Manti Te’o and the press get blitzed

By Jack Shafer
January 17, 2013

Deadspin’s exposé of Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o's nonexistent girlfriend — which does double duty as an exposé of the dozens of news outlets that accepted his word that she had been injured in a car wreck and then died of leukemia — doesn’t conclude that Te’o was simply the victim of a hoax or that he became a willing accomplice in the deception.

But the ultimate subject of the investigation, written by Deadspin’s Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, is not the collegian at the center of it but the press corps, which swallowed the girlfriend story whole. Just a little more early pushing by reporters and a few skeptical questions by editors would have separated the bogus from the true, as the piece amply illustrates.

Of course, few reporters have the time or energy to contest every statement of fact from their subjects. Date of birth, place born, schools attended, honors won, jobs worked, countries visited, political and religious views and other aspects of personal history too numerous to catalog usually originate from the mouths of news subjects when they’re first interviewed. Because part of journalism is the business of discovering lies — and because the human soul is a deceitful thing — reporters know that everybody tends to fudge their pasts. Actors might make themselves a little younger in an interview. Law school attendees might encourage you to believe they graduated when they did not. Someone who climbed one major mountain peak might suggest he had climbed several.

Over time, a newsworthy person tends to magnify his accomplishments and minimize his defeats, and by a certain age most have so polished their personal and professional resumes that when looking at them they think they’re peering into a mirror. So when interviewing a subject for a story, reporters know instinctively that they’re collecting some lies, if not directly from the subject then from whoever gave him his stack of facts. Then, it’s the reporter’s job to figure out to the best of his ability what is true and what is not by deadline.

Journalists tend not to fact-check mundane personal histories unless the subject is powerful or important. The powerful and important, after all, make a louder noise when knocked to the ground for their deceptions. Another trigger for deeper investigation of a subject comes when the facts he tenders fail to conform with previously published facts. But the Te’o love story appears to have remained consistent over time, and the cumulative force of repetition blunted suspicions. I’m not making excuses for the press corps here; every nose on every reporter covering Te’o should have been twitching. I just want to emphasize that reporters tend to believe ‑but shouldn’t ‑ things that get retold.

Deadspin wouldn’t have gotten much pickup if its story had been about a top college linebacker who told fibs about himself. Show me a football player, and I’ll show you a locker-room fabulist. To reach liftoff — to make Manti Te’o, who is neither powerful nor important, compelling — the Deadspin piece needed the fantasy element of the loony love story, the hoax, the ugly list of hoaxed media and speculation on what role Te’o played in the continuation of the hoax. A story about a liar isn’t as interesting as a story about a dupe, and a story about a dupe who also lied or withheld the truth trumps both. Did the hoaxer kill Te’o's imaginary girlfriend “Lennay Kekua” in a panic because he feared getting found out, or did he possess the foresight to plot her demise because he knew how moved we would be by the sudden death of the warrior’s brave princess?

Maybe reporters’ noses didn’t get to twitching earlier because they were coated in tears.

In an interview today with Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore about how the story came together, Deadspin editor Tommy Craggs simultaneously cuts the press corps some of the slack I’m extending here and smacks them upside the head.

“I understand how this slipped through the cracks initially … that’s just the nature of covering sports on a hard deadline,” Craggs says. “I have less sympathy for the folks who crafted those painstaking Love Story-in-cleats feature stories about Manti and his dead girlfriend. Those were dumb, infantilizing stories to begin with, and they were executed poorly and sloppily, and if there’s any lesson to be drawn from this, it’s that this kind of simpering crap should be eliminated from the sports pages entirely.”

I, too, am for banishing crap — not only from the sports pages but from every newspaper section, every website and every broadcaster. But can simpering copy be exterminated? Not as long as the audience for journalism includes non-journalists. And readers of the sports pages aren’t the only ones with a hunger, a demand for the basic fairy tale plot from their news sources. Thus, sportswriters aren’t the only ones dishing it out (even if they dish the meal higher). If readers can’t get their simpering from their news sources, they’ll stop reading and viewing and desert for the movies. Had the story of Te’o been true — and face it, it is not impossible for a college player’s girlfriend to get car-wrecked and vanquished by cancer in short order and for him to go on to play — it’s difficult to resist the power of its archetypal simper. Given our predilection for young lovers’ tragedies, I could see the Te’o hoax (which, as many have noted, bears a resemblance to the plot of the 2010 movie Catfish) coming back to shock us again in five years.

In preparation for this bogus love story’s return, let’s paste over our desks a copy of this admonition from H.L. Mencken: “It is only doubt that creates.” The only way to become a better journalist is to doubt what you read, doubt what you hear ‑- and when you feel your heart beating, tear it out and stomp on it until it stops.

******

Grilled with onions, it makes a splendid meal. Serves four. Send recipes to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed is vegan. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te’o speaks during media day for the 2013 BCS National Championship NCAA football game in Miami, Florida, January 5, 2013.   REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

3 comments

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Jack,
I read the long version of SI reporter Pete Thamel’s interviews with Manti Te’o and others, here
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/college -football/news/20130117/manti-teo-girlfr iend-hoax-quotes/#all

There are multiple clues in Te’o's answers that his story is wobbly & that indicate he knew what was going on: he couldn’t specify at all his girl friend’s injuries; he didn’t know if she had graduated in 2010 or 2011; he didn’t know her minor: etc. Jeez, they supposedly talked for hours ever day (or so it seemed), yet he either did not know basic info about her or couldn’t even be bothered to fake it. Also, there was this weird contradiction between his having known her for years & yet he was fuzzy about whether he’d ever met her.

I empathize with the Thamel, he was doing a profile aka big wet kiss, not an investigative piece, but when Te’o said his girlfriend had graduated from Stanford — even though he couldn’t recall which year! — and Thamel called Stanford & was told it had no record of her, that’s a red flag with an alarm bell on top. Dan

Posted by dbuck | Report as abusive

In my newsgathering days the reporters on the business, features and sports desks were never very good at double-checking stories or multiple-sourcing because the nature of their work seldom required it, they were basically mouthpieces for their sources. Often if they encountered anything unpleasant that ran the risk of pissing someone off it would be handed to the city desk for assignment.

Posted by HalApeno | Report as abusive

I am so confused… at the fact that I turn on the news to stories about a college boy and if this is a HOAX about his girlfriend??? Really??? We have a president who LIES to everyone.. Is there really any role model more important for our childern than the President of the U.S.???

Posted by cdremonas | Report as abusive