Not an Excuse, But…

So, I have a friend, or, I guess, you can work with a dude for a year and drink with him regularly and now he’s not a friend, but just some guy you used to know in the course of a “full disclosure.” Saying he’s only someone I used to work with seems, to me, in my case, disingenuous. I liked the shit out of him and have cheered for him at various stages in his career. On the other hand, when he came through town last and saw his “friends from the Scene,” I wasn’t among the people he tried to get together with, though he apologized later, which is how I found out he’d been in town at all. So, that’s, I guess, the accurate assessment of our friendship. We kind of keep track of each other and I’ve been excited to see where his career might go.

So, here’s also the thing. He fucked up. Badly. And now a person is dead.

But, here is also the thing. As much as I read his story and imagined with growing horror what he was doing and what that would mean if he were writing about someone I knew–what if this were my friend V. instead of just some stranger?–I read his story and imagined with growing horror whether I would have written that story that way. And the thing that I keep coming back to is this: I’m not sure. Maybe not in this particular case. Maybe, if the circumstances were that I found out that a person I was investigating for a story about golf clubs was transgender and really, really didn’t want that to come out, I might back off. Maybe I might be smart enough to ask around about how best to handle the situation. Especially if I knew she’d tried to commit suicide before.

But I write about Scott DesJarlais regularly, about what a fucking tool he is. And I know he was suicidal at one point (I mean, say what you want and claim you knew the gun was empty, but sitting around with the barrel in your mouth does not make you non-suicidal) and I know he didn’t want the fact that he’d pressured his girlfriend into having an abortion to come out and I jumped right on the dog pile.

It’s supposed to be better because he chose to be a public person and he’s a vile jackass, but is it? I’m not sure.

I’m also not sure because I think a lot of writing–in my case, a lot of blogging–is pretty formulaic. I think, in fact, people’s own narratives about themselves are pretty formulaic (hence why Tarot cards work). And the whole “scrappy reporter sticks it to the rich and powerful” is a pretty strong narrative. It’s at the heart of the phrase I’ve seen bandied about against my friend–Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. I feel fairly certain that this was the strong, simply narrative at the heart of the urge to uncover this woman’s fraud (let me be clear: about her education and credentials). How dare you, rich and powerful person, try to pull one over on the public?

But it’s at the point that the simple narrative falls short that I feel uncertain. If you discover that your framework for the story is the wrong one–that this isn’t a powerful person fucking over the unwitting–how certain are you that the other simple shorthand ways you have for explaining the situation are workable, not outdated, not so bloody fucking violent? I’ve known my friend a long time and we’ve had a lot of discussions about writing and justice and sticking it to The Man. And it would have never occurred to me that, sitting in his writerly toolkit, unused but waiting in case he needed it, was “trans women are unstable frauds.”

So, I kind of don’t know how to process that. And, frankly, obviously, that’s not just a narrative he had on hand, ready to snap it into place when the story he was telling became strange to him, but one his editors also saw and thought seemed plausible and fine.

I feel kind of disjointed and incoherent about this. But I’ll just say this. A lot of the discussion of this story is about how my friend is some obvious villain. But I am certain that, if anyone reading this had sat down and had a beer with him before this happened, you’d find a guy you liked, a guy you thought was on your side.

And I get why everyone is all “Oh, not me! I would never…” But I just don’t believe it. And, in part, I don’t believe it because I would have believed my friend when he said something similar (and, in fact, as people have pointed out, he pretty much did when talking about the Kellers).

I feel like saying “Oh, not me! I would never…” is a lie. For me, anyway. I feel pretty certain I’d never write about a trans woman this way or go around outing her to her acquaintances. But I’m not certain I’d never fuck someone over in my writing as badly as my friend fucked over this woman. I’m especially not certain because I know I think there are a lot of people who deserve to be raked over the coals. I mean, who cares if fucking DesJarlais has some nights of discomfort?

I don’t know. I don’t really have a point. A woman is dead. And my friend seems to obviously have contributed to that death. And everyone else seems so angry and certain that this is beyond what a decent person would do. And yet, I know my friend and I’d call him a decent person. So, that certainty scares me.

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10 thoughts on “Not an Excuse, But…

  1. Well, there’s an important difference between DesJarlais and Vanderbilt that I think makes your comparison mismatched. DesJarlais did something wrong – being trans is not doing something wrong. Not only that, but the wrong thing DesJarlais did exposed him as a hypocrite using his position of power to keep others from doing something he had no problem doing when it was convenient for him. The situations are not very similar, I think.

  2. Yeah, I don’t know. I saw someone on twitter saying that all the journalists she admires think his piece is incredible and all the activists she admires are horrified. And I think that’s because journalists are trained to turn over every rock and say what they found there. When a journalist turns his attention to you, his training is that he should know everything about you. Other journalists think his piece is good because there was something she wanted to keep private and she could not keep it private from him. By that standard, he did a good job, regardless of the outcome for her.

    I’m sorry I’m not very coherent about this. I just find the whole thing so upsetting. Just thinking about the article, knowing he thought he was writing a detective story and how she was experiencing it as an unbearable horror show, it just… it makes it hard for me to feel settled in what I want to say.

