I try to avoid writing about reporting because I constantly feel like reporting is something I’m still figuring out. That said, I know Caleb Hannan a little, and did just write a feature that involved a trans woman as one of the two principles. I actually feel like I have a stake in the debate over Caleb’s Magical Putter story, so I’m going to chime in.
The piece is obviously rife with moral flaws that have been documented elsewhere. But what fascinates me is how the moral shortcomings and the literary shortcomings are bound together in the structure of the article, in the themes Caleb did and did not address, in the writing itself. Caleb’s principle failure is a failure to engage in the murky emotional complexities of his subject, and of his own actions in reporting the story.
It is not about whether another writer would have pushed as hard into Dr. V’s personal life as Caleb did*; it is about whether having pushed, that writer would have run away from the consequences of his or her actions. When a journalist drastically changes a person’s life by reporting on it, he is obligated to address his impact. In the Magical Putter, there is no acknowledgement by Caleb of his own possibly terminal effect on Dr. V’s life. Without that acknowledgement, setting up her suicide as a late reveal, a sad coda, strikes me as not only an insensitive decision but a potentially cowardly one. In the last paragraph, Caleb acknowledges that he is writing a eulogy. But for whom? The story lacks the empathy and emotional weight its subject — any human being — demands in a eulogy.
In other words, Caleb should have considered not writing this at all. And if he was going to write it, he should have began with the suicide. Instead, the Magical Putter felt like a story about golf. It should not have. A mysterious con woman who sells golf clubs and dupes thousands is absolutely a subject worth writing about. But when a real life literary character like Dr. V presents herself, the goal should not be EXPOSE REVEAL FIND THE TRUTH. Especially if the story is written after she has already taken her own life in the midst of the reporting. The goal should have been to tell Dr. V’s story in a truthful and sensitive way, acknowledging the writer’s place in it. Instead, the story treats the suicide as a detail. The outings in the piece — as trans but also as con woman — feel all the more brutal because Caleb seems to make no effort to actually understand Dr. V or her motives. He treats her like a subject, not like a human.
Treating a person as a subject might make sense in a newspaper report about fraudulent golf clubs. It does not make sense all the time. But that’s what we get in magazines now. “The story” is fetishized above all else, even at the expense of a larger story. Throughout this piece, we are privileged to Caleb sharing the details of his reporting. This makes sense. And if he were just uncovering a scam, it would be enough. (Caleb, as I know him, is a very good investigative reporter, who writes well about financial scams and the inner workings of corporations, and other important journalistic topics.) Reporting is its own skill, its own art. But reporting is not the highest level of seeking and facts are not the highest level of truth.
*For the record, I would not have pushed. When I reported on Miss Gaviota, a trans lucha libre wrestler for ESPN, I was reporting on a person who was already very much out. But she was extremely reticent about my including other subjects regarding her personal history and family life that, although fascinating and complicated, were not crucial to the story. I left them out.
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