The Manti Te'o Dead-Girlfriend Hoax: Blame the Media
But also: WTF?
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation,Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic) react to the news that Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te'o's much-publicized girlfriend... never existed.
A very quick review of the facts. Manti Te'o is a senior linebacker for Notre Dame who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting and was generally held up as a role model for college athletes. Part of the support came from his wrenching story of tragedy: Te'o's grandmother and girlfriend died in a span of 24 hours in September, but he fought through adversity to have an amazing season. So said Sports Illustrated in a cover story, ESPN in multiple articles, and virtually every major sports news organization in the country at least once.
Well, according to the sports blog Deadspin, Te'o never lost his girlfriend. Because she didn't exist. The story is evolving as we speak, but as of this writing, Notre Dame is saying that Te'o was the victim of a hoax, that he carried on a long relationship with a figment of some psychopath's imagination. I urge everyone to read the Deadspin story on this, and this really should make us all consider—OK ENOUGH, WTF WTF WTF.
I mean seriously, what?!?!?!?!? This isn't 1913, it's 2013. How exactly does every major sports media organization in the United States re-package a story that turns out to be wholly false? Budgets are stretched, but do major magazines not even fact-check their cover stories? Were all the top sportswriters in the country so enamored with this tale of woe that they didn't think to, you know, do their jobs? Mr. Te'o will get his soon enough—at best, he exploited a situation he didn't really understand to enhance his fame and prestige, and at worst he perpetrated a fraud on the entire country. But this story about the (now proved fictitious) Lennay Kekua has been in the news cycle for months. SI may be the worst offender, because running a heartwarming cover article based in part on a lie is the nightmare bizarro equivalent of Sidd Finch, only this was real. But it's appallingly apparent that every member of the sports media who wrote about this basically copied and pasted from previous articles.
Did they not feel compelled to check out this so-called girlfriend because the story had become "commonly accepted knowledge" to the media? Probably. Is that a scary turn of events for the Fourth Estate? Oh yes. Will this affect Te'o's draft prospects? He might slide a few spots, but he can play the GAME OF FOOTBALL, so he'll still be taken in the first 15 picks come April unless Deadspin or somebody else can prove he knew it was hoax the whole time.
I honestly don't know what else to say. Hampton, help me out. What's your reaction?
Well, Jake. My first reaction was dumbfounded silence. That was followed by long bouts of sputtering outrage, mixed with slack-jawed, shoulder-shrugging in disbelief. I'm still in that phase, in fact.
Incredible, isn't it? Not one of the highly-paid, well-respected journalists at SI or ESPN even bothered to check the most basic facts of their stories. Charlie Rose and CBS, with all that staff, with all that preaching about "original reporting," yet nobody at the whole network even so much as bothered to pick up a phone to find out if the girl actually existed.
That is simply pathetic. Incredibly lazy. Embarrassing. Every journalist involved with telling Te'o's tale should be ashamed. At the moment, guys, that's about the most sophisticated analysis as I can muster.
Patrick, maybe you can put this mess into some broader social context. Tell me this is somehow an indictment of our cut-and-paste society. Take us into Gladwell-land, and explain how everybody gets fooled in a Blink sometimes. Help me see the big picture. Because right now all I can see is a bunch of people who stink at their jobs.
As a sometimes-member of the sports world's Fourth Estate that both you and Jake are decrying—well, except for the "highly paid" and "well-respected" parts—all I can add is ... oy.
I've been writing and reporting for more than a decade. I've made some mistakes, flubbed a few facts, botched a handful of quotes. (If you've ever seen my hieroglyphic handwriting on a notepad, you'll understand the last one). I've learned to be more careful, more diligent, learned that a pedantic copy desk and a skeptical editor can be a journalist's best friend. I've also learned humility—I know I'll screw up sometimes, and that the best in the business will, too, and that the best all of us can do is acknowledge and correct our errors while hopefully learning something.
The Te'o debacle isn't like crediting the wrong player with a touchdown catch, or reporting an anonymously-sourced trade rumor that turns out to be false. This is a journalistic failure of the highest order, on a systemic scale, and frankly, there ought to be some sort of independent commission established to get to the bottom of how so many different organizations could be so very, very wrong about something so very, very basic.
Naturally, I nominate the staff of Deadspin.
Here's the most amazing—well, more like the 736th most amazing—thing about this whole story: It's not like the site's intrepid reporters got their hands on sealed grand jury testimony, or the Pentagon Papers, or rappelled into CIA headquarters to retrieve the NOC list. They basically checked public records and did a bit of elementary reporting to see if Te'o's supposedly dead girlfriend actually existed. Which means they also started out by doing the single most important thing any journalist—or really, anyone in today's information-overloaded, public relations-spun, truthiness-soaked society—can do.
They didn't take things at face value.
Look, I'm not saying all of us need to be more cynical. (Probably not possible in my case, barring major advances in the realm of theoretical physics). Nor am I saying we need to distrust everything, diving deeply into the conspiracy-minded rabbit hole of Grassy Knollers, Obama Birthers and, most recently and disgustingly, the Sandy Hook Truthers. (Also: I've been through the sports looking glass, and I have no intention of going back). No, all I mean is that we need to be skeptical, ask basic questions, forever guard against our own unreliable human nature. The lesson here is an old one, but afer Te'o's too-good-to-be-true tale and the shattered legend of Lance Armstrong and so many other comforting fables gone sour, it bears repeating: If you want to trick someone, lie to them. If you want to fool someone, tell them what they want to hear.