handling transgender language.
5. The phrase “chill ran down my spine” reads wrong. Either cut it or make it more clear what Caleb meant.
6. Caleb never should have outed Dr. V to one of her investors; you need to address that mistake either within the piece, as a footnote, or in a separate piece entirely.
(And maybe even … )
7. There’s a chance that Caleb’s reporting, even if it wasn’t threatening or malicious in any way, invariably affected Dr. V in ways that you never anticipated or understood. (Read Christina Kahrl’s thoughtful piece about Dr. V and our errors in judgment for more on that angle.)
To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.
More importantly, I realized over the weekend that I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community – and neither does my staff. I read Caleb’s piece a certain way because of my own experiences in life. That’s not an acceptable excuse; it’s just what happened. And it’s what happened to Caleb, and everyone on my staff, and everyone who read/praised/shared that piece during that 56-hour stretch from Wednesday to Friday.
So for anyone asking the question “How could you guys run that?,” please know that we zoomed through the same cycle of emotions that so many of our readers did. We just didn’t see the other side. We weren’t sophisticated enough. In the future, we will be sophisticated enough — at least on this particular topic. We’re never taking the Dr. V piece down from Grantland partly because we want people to learn from our experience. We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.
To our dismay, a few outlets pushed some version of the Grantland writer bullies someone into committing suicide! narrative, either because they wanted to sensationalize the story, or they simply didn’t read the piece carefully. It’s a false conclusion that doubles as being recklessly unfair. Caleb reported a story about a public figure that slowly spun out of control. He never antagonized or badgered anyone. Any mistakes happened because of his inexperience, and ours, too. Also, was that worth tormenting him on Twitter, sending him death threats, posting his personal information online and even urging him to kill himself like Dr. V did? Unbelievably, for some people, the answer was “yes.” I found that behavior to be sobering at best and unconscionable at worst. You can’t excoriate a writer for being insensitive while also being willfully insensitive to an increasingly dangerous situation.
As for Caleb, I continue to be disappointed that we failed him. It’s our responsibility to motivate our writers, put them in a position to succeed, improve their pieces as much as we possibly can, and most of all protect them from coming off badly. We didn’t do that here. Seeing so many people direct their outrage at one of our writers, and not our website as a whole, was profoundly upsetting for us. Our writers don’t post their stories themselves. It’s a team effort. We all failed. And ultimately, I failed the most because it’s my site and it was my call.
Moving forward, we appreciated the dialogue, we fully support everyone who expressed displeasure with the story, and we understand why some people mistakenly focused their criticisms on the writer instead of Grantland as a whole. We will learn from what happened. We will remember what Wooden said — “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything” — and we’re going to keep trying to get better. That’s all we can do. Thanks for reading and we hope you continue coming back to Grantland.