Pulitzer Prize-winners discuss Manti Te'o
I asked a pair of recent Pulitzer Prize winners, Ken Armstrong of the Seattle Times and Amy Nutt of the Newark Star-Ledger -- both have extensive experience covering sports -- for their thoughts on the Manti Te'o story.
SI.com: How would you characterize the reporting so far on the Manti Te'o story??
Armstrong: Man, this is an invitation to walk in the land of holier than thou - and for any reporter, that is one dangerous place to venture.
Tommy Craggs, the editor-in-chief of Deadspin, told Poynter that the original stories about Te'o and his girlfriend - the longer, maudlin ones - were "dumb" and "infantilizing," and "if there's any lesson to be drawn from this, it's that this kind of simpering crap should be eliminated from the sports pages entirely."
Say Hallelujah. Amen to that.
We now know from media post-mortems that there were lots of warning signals - no obit, no published accounts about the car accident, no record of the girlfriend at Stanford, no evidence of her in Nexis - and there's been plenty written about that. Reporters saw the alerts and blew past. But I'm just as troubled, maybe even more troubled, about the fact that newspaper, magazine and TV folks were so taken with this story to begin with.
There's less of a tendency these days to glorify athletes who play through physical pain. Could we please extend that to emotional pain? That Te'o chose to practice after learning of his girlfriend's death, and that he chose to play against Michigan - and play so well! two interceptions! - instead of attending her funeral is not a storyline that tugs at my heart. (Maybe, like the Grinch, my heart is two sizes too small.) Let's see how noble this story is if we plug in an accountant: Jeffrey Tisdale, CPA, chose to skip his girlfriend's funeral Saturday, saying he would show his love for her by continuing to work. "She would have wanted me to finish those returns," he said. People grieve in different ways. We can respect that. But to set Te'o's choices to violin strikes me as downright creepy. And his words in the Chicago Tribune ("All she wanted was some white roses. That's all she asked for. So I sent her roses, and sent her two picks along with that") could be bottled as ipecac.
I would add another lesson to the one offered up by Craggs, and that is: Mock Deadspin at your peril. Hell, compliment Deadspin at your peril. (Just ask Donald Trump.) Look at Deadspin's signature line: "Sports News without Favor, Access, or Discretion." That's funny, yes, but it's also telling, particularly the part about access. Deadspin could care less about pissing off Notre Dame - or anyone else, for that matter. (Just ask Donald Trump.) Deadspin breaks the story; ESPN, which is all about access, gets the Te'o interview in the story's wake. Deadspin comes out ahead. Deadspin crushed this story, going from tip to publication in a matter of days. At most newspapers, there would have been meetings. There might even have been soul searching and thumb sucking and earnest conversation. The folks at Deadspin - two reporters, two editors - crashed the reporting and cranked on the writing. Good on them.
As for the post-mortems, kudos to those reporters who have opened their notebooks, revealing how they got sucked in. That's got to be painful, but it's something we all can learn from. What's clear from these accounts, especially Pete Thamel's in SI, is the danger of deep and early buy-in. Even when details couldn't be documented - there was no record of the girlfriend graduating from Stanford, there was no record of her being hit by a drunk driver - all that happened was, those details got cut. The story as a whole remained unquestioned.
One more thing: It's worth noting that this kind of mythologizing - "Win One for the Gipper," the Babe's called shot to center field - is not limited to sports. When it comes to spinning a story, the U.S. Army is the equal of anyone. Just remember what the military did with Jessica Lynch. And with Pat Tillman. The lessons of the Te'o story - the need to be wary of inspirational tales with details that run light or are contradictory - extend beyond the playing field.
Nutt: Miserable. Let's begin at the beginning with Manti Te'o. He's a bright, charismatic Hawaiian -- a Mormon -- playing on a top-ranked football team for a legendary football powerhouse that has come back this year virtually from the dead. What's not to like as far as finding an interesting subject? Add a girlfriend who dies of leukemia and a good story becomes a great story -- in the crass way journalists regard any tragedy as a great "story." Sportswriters -- all writers-- are always looking for an emotional narrative to hook readers. There are, after all, only a handful of great sports "themes": the unlikely hero, the victory forged by defeat or adversity, the fall from grace, etc. Te'o fit the bill for multiple themes. He was already a popular subject with the sports media, so when his "girlfriend died," the story of Manti Te'o became that much more irresistible. Obviously, at some point, Manti Te'o realized this, too, and in his own cynical way, milked it for what it was worth. This is not to say that he might not have genuinely been grief-stricken, insofar as you can be grief-stricken over the death of someone you never actually met.
