How much blame should sports journalists take for subjecting us to months of fake details of the fake girlfriend claimed by Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o?
Certainly it seems to be a massive failure of reporting, a de-pantsing of sports journalism, to have so many smart writers taken in by a young man with an inspirational backstory. Yet many top sports reporters now say it's not really their fault. They say they handled it like any normal person would -- who wouldn't believe such a nice young man in such tragic circumstances?
Here's how Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg put it on the SI website, the day after Deadspin.com broke the Manti Te'o scandal, explaining that his own personal BS meter would not have caught any deception:
"Evidently, I'm not alone, because dozens of media outlets mentioned the girlfriend without wondering if she existed. In that situation, a reporter tries to talk to her family, other people who knew her—you fill in the edges of the story. But if you don't get a hold of those people, would you really think, "Hey, this is probably just a hoax, and this girlfriend doesn't exist?' Be honest."
Wrong question. It doesn't make any difference if it's a hoax. That's not why reporters question things. They question because it's their job and if they don't do it, no one does. There's a word for the people who happily repeat stories without independent fact-checking -- we call them the audience.
That said, there's no reason to ascribe bad motives to the reporters, or to think they're not top-of-the-game, aggressive professionals, at least when they think they're reporting news.
But they framed the story a different way: as a celebrity feature ("sports hagiography," as my Ad Age colleague Simon Dumenco calls it). And celebrity features are about marketing, not news.
The happy, feel-good stories on Te'o and his tragic fake girlfriend had a business goal, and everyone was party to it, consciously or not: sell papers, sell TV ads, sell the Notre Dame football program, sell Te'o himself. The reporters swallowed the marketing spin whole hog.
Nonetheless, it's still astonishing that not one editor at any of these major national sports-news outlets insisted on even the most basic fact-checking. No one wanted to talk to the dead girlfriend's pals or family, or see any record whatsoever of her history?
In fact, some reporters apparently did try, at least a little bit. The night the Deadspin story broke, ESPN senior columnist Gene Wojciechowski went on ESPN's SportsCenter and explained:.
"In researching it before I wrote the script, I remember trying to find an obituary for his girlfriend and could not. And couldn't find any record of this car accident. But we asked Manti, could we contact Lennay's (the fake girlfriend's) family and he said the family would prefer not to be contacted. Could we have some photos of Lennay? He said the family would prefer not to provide those.
"And so in that instance, and at that moment, you simply think that you have to respect those wishes."
No city editor I ever worked for -- or sports editor, for that matter -- would accept no checking whatsoever on a story of this size. Especially when the first queries keep coming back ... blank.
At least now we know one way to pull the wool over the nation's major sports outlets: Ask them to respect your wishes. I bet there are a lot of politicians who wish they could pull that off. They should go into sports instead.
David S. Klein is Advertising Age's publishing/editorial director