Perhaps the most amazing part of the Manti Te’o story is the extent to which it went unchallenged for so long. Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, who broke the story,point out the discrepancies that failed to raise red flags. Spencer Hall compiles a “short list of those who never checked to see if she actually existed.” Hampton Stevens summarizes:
Incredible, isn’t it? Not one of the highly-paid, well-respected journalists at SI or ESPN even bothered to check the most basic facts of their stories. Charlie Rose and CBS, with all that staff, with all that preaching about “original reporting,” yet nobody at the whole network even so much as bothered to pick up a phone to find out if the girl actually existed.
Reeves Wiedeman zooms out:
The reporters who traced Te’o’s story saw what they wanted to see and had little incentive to question it. In fairness to them, it was nearly impossible to imagine such a thing being made up. Regardless of how much he knew about his imaginary girlfriend, Te’o and his family repeatedly offered new layers of the story when talking with reporters. (He now says their relationship was only online and over the phone, though earlier there had been descriptions of in-person meeting.) It was a human-interest story of the kind that most major sports media outlets specialize in. There are ESPN’s endless segments with athletes doing good works. There was every story ever written about the greatness and infallibility of Joe Paterno. Creating figures whose aura expands beyond the field offers import to games that line up one after the other, the next not all that different from the last. Te’o’s story was fresh literary material for the reporters who covered him. If only they had taken the time to find out how eventful the real story was.
And Travis Waldron reflects on the implications for sports journalism more broadly:
Sports journalists — and I am not painting myself as an exception, since though I never wrote about Te’o, I can’t say definitively I would have verified every detail of his story had I chosen to — too often forget that we too are gatekeepers, that amid the games, the drama, and the hoopla, we too have an obligation to the truth not just on the field but off it as well. We too often forget that our heroes are still human and turn them instead into flawless role models worthy of admiration not just for their inhuman feats but for their stories, the odds they have overcome and the lives they lead. When our heroes fail as humans always do, when the heroic stories turn out to be lies, it becomes a mad scramble to demolish the images we helped build. The athletes failed you, we tell the world, excusing no one but ourselves.