Thursday, January 17, 2013

Manti Te'o: Failed journalism, failed priorities

I am, of course, not qualified to talk to you about what did and didn't happen to Manti Te'o. Certainly I'm incredulous. Surely there's some amount of stupid and some amount of lying involved on his part, and probably Notre Dame's, and the question is simply how much of each.

But, then, we haven't heard directly yet from Te'o in the wake of this. As a newspaper reporter I've gone into plenty of interviews thinking "guilty ... almost certainly guilty" and left thinking "not so fast, that person made good points."

So it is important to reserve judgment, something we all need a reminder of from time to time. And this, is a big one. It is exceedingly important in life to keep an open mind.

Clearly, repeated journalistic failings have been exposed at the highest levels of sports reporting. Pete Thamel, for goodness sakes, has written for The New York Times and Sports Illustrated, and he screwed up in a way that will attach itself to the rest of his career.

That makes me angry. The lack of mea culpas out there so far from these reporters intensify the feeling.

But I must keep an open mind until hearing from them, as well. And, as a reporter for 15 years, I see clearly how this happens, even to very good reporters.

The truth is there's a rarely problematic hole in the typical journalistic process. If I interview a guy on the street about the news of the day, I don't ask for his driver's license when he spells his name for me. If I call a policy expert that I've never met and leave a message, I don't question whether it's really him or her when I get a call back.

So why wouldn't you believe a guy, who seems like a fine kid, when he says he has a girlfriend? He's Manti freaking Te'o, Notre Dame All American, made legend through some combination of effort and media myth. Those guys have girlfriends if they want them.

But here's the thing: If you care about this young woman, this supposed actual person who was in a car wreck, then got leukemia, then lay dying - if you care about her for any reason other than she was dating Manti Te'o, you reach out for her family. You call a friend.

You ask them for details - something you should double-source anyway, given the nature of memory in traumatic situations. Even if Manti Te'o tells you the family doesn't want to talk, you try. And you say, "your daughter/sister/friend is going to be a major part of a national news story. We publish Wednesday."

But she wasn't the story, even though her role in it was perhaps its most compelling element. Te'o was the story because he could tackle, and he played for Notre Dame. She was just his girlfriend.

Think, for a moment, about the priorities evident in that.

Then think about how they might apply to this situation. Or this one.

Postscript: Major kudos to Timothy Burke, Jack Dickey and Deadspin on this story. Yeah, there was some anonymous sourcing in it I'm not real comfortable with, but they did what they felt was right to present things as they found them, and with an effort (which I expect will fail) to protect the privacy of whoever's picture was used as Lennay Kekua's.