A writer for Grantland—a sports and pop-culture website owned by ESPN, which is in turn owned by The Walt Disney Co.—was assigned to investigate a miraculous new golf club and its inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt.
The reporter began to suspect the science behind this golf club was at least partially made up, and his efforts to verify the inventor’s credentials didn’t check out. He concluded that she was hiding something important.
She was: She was transgender and had been born and raised male. She didn’t want people to know.
As a result, apparently, of the reporter’s digging into her background, she committed suicide.
As a longtime ink-stained wretch who has spent a lot of her professional career in newsrooms, let me stick my size-12 pumps into my mouth.
And nothing I’m about to say is intended to let Grantland off the hook. What they did was completely lacking in empathy or common sense.
They lost all sense of proportion in the pursuit of a “scoop” that, really, in my opinion, wasn’t all that interesting of a story, and as a result, a woman is dead.
But: I am not surprised at what happened.
First, newsrooms have no special competency in LGBTQ issues. In fact, they are very macho environments, in which everyone (including the women) is trying to show how “tough” they are. There are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender reporters, but newsrooms are only a little bit better than locker rooms in terms of their treatment of LGBTQ issues.
I can remember in 2001, when a transgender woman in Fayette County was accused of causing her husband’s death after a botched castration attempt. My editors and co-workers were openly joking about the “he-she.”
(In fact, look at this URL that’s still on the Post-Gazette‘s website: It refers to her as “Tammy/Tommy,” which is what my fellow reporters were calling her. Classy!)
I was deeply closeted and I felt a lot of shame about being transgender, so I kept my mouth shut and didn’t speak up. Would it have done any good if I had complained? Probably not. Because:
Second, newsrooms are not a place to look for empathy. The former managing editor of the Pittsburgh Press used to tell his reporters, “if you want to sympathize with people, go be a priest.”
The idea that Grantland’s story would cause great pain to Dr. Vanderbilt would not have been a reason, in the minds of the reporters or editors, to stop covering it. The attitude in the newsroom would have been “tough shit.”
Third, reporters are trained to think that everyone, everyone, has a secret to hide, and if they’re hiding that secret, it must be bad, and it (therefore) must be newsworthy. There are two journalistic axioms that are drummed into the heads of young reporters. One is, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” The other is, “Anything that someone doesn’t want in the newspaper is news. Everything else is advertising.”So, Dr. Vanderbilt is keeping a secret? Well, then it must be news!
And to be really cold? In any of the newsrooms in which I worked, once Dr. Vanderbilt killed herself, some of my editors would have been practically ecstatic—”Now we really have a story!”
Should newsroom culture change? Yes! But newsrooms are so hidebound and resistant to change. We writers grow up watching “The Front Page” and “His Girl Friday” and “All the President’s Men” and “The Paper” and “Lou Grant” and we think that’s how newsrooms should be — a bunch of wisecracking tough guys and gals who are exposing the shady side of life.
But what we should also watch is “Absence of Malice,” in which a group of reporters and editors decide to “get” a businessman who they suspect was involved in a murder. He isn’t, but in the process, they nearly ruin his life.
And we writers also need to remember that not every story is another Watergate. Many reporters and editors lack any sense of proportion about scandals and secrets and their relevance.
Yet many editors are First Amendment absolutists — as far as they’re concerned, if anything about your life is anywhere in the public record, and you’re some how in the public spotlight, as Dr. Vanderbilt was—well, you’re fair game.
Again, I am not trying to defend anything Grantland did. But to me, that a publication would do something like this, and that the journalists involved would not understand what they did wrong, is as predictable as watching Wile E. Coyote, in his single-minded, unswerving and relentless pursuit, chase the Roadrunner right off of a cliff.
P.S.: And yes, my headline is a play on the book, “The Journalist and the Murderer” by Janet Malcolm.