The first I read about the suicide of Dr. V was discussion on twitter about the ethics of doxxing the journalist Caleb Hannan. I then read Melissa McEwan’s piece Careless, Cruel and Unaccountable and was troubled by this section:
There are already legions of defenders, who are keen to make arguments that Dr. V’s lies about her background are newsworthy, which is debatable, although I tend to agree that lying about her educational and professional history, which were apparently a central part of the pitch to investors and potential buyers, was unethical and worth reporting.
I decided to read the original piece by Caleb Hannan to see exactly what “lies” were told by Dr. V. If it was covering up their identity as a transwoman to prevent doxxing, then Hannan clearly crossed a line. Yet, this isn’t what is implied in McEwan’s statement. McEwan’s implying that their were numerous statements about Dr. V’s background which were not worth reporting. Hannan’s piece is difficult to respond to because there are so many conflicting problems within the article. The article itself is poorly written but I don’t agree with McEwan. There were statements made by Dr. V which did need to be made public knowledge.
Doxxing is a complicated issue and I don’t believe it’s always wrong to “doxx” someone, although I do think we are frequently talking at cross-purposes when using the term “doxx”. Publishing the personal information of anyone out of spite should be open to criminal investigation. However, there are situations where it is important to release personal details and that can involve revealing information that may be potentially harmful to the individual. The question is when is it appropriate to reveal this information. And, in this instance, was Hannan correct, in the article Dr. V’s Magical Putter, to reveal that Dr. V is a transwoman?
Contrary to it’s title, Dr. V’s Magical Putter isn’t about Dr. V. It’s about Hannan, his love of golf, his love of himself and his inability to understand boundaries. It is perfectly normal for a journalist who loves a sport to use their position to investigate a new product that might revolutionise it. It’s also completely normal for journalists to ignore the boundaries set out by people in order to sell papers. This is not unique to Hannan and simply reflects our culture’s obsession with information and gossip regardless of the harm it causes. One only has to examine the coverage of school shootings to see evidence of this: images of traumatised children being led from schools does not add anything to the story. It does increase the trauma of the children and their families.
These three paragraphs set out the tone for the whole piece:
I wanted to know more about Dr. V, so I sent her an email and received one in return that confused the hell out of me. It was early April, and I was trying to set up an appointment to speak with her on the phone. First, however, she insisted that our discussion and any subsequent article about her putter focus on the science and not the scientist. The reason for this stipulation seemed dire.
“I have no issues as long as the following protocols are followed because of my association with classified documents,” she wrote. “Allow me to elucidate; I have the benefits under the freedom of information act the same privileges as federal judges, my anonymity is my security as well as my livelihood, since I do numerous active projects … If the aforementioned is agreeable to you, please respond to this communique at your convenience so we can schedule our lively nuncupative off the record collogue.”
The words caught my eye first. Communique! Nuncupative! Collogue! I hadn’t heard of any of them, and it wasn’t until I looked up their definitions that I understood what she was saying. Everything about her email suggested she might be a tough interview. So, instead of trying to get a straight answer out of Dr. V, I reached out to McCord. He’s the one who first told me how she came to build her putter.
Hannan seems genuinely surprised that Dr. V would refuse to participate in a personal interview, and at the extent of Dr. V’s vocabulary . Last time I checked an extensive vocabulary wasn’t sufficient reason to write snide remarks about another person, but, apparently, this is now classed as journalism. The increasing refusal of individuals to do interviews is because of how intrusive they have become, particularly of celebrities by those desperate for a new angle. We have negated our right to privacy just for the act of being. What is very clear from these paragraphs is that Hannan wasn’t actually interested in the science behind Dr. V’s invention or what led them to invent the product. Instead, the focus remains on Hannan.
Much of the middle part of the article is a history of golf and quite irrelevant to the article itself. The information was presented more to prove what Hannan knows about the history of golf and the people within the sport rather than the invention of a new type of putter. I can understand, as a journalist, why Hannan wanted to investigate Dr. V’s qualifications and history: an acquaintance with Dan Quayle and working on the development of the Stealth Bomber are the kinds of stories that remain in public memory. It’s the kind of story that people mention at parties and well within the realm of an article on the science behind a new putter. Publishing this information is not doxxing. It should be within the public sphere because of laws on finance and company accountability. Naming the designer of a product produced by a company isn’t necessary, but, if you are representing the company as a designer and proprietor, particularly if raising investment funds, then your name should be public knowledge. The names of your children, family, your hobbies, and everything else aren’t but your qualifications to run a company are important.
Where Hannan crosses the line is in expecting that he has a right to demand answers from Dr. V out with those already deemed public record under laws governing business practise. It might make a great story to discover that a product was built in a bathroom by a man who was raising his nieces or by accidentally falling over a cat or crashing your car but that doesn’t mean the inventor has an obligation to share with a journalist. Hannan’s insistence that Dr. V was obliged to answer all his questions speaks volumes about Hannan’s feelings of entitlement.
Hannan’s researching Dr. V’s qualifications himself is basic fact-checking and suggestions that this is doxxing demonstrates a poor understanding of journalistic practise. It is how Hannan wrote about his investigation into Dr.V’s qualifications which is poor journalistic practise. He has gone for a narrative best used in children’s adventure fiction than journalism:
I contacted the registrar’s office at MIT. It had no record of anyone named Essay Anne Vanderbilt attending. The registrar at the University of Pennsylvania confirmed the same thing. Whatever Dr. V’s actual credentials, they didn’t include a business degree from Wharton, where she had supposedly gotten her MBA. This was significant but inconclusive. After all, Dr. V could have attended the schools under a different name. But why wouldn’t she have mentioned that?
