ESPN Ombudsman Says Story About Trans Inventor Illustrates The Value Of Newsroom Diversity

CREDIT: AP Images/Sang Tan

ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte is looking into a story published last week on the ESPN-owned site Grantland about a transgender inventor of a golf club who committed suicide during the reporting process. Lipsyte declined to comment on the details of his investigation, citing ESPN policy. But he said that the story, which Grantland founder Bill Simmons had initially touted before issuing a wide-ranging apology for the publication’s conduct in producing it, raised significant issues about education for journalists and newsroom diversity.

“Without being flippant, this is a classic example of burying the lede,” Lipsyte told ThinkProgress, referring to the time the piece took to acknowledge that its subject had killed herself. “And whether it was a failure of journalism, a failure of writing, a failure of editing, a failure of sensitivity, or just a failure of being smart, I don’t know yet. I’m trying to find out. But I think it’s a very important story. And I think it’s a very important story for Grantland, which sees itself as this very smart longform place. And has been, a smart longform place. So at the moment, it really seemed an aberration. But that’s all I know at the moment.”

Grantland had initially positioned the piece, “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” as a story about a mysterious scientist, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, who had produced a revolutionary golf club. But the piece, by Caleb Hannan, never resolved whether the putter she had invented was actually a superior piece of golf equipment, nor did it establish that it had widely adopted by professional or amateur golfers. And the story took a sharp turn into a discussion of Vanderbilt’s gender identity after Hannan discovered that she had not received the degrees she claimed to hold under her present name, or her prior name. The piece has been widely criticized for its use of male pronouns to refer to Vanderbilt, its treatment of her decision to keep her gender identity private as in keeping with a larger fraud, and for Grantland’s handling of a story subject who had previously attempted suicide.

Simmons acknowledged those criticisms in his note on the piece. “Our lack of sophistication with transgender pronouns was so easily avoidable, it makes me want to punch through a wall,” he wrote. “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.” And he published a searching critique of the piece from Christina Kahrl, a transgender ESPN baseball reporter.

Lipsyte, who spoke with ThinkProgress at the Television Critics Association press tour, where he was promoting a PBS documentary on Muhammad Ali, said that he was “talking to a lot of people” about the story. He noted that “there is a very active LGBTQ community within ESPN. Several people have reached out to me. And they tend to be kind of sensitive to those kinds of issues.” And he explained that he was soliciting the opinions of transgender people who work in media beyond ESPN, and had been counseled to canvass widely, and to expect a range of reactions to the story and opinions about the journalistic standards in question.

Lipsyte also told ThinkProgress that the Grantland story illustrated the importance of continuing education for journalism, and the significance and value of newsroom diversity.

“I mean, this is what diversity’s about. It’s about having people in the newsroom, or at least, ‘Who can you hook me up with that I can talk to?’ That’s kind of a major issue,” he said. “I wonder, I’m not sure of this, as old as I am, that this isn’t on the frontier of something that’s been going on for a really long time. When all-male newsrooms [report] on feminist issues, all-white newsrooms on African-American and minority issues. As good-hearted as they might have been, they didn’t even know the right questions to ask. And they didn’t have any kind of resources, people to reach out to. I think that’s part of the issue here.”