Speed and sensationalism rule the day and always have in journalism -- if it bleeds, it leads. It's just that speed in the past meant getting out an early edition. Today, it means "right now." There are no deadlines anymore, just "post it now" or "go on air now." So when a blog on a website of questionable journalistic integrity reports a story about a football player whose girlfriend isn't real, every other media outlet jumped into the swimming pool. The real problem was quite simple: The story of the girlfriend's death, like so many stories today that turn out not to be true, was a single source story. In the old days, you know, when the news had standards and standard procedures in place before it was published, an editor would have uttered a few choice expletives and told you to get another source. Either confirm the story or it would be spiked. I've heard some sportswriters on talk radio say, "Well, I didn't think I had to ask for a death certificate." No, you didn't, but all you knew was what a college football player just told you. That's it. Fin. And that's never been enough and shouldn't now be enough.
It's not that any reporter should have doubted the veracity of the girl's death, but if even a modicum of shoe leather had been spent confirming it, the truth, as we now know it, would have come out months ago. I've also heard and read some sportswriters didn't dig further because Manti Te'o told them the girl's parents were too upset to talk. Well, isn't that where professionalism comes in, when you contact them anyway, and politely, gracefully, ask if they will talk and if they will not, perhaps someone else close to the family can? And if the family can't, then you interview her friends, her doctors, her teachers, her distant relatives -- and not just to verify the story, which must be done, but also to enhance it, to get the details no one else has, to make the story even better. As a former sportswriter and a Notre Dame football fan -- I have two nieces who graduated in the past four years from the school -- I remember looking online for stories about the girlfriend's death when I first heard about it months ago. I wanted to read more, I wanted to know more not only about her but about Manti Te'o. I was truly surprised when a Nexis search turned up nothing beyond the bare bones facts given out by Manti Te'o. Here was a story ripe for the picking and no one had done a folo? I was truly puzzled and now, of course, I know why. No one bothered to jump those rather low hurdles, neither to confirm the facts nor to produce an even better story.
SI.com: If you were on this story, what would you be focusing on and why?
Armstrong: Lots of reporters are focusing on the individual: Was Te'o a dupe or did he participate in the hoax? I'm more interested in the institution. I would want to reconstruct Notre Dame's role in all of this - who learned what when, and what did those administrators, coaches and others do with what they knew? Early on, the South Bend Tribune wrote one of the sappiest accounts of the nonexistent girlfriend. But to its credit, the paper has now taken the lead in reporting on Notre Dame's shallow investigation and lingering silence. I want to know more. This would not be easy - Notre Dame is private, so public-records laws won't be much help -- but I would want to know about discussions held, email messages sent, and memos written.
I would also dig deep on Notre Dame and its football program in general. This would include revisiting two troubling stories from 2010: the student videographer who was fatally injured while filming practice and the St. Mary's freshman who committed suicide after accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexual battery. [Editor's note: An earlier version of this answer incorrectly stated that the Notre Dame football player was accused of rape.] The passage of a few years can sometimes aid in reporting. New records can emerge, and people once reluctant to talk might be willing to come forward.
Nutt: In many ways the story of the hoax isn't something I'd be in a hurry to report. No crime was committed, no NCAA rules were violated. A football player was deeply embarrassed. It's not the stuff of Page One. Or it shouldn't have been, except that in the echo chamber of today's media everything is magnified beyond its real importance, especially if it leads the broadcast, appears above the fold or is the main topic of talk radio. The more interesting question is how and why as journalists and consumers of news, we gravitate to these "easy" stories, and how and why as journalists and consumers of news, we continue to get duped into thinking something not only is true, but that it's real news.