In Grantland Backlash, Both Ire And Probing Questions
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Readers of the ESPN-owned website Grantland yesterday encountered an extraordinary apology from its editor and creative force, Bill Simmons. The apology centered on a story about a putter - a golf club whose makers called it the last putter you will ever need or want - and the deceptions of its inventor, Essay Anne Vanderbilt. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports that the story initially garnered a lot of praise and has since triggered a furious backlash. And David joins us from our studios in New York City. Hi, David.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: And first off, what did the story report?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, the story reported on the Oracle putter. It was, as you say, promised as a miracle and champion by the longtime golf announcer Gary McCord on CBS. The inventor, Vanderbilt, went by the name Dr. V. She claimed to be an MIT-trained physicist who worked on the stealth bomber, the B-2. She claimed to be part of the Vanderbilt family, and she had demanded to the reporter on the piece, Caleb Hannan, that she'd cooperate only if he report on the science, not the scientist.
Well, it turned out Vanderbilt was hiding some things. There were no records at MIT or at Penn, where she said she had earned an MBA at Wharton, that she'd ever attended or completed programs there. Her professional life appeared to be based on fraud. And then Hannan discovered something else - that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was, in fact, born a man.
And she desperately lashed out at the reporter - at Caleb Hannan - for that and killed herself last fall before the publication of this piece.
SIEGEL: The story won wide acclaim online. Among those impressed with it was New York Times media columnist, David Carr. Why the critical reversal?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, Hannan - you know, if you think about Grantland, it's a site that has incredible long-spun narratives and criticism. And it's a different kind of journalism than you might typically think to find online from ESPN. Hannan told the story as kind of an odyssey. It was his quest to learn the truth. He called it, in talking about the piece, kind of odd and strange. And he talked about his process of reporting. He talked to one of Vanderbilt's investors and revealed to that man that Vanderbilt was, in fact, transsexual. Grantland, in Hannan's story, revealed that again in the story.
They seemed to think, as Hannan wrote the piece, that quote, "The biggest question remained unanswered: had Dr. V created a great golf club or merely a great story?" Well, starting around last Friday, critics said, wait a second. The piece has treated Vanderbilt's gender identity as those - yet another deception rather than a part of who she felt herself to be. You know, bloggers started to attack the piece and saying, look, Vanderbilt was treated merely as grist for a story, not really as a full human being and, certainly, not worthy of privacy.
SIEGEL: But isn't it at least arguable that her privacy would have remained intact had she not been party to a fraud, claiming to have an education and a professional background that she didn't have?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, like - look, there is the reporting, there is the writing and then there's the publishing process, right? So a good reporter does unmask the fraud. Vanderbilt had fraudulently represented herself as an MIT-trained physicist and talked about the physics being so important to the putter, rejecting all conventional wisdom on that. The question is, is her transsexuality relevant here? That is to say, is it really part of that pattern of deception? Is it merely intriguing to a reporter once he's on the hunt? And who gets to control that fact's disclosure? Is it the journalist or the subject, especially given, you know, the marginal acceptance that, you know, transgender people currently have in broader society.
SIEGEL: But the journalist wouldn't have been able to explain who she wasn't without explaining who she was, right?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, look, I spoke to Christina Kahrl. She's an editor on ESPN.com's baseball desk, who herself is an openly transgender. And she said, you know, there are ways to talk about the deceptions without going that far. And I had this give and take with her where I said, you know, could you have gone and say, look, this - you know, she was born with a different name in Pennsylvania. There's no proof she was a physicist, no proof she went on MIT, no proof she worked for the Pentagon and the B2. And she said, you know, anything that stops short of leading a trail of bread crumbs to the identity is OK.
I got to say, as journalists, you know, we bridle at rule saying that we can't determine for ourselves what we can or cannot publish. But, you know, we've had earlier arguments also over should rape victims be identified? Should people be outed for homosexuality or if they're lesbians? I think this is sort of a later wave of that kind of tension.
SIEGEL: A pretty long apology today from Grantland.
FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. I'd say long and heartfelt from Bill Simmons. He said that people should blame him and a team of senior editors all of whom vetted this. ESPN filed its own apology, saying they'd looked hard these issues and there seems to be a recognition here that the subject got beyond the grasp of its own reporters and editors.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Folkenflik and this is NPR News.