When Deadspin broke the story last week that Notre Dame star Manti Te’o’s inspirational narrative of a girlfriend who died of leukemia was a hoax, the site relied on solid reporting.
Deadspin stuck to the facts, and listed them clearly and without prejudice. It reported what it didn’t know and mostly refrained from speculation. The comments on that first article hailed the site’s “excellent example of true reportage…restoring my faith in American journalism” (Bucephalus). “This. Is. Journalism” (AgeBuchanan). “Take a bow you motherfuckers,” wrote Raysism, a regular. And, sadly, this: “I wasn’t alive in the 1970s—but holy shit—this is fucking stellar investigative journalism is on par with Watergate. Very solid job, gentlemen” (Justthetippingpoint).
Hyperbole, to be sure, but the sentiment showed that readers are hungry for good reporting. The stuff sells. Still, those commenters were probably surprised that Deadspin would report at all. The site’s MO is to link to other people’s work and shred it with deft, vicious commentary. Its original content skews toward “Drunken Hookup Failures.” The site’s natural state is earnestly sophomoric, in the most entertaining way.
For a moment, the Te’o scoop seemed to signal a welcome shift. It was the strongest of recent signs that Deadspin might be adding real reporting muscle to its snark. Its coverage of the Penn State scandal had been somewhat reportorial while still mostly relying on others’ work. Maybe the gravity of that situation had made Deadspin aware that it should do more than just poke fun.
The second piece Deadspin published on the Te’o situation was a rehash of an ESPN reporter talking about reporting a Te’o piece last fall. The next one? A recap of the Notre Dame AD’s press conference. That article ended with typical Deadspin sarcasm:
Toward the end of the press conference, one reporter asked Swarbrick if the situation had affected Te’o’s performance in the BCS title game. God was in heaven and all was right with the world.
After that? Another snippet from an ESPN.com story. Then a screen grab of Donald Trump congratulating Deadspin on Twitter. Then a republish of Jackie Pepper’s reporting. And then an entire story devoted to cataloging when and how other news outlets got the Te’o story wrong.
After that? A “Live Funbag” (the brilliantly foul Drew Magary’s mailbag column) with exchanges like this:
Q: If Manti Te’o was a hot dog would he eat himself?
A: No. Mormonism forbids it.
Q: If it’s shown that he was involved, how much do you think he would drop in the draft? Out of the first round?
A: I think he drops one or two rounds, but not more than that
Just 16 hours after making fun of the reporter at the Notre Dame press conference for talking about the football implications of the bizarre scandal, Deadspin was talking about the football implications of the bizarre scandal. The site was returning to its natural state. The next post was titled: “Darnell Dockett Wants To Cheer Up Manti Te’o By Taking Him To The Strip Club.” And God was in heaven and all was right with the world.
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Deadspin hasn’t published any meaningful reporting of its own on the Te’o debacle since its first story. Gawker’s other properties got in on the action, but with commentary, not reporting. The feminist site Jezebel held up the Te’o story against a rape scandal at ND that also may have involved the football team. Flagship site Gawker linked it to the Scientology advertorial brouhaha on the The Atlantic.
Commentaries are natural and valuable tributaries to this kind of story—it’s what I’m doing now. But it’s usually part of a bigger journalistic enterprise, one that’s absent here. Then again, maybe “fucking stellar investigative journalism” wasn’t ever the point for Deadspin. Maybe it was just a necessary means to a different end, one that Deadspin thrives on: to indict the mainstream sports media.
The Te’o story as epic reporting fail was implicitly suggested in the original reporting, but it became explicit in the very first line of the site’s second post:
The other angle to the Manti Te’o drama? The media. More than a dozen news outlets reported about the girlfriend who didn’t exist. So, why didn’t the likes of CBS News or ESPN or Sports Illustrated find out sooner?
