Yes, Journalism Has Consequences. Get Over it.

Illustration By John Tomac

Illustration By John Tomac

For 45 years, Penn State never endured the offseason drama of losing a head football coach. Until this year, the rumor mill and the subsequent hiring free-for-all that occupies the sports pages of most major universities during the winter months never pierced the State College bubble.

So it was odd to see the contorted reactions locals had when Bill O’Brien left town for a head coaching job with the Houston Texans. The backlash was predictable; fans who praised O’Brien’s loyalty and winning record turned around and painted him as a traitor with a mediocre record. Soon the gossip bubbling under the surface came to light.

Then the secondary consequences filtered in. Stores found themselves with unsellable O’Brien-related merchandise. Recruits second-guessed their decisions to commitment to Penn State, The families of assistant coaches were forced to leave town for new jobs.

All of this is mind-numbingly obvious, of course. Sure it stinks for the people who find themselves leaving friends or taking a financial hit. These are real people with real friendships and budgets. But it’s part of the business.

I see a lot of similarities between Penn State’s jarring realization that college sports involves broken promises and uprooted families and the web’s histrionic reaction to Grantland’s investigation into Dr V’s Magical Putter.

Caleb Hannan investigative profile of Dr V is a compelling story that starts with a late night encounter with a Youtube video and ends with the death of the con woman behind the video. As you can imagine, it’s that last part that has people upset.

Most of the outrage has revolved around the fact that Dr V turned out to be transgender, and whether it was ethical to “out” her against her will. But the people who are fixated on that aspect are ignoring Hannan’s primary discovery: Dr V ( who chose the name Essay Anne Vanderbilt after her gender reassignment surgery)  was a con woman who lied about her credentials and connections in order to get wealthy investors to fund the golf putter she had invented.

Among the tall tales she told, Vanderbilt claimed to be: an aeronautical physicist from MIT; her clearance level within the government equaled those given to federal judges; a member of the exalted Vanderbilt family; a private contractor for the Department of Defense; a key researcher on the stealth bomber; and a clearance level is so high that her names cannot be found on government record; and someone who knew former Vice president Dan Quayle.

I want to point out two critical elements of Vanderbilt’s story that keep getting lost in the shuffle. The first is that her name change was explicitly made to deceive people and raise funds for her putter. If she had chosen to rename herself Essay Anne Smith, then that’s no biggie. But she chose Vanderbilt, and she used her new name to mislead investors.

The second point is that her initial condition for agreeing to talk to Hannan wasn’t simply because she wanted his report to focus on “the science and not the scientist.”  She wanted to protect her “association with classified documents” and her fictional government clearance level. In other words, she was most interested in preventing an investigation into her phony scientific credentials.

Back in the 80’s I wrote for Penn State’s college newspaper, the Daily Collegian.  While we weren’t exactly breaking major scandals, but we did learn a lot about Journalism 101. And one the key lessons drilled into us was to be tenacious. Never settle for anything less than the whole truth, and go where your investigation takes you no matter how unexpected the twists and turns are. To be honest,  being a good reporter means being a jerk: break promises; lie if you have to get to the bottom of a story; and if someone tells you not to look into their background and gives you wild, melodramatic warnings if you do so, then by all means dig into their background.

By and large, good journalists are rude, aggressive, selfish, and restless. If you want people to like you, then don’t become a reporter. If you ‘re more concerned about the potential consequences of your investigation than the investigation itself, then don’t become a reporter.

One of the reasons I quit was because the environment even at the college level was so ruthless. I don’t know if Caleb Hannan is a nice guy – he strikes me as affable enough and I commend him for being willing to pursue his story to its end, even if his phrasing in a few parts is poorly chosen. But everyone is assuming that Vanderbilt killed herself for fear of being outed. They’re ignoring the fact that she has a long history of mental illness and at least one previous suicide attempt. It’s also possible that Vanderbilt feared being outed as a Sunoco mechanic and bartender more than any public disclosure of being transgender.

I imagine many people already assumed that a 6 foot 3 woman with an unusually deep voice would be transgender. And we should never forget that no one would have probed into Vanderbilt’s past if she hadn’t spun such tall tales about her credentials and deceived so many people.  She’s the one who chose to con wealthy people and adopt a name after her surgery that would aid her scheme. Being transgender should not let her off the hook for her dishonesty in every other facet of her life.

I think it’s a good that reporters err on the side of being insensitive. Investigative journalism on all levels is suffering because journalists care too much about getting chummy with the people they’re supposed to be watching. As result of the Dr V story, people are coming to grips with the mind-numbingly obvious revelation that investigative journalism impacts real lives, and it often does so negatively.

But it’s always been that way: thanks to the media, a company that dumped toxic waste into a river has filed for bankruptcy. We should (and do) focus on the lives harmed by the chemicals and the hazardous drinking water. But breaking open the story of the corrupt chemical plant also causes lost jobs for the people who worked there, uprooted families, and down the road it could mean divorces and even suicides.

The reporter who scored the revelation that a New Jersey governor may have used his power to punish mayors who wouldn’t endorse him should be commended. But people were fired, reputations ruined, friendships were likely broken and down the road there might be divorces and broken homes. There’s a lot of misery to go around when reporters get big scoops.

So get over it. Journalism is cold-blooded, even if some reporters aren’t. Broken lives are an inherent byproduct of big stories, Given that Hannan’s investigation involved a wild attempt to profile a self-claimed physicist who conned people to create a revolutionary golf club, there would be no way to expose Vanderbilt’s fraud without mentioning who Dr V was before she was Dr V.  And lets not forget that lots of people have lost thousands of dollars in this mess. Who knows how many savings and retirement nest eggs were lost?

3 thoughts on “Yes, Journalism Has Consequences. Get Over it.

  1. “Dr V turned out to be transgender… But the people who are fixated on that aspect are ignoring Hannan’s primary discovery: Dr V … was a con woman”

    Dr. V had delusions of grandeur and she was TS. As you said, the key to the story were her lies about her accomplishments. The fact that she was TS was incidental and didn’t need to be included.

    • If there was a way to reveal the truth about Dr V without also disclosing her transgender status, I would be okay with it.

      But think of it this way: imagine if the Dr V story was a documentary, and after spending 45 minutes uncovering the inconsistencies in her story and raising suspicions that her credentials were phony, the documentary abruptly announces that it won’t tell the viewer who Dr V really was or where she worked, or why it was so hard to find records of her. You’d feel cheated at the very least, and odds are others would have picked up the baton and investigated further, anyway.

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