Dr. V's suicide and journalistic ethics

Last week, Caleb Hannan wrote an article about a clever new golf club and its inventor, Dr. Essay Vanderbilt. Starting out as a profile, it briefly covers the scientific claims behind the design and Dr. V's eccentricities and pretensions. We learn, ultimately, that Dr. V defrauded investors, though none of those quoted seem terribly bothered about it. We also learn that she was a trans person. Finally, at the end, we learn she killed herself, shortly after Hannan notified her of her imminent outing in the press.

Initially achieving some praise, Hannan's story was soon criticized. Critics noticed how anxiously and quietly V's suicide was footnoted away, and how Hannan weaved discussion of her trans status into discussion of her fraudulent business activity.

Slate's Josh Levin says that it privileged fact-finding over compassion. At The New Republic, Marc Tracy identifies more problems. Here's Bronwen Clune, at The Guardian:

It's not right to say that Hannan is responsible for Vanderbilt's suicide, as many are now doing – the issues around suicide and mental health are too complex for that. However, the pursuit of the subject in the way Hannan did was misguided and lacking in compassion or understanding of his subject. As a result, the piece reads like the ego trip of someone who does not understand his role, nevermind his power, as a journalist. …

Hannan employed transparency in his detailed, first person writing style as a journalistic device employed to make him seem accountable. But here's the thing: as journalism moves to a more commendable open format, transparency does not absolve responsibility. There needs to be some deeper thinking on what constitutes ethically responsible journalism in the age of transparency. We cannot hide behind it as a defence when our actions are wrong – they are wrong whether behind closed doors or out in the open. Hannan's piece should never have been published; there was no obvious news interest outweighing Vanderbilt's right not to be outed.

A common suggestion is that you could just point out that Dr. V changed her name, and that this stymied efforts to research her past. But that still exposes her trans status (because the old name was masculine) or demands the writer be clever about hiding it. In any case, the writer would know that publishing a news article about possibly-criminal activity would generate intense further scrutiny of his subject. Whether or not anything about Dr. V was legitimately newsworthy, any mainstream story about Dr. V was likely to end in her exposure, even if it did not expose her.

Another thing: critics keep saying that Hannan's article was great storytelling, hiding terrible ethics. No. It's a lurid mess. It's written and paced like a 90's-era daytime TV thriller, copying the structural and sensational qualities of other works without caring for how and why they work.

Take, for example, how he waits until the end of the story to inform the reader of Dr. V's suicide, her life's final and most tragic fact. He puts it in "Act 3" in an attempt at epic climax and denouement, but it comes over as an anxious footnote. Why? Because the author has made himself the protagonist, but can't take responsibility for his personal involvement in Dr. V's life and death, as the story he's trying to write would demand of him.

In this imaginary TV movie, we wouldn't see Dr. V's final moments. We'd see his face instead, the intrepid reporter, deflated and shocked by the tragic news that he's listening to on the phone. The sad, heartwrenching, awful, Pulitzer-winning truth. Bad movie, right? Notwithstanding his ethics, Hannan's storytelling here is bad in exactly the same way: because the readers don't care about Caleb Hannan's Quest for Truth.

They care about golf clubs. And people.