When a Source Lies, That Becomes Part of the Story

January 18, 2014

You may have missed the Two Minutes Hate last night against Grantland and its writer Caleb Hannan because, well, it was a Friday night and you have a life. Fortunately for you, I don't, so I was able to keep track of it.

Hannan's crime? The publication of this story. It's hard to summarize in any sort of succinct way; you should really read the whole thing. It is about putters and the mental aspect of golf. It is about physics and science and placebo effects. But it is also about a fraudster who lied to golf experts and the public and investors, a mentally unstable person who, as it happens, was transgendered—and took her own life before the publication of the story.

Again, I have to insist that you read the whole thing as that summary can't really do justice to just how crazy the story is. And it will better prepare you to understand the unrelenting flood of vitriol unleashed on Twitter. Hannan has been denounced as transphobic and a bully and a murderer. He was said to have betrayed his source—before talking to "Dr. V," he was asked to make the story "about the science and not the scientist"—and accused of journalistic malpractice for failing to uphold the hippocratic oath of minimizing harm.

But the flood of hate masked what was actually a rather difficult and complicated question: What obligation do journalists have to a source who lies to them?

The simple fact of the matter is that "Dr. V" was a liar. She lied to a number of people about her academic qualifications and her personal life and her professional work. Once Hannan started unraveling those lies, it would've been almost impossible to tell the story without going all the way back. And going all the way back would necessarily involve revealing that Dr. V was in fact a transsexual; that she was born a man; and that she has been hiding that fact from her business partners and people hawking her magic putter.

How is a journalist supposed to respond to an untrustworthy source who warns he is committing a "hate crime" by reporting? Trying to intimidate a writer into spiking their work is the worst possible gambit, as it puts them in an ethical corner all their own. A journalist can't allow himself to be intimidated out of writing a story.

As an editor, it's hard to say what I would've done in the same situation. But it's extremely difficult to fault Hannan or Grantland for pursuing this story and writing it in the manner they did. "Dr. V's Magical Putter" had a tragic ending—but that's not the fault of the writer.