Writing for Grantland.com, Caleb Hannan’s long document of a story about an inventor of a golf putter who committed suicide lit up the Internet and social media over the weekend with its stunning lack of compassion. Grantland is under the ethical microscope at websites from Slate, (Josh Levin’s considered piece) to Salon (Mary Elizabeth Williams’ take), to Think Progress (Alyssa Rosenberg’s breakdown) to Harvard’s Niemen Lab of Journalism. Bill Simmons, Grantland’s creator and big chief wrote a detailed explanation of the editorial process, a “Letter from the Editor,” after ESPN formally apologized for allowing Grantland to publish the story. The ethical dilemma Simmons addresses is whether or not the story should have ever been published. From Simmons’ letter:
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.
From the above excerpt, Simmons writes, “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.”
Actually, if they had asked Hannan to think more deeply about his own part in the whole process, and the emotional tangle that he’d ended up in after finding out his subject had committed suicide, he would have re-written the ending. If he coudn’t find a way to articulate his confusion and develop a sense of empathy, they shouldn’t have published the piece. It would have been the natural progression of the person reporting the story to conclude on an empathetic and philosophical note, probably including a mention of the high suicide rate that is a reality of the trans-community.
This was the story of a young writer who had spent seven months trying to get to the bottom of what started as a whimsical story and realizing that getting “to the bottom” of it had resulted in a person’s suicide. The complexity of the story, and its gradual unwinding, makes the story fascinating. However, the ending feels purposely edgy and dark, rather than human and empathetic.
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