The Case of Dr. V: To Out a Transgender Woman or Not to Out a Transgender Woman?
By Justin Samuels
A very controversial piece just arose on the ethics of journalists outing the subjects of their story. Caleb Hannan wrote an article on Dr. V’s magical putter. Dr. V was a scientist who claimed to have degrees from MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, she also supposedly worked on several top government jobs. Shortly after Hannan submitted the article, Dr. V committed suicide. A few months later Grantland published the piece. What was so controversial in the article that it possibly factored in Dr. V’s suicide? While doing the story on the new putter Dr. V invented, Hannan discovered nothing about Dr. V’s background was real. He discovered her educational background was a lie (she did not attend either university that’s she claimed), her professional background was fake (in reality she was a mechanic) and her biological gender was male (as Stephen Kroll a.k.a. Dr. V was married twice and he fathered children).
Once the story was published, a storm of comments came on Hannan’s twitter. Many praised him. Others condemned him. Some took issue with some comments of his that were definitely transphobic. Hannan felt a chill when he found out Dr. V was biologically a man, and he outed her to a business partner of hers. That was clearly unethical, and Grantland took responsibility for that. While collecting information on a story, there’s no need to reveal unrelated information while researching a story. Some transgender activists thought that it was wrong for Hannan and Grantland (a website owned by CNN) to out Dr. V’s true gender. This I disagreed with.
Dr. V lied about everything. She was a swindler and a con artist with a criminal past. She lied about her credentials. She liked about her work experience. Her funders never saw any return of their money, and she dismissed any attempt to work out anything to that effect. Upon finding out that Dr. V was a fraud, it would have been unethical and unprofessional for Hannan to sit on that information. He did the right thing in releasing all of that information back to Grantland. His story had been editorially approved, and there is no reason why he would just walk away from this story upon learning that Dr. V is really a man. Dr. V’s true gender needed to be released to show who she really was. As Stephen Kroll, she was a con man. She just continued cons under the identity of Essay Anne Vanderbuilt. If anyone of any gender or orientation had committed a series of crimes under an alias complete with an entirely false background, any investigative journalist would have to reveal the true identity and name that he or she uncovered.
Some activists blame Dr. V’s being outed as a man as cause for his suicide. But that is taken out of context. The true context is Dr. V was outed for fraud. Her crimes would have lead to criminal action (jail time) and civil litigation (lawsuit for funds that were misappropriated). Caleb Hannan had unearthed her past and had essentially destroyed the new facade she had created for herself. Meaning there was no escaping this. Dr. V had accused Hannan of bullying her as a transgender person, but this was nothing more than a con artist trying to hide behind her gender. If she was biologically female with a fake identity and a criminal past, any investigative reporter would have revealed this. If she still considered herself male and got caught, any investigative reporter would have revealed this. A part of equal rights is not requesting special rights. So if it’s relevant to a story that someone is transgender or gay, then by the nature of the story of course the reporter is going to reveal it. Especially if the gender or orientation is linked to crimes. Arguably Dr. V’s name change and identity change was at least partially to cover her criminal past. Criminals have been known to change their names in order to help them perpetuate more crimes. In the end, though Hannan and Grantland could have definitely handled this with more sensitivity, they did the right thing in publishing the truth about Dr. V and that includes her true gender, male.