People generally think a journalist's job is to report information. The word reporter is often used to describe journalist, but in many cases, journalists are obliged to keep secrets. Usually they trade this secrecy for more important information, protecting sources of information from retaliation by people who do not want the information to get out. The classic case being Woodward and Bernstein protecting the identity of FBI Associate Director Mark Felt by referring to him in their Watergate reporting as Deep Throat. It is not unusual for journalists to go to jail rather than reveal sources for their stories.
But what happens when your source is not being honest with you? All journalists must deal with the fact that confidential informants are not always coming forward for purely altruistic reasons. How much can you rely on information coming from a disgruntled former employee about what is going on inside a company?
Then there is the quandary about what to do when you find out that your source is lying to you. Obviously if you catch somebody in one lie, it puts in question all the information you have gotten from them. Do you reveal all the lies of your source, or do you only report the deceptions that are relevant to the subject at hand? What is your responsibility to your readers, and how much of a responsibility do you still have to your source?
All of these questions were brought to the fore Friday when Grantland published an article by Caleb Hannan entitled Dr.V's Magical Putter, which is a tragic story that starts as an enthusiastic product review of the latest revolutionary new product designed to take a few strokes off your golf game, but ends up an article delving into the complicated life of the product's inventor. The article is very controversial right now, especially among those in the business of writing. What ethical principles apply to a writer who is asked to make the story "about the science, not the scientist," when every step of the way, the scientist has been lying to the writer?
While gathering information about the putter, Hannan discovered that the Dr. V's stated credentials might not be legitimate, which led him to other discoveries about Dr. V. Most of it was pertinent to the story, some not so much, except to show a pattern of deception throughout Dr. V's life. So, what information did Hannan owe his readers, and how much privacy did he owe Dr V? I think that it was possible to have run the story pointing out the credibility problems in regards to Dr. V's claimed background as a scientist without exposing some of the facts of his personal life, though I can understand the argument that the lies about his personal life were important, because the lies about his professional bona fides were merely a few tiles in the mosaic of deception that his entire life had become.
There was also the point that, despite the fact Dr. V's credibility was questionable, it appeared that the product itself was sound, garnering praise from several golf professionals. On this point, it might have been helpful if Hannan had actually discussed the issue with another engineer to see if the science behind the product truly was sound, or if it was just a matter that, when it comes right down to it, no matter the design of the putter, once you are on the green it is almost as much a matter of psychology as physics. Hannan does mention this in the article, telling a story of a science experiment at the University of Virginia that demonstrates the principle of positive contagion. Loosely stated, the idea is that if you believe your equipment is superior, you will perform better, whether the equipment truly is better or not.
It seemed that Hannan wanted to write what was for all intents and purposes, an advertisement for Dr. Vs Oracle GX1 putter, but to tie the whole story together, needed only to show due diligence and verify Dr. V's credentials. This is where the problems started. It appeared that there was a problem with Dr. V's stated educational background. Initially assuming that there could be an innocent explanation for that, Hannan tried to get Dr. V to give more information. That, according to Hannan, is when Dr. V's went from a business executive trying to promote a product while keeping himself in the background to a an uncooperative subject hostile to the entire project. Hannan continued dig for information, still wanting to write a story about a golf outsider who creates a product that revolutionizes the game, but Hannan's research turned up more than he expected.
It would have been impossible to make the entire story about the science and not the scientist after finding out some of what Hannnan did during his research for the article, because the science is only as good as the scientist. There were no peer reviewed papers to support Dr. V's claim of the Oracle GX1's superiority on the greens, and Hannan himself was not able to fully comprehend the technical background information that Dr. V. had provided, so only the doctor's own credibility in making those claims supported them. Yes, there were the endorsements of some professionals who used the product, but the reason the product was supposedly revolutionary was the science that went into its design. If Dr. V. was found to have no credibility as a trained scientist, it would really cast doubt upon his claims. The article could have stopped at the point of debunking Dr. V's credentials, but it is understandable that demonstrating deceitfulness about his personal life added to the overall narrative and enhanced the reader's understanding of the situation.
From my reading of the story, I think a lot of Hannan's problem is not that he got too curious as he got further along into the research, but that he was so enamored of the product and its inventor that he was not skeptical enough in his initial contacts. He missed some indications that things might not be as they were presented. When it was pointed out that the putter, which was supposedly scientifically designed to give you the best performance on the green, was made to retrieve a player's ball out of the cup without him bending down to reach for it, Hannan (who at that time in the process of researching his article was still enamored of the shiny new toy he was playing with) did not even think to ask how much putting performance was sacrificed for that little bit of multi-functionality. As pointed out above, it does not seem like Hannan spoke with any engineers or other golf club designers to see if Dr. V's claims were scientifically sound.
There was also Dr. V's immediate determination to protect his identity, from the first phone call warning that he had the same freedom of information act exemptions as a federal judge, and later claiming her work with the government was so secret that there weren't any records of it. That would have been a red flag for me. As I pointed out in the comments of Rod Dreher's article on the subject at American Conservative, we know Oppenheimer was working with the government, and there was nothing more secret than the Manhattan Project. I am not saying it is totally impossible, but hearing that would have gotten me to raise my antenna.
My biggest questions, however, are about another person in the story. Hannan first found out about the new putter from seeing an infomercial about it featuring Gary McCord, a former PGA Pro who still plays tournaments on the Senior Tour and is well known for announcing golf tournaments on television. McCord loved the putter and even arranged a meeting between Dr. V. and the Taylor Made company to showcase the club and perhaps interest Taylor Made in purchasing Yar, Dr V's company. What makes me wonder about McCord is that he claimed to have known a few generals in the U. S. military, and asked them to verify her claims of working on the Stealth fighter. He claims that one general states that Dr. V. was "with us." McCord also stated that he facilitated a call between Dr. V and former Vice President Quayle, and he claimed that they talked about some of the projects she worked on.
The super hush-hush so secret she can't even be named as a participant projects. All while one of them was standing within earshot of a man without any type of security clearance. This really does not give me any great confidence McCord's credibility, but I will say that even the most highly guarded government projects would have aspects abut them that are not classified, so maybe it is possible that the McCord facilitated discussion happened.
In the end, the entire story is tragic. In the end, despite all the deceptions and lies, Dr. V. created a product that he believed in, even if he misrepresented it. The product itself was, if not as revolutionary as claimed, at least a solid performer that won the approval of professionals in the field. The story Hannan ended up telling was not the one he expected to tell. The consequences for some involved were far higher than anyone could have foreseen when the story started. If you have not yet read Hannan's article on Grantland, you need to go over and get the full story.