The deeper I looked, the stranger things got. It seemed as if there was no record of Dr. V’s existence prior to the early 2000s. And what little I managed to find didn’t exactly align with the image she projected of a world-class scientist. I couldn’t find any record of her ever living in Boston. The same went for Washington, D.C. And when I contacted Walter Reed, I was told the hospital had no way to prove she had ever worked there.
There are literally thousands of reasons that a person would change their name. Ignoring the whole witness protection program angle beloved in US mob dramas, they are:
- women escaping domestic violence
- adults survivors of familial child sexual abuse
- children of people who achieved notoriety due to crime
- their personal criminal behaviour
- getting married
I’m always surprised by the number of times I’ve heard someone say “but X can’t have a degree because there is no one of that name at the university at that time” and it turns out they’ve forgotten the issue of marriage which is the number one reason people (and read that as women) change their names. It’s invariably a man who says it.
When investigating someone who has changed their name, it is important to recognise that fear of violence is a common reason. Depending on the story, it may be important to ascertain why a name change took place but not at the cost of the safety of the individual being investigated, unless the change in identity can be shown to be for purposes of fraud or deliberate misrepresentation.
It is difficult to tell from Hannan’s investigation whether or not Dr. V meant to commit fraud when deliberately misrepresenting their qualifications. It is most definitely unethical business practise to claim to have designed part of the Stealth Bomber, helped invent bluetooth technology and have worked for the Department of Defence. I would have serious concerns about investing money in a company where the director and designer made such outrageous claims. I believe this information was required public knowledge. Ethical business practises protect workers and consumers as well as those profiting from the company. If people invested in Yar based on lies, then I would suggest fraud is not an inappropriate term to use. It may not be the legal definition of fraud but it was an attempt to gain money through deception, even if that money was then used appropriately. Raising these issues is well within the rights of public discourse.
Deliberately misrepresenting one’s academic qualifications can be signs of poor health, unethical business practises or malicious attempts to defraud. If it’s true that Dr. V was only a trained mechanic, it hardly invalidates the product. Personally, I think it’s more amazing that a product which revolutionises a sport is created by someone who can’t play it and has no formal training in the science involved in aerodynamics. I’m assuming it has changed the sport considerably but it is hard to tell through Hannan’s self-aggrandising twaddle within the article.
Requiring a person to be honest about their academic qualifications when approaching investors doesn’t require stating other personal information, such as the fact that they are a transwoman. I am concerned that the two are being conflated within responses to Hannan’s article. I am equally concerned that Dr. V’s history of harassment complaints and evidence of being unwell is being ignored as people castigate Hannan for doxxing. Dr. V lied about academic qualifications, employment history, potential investors, had a documented history of harassment and a a civil suit with an $800 000 payout. These are not insignificant details and should not be minimised or ignored.
Do I believe Hannan crossed a line with this article? Absolutely. It’s poorly written, full of extraneous and unnecessary information about Hannan and is clearly an attempt to diminish Dr. V by painting them as mentally unstable. Equally, Dr. V’s behaviour was concerning: multiple harassment complaints is a sign of either a deeply disturbed person or a person with a serious potential for criminal activity; since harassment itself is a crime.
Was it necessary to identify Dr V as a transwoman? Well, I just don’t know because Hannan’s article is so poorly written that it’s hard to tell if the lies about qualifications and experience were a deliberate attempt at fraud or a case of unethical self-aggrandisement. If it were fraud, then it is possible that Dr V’s transitioning may have been relevant to the story. Certainly, it was important to include Dr. V’s history of harassment and other inappropriate and potentially criminal behaviour. I’m just not sure.
I am very concerned about the suggestions that Hannan’s article caused Dr. V’s suicide. Dr. V was clearly unwell and unhappy but it is simply far too simplistic to suggest that potentially publishing this article caused their suicide. Hannan clearly lacks compassion for Dr. V and his behaviour during his investigations may have crossed journalist ethical standards but we need to be very careful when saying publishing caused Dr. V to commit suicide. It erases the totality of Dr. V’s experiences up to that point and minimises any distress that they felt during their life.
Journalists publish articles every day that people desperately do not want them too: whether it be investigations into major corporate fraud, police brutality or male violence. Suggesting that they shouldn’t publish a story because someone might get hurt fails to acknowledge the point of journalism. These stories need to be published but when they involve an individual in distress or trauma, they need to be written with compassion and kindness. Sometimes details need to be left out.
And, sometimes editors need to step in.
Response to criticisms:
It appears that I was not very clear with this piece so just to clarify.
1. My objections to the article are not because it was investigative journalism but rather because it was a very poor example of investigative journalism. Investigative journalism is about the subject; not the author. A couple of hundred words about how much the author knows about a peripheral subject, in this case golf, isn’t part of the investigation.
2. I am aware of the reasons why women change their names and refuse to give their old name. I was trying to express derision at Hannan’s “oh my goodness, why wouldn’t someone tell me their name” routine.
3. Dr. V’s personal history of harassment, bankruptcy and lying about his credentials to garner investors is the story that needed to be reported; not Hannan’s unnecessary history of golf as he knows it. I have no legal knowledge of business practice but, at best, Dr. V’s behaviour was unethical.
4. And, harassment is a crime for a reason. Multiple accusations of harassment suggest a pattern of criminal behaviour which also needed to be reported.
5. Publishing information which is in the public sphere due to court cases is not doxxing.
6. It is possible that the allegations of harassment against DR V were made maliciously due to transphobia. It is also likely that there were multiple allegations because Dr. V was a serial harasser. It is possible to be an inventor and an abuser.