Won’t Get Fooled Again (Except the Next Time)


Journalismfacts

CBS News.  Sports Illustrated.  The New York Times.  ESPN.  The New York Post.  The Los Angeles Times.

All of them – and many, many more media outlets – fooled by a terrible and cruel hoax that could have been discovered with a few phone calls or a search on Google.

If this is the state of journalism at some of the biggest and best media outlets in the United States then journalism is in far greater danger than we ever could have imagined.

Here’s the lowdown as discovered by the blog Deadspin: Manti Te’o, a star football player at Notre Dame and a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, announced to the world that he was playing his season in honor of his girlfriend, who died of leukemia several months ago.  Her disease was discovered by doctors after she was injured in a car accident.

Except, there is no girlfriend.  She’s made up.  A fabrication that doesn’t exist.

But Manti Te’o’s story of struggling to overcome her death during his amazing season, the story of his anguished midnight talks with her as she lay on her death-bed, the story of sending her two white roses to her funeral, and her last words of “I love you” to him became the feature fodder for hundreds, if not thousands, of stories in the mainstream press, including the heavy-hitters mentioned at the top of this post.

A hoax that included made-up Twitter accounts and pictures stolen from another woman’s Facebook page.  A story that now lies in tatters because of the hard work done by Deadspin to reveal the truth.

A story that was too good to be true because it wasn’t true.  Unfortunately, no one checked.  A  hoax with a lot of holes in it and one that could have easily been discovered by journalists doing their jobs.  But it appears as if none of these media outlets ever checked the veracity of Manti Te’o’s story.  Not ESPN or the New York Times.  No one.

So much for the old journalism axiom: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

This is a major black-eye for journalism.  An embarrassment.

Expect a lot of hand-wringing by the mainstream media in the next few days.  Lots of excuses.  Lots of finger-pointing.  And expect to see a tidal wave crash over Manti Te’o.

UPDATE: Notre Dame and Te’o are claiming that he was the victim of a cruel hoax.  Not sure that can possibly pass the sniff test.  At best Te’o is guilty of lying about the depth and details of the relationship.

UPDATE #2: The Atlantic has a good piece on how the mainstream media are guilty in this story.  It says in part:  “This isn’t 1913, it’s 2013. How exactly does every major sports media organization in the United States re-package a story that turns out to be wholly false? Budgets are stretched, but do major magazines not even fact-check their cover stories? Were all the top sportswriters in the country so enamored with this tale of woe that they didn’t think to, you know, do their jobs?”  See the link below.

Links:

Deadspin’s exclusive on Manti Te’o’ made-up girlfriend

Poyner story “If Your Mother Says She Loves You”

Atlantic story on media and Te’o story

9 Responses to “Won’t Get Fooled Again (Except the Next Time)”

  1. For me, George, it’s easy to be fooled when the issue is a non-issue. This whole hoax did not become an issue until it was uncovered. A football player with an online girlfriend is not an issue, even if she has leukemia. Kids today fall in and out of love online and offline so quickly it’s mind boggling. No red flags. Unfortunately for Te’o, he is not going to win here no matter what happens. If he is the gullible, trusting kid Notre Dame says he is, he will never look at people the same. If he was part of the hoax, his reputation is marred forever. Either way, he loses. It’s just sad.

  2. Chris, it goes beyond that. This was a three-year relationship where Manti led people to believe this was an in-person relationship. He claims to have spent hours every night on the phone with her talking in the months leading up to her death. Are you saying the pranksters went to this extent? Why? At best he may have been duped, but he embellished and lied about the depth and details of the relationship. But worse is the media – who did nothing to check out his story, which crumbles easily with a bit of basic journalism. Manti may have help created his fake girlfriend, but the media brought her to life.

  3. prosewithabbitude January 17, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    It’s the real life story of “The Invention of Lying”!

  4. George,

    From a journalistic standpoint, this entire situation reminds me of journalists using factoids (news items with some truth) to spin them into sensationalistic news items. Worse than that, from a ethical and moral point of view, it also reminds me of the Jayson Blair case at the New York Times and the Stephen Glass case over at the New Republic.

    Today, even years after two high profile cases where the journalist(s) in question would blatantly fabricate stories, locations, sources and even his own background, people still can’t bother to fact-check and cite their sources?

    Is integrity not a cornerstone of journalism, any journalism, albeit investigative news or sports?

    If Manti was duped, I feel sorry for him. It may very well take him years to trust someone again, let alone have a relationship. If this was his attempt to garner sympathy and attention, then I’d say it would have been better for him to focus on football.

    -Lilian

  5. Hi Inretospect21:
    I don’t see similarities with Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass. Those were reporters fabricating news stories and deceiving their own colleagues. This case is pure journalistic sloppiness. Not checking the facts. And even worse for Sports Illustrated was that they did check the facts and found holes in Manti’s story, yet still went forward with the cover story on him anyway.

    I don’t see how Manti could have been duped for three years. And his story is already littered with half-truths and embellishments even if he was duped. This one takes the cake as one of the strangest stories of the last few years.

  6. Hi George,

    I think where I draw parallels to the Jayson Blair ad Stephen Glass cases is that in both situations, similar to the Manti Teo story, none of their colleagues, superiors or the publications themselves did any fact checking. If they had, they would have uncovered the deception on Jayson’s background as well as the stories that he and Stephen both fabricated.

    If Sports Illustrated as well as the other publications had bothered to do any fact checking or source verification, they too would have discovered the holes much sooner.

    Yes, I agree that it’s far fetched to believe that Manti was in fact duped. If he wasn’t, however, my question would be, what was his modus operandi for creating such an elaborate hoax? The kid was a Heisman Trophy finalist, after all, his skill and talent as a football player clearly didn’t need this kind of boost.

    -Lilian

  7. Hi Lilian:
    Good point on the fact checking. Appears as if Manti Te’o is now saying he is guilty of embellishment and not being truthful with his family about the true details of the relationship, but is adamantly denying any involvement in the hoax. One wonders why the alleged tricksters would go to such extreme efforts – including hiring/finding women to pretend to be the girlfriend. What was the point? A weird story gets weirder.

  8. ESPN did some fact checking but backed away on Te’o’s request to let the family grieve and be out of the public eye. Probably any other genre of journalist would have continued to dig, but sports journalism is a buddy club unlike any other. Even after he spoke to Jeremy Schapp last night, there are some unanswered questions. I think there always will be, and he’ll go on to the NFL unscathed and probably have a good career there. Bottom line–inside he knows the truth and it will not set him free, no matter what it is.

  9. This is the reason why when I was a journalist we called sports the “toy department.”

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