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.

* * *

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:

DEADSPIN

E SP N

Just saying,,,,,,


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Scott Berinato is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review