January 16 at 4:25 I was sitting in my office when I received a text from my friend Derek that said "Are you following this Te'o stuff. Holy crap." I immediately turned to my computer, opened twitter and searched my timeline, it didn't take long to catch up. Twitter exploded for the next 24 hours and there are aftershocks daily as the story is pieced together. Notre Dame and to a lesser extent major media outlets went into damage control. The Irish ran out their athletic director in a quickly scheduled press conference and threw their support behind the All-American linebacker and for the first time attempted to frame the narrative. It was too late.
I used to read Deadspin on a daily basis, sometimes more than that. It was witty, funny, and often captured Kyle Orton and Ben Roethlisberger drinking like champions. Aside from articles that most closely resemble "Dear Penthouse" material Deadspin is very readable. They consistently call out larger media entities for their skewed coverage while bringing stories to the forefront that would be buried or non-existent in the traditional media. They also break some big stories. Deadspin broke Brett Favres sexual misconduct allegations involving Jenn Sterger and the Sarah Phillips/ESPN story. They have also taken it upon themselves to run a sort of meta-analysis of what ESPN is "covering." The site isn't beholden to typical journalistic mechanisms, either traditional or contemporary. They don't have anyone to protect, they don't have to worry about team/university blowback, and they don't have to package content.
The key to breaking the Te'o story was Deadspin's use of independent sources to do the leg work. Another advantage seems to be that Deadspin has little or no fear of swinging and missing. They have consistent content that people want to read, the investigative pieces are the icing. I'm sure for every Te'o story there are 10 or 15 unicorns that Deadspin has chased. Lastly, while ESPN, CBS, FOX etc are certainly tech savvy, Deadspin, in large part because of the inventiveness and time of their independent sources, can trace and connect twitter feeds, photos, news stories and do so cheaply and therefore effectively. They are flexible and mobile enough to engage in this gorilla
journalism where the traditional media outlets are unwilling or unable. Deadspin put together a timeline with the help of deleted tweets and twitter accounts, facial recognition technology, collateral sources, and then painstakingly connected the dots.
Lastly and most importantly Deadspin is not tied to the narrative. When things don't add up, they aren't tied to a fiction they've created or become complicit in, rather, as in the Te'o case, they looked for elements to a national story that didn't add up and chased those elements down. Other sites engage in the same investigative work, the other sites didn't break the story of the year. As one reporter tweeted shortly after the story broke, "What were we supposed to do, ask Te'o if his girlfriend really died?" Well yes. Or perhaps better at least verify that she lived, confirm there was a funeral or a car wreck, or that she attended Stanford, or died on which day (more on that later). For a fake girlfriend, Te'o and others had contributed a pretty extensive back story, she went to Stanford, lived in California with family nearby, she had a job, it was a family business that she took over from her dad, she knew and communicated with certain people reguraly. Here is the debilitating restraint on the mainstream media, are you going to be the one paper/site/show that swims against the weight of the feel good story of the year? Deadspin is not beholden to these constraints and can pull loose threads to see if they unravel.
The World Wide Leader was waiting. For what we're not quite sure, but they were waiting, sitting on the Te'o story for at least 6 days and probably longer. We don't know what they knew, but they knew something. Execs have since said they "wanted to be very careful." Sure, you guys are always so careful. (Cornbread brother, Chink in the Armor, Kornheiser, Limbaugh, Tebowcenter, Sarah Phillips)
Let's get this out of the way. The next time anyone mentions journalism and ESPN in the same breath realize those two ideas are in fact mutually exclusive. ESPN isn't in the business of breaking news stories, or vetting news stories, ESPN is in the business of packaging content. It's at its heart about control. Let's go back to the trainwreck that was "The Decision." LeBron James was going to decide where he would take his talents. The biggest free agent in basketball history was going somewhere or nowhere. ESPN saw the opportunity not to report the story but rather to direct the story. After weeks of buildup, in which ESPN's own minions were actively NOT reporting where he would go, they gave us 75 minutes of amazing. James dictated who would host, reportedly even paid for the host. ESPN spent most of the days preceding the event covering the actual event, not the actual story, this made for a TV extravaganza all produced and packaged by James and ESPN. Chris Broussard was 85% sure James would go to Miami days before the decision only to hedge and proclaim confidently that "My gut says Cleveland." Nothing like a little drama. Host Jim Gray put on the most annoying interview in history, killing time before the actual decision was "made." Then LeBron uttered those famous words, "I'm taking my talents to..."
