The sad, bizarre, twisted tale of Manti Te’o is a wakeup call to the public and the media. In the 24-hour news cycle, with the race to get information out first and fastest, many reporters and editors have developed the unforgiveable habit of throwing the information out there and not taking the time and effort to check their facts.
As bad habits are wont to do, it caught up with the media this week when the website Deadspin blew open the Te’o scandal. The star Notre Dame linebacker’s inspirational story, playing on despite the death of his grandmother and girlfriend the same weekend, was a fabrication. While the loss of his grandmother was real, the girlfriend never existed, a fake creation made possible in the Internet and social media age — which makes the length of time that the fraud went uncovered even more stunning. But, as the cliché goes, the bigger the lie, the easier it is to believe.
We will allow readers to make up their own minds as to whether they believe Te’o was duped as he claims, a victim in this situation whose story became embellished and took on a life of its own as a tall tale, or, as Deadspin claims, a willing participant who rode the story to fame and Heisman hype.
What we’re more interested in is how much we in the media failed to follow one of first and most the basic tenants all reporters are taught: If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. No one called the non-existent family of Lennay Kekua. No one looked for an obituary that was never written. No one called Stanford, where the fake girl supposedly attended college, to find a friend who could share the couple’s story, even as Te’o continued to be willing to talk about it.
Instead, in our increasingly cynical world, too many media members were all too keen to tell a feel good, inspirational story of overcoming tragic loss. At least until Deadspin, not always known for its journalistic ethics, came in and did what we all should have been doing in the first place. They checked it out.
Ultimately, the worst thing to come out of this scandal is that the public was tricked and will be a little less trusting in the future, and Te’o comes off either looking like a fool or a calculating villain, depending on whether you believe his version of the story. Taxpayer dollars were not wasted, and no serious disaster befell anyone outside of perhaps Te’o himself.
But this story is a harsh reminder and wake up call to those of us whose job it is to be watchdogs. It is why we ask the mayor tough questions about Earthbound, city finances and the arena project. It is why we are so adamant about opening up the Grant County Economic Growth Council’s books and seeing how that public money is spent. It is why we want increased accountability when it comes to jobs created through tax incentives or TIF districts. It is why we do these things despite unfounded claims the Chronicle-Tribune is pushing an agenda or has an ax to grind with certain civic leaders.
Because if we don’t ask these questions, the consequences are more concrete and widespread than an embarrassed, or ashamed, college football star. Failure to ask the tough questions can — and has — led to the loss of millions of taxpayer dollars.
We don’t and shouldn’t start our reporting with the assumption that the mayor, Growth Council or any other public servant is up to no good. But then again, a check into Lennay Kekua would have started much the same way, and we’ve all seen how a simple story can unravel quickly.