SBD/January 21, 2014/Media

Bill Simmons Apologizes For Publishing Controversial Grantland Article

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GRANTLAND.com's Bill Simmons yesterday posted an article on the website detailing the process by which a controversial story written by Caleb Hannan about inventor Essay Anne Vanderbilt was published and wrote, "I am apologizing on our behalf." Hannan in the initial report investigated a "magical" putter invented by Vanderbilt, or Dr. V, "for seven solid months." Hannan's story uncovered that Vanderbilt was not entirely truthful about her credentials when creating the putter. Hannan also uncovered that Vanderbilt was transgender. Vanderbilt "committed suicide sometime in October, at least four or five weeks after Caleb's last interaction with her." Simmons wrote Hannan "never, at any time, threatened to out her on Grantland." Simmons: "He was reporting a story and verifying discrepancy issues with her background. That’s it. Just finding out facts and asking questions." Hannan's "biggest mistake" was "outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive." Simmons: "I don’t think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland." Simmons noted Grantland at the time of Vanderbilt's suicide "had no plans to run the piece." Earlier this month, before Grantland execs "officially decided to post Caleb’s piece, we tried to stick as many trained eyeballs on it as possible." Between 13-15 people "read the piece in all, including every senior editor but one, our two lead copy desk editors, our publisher and even ESPN.com’s editor-in-chief." All of them were "blown away by the piece," and everyone "thought we should run it." Simmons: "Ultimately, it was my call. So if you want to rip anyone involved in this process, please, direct your anger and your invective at me. Don’t blame Caleb or anyone that works for me. It’s my site and anything this significant is my call. Blame me. I didn’t ask the biggest and most important question before we ran it." He added, "To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake -- and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed" (GRANTLAND.com, 1/20). 

GOING TOO FAR? SLATE's Josh Levin wrote while every reporter "strives to uncover the truth," reporters also are "supposed to call on our reserves of emotional intelligence to comprehend the people we’re writing about." Hannan’s story, and his "defenders, show the dangers of privileging fact-finding and the quest for a great story over compassion and humanity." Levin: "I believe that 'Dr. V’s Magical Putter' was a story worth telling, but this was not the right way to tell it" (SLATE.com, 1/19). SI.com's Richard Deitsch wrote, "Though I do not know the writer personally, I believe he initially approached the piece without ill intent, and the same writer has produced thoughtful takes in the past including on homophobia in MLS." Deitsch: "I also know enough editors and writers at Grantland to know they care about people and the subjects they feature on their site. This is not the clown division at ESPN." Had Grantland "had the piece to do again, I'd like to believe they would have reframed (or excised) the latter half of the piece -- the suicide should have been handled far more sensitively -- and offered a separate piece from the reporter or editors explaining motivation, the reporting process and why they ran the story" (SI.com, 1/19).

REPUTATION AT STAKE: THE NEW REPUBLIC's Marc Tracy wrote this is the "kind of story that could breed cynicism about Grantland." A story about a "weird-looking putter, whether it is effective or not, and its fraudulent inventor has all the makings of a classic Grantland story: long, magazine-y, sophisticated, interested in a subculture, extrapolating from an odd detail about a bizarre corner of the world of sports to tell a broader human story." But several outlets, including Jezebel.com, now is "calling them a 'sports blog' that helped abet Vanderbilt’s suicide." One article is "not going to destroy Grantland’s reputation," as during its first three years, the website has become a "valuable outlet for analytically sophisticated yet accessible writing about major sports as well as for exactly this kind of sports story." Still, it should "serve as a wake-up call." Something or someone in the editorial process "should have caught the gigantic problems" (NEWREPUBLIC.com, 1/19).
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