Why didn’t the likes of Deadspin find out sooner? (And why didn’t Jezebel dig into the Lizzy Seeburg rape case at Notre Dame? And why didn’t Gawker break the Atlantic-Scientology debacle?) Instead of focusing on all the ways the rest of the media got things wrong, Deadspin could be chasing down those named in the initial report. It could assign a reporter to explore the culture around the Internet phenomenon of “catfishing” that Te’o seems to have gotten wrapped up in, either willingly or unwittingly. Or it could advance the story by interviewing an expert on the nature of fraud (see this excellent New Yorker story for brilliant reporting on how and why this kind to thing happens, especially if you’ve found yourself saying, “How could someone be so stupid?”).
The journalism-101 thing to do here would be to dispatch someone to track down and seek comment from Manti Te’o himself, but Deadspin, after attempting to contact him for the initial story, was itself scooped by Jeremy Schaap of ESPN and Katie Couric, who got to Te’o first.
Even as that second post called the media “the other angle” to the story, for Deadspin it appears to be the angle.
Deadspin’s obsession with documenting the failures of sports media—ESPN especially—is warranted. The mainstream sports media are, on the whole, terrible at their job. (To be fair, it’s not an easy job. The sports industry has built impressive ramparts between reporters and their stories. Still, it’s no excuse for the kind of jock-sniffing laziness many outlets are content to serve.) In fact, Deadspin’s subversiveness when it comes to sports media is what often makes it great. Deadspin exposes idiocy, hypocrisy, clichés, and lazy tropes that we all put up with as sports consumers. At its best, it has forced sports media to try a little harder. When ESPN writers plagiarize, for example, Deadspin is there to shame them into fixing their errors. Even a simple headline like this one is a refreshing commentary on race and sports that you probably won’t get from Peter King or Tony Kornheiser or, god forbid, Rick Reilly.
So it’s not surprising that Deadspin would immediately retreat to this more comfortable position of thumbing its nose at the people whose failures made the Te’o story such a bombshell. But it is disappointing, because the scoop itself was Deadspin’s most effective criticism of sports media to date. Deadspin beat everyone to this story for the very reasons it constantly skewers them: because they’re part of the storyline-driven PR broadcast machine, and Deadspin is not.
This morning’s post quoting a USA Today story is a perfect example of just how frustrating Deadspin has been on the Te’o story. One line from the piece reads: “However, if the widely reported timelines are to be believed in this instance (a big if)”—If Deadspin is telling us the widely reported timelines can’t be trusted, why doesn’t it report the real timeline?
Deadspin looks like a bully here—happy to brutalize others for their mistakes and shortcomings while lacking the stones to try to do it better. It is, in fact, ceding the story to the others so that it can ridicule how they handle it.
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Since its first report, Deadspin seems to have started rooting for Te’o’s downfall. Take this “I’m-not-saying-he’s-guilty-but” analysis from a recent post:
Manti Te’o’s apparent defense is that he had no reason to think his twice-undead dead long-distance girlfriend, whom he never met or saw outside of photographs, whose funeral he never thought to attend, might have been a phony. Regardless of whether he’s telling the truth, he’ll soon see just how big embarrassment can get.
When others publish that kind of leading commentary, Deadspin calls it “passive-aggressive chickenshit.”
Interestingly, commenters on the site have shifted from near-universal praise of Deadspin’s reporting chops to something far less settled. Citing the above judgment, one commenter called Deadspin’s tone “corrosive and cancerous” (mattmckinney). Some have started to link to mainstream media reports as alternatives to Deadspin’s coverage. DawgCorleone added, “Just admit you didn’t get the entire story right and move on. The more you try to discredit ESPN, the more foolish you look.”
This time, it seems, by delving into reporting in the first place, Deadspin opened itself up to the same criticism it usually doles out so savagely well. With the Te’o story, after that first, great post, Deadspin created what it usually despises most from others: half-assed work. Or as commenter OaklandsOwn put it when commenting on one of the Te’o posts:
E SP N
Scott Berinato is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review