Mau Mauing the Sports Reporters

January 21, 2014

Bill Simmons, the head honcho over at Grantland, has posted a letter explaining their process in publishing what has come to be known as the "Dr. V Story." Background of the story and the backlash here and here, but the very short version of the 8,000 word piece is this: A reporter investigating the origin of a "magic" putter discovered that its creator was a fraud who had lied about her qualifications and used those lies to gain exposure for her product and a $60,000 investment. Further, the reporter discovered that the creator, Dr. V, was born a man and it is revealed at the end of the piece that she killed herself.

There's a lot going on there and I recommend you read the whole thing; it's Pulitzer-worthy stuff. Most journalists seemed to agree, until activists on Twitter started arguing that the piece was, among other things, "transphobic" and "bullying" and tantamount to "manslaughter." The reaction to this piece has been just as fascinating as the piece itself, at least to me. To my mind, this is the most important piece of Simmons' letter:

Anyway, we posted the piece on Wednesday morning. People loved it. People were enthralled by it. People shared it. People tweeted it and retweeted it. A steady stream of respected writers and journalists passed along their praise. By Thursday, as the approval kept pouring in, we had already moved on to other stories and projects.

So what happened on Friday afternoon … amazing.

The piece had been up for 56 solid hours before the backlash began. The narrative shifted abruptly, and by Friday night, early high-profile supporters were backtracking from their initial praise. Caleb started getting death threats. People came after us on social media. You know the rest.

Like everyone else involved with this story, I spent my weekend alternating between feeling miserable, hating myself and wondering what we could have done differently.

Emphasis mine. We should think about this for a moment.

Grantland runs a piece that virtually every journalist praises because it's excellent and fascinating. Then, after being mau maued by a special interest group in especially vituperative terms, the journalists turn on the piece they had mere hours before been praising. The goal of the mob is not necessarily to punish Grantland for what they did, it's to silence people from writing similar pieces in the future. They are laying down a marker: "If you cover the transgendered in a way we disapprove—even if you get all your facts right and run it through your lawyers and spend months working on it to get it just right—we will come after you and make your life hell. We will run your name through the mud and ruin your reputation and threaten you with murder and call for your criminal prosecution. So think about that before you write."

This is chilling stuff. And it's a reminder that the truth is no defense when the mob turns on you.