Packaging content. Simple. Don't report the story, control it. With Te'o they waited for the exclusive bombshell interview. Then they got scooped and looked foolish. Worse, ESPN and every other media outlet failed to do their job. Report the facts not perpetuate the fiction. Even after the Deadspin article ESPN attempted to wrestle back control with an off-camera interview by Jeremy Schapp then a sit down with Katie Couric and ESPN's sister network ABC. By waiting for the exclusive however, they lost the narrative. They got caught flat footed.
Stephen Glass wrote amazing stories for the New Republic magazine. Engaging pieces with interesting people and incredible events. In "Hack Heaven" he chronicled Ian Restil, a 15 year old computer hacker who hacked into a noted software firm. Once inside he posted employee salaries and nude photos on the company's website. Glass chronicled how Restil, rather than being arrested, was hired by the software company. Restil even hired an agent. The story was captivating, engaging, fun, and entirely made up. Glass's editors defended their star writer, even in the face of glaring holes in his research and suspicious collateral evidence indicating much of what he wrote about did not exist. There was no software company. No hackers convention. It was fiction that was released into the mainstream as fact. Glass gave the same treatment to other articles and even as his editors expressed concern, in the bigger picture, the stories were popular and Glass was convincing.
Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. Words to live by. I first heard of Manti Te'o's girlfriend on College Gameday a few weeks after the Michigan State game as I watched the Gene Wojciechowski piece. I remember thinking how awful it was that his grandmother and girlfriend died the same day, but because I'm a cynic, thinking that Notre Dame will certainly play this thing for all it's worth. You would assume there is some sort of vetting process that occurred before the piece hit the air.
Manti Te'o's fictitious girlfriend died on September 11th. Twenty-four hours later his grandmother, the true tragedy lost in all this, passed away. Manti Te'o's fictitious girlfriend died after his grandmother and even expressed condolences for the loss of Manti's grandmother. Manti Te'o's fictitious girlfriend died not on September 11, but on September 14. Manti Te'o's fictitious girlfriend died not on September 14th but on September 15th. Confused? No one else was. This chronology all came from credible news outlets. The first two were actually reported by the South Bend Tribune on separate days. The New York Post reported the September 14th date and both ESPN and CBS referenced the September 15th date. Deadspin broke this timeline down, a revelation that would have taken the New York Post, ESPN, and CBS nothing more than a calendar, a colored pen and a google search. Still EVERYONE whiffed.
Everyday newspapers print obituaries, birth announcements, anniversaries and bar mitzvah announcements. When or whether someone died should be the most simple of all fact checking exercises and yet no one checked. Worse, no one took the time to fact check their story against other MAJOR media outlets. Did anyone seek out the family, next of kin, friends, co-workers, or even her place of employment for a quote? I can't imagine a world where they wouldn't. I can however imagine a world where the narrative lapped the facts.
Notre Dame is fertile ground for myth come true. Knute Rockne had his famous halftime speech invoking the deathbed request of George Gipp. "Win won for the Gipper" Rockne told his team as they played Army at Yankee Stadium. Eight years earlier the Gipper, on his death bed, allegedly, told Rockne to implore his team, if their backs were ever against the wall, to "win just one for the Gipper." The media ran with the story, movies were made and endless parodies. Never mind that the George Gipp deathbed story was by-in-large a myth and certainly any deathbed rabble rousing was exaggerated if it existed at all.
Rudy Ruettiger inspired his teammates to turn in their jerseys in protest unless Rudy got to play the final game. Of course they didn't but that's beside the point, FYI it wasn't even the team's last game. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. It's no wonder then that when Notre Dame's All-American linebacker captain lost his girlfriend the media fell in on the story. They waxed on about how "their eyes met their stares got pleasantly tangled." They fawned over her last communication to him which was to go out there and give it his all for Old Notre Dame. ESPN, NBC, CBS, everyone tripped over each other to share the inspiring story with the world. The Irish were lightning in a bottle. A national team with a huge following going undefeated circling the wagons around their heartbroken leader. The script wrote itself.
Worse was the way the Notre Dame handled the situation. Alerted on December 6th to the possibility that Lennay might not be real, the University hired an investigator who uncovered the hoax, an investigator that by Te'o's own admission never interviewed him, and yet the University sat on the story. They sat and waited, knowing certainly that ESPN was waiting for the exclusive, waiting through the BCS title game media blitz where Te'o was either 1) asked about the story or 2) was the centerpiece based on the story on a daily basis. Then they cobbled together a press conference when it all hit the fan. It was too late, the damage was done. By the time the press conference convened the twittersphere had defined the story and Deadspin, having gotten out of the blocks first, became the authority on the subject.
