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.