Bill Simmons, the founder of Grantland, an ESPN-owned sports and entertainment site, issued a wide-ranging public apology on Monday for the site’s decision to publish a piece about the inventor of a golf putter who killed herself while the piece was being reported. Simmons’ piece answers many of the questions I and other critics have raised about the story, “Dr. V’s Magical Putter.” He acknowledged that the reporter, Caleb Hannan, should not have outed the subject of the piece, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, as transgender in a conversation with one of her investors. He admitted that Grantland had been careless in its use of gendered pronouns in referring to Vanderbilt, and in employing other language that implied that being transgender is strange, deceptive, or in keeping with fraud. And most strikingly and importantly, Simmons acknowledged that he and his staff had failed to supplement their own lack of understanding of transgender issues by bringing in outside editors, an omission that the site took a small step towards rectifying by publishing a thorough analysis of the piece by ESPN baseball reporter Christina Kahrl, who is herself transgender.
For some of Grantland’s critics, Simmons’ focus on his own editorial processes, rather than on Vanderbilt’s death, is distasteful. And there are a number of issues he could have, and perhaps should have, touched on. I would have liked to see Simmons more directly address the separate issue of reporting on subjects who are mentally ill, or who have attempted suicide in the past, as Leonora LaPeter Anton did in this piece for the Tampa Bay Times. And I think questions remain about the choice of Vanderbilt, rather than a powerful CBS golf commentator who plugged her products, as the subject of the story, and about the extent to which the putter had actually gained a foothold in the competitive world of golf equipment. But Simmons’ self-accounting is a striking document that should raise the bar for editors who face similar criticism in the future. These are what seem to me as the most important points he makes in it:
1. Simmons recognizes that this was an organizational failure, and that responsibility doesn’t solely rely with Caleb Hannan: Simmons writes:
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 recognize that some readers have interpreted this section of the statement as prioritizing Hannan’s career over harm done to Vanderbilt. But in terms of organizational improvement, recognizing the role that editors play in preventing reporters from getting stories badly wrong is critically important. Ultimately, someone has to make the decision to run a story, and the way Simmons himself promoted the piece when it was published makes clear that he didn’t recognize the glaring issues with it as an examination of a transgender woman’s life, and as sports reporting. This doesn’t mean that Caleb Hannan is not to blame for the focus he chose, the way he reported out that interest, and the words he used to present the story. But one of the best reasons for large journalistic organizations to hire staff with a broad range of life experience and expertise, and to treat those perspectives as if they’re valuable and deserve deference, is so someone’s present to step in when a piece fails, to educate the writer in question, and to save subjects of pieces from journalistic malpractice, and publications from damaging themselves. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
2. It seems likely that the piece would not have run, absent Vanderbilt’s suicide: Simmons explains that:
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.
I would have really liked to see Simmons explain why a pitch that focused on a putter that doesn’t appear to have any real traction in professional golf was accepted in the first place. And I remain curious about why the piece focused on Vanderbilt, rather than on Gary McCord, the CBS commentator who is almost purely responsible for giving Vanderbilt’s putter public attention, and who confirmed many of her lies about her credentials and resume to Hannan. A more thorough interrogation of how the sports reporting in “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” went wrong would help clarify how the piece went off the rails in focusing on Vanderbilt’s gender identity. But at least Simmons acknowledges that the sports reporting wasn’t there.
3. Vanderbilt’s death is, essentially, the reason why piece ran. But it’s not clear that Grantland knew how to handle the sense that they had to publish: Simmons says:
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…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?
I said to a number of people before Simmons issued his statement that I suspected the piece would have been scrapped entirely if Vanderbilt had not committed suicide. The sports and science reporting weren’t there. And I can see an argument for publishing a consideration of whether Hannan’s reporting led to Vanderbilt’s death. That, however, is not the piece that Grantland published. It seems Simmons recognizes that now. Though, even lack of familiarity with trans issues aside, I’m not sure how the Grantland editorial staff didn’t realize that the piece rang as tasteless and muddled.
4. No one on the Grantland staff is transgender, has experience with trans issues, or raised the possibility of running the story by anyone with any expertise or personal experience on the subject: This is maybe the most important thing Simmons acknowledges about himself and his team, that they failed in their knowledge and empathy, and in the drive to seek it:
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.
It’s hard to get starker than that. And it’s hard to consider better evidence of the value of having staff with a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives–and of the willingness to go outside your own staff when they reach the limits of their wisdom. Doing this takes humility, and it takes curiosity, an acknowledgement that your own knowledge is not the sum of the world, and a voracious hunger to understand more of it. These are the basic qualities of good journalism. It’s remarkable that so many news organizations fail to apply them to considering the mix of their own staff and contributors. We can only hope that Grantland’s failures in that regard, and Simmons’ willingness to admit to them candidly and without reservation, serve as a warning to other organizations that might suffer from similar myopia.
It should go without saying, but it would be good if Grantland followed this up by announcing some concrete next steps to their style guide and their processes when reporting on members of marginalized communities and on subjects with mental health issues like a history of suicide attempts.