Then it came time for the national media, the same group who couldn't decide when Lennay Kekua died to start the hand wringing. Lost in it all was any culpability for the way the story grew. The videos of Te'o waxing nostalgic about the love of his life that never existed seem silly now. The articles, in particular a few from the South Bend Tribune, are so elegantly written and yet so incredibly false. How could they all have missed it? Why didn't anyone ask the most routine questions?
Notre Dame beat Michigan State 20-3 in the week that saw Manti Te'o lose his grandmother and his girlfriend in the span of ten hours. The team traveled to East Lansing and dominated the Spartans, led by Te'o, who Irish Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick described as "the perfect Notre Dame football player." Irish coach Brian Kelly said the team had rallied around Te'o and that the team had a dynamic he'd never seen around a group of players. Yahoo contributor and Notre Dame alum Rick Blaine wrote "Notre Dame remains a special place and a different kind of football program."
The next week students wore leis in support of Te'o as the Irish beat rival Michigan in South Bend. A few weeks later after wins over Miami, Stanford, and BYU, Kelly told Grantland "Our football team, they believe they're gonna win. There's no question they believe they're gonna win." Sitting in their path was a trip to Norman and perceived power Oklahoma. National TV, Brent and Kurt, underdogs facing not only the Sooners but also the skeptical college football world. The Irish beat the Sooners handily and after an overtime win against Pitt and a road win at Boston College the Irish sat two games from a BCS birth with only Wake Forest and USC in the way. ESPN's Matt Fortuna wrote "Te'o has had that sort of impact -- helping to revive the Irish, of
course, but also helping to restore people's hope. His good deeds and
strength in the midst of such sadness have served as inspiration." Te'o was the inspirational leader that would lead the Irish to the BCS title game. Thayer Evans of SI called Te'o "a saint," who embodied everything a football player should be on and off the field. Liberally layered in the narrative was the story of the girlfriend, the chance meeting after the Stanford game, the car wreck, leukemia, Te'o the team leader, the rallying point, the belief.
This is what sports does, take whatever evidence you have, form an idea based on that and sell that idea. "We wanted it more than they did." "We just believed in each other." "There's just something different about this team." "He has 'it.' I don't know what it is but he has it." "They have great chemistry." "If you had eleven of that guy you could beat anybody." You know what you'll never hear, "our players at certain critical positions were better than theirs." "We have advantages that the other team does not." The Irish narrative was painted week after week, central to the narrative was the inspiration Te'o was. We know now that several of his teammates were leery of the way Te'o's story had evolved and been embraced.
Part of the problem is we, the consuming public, love this stuff. We want to believe in things like chemistry and "wanting it more." We want to believe that a team can rally around a leader and become great, that a undersized walk-on can inspire his teammates, that a dying wish could shift the balance between victory and defeat. We don't want to acknowledge that Notre Dame was undefeated because it played a schedule that while on paper seemed incredibly difficult, didn't pan out that way. USC was a preseason number one that lost six games. Michigan State and Michigan were both preseason top 15 teams that both ended the season with at least five losses. OU was a preseason top five squad that never reached that potential. Stanford was arguably the only elite team on the Irish schedule. The Irish may have had great chemistry and were a very good football team but they also had a favorable schedule i.e. more talent, better coaching, advantages in infrastructure, etc. Having better players and playing inferior opponents is far more critical to going 12-0 than any leadership by or rallying around Te'o. That story doesn't sell during BCS week.
So what now?
A lot has been said about what happens to Te'o now. Does his draft stock slip? Will Lannay always be the first thought that comes to mind when he's remembered? Was he naive, dumb, complicit or all three? What about ESPN and the other heavyweights? Are they too big to fact check? Do Tom Rinaldi, Chris Meyers, and Gene Wojciechowski work more carefully to fully vet their feel good pieces?
To each of these questions my answer is I don't know. Here is what I suspect, Te'o will never live this down. That's not entirely his fault. Notre Dame failed the first rule of PR, if you can't hide it you have to control it. By 4:25 on January 16th the perception of Te'o was firmly in place and there is little that Jeremy Schapp or Katie Couric can do to change that. As far as our media habits we are ripe for the Pied Piper, once the tune is played we'll follow it. But we are also, as studies show, forgiving, we like to overlook faults, we don't like people being wronged and we'll side with them. Again and again there are examples of people who have gotten out in front of "the story," answered for their failure or weakness and have seen the viewing public move on.
As for the media it's tough. It really is. They are finding they've been replaced in the news cycle by twitter, facebook, instagram, blogs, youtube, et al. Still it's is their job, if they persist in calling themselves journalists, to investigate and discover. Gene Wojciechowski's piece on ESPN at the time was compelling stuff, so was Thayer Evans' article and all those South Bend Tribune pieces. They made for great TV and copy. Can you imagine the splash they would have made if they'd only been right?