Monday, January 20, 2014

Reporters, Transsexuals, Privacy and Crime

Caleb Hannan set out to write an article on Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a former scientist on secret defense projects who then developed a high tech golf club that has awed many golfers. He discovered that Vanderbilt was not a scientist, had never worked on secret projects, was not a member of the famous Vanderbilt family, and had lied about all of this to investors while persuading them to put money into her golf club company. This last is a criminal offense called fraud. Hannan also discovered that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was born Stephen Krol and had lived most of her life as a man. Vanderbilt threatened Hannan with mysterious "harm" if he published any of this and tried to get him to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Hannan refused to be intimidated and made it clear that he intended to publish. Vanderbilt committed suicide before the article even appeared.

This has generated a lot of online debate; Grantland, which ran the original article, is now also running a letter from Christina Kahrl complaining about all sorts of "errors" made by Hannan:
Hannan’s job might have seemed fairly straightforward. There’s a cool new tool with a padded sales pitch — does it really work? He could dig into its virtues on the golf course and look at the validity of Essay Anne Vanderbilt’s claims on behalf of her product, and as a matter of basic homework verify her claims of expertise in inventing it. And he did a good chunk of that checklist, effectively debunking her elaborate claims of expertise with an ease almost anyone in the electronic age has within his or her power. He struggled with the question of whether or not she’d actually designed a great putter; if you’re a golfer, that might have been what you wanted to know. It certainly would have been the extent of what you needed to know.

Unfortunately, that isn’t where Hannan stopped. Instead of fulfilling his mission in its entirety, he lurched into something that had nothing to do with his story, but that he was excited to share, repeatedly: Vanderbilt was a transsexual woman.

By any professional or ethical standard, that wasn’t merely irrelevant to the story, it wasn’t his information to share. Like gays or lesbians — or anyone else, for that matter — trans folk get to determine for themselves what they’re willing to divulge about their sexuality and gender identity.
I vehemently disagree.

By lying to investors about her background -- claiming to have worked on stealth aircraft, for example, and to have a degree from MIT -- Vanderbilt committed a serious crime. When you lie about yourself in such a material way, you invite questions about your past life. How are people supposed to find out whether you really went to MIT if they don't know the name you lived under for most of your life? Under these circumstances knowing that Vanderbilt was Stephen Krol is absolutely relevant.

I am all for privacy. But if you want people not to pry into your background, you should be honest about it. When your lies rise to a level that any judge would find worthy of civil penalties at least, you lose the right to be left alone. (If those investors had sued Vanderbilt, does anybody think they wouldn't have won?) It is sad that Vanderbilt killed herself, but it is not Hannan's fault. If your own lies place you in a terrible position, you cannot blame your predicament on the person who exposes them.

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