Just how much confirmation does a reporter require before going with a story? Can any source be trusted? If something sounds too good to be true, is it? Do mainstream media outlets need to hire social-media experts? More investigative reporters?
These are just a few of the avalanche of questions posed by the extraordinary Manti Te’o story, which instantly took over the sports world when Deadspin published it late Wednesday afternoon.
Short recap: Te’o, a star linebacker at Notre Dame and runner-up in the Heisman Trophy balloting, was reportedly inspired to his superb play this season, in part, by the death of his girlfriend from leukemia. She was said to have died on the same day as his grandmother, in a conflation of tragedy that echoed Teddy Roosevelt.
But Deadspin discovered that the girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never actually existed. Te’o was apparently the victim, or perhaps the perpetrator, of a massive hoax. Te’o (and Notre Dame) insists he was duped. A more cynical take would be that Te’o knew all about it, that there is no way a top college athlete—or anyone else—would fall in love with a woman he never met, much less had physical contact with. Apparently, his teammates and many on campus thought his story smelled. At best, he is unbelievably naive. At worst, he is a scam artist of Madoffian skill.
At sideways, he is covering a far deeper secret that involves sexual preference considered taboo at a Catholic university, in the Mormon religion (Te’o is devout), and in the ultra-testosterone world of major college football.
Whether you believe Te’o was “catfished,” or played a sinister role in the hoax, or a combination of the two, is ultimately less interesting than how his story of woe and the inspiration he drew from it managed to be swallowed as gospel by so many media outlets who built the story into a crucial part of Te’o’s public fabric.
That list includes heavyweights like ESPN, Sports Illustrated, USA Today, NBC Sports, Yahoo, Grantland, the Los Angeles Times, and many more. (Here’s a handy complete rundown of the outlets that didn’t check to see if Te’o’s dead girlfriend actually existed.)
Clearly, the gullibility and laziness of the media have been exposed here. The unforgiving speed of the news cycle, the short staffs, and lack of proper factchecking in most modern newsrooms, the lust for the “buzz” story—all play into the fact that so many passed along Te’o’s story without checking it thoroughly. You can see the thinking rise off the stories like steam: “[Fill in the respectable outlet of your choice] ran this story, so it must be true. I’ll just add a few details so it seems different enough.”
I do have some sympathy for the suckered. While the old maxim, “If your own mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” should apply in newsrooms, let’s face it, it’s human nature to trust, especially when not doing so, in this case, meant saying to a star player that he was full of crap about the death of someone he professed to love; that in the end, the ultra-tough linebacker was just another Internet geek, in an online relationship that even if genuine was phony for never becoming more than that. It’s not an easy accusation to make, under any circumstances. The same people who mock the reporters who built this story up would be upset over those reporters badgering the grieving family.
But this pigskin version of the “big lie” exposes several weaknesses in the media. Perhaps the most troubling is the idea, apparently shared, if not encouraged, by Te’o himself, that merely winning, or even just being good, is not enough. There has to be more to it, some compelling backstory, for an athlete to break through the media morass and connect with the public.
It’s the same thinking that brought us those overproduced, endlessly sappy Olympics profiles, wherein every hangnail ever suffered by an Olympian was blown up into the equivalent of the pillars of Hercules by NBC (which thankfully throttled back during the London Games). Reporters, editors, and producers are conditioned to dig deeper, to look for something more, to attract the eyeballs of people who don’t really care about the final score in and of itself.
That’s the great irony—the more they dug in this case, and the more Te’o was forced to reveal supposed details and intimacies of his relationship with his fictitious girlfriend, the deeper the media fell for the con.