Sports Media Scrambles as Manti Te'o Hoax Explodes

Journalists, Editors Wonder If They Asked Enough Questions

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Media outlets are rushing to assess what they said, what they verified and what went wrong in covering Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and the death of his girlfriend -- who, Deadspin reported Wednesday, never existed.

Sports Illustrated's regional Manti Te'o cover
Sports Illustrated's regional Manti Te'o cover

TV, magazines and newspapers had all taken up the story of Mr. Te'o's on-field success despite the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, just hours apart in September. The compelling narrative may have helped his chances for a Heisman trophy; he ultimately came in second. Now editors and journalists are facing questions about the answers they did not get before.

At Sports Illustrated, which put Mr. Te'o on a regional cover of its Oct. 1 issue and told readers about his girlfriend's battle with leukemia, staff spent Thursday afternoon busily assembling transcripts of writer Pete Thamel's interviews with Mr. Te'o's father and others, posting them online late in the afternoon.

"In light of the recent developments, we feel it is important to be as open and transparent as possible," a Sports Illustrated spokesman said. "To that end, we will be publishing the full transcript of Pete Thamel's recorded interviews with Manti Te'o and people surrounding both he and the Notre Dame football program on the subject of Lennay Kekua."

He declined to elaborate.

At The New York Times, which had told readers about the adversity dealt Mr. Te'o "when his grandmother and his girlfriend died within hours of each other," Sports Editor Joe Sexton did not have time to talk, according to a spokeswoman, but pointed to his comments to Public Editor Margaret Sullivan:

The death of his grandmother and ostensible girlfriend were never the focus of any article we did. They were mentioned, glancingly, as part of the accepted, to date unchallenged public narrative of a prominent athlete. I could never imagine in editing such a story, with the references existing as they did, asking the reporters: Do you know for a fact his grandmother is dead? Do you know for a fact his girlfriend is dead? Do you know for a fact his grandmother existed? Do you know for a fact his girlfriend ever existed? And any editor who tells you they would have or should have asked those questions is kidding you.

ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski, who had voiced a video about Mr. Te'o's efforts to overcome tragedy, declined to comment through an ESPN spokesman. But he said on "SportsCenter" that he had tried to find an obituary for Ms. Kekua and a report on the car accident she supposedly suffered. "We had asked Manti, could we contact Lennay's family, and he said the family would prefer not to be contacted," Mr. Wojciechowski said. "Could we have some photos of Lennay? And 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."

In retrospect those may look like red flags, Mr. Wojciechowski said, but at the time no one suspected anything.

An ESPN spokesman denied an unattributed report Thursday suggesting that the network knew about the hoax before the BCS championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama.

At the South Bend Tribune, which also reported on Mr. Te'o's girlfriend, an inquiry to the Notre Dame football beat writer was answered by an assistant at the paper. "Eric is working on this breaking story and will not be able to answer any media requests at this time," the assistant said by email. Sports editor Bill Bilinski also declined to comment.

Journalism -- and not just sports journalism -- may want to steel itself for further episodes like these, however much editors are recommitting today to checking facts. "I almost feel like it's the continuation of a deteriorating practice," said a veteran sports journalist who has worked at large media companies including The Times. "These were big, powerful media giants that had the capability and money to fact-check, with three or four layers of editors," he said. "Things were double or triple-checked. And then in the last several years, staffs grew smaller and budgets got strapped."

College-sports coverage may be particularly prone to manipulation, especially when it comes to wealthy schools such as Notre Dame and their prominent programs, the journalist added. Reporters depend heavily on access to the team -- something reinforced when Mr. Te'o's father reportedly said he had "black-listed" the Honolulu Star-Advertiser over a photo of his son. But journalists of any stripe are stretched more than in the past, he said. "I just don't think there's the time to check on stuff any more."

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