Against The Caleb Hannan Two-Minute Hate
Journalist James Kirchick, who is openly gay, punches back powerfully against the mob that has demonized Caleb Hannan, the Grantland writer who wrote about the transgender Dr. V, who killed herself before the story came out. Excerpt:
Accusations of imaginary “transphobia” hurled at a team of sportswriters aren’t the most disturbing aspect of this controversy. Rather, it’s the army of outside observers who see their role as guardians and gatekeepers of journalism. Attacking Grantland for posthumously revealing Vanderbilt’s transgender status, they are assailing the printing of public information. Once Grantland decided to publish the piece, how else was Hannan to explain the discrepancies in Vanderbilt’s life, and the impossibility of tracking down any information relating to her pre-2003 existence, without mentioning this salient fact?
Ah, but the critics contend that Vanderbilt was not a suitable subject in the first place. Rosenberg thinks that Gary McCord, the professional golf commentator whose fervent praise of the Yar putter initially interested Hannan in pursuing the story about its creation, makes a far better profile. Somehow, the people attacking Grantland—few of whom, like many credentialed “media critics,” are not actual journalists—know better than the editors of this acclaimed site what constitutes a good story. They insist that, because Hannan started writing about a golf putter, he was obligated to continue writing about a golf putter, even when his dogged reporting turned up something far more interesting. By this journalistic logic, Woodward and Bernstein should have kept themselves content reporting the details of a routine break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters.
People not in the news business rarely see the pressure publishers, editors, and reporters come under from organized interests groups who feel that they should in some way control what gets reported about members of those groups. When I was at the Dallas Morning News, some leaders in the local Muslim community who were tight with the Muslim Brotherhood pressed hard against my editor to make me stop reporting and commenting on facts about their ideology and operations that they didn’t want the public to know. I was lucky; my editor heard the critics out, but she stood by me, because I documented everything I wrote. In the meetings they had with the editorial board in which I was present, they rarely if ever challenged a single fact I wrote; rather, they challenged my motivation for writing it, as if screeching, “Bigot! Bigot! Bigot!” would be enough to shut me down. In some places, it might have been. I was fortunate enough to have signed on to a listserv for one of these activist groups long enough to read their stuff before they realized I was part of it (I used my own name). I was able to download discussions they had about how they needed to quietly get some Christian pastors to go to the publisher of my newspaper and denounce me as a threat to the safety of area Muslims. They spoke about how they intended to destroy my career by making me out to be a bigot and hater. I took their notes and published them online.
Understand, these efforts were not meant to challenge the facts or logic I reported — that would have been perfectly legitimate — but rather to pressure the newspaper into not publishing them at all. If you talk to reporters and editors who have experience with the Catholic sex abuse scandal story (prior to 2002), they will tell you that Catholic bishops and others often succeeded in convincing newspaper publishers not to print abuse stories that were true, but that would make the Church look bad. I have personal knowledge of one pre-2002 case like this in which two reporters who were breaking news almost daily about a clerical sex abuse ring were ordered off the story after an archbishop called the publisher.
I want journalists to be more broadly educated about the people and the subjects they cover. I do not want journalists to be dictated to by activists or activist groups of the left or right who believe they have the right to set the bounds for what is acceptable coverage of their constituencies. These organizations and activists have the right to voice their own opinions, of course, but I wish they would take the Stanley Crouch approach, versus the Spike Lee approach. In the 1980s, Spike Lee gave an interview in which he said that black people need to become more powerful in Hollywood to “control” their image. Crouch, a professional critic who is also black, spoke out against this, saying that the more defensible goal is to expand the portrayals of blacks in film rather than to control them. Intimidating a newspaper or magazine into refusing to run a story you dislike displays a certain strength, no doubt, but more fundamentally it betrays weakness.