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Manti Te’o hoax a failure by major media

Posted by Mark Leccese  January 22, 2013 08:48 AM

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In all the media ruckus over the story of Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o, who made up a story about the death of his girlfriend, one obvious fact has been little remarked upon: the complete failure of a surprisingly large number of elite reporters and editors to do basic journalism.

What we have here are two failures: It starts with Sports Illustrated — a magazine legendary for tight editing — looking into the face of the hoax and turning away. Once the hoax had been published and thus validated by Sports Illustrated, the rest of the American media felt no need to check Sports Illustrated’s reporting.

Then Timothy Burke, an editor at the irreverent sports website Deadspin, got an anonymous email suggesting he “check out” the story of Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend.
If you read the Deadspin story of Jan. 16, you won’t have much doubt who is behind the hoax — Manti Te’o and a young man he knows named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Read it and you’ll come to the same conclusion.

The day after Deadspin broke the hoax story, the bosses at Sports Illustrated asked the reporter and writer of its October 1 cover story, Pete Thamel, to “to give an account of his reporting” which he did in a blog post that runs to nearly 5,000 words and includes a transcript of his interviews with Manti Te’o.

It is an astonishing document. Thamel describes checking the story after his interviews in the Notre Dame campus, finding “red flags,” and then solving the red flag problem by making minor changes to his copy.

These are the three big flags and what Sports Illustrated did about them.

  1. Thamel checked the LexisNexis database for information about Lennay Kekua, the name of Te’o’s hoax girlfriend. He found nothing. He looked online for an obituary or a death notice. He found nothing. “But,” he writes, “that might be explained by the fact that she had three recent places she called home, or by her family not wanting publicity.”
  2. Te’o had told Thamel that his girlfriend had graduated from Stanford University in either 2010 or 2011 – he couldn't remember which. Thamel called a friend in the athletic department at Stanford University, who told Thamel he could not find anyone with the name Kekua in the Stanford alumni directory and added that he “thought it was odd that, on such a small campus, he’d never heard of a student dating Te’o.” Thamel, while admitting “this was the most glaring sign I missed,” simply removed any mention of Stanford University from the article.
  3. Manti Te’o told Thamel that his girlfriend had been injured in an automobile accident with a drunk driver, and it was at the hospital after the accident that doctors discovered her fatal leukemia. Thamel and the magazine’s fact-checker searched the Internet for details of this drunken driving accident and could not find a word about it. So Thamel “took the drunk driving reference out. It was just a car accident.”

Why did Thamel ignore three solid pieces of evidence that Lennay Kekua did not exist and had never existed?

Well, who wants to believe that the young man you are writing about would make up a story about a dead girlfriend? Michael Rosenberg, a college football reporter at SportsIllustrated.com, wrote on the night the hoax was revealed:

We're all supposed to have b.s. detectors in this business, but mine would not have gone off there. Evidently, I'm not alone, because dozens of media outlets mentioned the girlfriend without wondering if she existed. In that situation, a reporter tries to talk to her family, other people who knew her -- you fill in the edges of the story. But if you don't get a hold of those people, would you really think “Hey, this is probably just a hoax, and this girlfriend doesn't exist”? Be honest.

Honestly, no – after the interview with the young athlete, I would not have begun to think he made up a dead girlfriend.

But, honestly, after I could find no obituary, no evidence of an auto accident, and no evidence any such person ever attended Stanford? At the very least – the very least – any responsible journalist would tell his or her editors to hold the story back until more reporting could be done.

The sports website SBNation quickly compiled a list — with links to stories — of 21 media organizations who fell for the hoax, including SBNation itself, The Boston Globe, ESPN, The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, CBS Sports, The Associated Press and The Los Angeles Times.

The Chicago Tribune, in a story the day after Deadspin revealed the hoax, saw a “black mark on sports journalism.”

The scam does more than shatter a college football fairy tale. It also leaves a black mark on sports journalism, as many news outlets — including the Tribune — ran stories about Kekua’s passing without verifying her death. There was no published obituary for Kekua and no California driver’s license issued to anyone with that name. The Social Security Administration database had no record of anyone with the surname Kekua dying in 2012.

Yet respected national publications such as Sports Illustrated, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times all ran stories about Te’o’s heartbreak. The Chicago Tribune published 15 articles mentioning her death in the past four months.

So many reporters and editors at so many respectable news outlets fell for the hoax for a simple reason: because Sports Illustrated and ESPN and The Associated Press fell for the hoax.

Eric Wemple, the media blogger at the Washington Post, agrees.

Critics simply cannot believe that so many reporters fell for it, though the history of the Internet yields one clue: Once a big-name news outlet reports something, the rest of the media is free to repeat without confirming.

Wemple blames all sportswriters in the world.

The colossal embarrassment will prompt a whole lot of soul-searching among sports-news outlets about their addiction to treacly human interest stories on big-time athletes. The outcome will be nil. There’s no way that a single story, even one as astonishing as this one, will tweak the collective instinct of generations and generations of sports reporters. These are people, after all, who will never be content to simply let sporting events speak for themselves. They must add something, and it’s all too often this sort of garbage.

Nah. I’m still convinced the best sportswriters tell stories as solidly reported and as affective as any journalist in any area.

More importantly, you’re naïve if you think the casual disregard of the huge holes in the Manti Te’o story is a sportswriter thing. The Chicago Tribune is wrong: this doesn't leave a black mark on sports journalism, it leaves a black mark on all journalism. Bad journalism is bad journalism on any beat.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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