I’ll forgo the faux outrage and admit this: I’m not all that shocked, or even terribly bothered, that the first sports journalists to stumble upon the faux tale of a Notre Dame linebacker’s faux dead girlfriend failed to detect from the outset that, well, the whole darn thing was faux. (Kudos to Deadspin for breaking the story, though.)
After all, Matni Te’o talked about Lennay Kekua to the media at some length in September, when the girl who never existed supposedly died, hours after the passing of Te’o’s grandmother, who did in fact exist and who did in fact die. Later, Te’o’s father talked about Kekua, too; so did his teammates.
It’s easy to say, in retrospect, someone should have been suspicious about what now is so obvious. But in reality (no pun intended,) skepticism must sometimes bow to pragmatism and heed deadlines — as when multiple people make reference to a person and event, and there is no discernible reason for all of them to lie.
Case in point: I’ve never met Pete Rose, and did I seek a birth certificate to prove he was actually alive before I wrote this column back in 2004. Neither did I read the full text of the Dowd Report to verify gambling allegations got Rose banned for life by Major League Baseball. And I didn’t verify prison and court records to confirm Rose had served time. I took a several facts for granted and tried to advance the story of gambling admission in a way that would be interesting to local readers.
Perhaps I deserve a spanking, but the fact is, such assumptions are made by journalists every single day. Frankly, if they didn’t make them, you’d probably have to wade through too much backstory to make reading a newspaper worth your while. It also might take weeks to give birth to stories that ought to take a days or hours. For much as in science and other fields of inquiry, knowledge is built atop of knowledge, and reasonable assumptions about accepted truths helps that building occur.
Not always, of course. Sometimes, lies are stacked atop lies.
Which is why journalists — like scientists, historians and those in other fields of inquiry — must occasionally circle back to challenge long-held assumptions, lest the lies pile precariously high. Fortunately, Dead Spin did that with— and for — the Te’o story.
But this is where the big on the other hand comes in. For while it is unreasonable to expect news media never to get duped, it is not sufficient in this case to say all is well because someone eventually exposed Te'o's story.
Moreover, it might be understandable that this hoax was reported in September, but it is unfathomable that Te’o’s Heisman candidacy came and went — as did the BCS championship game, in which his Irish were convincingly thrashed by Alabama — before this came to light.
Worse, the media didn’t merely allow the fraud to continue unchecked, they gave it embellishment, layering sappy detail on top of sappy detail, without independent verification or attribution. That failure is the one that tars the profession.
To further the indignity, we in the media were embarrassingly incurious. To wit: How can it be that no one thought it would be a good story to gather reaction from Kekau’s family as Te’o became a legitimate Heisman contender and the Irish barreled toward the national title game? Possibly, some outlet tried and, to its credit, didn’t publish a story because the facts were not adding up. But that’s the sort of story you’d think boatloads of reporters would pursue ... and that someone in the boat would subsequently expose as a fraud.
How did this happen?
Well, to start with, someone — and maybe several people — lied elaborately and convincingly. Whatever the motivation, that is an act of commission.
Be that as it may, the news media aren’t supposed to deal in wooden nickels. There are several possibilities to explain why they did so where Te’o is concerned: Lack of skepticism. Idolatry of one of college football’s most storied programs and a player who, by all previous accounts, is a stand-up guy. An echo-chamber mentality, in which outlets are too quick to accept the reporting of others as gospel. The temptation to cut corners and be first with a story. Newsroom budget cuts that have made deeper fact-checking more difficult.
My guess is that it’s all of the above, in degrees that vary from newsroom to newsroom. This sort of thing has happened before and will happen again.
It's not terribly unsettling that such a thing happened, but it's terribly discomforting that this particular fraud took too long to detect.