Deadspin’s shocking exposé of Notre Dame star line backer Manti Te’o’s fictional girlfriend — which performs double duty as an exposé of a slew of news agencies that merely accepted his word that she had been hurt in a automobile accident and then later passed away of leukemia — does not conclude that Te’o was merely the victim of a rather morbid hoax or that he became a unforced accomplice in the deception.
Only the simple subject of the investigation, composed by Deadspin’s Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, isn’t the college football star at the center of it but the press corps, which accepted the deceased girlfriend story altogether. Just a bit more aggressive journalism by reporters and a couple of doubting questions by editors would have singled out the bogus from truth, as the piece amply exemplifies.
Of course, hardly any newsmen have the time or energy to contest every statement of fact from their subjects. Date of birth, place born, schools attended, awards won, jobs worked, countries visited, political and religious views and other aspects of personal history too numerous to catalog commonly originate from the mouths of news subjects when they are first interviewed. Because part of journalism is the business of detecting lies — and since the human soul is a dishonest thing — reporters acknowledge that almost everyone tends to misrepresent their pasts at least a little bit. Actors may make themselves a bit younger in an interview. Law school attendees may encourage you to think they graduated when they didn’t. Someone who climbed up one major mountain peak may suggest he had climbed several.
Over time, an interesting person tends to exaggerate his achievements and downplay his defeats, and by a certain age most have so polished up their personal and professional resumes that while looking at them they believe they are peering into a mirror. So when interviewing a subject for a story, reporters recognize instinctively that they’re accumulating some lies, if not directly from the subject then from whomever presented him his pile of facts. Then, it is the reporter’s job to work out to the best of his ability what is genuine and what isn’t by deadline.
Journalists tend not to fact-check everyday personal accounts unless the subject is powerful or important. The powerful and important, subsequently all, make a louder racket when knocked to the ground for their misrepresentations. A different trigger for deeper investigating of a subject comes when the information he offers fail to conform with previously publicized information. Only the Te’o romance appears to have stayed consistent over time, and the accumulative force of repetition dulled suspicions. I am not making excuses for the news media here; every nose on every newsperson covering Te’o should have been twitching. I just would like to emphasize that reporters tend to trust but shouldn’t things that get retold.
Deadspin would not have gotten much pickup if its story had been about a top college line backer who told lies about himself. Show me a football player, and I will show you a locker-room fabulist. To reach liftoff — to make Manti Te’o, who’s neither powerful nor important, compelling — the Deadspin piece required the illusion element of the crazy love story, the hoax, the atrocious list of hoaxed media and conjecture on what function Te’o played in the continuance of the hoax. A story about a liar Is not as exciting as a story about a victim, and a story about a dupe who likewise lied or withheld the truth bests both. Did the prankster kill Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend “Lennay Kekua” in a panic because he feared getting found out, or did he have the foresightedness to plot her demise because he knew how moved we’d be by the abrupt death of the warrior’s brave princess?
Perhaps reporters’ noses did not get to twitching earlier because they were coated in tears.
In an interview with Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore about how the story came together, Deadspin editor Tommy Craggs at the same time cuts the press corps some of the slack I’m extending here and at the same time smacks them upside the head.
“I understand how this slipped through the cracks initially … that’s just the nature of covering sports on a hard deadline,” Craggs says. “I have less sympathy for the folks who crafted those painstaking Love Story-in-cleats feature stories about Manti and his dead girlfriend. Those were dumb, infantilizing stories to begin with, and they were executed poorly and sloppily, and if there’s any lesson to be drawn from this, it’s that this kind of simpering crap should be eliminated from the sports pages entirely.”
I, too, am for banning crap — not solely from the sports pages but from every newspaper section, every internet site and every broadcaster. But can simpering copy be eradicated? Not as long as the audience for journalism includes non-journalists. And readers of the sports pages are not the only ones with a hunger, a call for for the basic fairy tale plot from their news sources. Therefore, sportswriters aren’t the only ones serving it up(even if they dish the meal higher). If readers can not acquire their simpering from their news sources, they will stop reading and watching and desert for the movies. Had the story of Te’o been truthful — and face it, it isn’t out of the question for a college football player’s girlfriend to get car-wrecked and vanquished by cancer in short order and for him to go on to play — it’s difficult to resist the power of its archetypal simper. Given our penchant for young lovers’ tragedies, I could see the Te’o hoax (which, as many have remarked, bears a resemblance to the plot of the 2010 movie Catfish) coming back to shock us once again in five years.
In preparation for this bogus love story’s come back, let’s paste across our desks a copy of this admonishment from H.L. Mencken: “It is only doubt that creates.” The only way to become a better journalist is to doubt what you read, doubt what you hear ‑- and when you feel your heart beating, tear it out and stomp on it until it stops.