Harassment is not journalism: Grantland’s ethical failing

Trigger Warnings: misgendering, cissexism, harassment, transphobia, suicide

You can still read this 8,000 word atrocity in its entire form on Grantland.

You can still read this 8,000 word atrocity in its entirety on Grantland.

The world of journalism was met with a challenge in August of 2013: Chelsea Manning came out as transgender. Her announcement pointed out the glaringly obvious: mainstream journalists (as well as the majority of the world) did not know how to talk about transgender people. In fact, they still don’t. Take a look at Katie Couric’s interview with Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox.

Couric firsts asks Carrera about her genitalia – to which Carrera (rightly) responds that it is, essentially, none of Couric’s (nor anyone else’s) business. When Couric does not get the answer she desires from Carrera, she turns to Cox and asks if she feels the same way. She describes Carrera’s reaction to the question as if she had responded with hostility. Couric essentially pulls what any kid with a sibling has seen – the parent turns from the “bad child” and says to their sibling, would you do this?

Cox, ever the epitome of grace, turned Couric’s question back on her, citing that cis people’s focus on the genitalia of trans* people helps objectify them and detract focus from the incredible violence acted against trans* people.

Sometimes, however, the focus of cis media is the cause of violence against trans* people. Just take a look at the current media blitz surrounding Dr. V, a woman whose innovations in the field of golf caught the attention of Grantland reporter Caleb Hannan.

Hannan’s article so wittily (can you see me rolling my eyes?) titled “Dr. V’s Magical Putter”, originally set out to discuss her invention, the Yar Putter. The piece ended up becoming a chilling exposé in which Hannan not only effectively destroyed Dr. V’s character, but also harassed and outed her as trans* woman – resulting in her suicide. This piece is not the first (nor will it be the last) time that a trans* person has been harassed to the point of suicide by journalists.

In a post by Audrey White on Autostraddle, she discusses at length the specific issues with Caleb Hannan and other journalists who report on trans* people. These failures adhere to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics (which includes a whole section on minimizing harm – including, but not limited to, “Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”). White’s piece points out that this code brings to light the fact that the blame for the fallout of this piece does not just lie on the journalists in question; the blame also lies on the shoulders of the editors at Grantland.

It is an editor’s job to check and make sure that the reporting is balanced and follows the code of ethics as set by the Society of Professional Journalists. The blame for the Grantland article lies not only on Caleb Hannan’s shoulders, but on those of Bill Simmons, Dan Fierman, and the rest of the Grantland editorial team. Before any piece is published it should go through an editorial process where more than one person’s eyes look at the piece at least once. Clearly, at no point during the process of writing an eight thousand word piece (reported on for seven months), no one said, “Wait a minute – something is not right here.”

Following the backlash against Hannan and Grantland for the piece about Dr. V, Editor in Chief Bill Simmons attempted an apology that, while addressing the fact that no one on the editorial team once stopped to consider the repercussions of reporting this piece the way Hannan did (nor publishing it in its final form), fails to address several other key concerns. Simmons states that no one on his staff had any knowledge of trans* issues and that the team made several errors in this piece that could have easily been avoided, but he also argues that Dr. V’s status as a trans* woman is still somehow imperative to a piece about golf clubs — which, as a matter of fact, it is not. He explained-

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?

What then? As though the gender status of someone is somehow utterly imperative to her ability to produce an effective product. Simmons apologizes several times for making people feel badly about the piece and its ramifications for Dr. V and her loved ones. He also apologizes for “failing Caleb Hannan” by giving the go-ahead to a piece that has resulted in Hannan receiving death threats via social media. Simmons does not, at any point, apologize for his team’s blatant disregard of the Code of Ethics. He defends the piece while attempting to redeem it simultaneously, and overall, his “apology” doesn’t read like much of an apology at all.

What’s especially interesting is that Simmons explicitly states that no one on his team knew enough about trans* issues to effectively prevent the issues with this piece from occurring. And yet, on the same day that his “apology” was published, ESPN writer Christina Kahrl — also a member of the board of directors for GLAAD — published a piece for Grantland about the failings in Hannan’s piece. Revealed near the end of her piece is that Kahrl herself is trans*, and has been out for over a decade. Simmons conversed with Kahrl on Jan. 19 regarding Hannan’s piece — four days after it was published. Given that Kahrl has been out for so many years, why didn’t Simmons (or anyone else on the Grantland editorial team, including and most especially the editor in chief from ESPN), think to ask her about this piece?

While it might be uncomfortable to point to the only trans* person in a particular circle and say, “hey, are we getting this right?”, it is far better to get the perspective of someone in the community than continue blindly down a harmful path of reporting. Given the way Simmons still believes Dr. V’s gender was important to Hannan’s piece, and given what Kahrl herself points out about the Grantland audience (that they are primarily middle-aged, White men who probably do not and will never know “out” trans* people who can debunk the harmful stereotypes reinforced in Hannan’s article), asking one of the only trans* people around for an opinion could have changed the course of this piece significantly. If Kahrl or another trans* person had been approached soon enough, Dr. V might have lived.

Kahrl’s piece is a far better analysis of what went wrong than Simmons’, though that isn’t necessarily surprising. While she does glaringly ignore GLAAD’s style guide for handling transgender language in referring to Dr. V as ‘transsexual’ (used interchangeably with transgender in her piece), even while she and Simmons both cite its importance, Kahrl draws attention to the ultimate crux of the issue with Hannan’s piece in one simple sentence:

A responsibility to the truth should have limited itself to what was relevant.

Dr. V’s gender identity was not relevant to her invention. Both Simmons and Kahrl discuss the fact that Hannan did what was expected of him as a journalist by attempting to verify the scientific credentials and background Dr. V reported having — but upon accidentally discovering that she was a trans* woman, he chose to make that the focus of his piece, rather than, say, taking another angle. If the science behind the Yar Putter wasn’t legitimate, why hadn’t anyone else with a working class background been able to create it? What had Dr. V figured out that everyone else hadn’t?

As Kahrl points out, debunking Dr. V’s credentials would have put her in a bad spot within the golf industry, especially with consumers. But I think it is fair to assume that it would have done far less damage than outing her as trans*, especially after she went to such great lengths to “pass” as a cis female — something that trans* women struggle with all the time. Kahrl’s piece goes into some of the history of the trans* community and ties in the stories of other trans* women in the media, like Laverne Cox and Cece McDonald. Her piece calls out the problem with a cis male actor like Jared Leto playing a trans* woman and being heralded for it by the whole of Hollywood and tons of fans, while real trans* women are harassed and killed on a daily basis.

Most of all, Kahrl’s piece calls out the fact that Hannan’s piece is quite literally a cis man claiming the life of a trans* woman as his narrative to tell — when in fact, LGBT* people are the only ones with the jurisdiction to out themselves, including the who, when, where, how, and why of doing so. Grantland didn’t fail Caleb Hannan. It failed Dr. V, and the trans* community, and it continues to fail them by refusing to acknowledge that they exercised cis male privilege in order to produce a piece that resulted in a trans* woman’s death.

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