What Dr.V Says About Today’s Journalism

By Jack Limpert

Caleb Hannan, writer of “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” the Grantland story that this week has inspired thousands of tweets and comments, not long ago was a highly-regarded and well-liked intern at The Washingtonian. Some of the back-and-forth with writers here led me to send this note to Max Potter, a longtime editor and writer at Denver’s 5280 magazine. Max now is a senior adviser to Colorado governor John Hickenlooper but he continues to contribute to Vanity Fair and he still has a lot to say about journalism.
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Max

Caleb was an intern with us for a year and everyone remembers him as a bright, nice young man. But I have to say when I finished Dr. V my visceral reaction was I hated the story and hated the writer. His explanation for why he kept going on it made me, as a reader, keep saying, “Give me a break.” There just seemed a phoniness about how he explained his feelings and his reporting.

My editor reaction was I wondered what kind of tortured path the story may have taken before Grantland ran it, and how much his editors may have pushed Caleb to insert more of himself into it. If the piece had come to me, I think my first reaction would have been to edit Caleb’s “me” stuff way back and then see how it worked. But I doubt I’d have run it.

He’s a talented young man and he needed a better editor.

Jack
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Here’s Max’s response:

Jack,

I met Caleb v. v. briefly. As in a handshake and a hello at a writers’ gathering probably over a year ago. So can’t say I know him. He seemed ambitious. I’ve followed him on social media off and on, for whatever that’s worth. Again, seemed ambitious.

This weekend, I got a little obsessed—I guess you can’t be a little obsessed, so I got obsessed—with the story and the issues. Largely because I spent about year embedded with the family of a 10 y.o. girl who began transitioning as an 8 y.o. 2nd-grader. My reporting for the story that resulted was an incredible learning experience for me and I hope for readers. This beautiful girl and her family were wrestling with so much, not by choice, but because, my god, they had no choice. And protecting her history, shielding their daughter from being outed and the potential ridicule, was something that was with them always. Her family was aware of the incredibly high rates of suicide and harassment and depression common to the trans community. Before I began reporting the story, I agreed to requests the family made so that their daughter would not be put in undue harm’s way. They cooperated with my reporting to help change the ignorance I think coursed through that Grantland story.

Anyhow. Reading that Grantland piece I was horrified. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Based upon that piece it seemed clear to me that Caleb is a v. talented writer, but seemed to be in need of mentoring both in terms of reporting methodology and … geez, I guess just … thinking and considering it all. I think that piece was v. v. close to being v. v. good, but ultimately was left very far from being good.

I think that piece is emblematic of so much of what I think is wrong with what’s happening in journalism today. We’ve got journalism and journalists struggling more than ever before to make a name and a living, and thereby more and more pressure on landing an amazing story. We’ve got less and less staff and experience, fewer and fewer “adults” around, more and more talented kids desperate to make a name and very little mentoring. And, seems to me, we still have this (white) male dominated journalism elite, with their myopic, pseudo-macho ideas of what truth and the pursuit of it means. And … this is what we get.

I think the issues with the story may be rooted in the reporting. There was a chance, perhaps, that if Caleb had adopted a more humane reporting approach, and understood trans, he might have gotten Dr. V to cooperate. I mean, her transition was not fraud. I do think the other professional frauds might have been tied to it, but I would have said to the writer: Hey, dude, the club she invented defied all conventional expectations and appearances, and yet it was uniquely beautiful and elevated the game. Maybe ask Dr. V if she sees any of herself, her own struggles, in the club and design, in that subversive triumph. … Anyhow.

Lately, I’ve been taking stuff that “isn’t my problem” and internalizing it and for some reason feeling it more than I should. This is another example. I’ve got to develop some selective apathy. It’s just bumming me out. If collective introspection comes of this and we all are less ignorant of what it means to be Trans and just more empathetic, then that’s something. So much opportunity in journalism today and yet so much seems upside down.

Max
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From Jack—I think Max gets at the heart of the matter with these two sentences: “We’ve got journalism and journalists struggling more than ever before to make a name and a living, and thereby more and more pressure on landing an amazing story. We’ve got less and less staff and experience, fewer and fewer ‘adults’ around, more and more talented kids desperate to make a name and very little mentoring.”

I’d say again: When Caleb inserted himself into the story, it was done in a way that seemed phony, forced, almost like it was done by an editorial committee. And the result was unbecoming for everyone involved.

Comments

  1. I wouldn’t blame Hannan for the events stemming from publication of his fascinating, yet tragic, Grantland piece. Questions arise not related to Hannan’s painstaking investigative search: 1.) if Ms. V was astute enough to invent this dynamic putter, why couldn’t she have sought counsel from an advisor (legal or p/r) to handle questions about her past? She must have suspected they might arise. (At the very least, she could have been prepared.) 2.) where were McCord and Quayle after initial comments?
    Dr. V could have made a small fortune with her back story alone, in my estimation. Combo that with outstanding invention. . .and who knows? She might have become heroine of LGBT community, while also winning over traditional golf world. (That would have been one great crossover appeal!) Hannan’s piece didn’t contain falsehoods (to my knowledge).
    Tragic that Dr. V took her life. Very sad. Yet, she must have realized that with an invention as popular as hers, someone was bound to express curiosity about her career and/or life. If it hadn’t been Hannan, it undoubtedly would have been another curious writer, or golfer, who eventually would have learned of her life. This isn’t like the scene in Absence of Malice, about the secret (private) abortion; nor is it dishonest. It it is more akin, perhaps to the sad dilemma involving Adm. Jeremy Boorda, in 1996. But muzzling Hannan wouldn’t have prevented this tragedy.

  2. Jack Limpert says

    Along with what seemed the phoniness of the reasons why the writer continued to pursue the story, I’d add that the whole premise of the story seemed implausible. The first 12 grafs go on and on about great golf innovators of the past, seeming to put Dr. V in their company. But if you’re a golfer with any experience and you look at Dr. V’s so-called scientifically amazing putter, I don’t see how you can be anything but 99 percent skeptical. Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of different putters, and tried a lot of them, and Dr. V’s amazing putter seems just another gimmick, a square piece of metal with a hole in it. All the talk about MOI, or moment of inertia? A very high bullshit factor there.

    So if the putter design is just another gimmick and its not going anywhere commercially, and Dr. V’s background seems phony, then maybe it’s a light feature making fun of the gullibility of golfers who’ll believe anything about an amazing advance in golf club design. It’s not a crime—the big golf club companies sell that snake oil every spring, claiming that their new driver hits the ball 20 yards farther or their new putter makes every 10-footer. (See the current Golf magazine.)

    If it’s not a feature about golfers who’ll believe anything, if it seems more a sad story than a light piece, if Dr. V has made it clear she does not want her personal life written about, if nobody really has been harmed, then what’s the story, what does the writer do? As an editor, I’ve seen plenty of those situations: Can this story be saved? I suspect more than one editor said no before Grantland went with it.

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