Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's heartbreaking tale of loss was one of the biggest human interest stories of the 2012 college football season. Te'o's girlfriend, identified as Lennay Kekua, was in a car accident, then found out she had leukemia, and died in September —within hours of the death of Te'o's grandmother. Te'o, who placed second in voting for the Heisman Trophy and was the emotional leader of a Notre Dame team that made it to the national championship game, had his heartwrenching story reported over and over again by a wide variety of mainstream media outlets.
The trouble is, the whole thing was a hoax, Deadspin reported Wednesday. Te'o's girlfriend never existed. Te'o released a statement saying that he had been duped into what he thought was an "authentic" emotional relationship with a woman he met online and talked to long-distance over the phone, but it was "apparently someone's sick joke." What's the media's excuse?
It has none, says Jake Simpson at The Atlantic. "This isn't 1913, it's 2013." Anybody with access to the internet can doublecheck at least the most basic information on just about anyone with the click of a mouse. Not one sports reporter in the nation bothered to verify Te'o's fictitious girlfriend's existence while the story floated through the news cycle for months. Sports Illustrated even ran a "heartwarming cover article" based in part on a lie that could have easily been exposed. Shameful.
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?... It's appallingly apparent that every member of the sports media who wrote about this basically copied and pasted from previous articles. [The Atlantic]
There's an old credo at the City News Bureau of Chicago, says John Kass at the Chicago Tribune. "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out." So of course, the standards of journalism slipped in this case. But reporters aren't the only guilty ones. Even if Te'o really was the victim rather than the perpetrator of this hoax, he apparently found out the truth in December, and still said nothing. And leaders of the Notre Dame athletic program knew, too.
Even though the saga was the centerpiece of the Notre Dame football storyline, almost like that cool speech the Gipper gave Rockne before he died, there was a problem.
Notre Dame knew it was a hoax Dec. 26. But the school didn't call a news conference or issue a statement revealing that the girlfriend story was pure baloney. So Notre Dame is complicit in the lie. [Chicago Tribune]
One of the obvious lingering questions, says Sam Laird at Mashable, was whether Te'o was "the victim or the perpetrator" of this elaborate fiction. The answer to that question is pretty important when considering where to place blame. Regardless, let's face it. We all bought the story, inconsistencies and all, Kass says. "Americans love such myths. Even though we know they're fiction, we yearn for them."