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?