Manti Te’o, The Sports Media Complex & How Even Deadspin Screwed This One Up

So… Deadspin. Manti Te’o. His dead girlfriend doesn’t exist, huh?:

The photographs identified as [Te’o’s supposed girlfriend Lennay] Kekua—in online tributes and on TV news reports—are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua. She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te’o.

Te’o’s a “victim,” Notre Dame’s athletic director Jack Swarbrick swears — despite Deadspin speculation to the contrary — telling the story of ‘posthumous’ phone calls, subsequent independent investigations and a Heisman finalist’s deep, deep embarrassment. Maybe the story’s true, even with all of the things that don’t add up — like, I don’t know, motive… Te’o’s account of his first face-to-face meeting with Kekua… the Arizona Cardinal who says he met Kekua

But who cares. The real headline from tonight is that Deadspin — by cobbling together some random tweets and all of four-ish (?) quoted-but-anonymous sources — just made a bunch of respected journalism outlets, from The New York Times, to Sports Illustrated, ESPN and CBS News (to say nothing of The South Bend Tribune) look capitally stupid.

Let’s spare Te’o the tough questions and ask these outlets why they screwed up so royally. And Deadspin isn’t exempt just because they broke the story.

For starters, the Deadspin story is half-baked and cowardly. If I were an editor, I’d never let someone hit “Publish” on that story.

That isn’t to say I disbelieve the principal claim of the piece — they’re apparently on the mark there. But they didn’t put what I would characterize as real effort into getting in touch with Notre Dame or Te’o ahead of time, saying “we’ll post responses as we get them” — a.k.a. extorting them into commenting.

More importantly, the piece works really hard to establish its central point — Kekua doesn’t exist — but never really addresses some key questions, like, I don’t know… Who was the voice with which Te’o spoke on the phone if his male friend was behind this? What about the supposed meet-ups in Hawaii? Did his family ever meet Kekua face-to-face?  (To clarify: If Te’o’s family didn’t meet Kekua face-to-face, what exactly was Te’o’s cover story?)

These aren’t picky details. These are critical questions we need to understand the facts of the case and the motives of whomever is behind this hoax. Journalists can’t weasel out of reporting on motive; reporting on “the ‘Why?’ of the story” in situations like this. Instead, Deadspin blithely concludes:

A friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo told us he was ’80 percent sure’ that Manti Te’o was ‘in on it,’ and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua’s death with publicity in mind. According to the friend, there were numerous photos of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and Te’o together on Tuiasosopo’s now-deleted Instagram account.

Uh-huh. Some guy says he’s pretty sure Te’o is complicit in this because he saw Te’o in pictures with the alleged scam artist. Coverage you can count on.

I’m serious here, the big picture — the part of this story that doesn’t involve what seems clear, that Kekua doesn’t exist — is important. To paraphrase Deep Throat from All The President’s MenDeadspin has done worse than letting Te’o slip away, they’ve “got people feeling sorry for him.”

“In a conspiracy like this, you build from the outer edges and go step by step. If you shoot too high and miss,” as Deep Throat says in All The President‘s Men, “everybody feels more secure.”

I’d feel secure if I were Te’o. In the critical first hours of this story, it’s Notre Dame officials fleshing out the details of the story that Deadspin didn’t report out — With Te’o’s family’s “independent investigation” on their side, Jack Swarbrick already outguns the reporters who should have independently reported the story first. It’s all hunky-dory if Swarbrick’s telling the truth, but I’m not necessarily inclined to take Jack Swarbrick’s word for it at this point. (The full transcript of his 45-minute presser if you please.)

You know who’s word I am inclined to take? Sports Illustrated‘s — oh wait… they’re named in the first graf of the Deadspin piece. I don’t want to belabor this, because I think a lot of people are making this point… but what the hell, y’all?

Take the vaunted Worldwide Leader in Sports. In the idiomatic and literal sense, ESPN is the sports-media industrial complex — they have regular newscasts on three channels, talk radio properties, a magazine and a television program dedicated to telling the off-the-field stories of sports, and not one person ever made a phone call to find an ailing Kekua? Or her family? Even if only to confirm the story for profile information? Or to, maybe, by chance, land the most emotional, high-profile potential interview with a non-athlete ESPN would air all year?

And let’s not the PR people off the hook. I’m speaking out of school when I say this, but maybe some of the friends and acquaintances I have who work on both sides of this fence in sports journalism — as reporters and as athletic department communications staff — can confirm this suspicion:

Athletic department staff are sometimes charged with keeping journalists at arms length from student athletes, in part out of a legitimate need to protect 18-to-22-year-olds. But the athletic department isn’t just charged with protecting its players, it’s charged with protecting the school’s brand. Before Notre Dame media relations officials pushed the story to the journalists covering the Irish this year, they also had a duty — not just to Te’o, but to Notre Dame — to figure out the specifics of the narrative they were trafficking.

It doesn’t absolve media of their obligations… but when’s the next time you’re going to trust a Notre Dame athletics spokesperson?

UPDATE: Nice, Gene Wojciechowski. Deadspin has this from an ESPN columnist who interviewed Te’o:

Well, I sat across from him and I was moved by his story and it was heartbreaking and heartwarming and as it turns out totally untrue. But short of asking to see a death certificate, I’m not sure what most people would do differently in that case. But in researching it before I wrote the script, I remember trying to find an obituary for his girlfriend and could not. And couldn’t find any record of this car accident. But we asked Manti, could we contact Lennay’s family and he said the family would prefer not to be contacted. Could we have some photos of Lennay? He said the family would prefer not to provide those. And so in that instance, and at that moment, you simply think that you have to respect those wishes. But in retrospect, you can see where some of those things simply were not adding up to make sense. Easy to say now. At the time it never enters your mind somebody was involved in that kind of hoax

Read: ‘short of actually fact-checking, there is nothing we could’ve done to fact check Te’o’s story.’

Poynter has a good one on this that makes points about the This American Life-Mike Daisey saga. I wrote melodramatically about that case when it occurred last year… but I’ll eat crow and say Poynter’s right — TAL did everything right in the wake of the error. And sports journalism, facing a “moment of truth,” should do the same.

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One thought on “Manti Te’o, The Sports Media Complex & How Even Deadspin Screwed This One Up

  1. […] A: Why didn’t Deadspin’s staff put real effort into contacting Manti Te’o or Notre Dame … The lengthiest answer to this I’ve seen the site’s editor Tommy Craggs give in text is […]

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