What Caleb Hannan's Article Taught Me
On January 15, 2013, Grantland.com ran a powerful, emotionally-stirring article penned by freelance journalist Caleb Hannan entitled Dr. V's Magical Putter. Since it's publication, the article has grown into one of the most important written pieces in recent memory... for all the wrong reasons. Full disclosure: I don't have a journalism degree. I went to school for health administration and psychology. Along the way I have stumbled into a writing class once or twice, but I cannot attest to my sobriety at those occasions.
I was enthralled and captivated by Hannan's article, which spans roughly 7,700 words. Incredibly well-written, it unfolded like a TV miniseries saturated with intrigue, mystery, plot twists and incredible visuals. I became intoxicated with sharing the article as quickly as possible across any social media platform I could find, praising it the entire way.
Then a funny thing happened; people actually stated they hated the article. Not just dislike; pure and utter hatred.
One thing I've learned since becoming a blogger is that no matter what stance you take, someone is ready to disagree with you and completely shit on your story. It's just what we expect from the internet. It happens. Writers have to deal with it. So, I ignored the dissenting opinions on Hannan's piece.
But they continued. And continued. And continued.
I eventually realized that I needed to take a step back, read what people were actually saying, and to keep an open mind. I needed to listen with my eyes instead of reacting to what I thought was just contrarians run amok.
In short time, my opinions on the piece changed.
What Went Wrong
In his reaction piece to Hannan's article, Geoff Shackelford (a writer whom I greatly respect) was rather critical of what I originally thought was a paramount article. In fact, when folks at ESPN and Grantland started to panic due to what had become a flurry of bad press, it was Shackelford's explanation that first introduced me to the glaring problem in Dr. V that I previously missed. He writes:
As I read "Dr. V's Magical Putter" tonight with little knowledge of the depth of the criticisms leveled against it, the story immediately made me sick as the writer presented information making the case against himself. And as someone who loves our profession and respects what [Grantland Editor-In-Chief Bill] Simmons was doing with his site, I'm horrified that so many people had such poor judgement...
The story reads as if [Hannan is] badgering. To the point of absurdity. This is a golf putter he was writing about, not an NSA leak story! The subject spoke on the condition that her personal life not be probed.
In other words, Caleb Hannan (inadvertently?) outed a closeted member of the transgender community to an investor, which may or may not have lead to her suicide. That's not a plot twist. That's a tragedy.
When the smoke clears from the fallout of Hannan's piece, there is a need for an unbiased analysis of what was actually achieved by its publication.
On one hand, there's the 500-pound elephant in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge: page views. Hannan's piece went viral -- quickly -- leading to what I can safely assume was millions of page views. Websites, even those as popular as Grantland, thrive on them. Page views lead to ad clicks, which leads to revenue landing into someone's pocket. To that end, Hannan's piece succeeded.
Second, we have the development and exposure of Hannan as an investigative reporter/journalist. Did he dig too far? To what end should writers go for the sake of a "good story"? At one point does a story's focus shift from being informative to degrading into muckraking?
Third, what is to be said about respecting a fellow human being's privacy? It is clear that Dr. V wanted to be kept as anonymous as possible, asking for Hannan's story to instead focus on a putter and not on her background. I agree that should have been respected, and I agree that it was not.
Finally, what was the story actually about?
the putter catalyst
In his piece, Hannan goes to great lengths to explain that Dr. V wanted the article to focus on the putter, not her personal life. In my opinion, Hannan succeeded in doing so.
The story was about the putter all along. In fact, the story never exists without the putter. Golf very well may be the most personal, individualistic sport in every sense of either word. If you walk into the World Golf Hall of Fame, you will find displays of golf equipment from the game's history alongside those who used it. Every golf club has a personality, and that personality is impossible with a person.
It is unfair (and impossible) to separate a piece of golf equipment from its creator, especially in an industry where names like Roger Cleveland, Scotty Cameron, Eli Callaway, Bobby Jones, and Jesse Ortiz have become household names. To that end, Hannan was not wrong by wanting to introduce the world to a putter's inventor. In fact, it would have been wrong for him not to.