    But I think part of what journalism is is a kind of violence (eh, i don’t like the word ‘violence’ exactly, but I can’t come up with a word I like better), is a level of intrusion that is very hard on people who are having the best moment of their lives and who can be completely open about every detail of their lives, let alone what it’s like to be scrutinized in that way for eight months when the boundaries you’ve set aren’t being abided by.

    But I’m just not sure that the solution to keeping there from being more people like V. is simply to make a rule that journalists can find and report everything about a person except for the gender they were assigned at birth or the name their parents gave them, unless it is directly relevant to the story. Because, a.) then you get into parsing out whether it is directly relevant to the story and b.) because it leaves in place the larger idea that what journalism does is okay. And not just journalism, but all kinds of investigative public discourse (is it, for instance, fine to share my friend’s home address with the world on Twitter, even if you don’t know who might get a hold of that address or what they might use it for? And what about the rest of his family? Is it find to share his address, which is their address, even though they aren’t involved? Apparently so).

    And that’s the part I’m just not sure about anymore. If you have the time and energy to turn a firehose of attention on someone and you know what that firehose does to people, you have to think carefully about the power of the tool you’re wielding. But we never do. We just all sit around and justify to ourselves why our use of that huge stream of attention in our instance is okay.

  3. And yet, I’m unsatisfied with that position, too, because, of course, how convenient that, now that less powerful people have access to that massive stream of attention in order to make the more powerful shape the fuck up, I’m wishing no one would use it that way.

    So, even a minute later, I kind of feel like my own position is bullshit.

    And we need investigation into things. And clear reporting on those investigations.

    So, again. I just don’t fucking know. But a woman is dead. It seems like that should cause something to change. But, I guess, it probably won’t.

  4. You may or may not like this piece from another writer about the narratives that drive reporting/writing. I thought it was very thought-provoking. http://mariadahvanaheadley.wordpress.com/2014/01/18/sinatras-cold-is-contagious-hostile-subjects-vulnerable-sources-the-ethics-of-outing/ I’m sorry you’re dealing with this; I’ve been in the position of having a friend do something that I couldn’t sit easy with and the dissonance between the person I knew/liked and the action they took. It’s a hard place to be in.

  5. TCP

    I’m sorry this situation is causing you such personal consternation, B.
    It’s not as though you don’t have plenty of things to stress over already.

    I am (still) a journalist, even after 15 years out of the daily business, and I was horrified at the story. I was not impressed by any part of it. Vetting a source to ensure accuracy is part of a good journalist’s routine; turning what you’ve learned into an unnecessarily personal attack is not.

    I don’t think there can be a hard and fast rule implemented for media coverage of a trans person any more than for any other person. The AP Stylebook just says to refer to the person with his or her pronoun of preference.

    GLAAD’s media reference guide, which I’ve relied on when the AP Stylebook was frustratingly silent, includes this very sensible comment from the NYT’s style guide:

    “Cite a person’s transgender status only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader.” (http://www.glaad.org/reference/style)

    In other words, if it’s germane to the story, then the journalist can use it ***with the same common sense and courtesy that a journalist should be using with all sources***. If a source’s gender (or orientation, etc.) has no relevance to the story, then there’s no need to bring it up. If a scientist found a cure for cancer, would you also report that she is left-handed, does not drive and has three dogs and a mountain bike? Those all are facts of her life, but they’re not necessarily relevant to the story.

    I just can’t get past this, though: What possible reason is there to focus on the gender of a person inventing a golf club? “But she’s a hot genius redhead!”, some might argue. Okay, then that’s a small novelty angle (from the viewpoint of some cavemen). A responsible journalist would discover that her professional credentials are sketchy, investigate thoroughly, note all that in the story, then say “… but the club is still great, so hey, whatever; you try it and see what you think.”

    Discovering that Dr. V was once a man has no bearing on the story unless *she* wanted to make it part of the story, perhaps by explaining that she’d become aware of the physical differences in club handling and results after talking to men and women and could verify their concerns through personal experience.

    Instead, this particular case comes across as spiteful: you’re not who you said you are, so I will punish you by outing you. You begged me not to tell, but eff you, freak.

    There’s also the factor of editors pushing the writer to include something mentioned during story discussions because they got excited about it, but again, a responsible journalist would make it clear to his editors that the Sexay Sells part of the story-planning discussions has turned out to be Not the Story After All and refuse to include it, especially with something this sensitive.

    I dealt with privacy situations several times in my previous life as a journalist. Even though the AP Stylebook specifically says not to include the home address or other private info of beauty queens, people with valuable collections, etc., to prevent harm (sexism much?), I had two reporters who consistently did so and argued that the “public has a right to know, and it’s not our job to worry about consequences.”

    My response, after trying and failing to reason with them, was consistently to tell them they were being foolish and to delete details that were not relevant to the story. Not one reader complained that we didn’t give Miss Potato Sack’s specific address (where she lived alone) or tell that John Collector had no alarm system for his multimillion-dollar collection of stuff at his home at a specific address. (Both true examples of stuff I deleted, by the way.)

