Driving to the gym this morning another driver and I arrived at a four-way stop at the same time. Since I was to his right he waited for me to go first. The reason both of us knew what to do is because we were taught the rules about right of way.
Everyone knows the right of way rule that applies at four-way stops and uncontrolled intersections, yes? If two cars arrive at the same time, the driver on the left yields to the driver on the right. Easy peasy!
Not so fast.
Here in Arizona, state legislators thought they’d improve on the basic rule. They added a little embellishment: if you’re in a parking lot or at an uncontrolled T intersection, the driver going straight has the right of way over the driver who’s planning to turn.
This may have seemed a common-sense improvement to the lawmakers who passed it, but it takes a simple, easy-to-understand rule and opens it to interpretation, always a dangerous thing. Most Arizonans interpret this embellishment to mean that drivers on main streets have right of way over drivers on cross streets. Granted, normally there are yield or stop signs at intersections like that, so there’s no question over who goes first. But when the intersection is uncontrolled and two cars get there at the same time, who gets to decide which street is the main one and which is the lesser one? The more aggressive of the two drivers, usually.
And what about out-of-state drivers who don’t know about our locally modified rule? Gotcha. I say don’t monkey around with basic traffic rules. The whole idea behind right of way laws is to keep them simple and universal so that we all know what to do when there’s a conflict. That’s not the case in Arizona, where what you think you know about right of way laws could put you in the wrong.
At the gym this morning the TVs, as always, were set to Fox News. The big deal this morning was a video clip of this Gruber fellow making a crack about the stupidity of American voters. Fox ran the clip three or four times during the hour I was at the gym. Most political insiders share Gruber’s view of American voters, in my experience. So do I, frankly, and I don’t exempt myself. Sure, you’re not supposed to come right out and say it, but doesn’t Fox News’ success depend on the stupidity of its viewers? Oh, well, it’s another gotcha moment for the right. They’ve had a string of them lately.
This is long, but that’s because as gotcha stories go it’s a complicated one. You may know some of the background, or you may not. I’ll try to summarize:
Early in 2013 ago a journalist named Caleb Hannan set out to write an article about a miracle putter that had been generating a lot of buzz on the pro golfing circuit. The inventor was an MIT-educated aeronautical physicist who had helped design the B-2 stealth bomber, a woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt (yes, one of the Vanderbilts), Dr. V for short.
Hannan asked for an interview. Dr. V’s emailed response should have been (and probably was) the tipoff that all was not as it seemed: it was written in the kind of stilted, thesarus-encrusted English uneducated people use when they want to sound educated. Nevertheless Hannan was impressed when he met her, describing Dr. V as “a striking figure, standing 6-foot-3 with a shock of red hair.”
As a condition to her cooperation Dr. V insisted Hannan write only about the putter and the science behind it, not about her. But during his research certain things didn’t add up and he began to dig deeper. He discovered Dr. V had never attended the schools listed on her CV. She was not a PhD, not even a college graduate. She had never worked in the defense industry, let alone on the B-2. Nor was she a Vanderbilt; the name she was given at birth was Stephen Krol, and yes, she had until recently been a man (and was the father of two estranged children). She became Essay Anne Vanderbilt in 2003; since that date she had filed various lawsuits against former employers and had attempted suicide at least once, in 2008. People who had encountered her in the past, some knowing her as a man, some knowing her only as a woman, a few knowing her as both, described her as a con artist with a violent temper.
When Hannan confronted Dr. V with the information he had unearthed, she threatened to sue. In October 2013 he learned Dr. V had attempted suicide again, this time successfully. His article, Dr. V’s Magical Putter, was published in Grantland Magazine in January 2014.
The article was initially praised and widely linked. After a week, though, public opinion began to turn against Hannan and Grantland Magazine. The issue was the outing of a transexual who clearly didn’t want to be outed, and whether the threat of that outing was what drove her to kill herself.
There’s no debate over the other facts Hannan dug up, or whether he should have written about them: Dr. V was a fraud, and exposing fraud is in the highest tradition of journalism. But Dr. V’s sexual identity was irrelevant to the fraud, and moreover was her own, and Hannan should have left that part of the story alone when she asked him to.
Hannan’s article, and the controversy that erupted in its wake, was big news back in January. A lot of the criticism unfolded on Twitter, where Hannan was condemned and ostracized. Many of the people I follow on Twitter are writers and journalists, and to a person they strongly felt Hannan was wrong to expose Dr. V’s transsexuality, even posthumously.
When I read Hannan’s article, I got the impression he had not intended to write about Dr. V’s transsexual identity, but that after her suicide, fearing he may have contributed to it, it became an essential element in a far more personal story, which was why he … and Grantland Magazine … decided to run with it. I think I’d have run with it too. I’m absolutely certain any other magazine would have published it as well. But I’m not the arbiter of Caleb Hannan’s fate. That would be the witch hunters of Twitter, who love to play gotcha.
In October Rolling Stone ran a new article by Hannan, this one about college kids lured into multi-level marketing schemes. No one was outed in this article, but the same people who condemned Hannan on Twitter back in January started piling on again. I picked one representative of the community to highlight, the humorist and writer Mallory Ortberg, who posted a series of tweets earlier this month upon learning Caleb Hannan was still a working journalist:
Look at the progression of her outrage: Caleb Hannan (whom we thought we’d run out of town on a rail) is back; he’s trying to slip back into journalism (as if he’d ever been ousted in the first place); until he writes an apology no magazine should have anything to do with him; he’s trying to sneak unnoticed through the back door (he never left the house, and has published other articles between January and October of this year); why are all you big-name journalists letting this guy slink back into your midst? Slip! Sneak! Slink!
I like Mallory’s smart and funny writing and follow her on Twitter. Other writers I admire were quick to pounce on Caleb Hannan as well. I apologize for singling Mallory out, but in this case she’s representative of a thriving gotcha community on social media, quick to turn on fellow writers and journalists who fail to toe the party line.
Would Mallory have sat on the Dr. V story if it were hers? What magazine would not have published such a fascinating story? And what is a working journalist, who sells stories for a living, supposed to do when the forces of self-righteousness on social media rise against him? Quit writing and get a job at Burger King?