Today, we turn the magnifying glass on Manti Te’o. It would be more fitting, though, for media members to turn the magnifying glass on themselves, angle it toward the sunlight and feel the burning for a little bit. Many facets of the Lennay Kekua controversy remain unclear. The one clear part is this was a fundamental journalistic failure.
Let’s not slight the work of Burke and Dickey here. It was commendable, but the salient point with this story is how obvious this was or should have been. It was right there. Gene Wojciechowski researched this story before the Te’o interview. He found no evidence of the death. He found no evidence of the car accident. Te’o was unwilling to provide contact information for her family. He was unwilling to provide a picture of her or themselves together.
Everyone leaves a trail in the digital age. An aggressive Google search or an email to Stanford would have unraveled this. Instead, Wojciechowski filmed his saccharine segment for GameDay and left. In a profession where skepticism is essential, he took this story on faith. He’s right that most, in his situation, would have done the same. That’s the problem.
The sports media gets caught up with these tidy hero narratives. These narratives captivate the imagination, raise the blinders and lead to gratuitously lazy journalism.
Humans exist. Heroes don’t. Not in reality. Not even in credible fiction. For the rest of Western society, heroes died leading hopeless charges over trench walls. The one place this trope lingers is in sportswriting.
The hero can be the Ivy educated coach who won despite emphasizing ethics and academics, the cyclist who conquered cancer and rebounded to win the Tour De France, or the linebacker who came back for his senior year and channeled the anguish from his personal tragedy into an undefeated season. These stories are inspiring. As we later found, they were also inaccurate and devoid of nuance.
Sportswriting clings to this sort of feverish romanticism. Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel were willing to be the big bad journalistic wolves when it came to Tyrann Mathieu’s marijuana use. When it came to Te’o, though, they were as fawning as any fan. Thamel took Te’o's word for it with the girlfriend sight unseen. Thayer Evans called Te’o “a saint” when explaining his Heisman vote. This is a profession where Jeff Pearlman offered the truth about Walter Payton and was lambasted for sullying a good story.
Why did baseball writers blow it on steroids? They were so busy waxing poetical about witnessing history they ignored swollen heads, bulging veins and bodies the size of Buicks. Reporters took Mark McGwire’s word for it. The scandal stayed buried for years until the far more skeptical government got involved (rightly or wrongly).
Sportswriting has unique, essential traits. Depending on subjects for access breeds caution. Few covering first-hand let the napalm fly unless a player or coach is departing. There’s also a natural tendency toward finding “human” stories, as the end product of throwing an oblong ball across grass has no intrinsic importance. This is still “journalism” though and writers are paid and claim to be “trained for this.”
Deadspin broke this story, but the “blogs vs. mainstream media debate” is tired and irrelevant. The production, medium and standards for most outlets are merging. If they aren’t in the internet era, they are dying. The distinction seldom arises, unless one is applying for credentials to a sporting event. Regardless of the outlet, this is about basic trade practices and not being fucking lazy.
A bit more diligence and a bit more intelligence would be helpful. The last people who should be blind-sided by a development are media members, especially when it comes to human nature.
[Photo via USA Today Sports]