    You can offer common-sense guidelines for journalism, in other words, but there’s always gonna be someone who ignores them in favor of the sensational. It’s not directly Hannan’s fault that Dr. V killed herself — she ultimately made that sad choice — but he bears a great responsibility for adding completely unnecessary pressure to the life of a person who already was fragile. He made a choice to share private information unnecessarily and sensationally, and he has to live with the consequences of *that* sad choice.

    I also agree with shehasadventures’ thoughts. I’ll spare you yet more length about DesJarlais being a public figure behaving very inappropriately.

  6. Please excuse the “TCP” at the top of my comment, by the way. I was working on two other documents while making my notes for my comment and forgot to delete those identifying letters when copying and pasting.

    Thanks for the forum, madam.

  7. grandefille, I think you’re right. As I was reading the story, I kept waiting to see if there was going to be some evidence that Dr. V was a man pretending to be a woman as a part of hiding from previous cons gone wrong. That would have been a legitimately strange “Mrs. Doubtfire-esque” story. And, frankly, something that needed to be investigated by any reporter worth his salt.

    But the things that a reporter investigates don’t all have to end up in the story. Hannen could have looked into whether the switch in V.’s gender presentation was genuinely a part of a greater con and, if it was, made it absolutely clear that V. was in disguise as a woman. This would have still been a very tricky line of reporting that would have scooted very close to tropes of “Trans women are all frauds trying to trick you” but, considering the other fraud going on, it would have, I think, been a tricky line of reporting worth trying.

    But, after investigating, once it became clear that she really was a transgender woman who also not being completely honest with her investors about the credentials that led them to give her money, someone–Hannen, his editors, someone, anyone, god, anyone–should have moved the focus onto the things she did wrong and left her gender alone.

    That investigation would have still royally sucked for Dr. V. Being questioned about whether you’re “really” a woman or just a man in disguise is shitty. But, I think, it’s the kind of shitty that, when you’ve been lying to a lot of people about a lot of things–your family background, your education, your financial situation, your expertise–in order to get money out of them and at least one of your relatives describe you as a “con man,” is the kind of shitty you have to expect is going to come up when you get caught. Every con artist hears “Is anything you told me true?” at least once in her life, so Dr. V. had to know that was a risk she was taking when she lied to investors.

    But I think the ways Hannen failed here were because he just assumed that, because she was lying to investors in order to get their money, any discrepancies in her life story were therefore also lies that served, somehow, to contribute to her fraud. And thus we are where we are.

    And I am troubled in my heart, because I have never known someone who fucked up this bad.

  8. I agree with grandefille completely; relevance–and taste–matter. Also, with Aunt B that there should have been an editor stepping in there–if there are any. But I want to add this: It’s a truism that, even if you’ve been utterly responsible and sensitive in handling a story, you can not be sure about the reaction everywhere; there is certainly a point beyond which you’re NOT responsible for how someone responds to what you’ve written,and you will live with those unpredictable consequences as you can. I can’t see any excuse or explanation at all, though, for reporting what the writer apparently found to be scrumptiously “dark” details about his subject’s previous attempted suicide, or writiting with this tone, being aware of that incident. (THEN he volunteers the personal details he did–irrelevant as they turn out to be). If the point had simply been that he was taken aback that the invention turned out to have come from this person, about a sentence would have done the job, along the lines of “With a background that proved to be, on investigation, not that of a physicist at a military skunk works, but of one very smart gas station supervisor, her ideas for the club and their execution are just that much more astonishing.”

  9. I suddenly realized that I should humbly apologize to anyone offended by a sentence in my godawful long comment above.

    My writing “You begged me not to tell, but eff you, freak” was intended to convey the hurtful, spiteful, malicious tone of the article as it came across to me and the way Dr. V was disrespected, not to cast another hateful name her way. I can never know what she suffered as a transgender person, but as a woman of size with a throaty voice who’s been physically attacked twice in public by strangers using that word and others like it, I do have a very very small inkling of the pain and fear it evokes.

    I sincerely apologize to any readers, and to our hostess, for the offense my inconsiderate phrasing may have caused. I’ll think and write more carefully.

  10. This is not quite the same thing, but it’s similar in a kind of way.

    I’m rerereading _Fatal Vision_, I book I last read 15 years ago, before I settled into being a writer.

    As I reread it this time I’m struck with the way McGinniss dangles irrelevant facts as a way to enhance his narrative and persuade the reader to the truth of his opinion. I think that’s one of the tools that journalists use frequently. I’m not a journalist and don’t know the ethics behind it, but I do think it’s common.

    And I think that’s part of what went on here. CH was in possession of a fact that, while not pertinent to the story, added colour and spice. I can see how a writer could see his subject’s transgender as a point of interest whereas readers without a full understanding of the complexities of transgender would see it as another tick mark against the subject.

    That’s what I think is dangerous about journalism and why I never wanted to go into it. When you tell a story about fake people your enthusiasm for the tale is less hurtful.

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