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January 22, 2013

Putting the spin in Deadspin

They had their story, and they embellished it. The truth wasn’t good enough. They had to add some zing to it. They took reality and stretched it until it became a national story.

Some might say that applies to Manti Te’o and his family regarding the ruse that was Lennay Kekua. But the Te’o family’s reaction was a result of one of the greatest scams ever perpetrated on a person of fame and future fortune. A network of professional pretenders duped him. Family, friends, teammates, roommates, reporters and even Mormon clergy were among the deceived in the Catfish concoction.

Te’o embellished the story of his relationship with the alleged Lennay Kekua, not while she was alive, but after she had “passed”. He dramatized. So, too, did his father. Some would have chosen to keep many of the loving thoughts expressed private. But none of that is a crime, let alone proof of complicity in the charade.

The real embellishers - the ones whose words and assumptions have cast a lifelong shadow over the life of Te’o - are the authors of the Deadspin story that blew the lid off the case and revealed to a largely unsuspecting people today’s meaning of the word Catfish.

Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, the Deadspin writers who have ridden the fame of the Te’o story, are just as guilty of selective reporting as those who stand accused by them.

They don’t know Manti Te’o. Never interviewed him. Never spent a meaningful second with him like the media who covered him for four years at Notre Dame. While they acknowledged Te’o’s Mormon faith, they provided a cursory and selective representation of Te’o’s spirituality to fit their needs.

They jumped on the opportunity to provide this quote from Te’o: “Faith is believing in something that you most likely can’t see, but you believe to be true. You feel in your heart, and in your soul, that it’s true, but you still take that leap.”

That’s a great tie-in for a writer. Lennay Kekua doesn’t and never did really exist. Te’o said faith is something you most likely can’t see. Dramatic. Effective.

Of course, she - the person he believed to be his girlfriend - was very real. She, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and others, convinced dozens, perhaps even hundreds of people that she was real and that she did exist, long before we heard of her “passing” on Sept. 12, 2012.

There was a girl who told Te’o that she loved him, and that she wanted him to live a life of God and others first. She pressed all the buttons that Te’o would respond to because of his spiritual background.

But while Burke and Dickey did break a story that had to be told - deserved to be told due to the scam and the magnitude of Te’o - they took it to an unsubstantiated conclusion.

“A friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo told us he was ’80 percent sure’ that Manti Te’o was ‘in on it,’ and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua’s death with publicity in mind,” they wrote.

Really? That’s not investigative journalism; that’s speculative and selective journalism for the sake of a tidy punch line at the end of the story. Had they not gone there with their conclusion, they would have had a solid, compelling story. Detailing the scam perpetrated upon Te’o and his family would have been a national story in itself. By all accounts up to that point, great work.

But they took it too far and reached conclusions without reasonable proof that Te’o was involved.

“The sheer quantity of falsehoods about Manti’s relationship with Lennay makes that friend (of Tuiasosopo’s), and another relative of Ronaiah’s, believe Te’o had to know the truth,” Burke and Dickey wrote. “Mostly, though, the friend simply couldn’t believe that Te’o would be stupid enough - or Ronaiah Tuiasosopo clever enough - to sustain the relationship for nearly a year.”

Had to know? That’s Journalism 101. You have to come a whole lot closer to proving “had to know” to use sources who are friends of the perpetrator of an elaborate hoax.

Connecting Te’o’s “falsehoods” about his relationship with Kekua as proof of his involvement in the scam is a scam in itself. Yes, there were inconsistencies in Te’o’s portrayal of his relationship with Kekua that eventually involved his father, Brian. Te’o himself didn’t just answer the media’s persistent questions about his girlfriend; he embellished. They played a role in helping dramatize the end result.

But that’s hardly proof of Te’o’s involvement in the scam, any more than Deadspin’s “80 percent sure” quote. Shouldn’t that source now be accountable for the validity of such a claim in light of the evidence to show otherwise?

Meanwhile, Deadspin’s response - in light of their inability to prove Te’o’s guilt - is to put out stories with headlines that read: Why Katie Couric’s Manti Te’o Interview Will Suck. Now that’s professional. Now that’s solid reporting.

An interview on Deadspin Tuesday quoted Burke regarding the “80 percent sure” quote from an anonymous source.

“We would have printed whatever our sources said,” Burke said. “We had three separate sources, all of whom were directly connected to somebody who had known Ronaiah Tuiasosopo themselves or had spoken with Tuiasosopo about the hoax. All three of these people expressed the belief that Te’o had a part in the hoax.”

You would have printed whatever your sources said? That sounds an awful lot like the journalists who had numerous sources who would have sworn that Kekua and Te’o’s in-season tragedy were real. They printed what the sources said about Te’o and his girlfriend’s death. For Burke, it is important for other journalists to have proven, credible sources. But when it comes to his three unnamed sources who have been proven wrong, their credibility is glossed over.

The media that covers Notre Dame football didn’t have the advantage of an email that told them Kekua didn’t exist. Had those same writers received such a tip, they undoubtedly would have seen the red flag and investigated as well.

And what about all the “sources” who convinced Te’o and his family and his teammates and his roommates and his friends and even his bishop that Kekua was real? The alleged Kekua spoke with Te’o’s mom about converting to Mormonism, as she did herself. Those sources don’t count? Oh, only the sources that contribute to Deadspin’s story that concludes that Te’o was in cahoots with the perpetrators.

Investigative journalism is not investigating one side of the story and manipulating the other side to fit the desired scenario/conclusion, no matter how spectacular and effective the result.

Perhaps the writers did expose the media for not being better fact checkers. There’s always a lesson to be learned amidst a tragedy, which this is because it is the willful and purposeful decision to humiliate another human being - both by the perpetrators of the scam and the Deadspin writers themselves.

Burke and Dickey deserve credit for breaking the story on the hoax perpetrated upon Te’o. Had they left it at that, everyone in the business could sit back and objectively say, ‘Damn, great job uncovering the scam.’

But they took it too far. They took it so far that their sources were just as lacking as the media’s sources in originally covering Te’o’s tragedy. The difference is that Deadspin’s story made Te’o’s name a punch line and the target of ridicule for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, there remains no evidence that Te’o was complicit in the scam. With each passing day, there is further “testimony” that shows he was not.

Incredibly, Burke has now neatly washed his hands of any further responsibility to validate his sources’ claims.

“When we are trying to gauge where in the situation responsibility lies, we are going to ask the people closest to the situation,” Burke said. “We reported what they told us. Whether or not Te’o is involved does not matter to me - it’s not of interest.”

Welcome to today’s investigative journalism. It is selective journalism for the sake of sensationalism. And the future looks bleaker than ever.


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