“It didn’t need to exist. And that was not something that occurred to me in the process of reporting.”
Out of everyone who read an early draft of “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” only Caleb Hannan’s wife asked him the most critical question of all: Did this story even need to exist?
Hannan spoke publicly for the first time on Saturday at the Mayborn narrative journalism conference in Texas, in a panel called “Anatomy of an Error,” to dissect what went wrong with his 2014 story for Grantland, which ended with the suicide of a transgender woman. The story led to massive public criticism—as well as an internal investigation at ESPN and a letter of contrition from editor Bill Simmons—about how Hannan and his editors handled the story, and whether the reporting pushed a woman to take her own life. Hannan was joined on the panel by writers Hanna Rosin and Michael J. Mooney, and Boston Magazine editor (and one of Hannan’s early critics) S.I. Rosenbaum.
Speaking in a room filled with hundreds of journalists, Hannan was both extremely self-critical and at times emotional as he went through the chronology of reporting and editing for the piece.
Late in the process of vetting the story, Hannan said he was contacted by one of Grantland’s freelance fact-checkers, who raised concerns about the story—the first time anyone other than his wife had voiced those concerns. “Some of the first words out of her mouth were, ‘There’s a chance this woman is going to hurt herself,’ and I said, ‘I know and I’m scared shitless, and I don’t know what to do,’ and she said, ‘Okay I just want to make sure I said that.’ And that’s a conversation I immediately should have taken to my editor, but I didn’t.”
Why not, he was asked.
“I don’t know.”
Hannan reflected on the ideas that journalists should hold people accountable or seek out the truth at all cost. But it’s not that simple. “At every point in the reporting I could justify myself going forward … ‘I’m doing my job.’ But part of the job was to assess whether it was worth it. And there were two people who saw that. In talking with my wife, in talking with this fact-checker, I said, ‘What happened?’ And they said, ‘You were in denial.’
“There’s this idea that it’s not going to happen to me. There is a momentum to a story that’s hard to stop. … It would have been a blow to my ego to set aside something I knew was going to be talked about. But I should have.”