So the Manti Te'o Scandal Is Some Sort of Indictment of Online Culture? Nonsense!
As my colleague Nat Ives reported yesterday, sports journalists are doing a certain amount of soul-searching in the wake of the Manti Te'o scandal -- in which we all learned, thanks to a bombshell Deadspin investigative report, that the lionized Notre Dame linebacker's dead girlfriend never actually existed. (Turns out sports-celebrity hagiographers aren't that terribly exhaustive when it comes to fact checking -- and, besides, asking mourning people to see death certificates for their just-deceased loved ones isn't really standard practice at even the most rigorous newsrooms.) That's a useful release valve for this (and every) hoax-related scandal: Blame the journalists -- or "journalists."
Everybody loves to blame the media -- especially the media.
And while we're at it, we're also supposed to blame shifty, shadowy online culture -- especially social media. Though various press accounts have Te'o meeting "Lennay Kekua" for the first time in person -- through a cousin, according to Te'o in Sports Illustrated; at a Notre Dame-Stanford game, according to his dad in a South Bend Tribune interview -- Deadspin's Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey reported that "The real beginning of their relationship apparently occurred on Twitter, as an encounter between @MTeo_5 and @lovalovaloveYOU, on Oct. 10, 2011." (Though Kekua's tweets have been deleted, Te'o's very first tweet to her is still visible on Twitter: "nice to meet u too ma'am.")
Burke and Dickey add that,
Lennay Kekua's Twitter name was @lovalovaloveYOU from 2011 until April 2012, @LennayKay from April until September 2012, and has been @LoveMSMK ever since. Their interactions, by and large, consisted of mild flirting. By January 2012, they were a "couple," and Te'o sprinkled #LMK (for Lennay Marie Kekua) throughout his Twitter timeline in 2012.If we're to believe Te'o, a Twitter hoaxer was flirting with him.
Meanwhile, the photos of Lennay associated with her Twitter account -- and later disseminated in the media upon her tragic "death" -- were actually images pilfered from the Facebook and Instagram accounts of "a woman living in Torrance, Calif.," per Deadspin. "We'll call her Reba, to protect her identity," Burke and Dickey wrote, but the front-page story of today's New York Post identifies her as 23-year-old "LA cutie" Diane O'Meara. Per the Post's report:
"Somebody stole her identity," a relative, Olga Volkov, told The Post. "[O'Meara's family] found out about it yesterday. They were shocked," Volkov said, noting that O'Meara is "a good person" from "a very good family."
This all fits into the worst cliches of the web, and particularly the social-media realm, as a treacherous terrain of fake and embellished profiles, half-truths and outright lies -- a place where a smart, college-educated (Notre Dame-educated, for Chrissakes!), decent guy like Te'o can easily get sucked into believing in love, only to get his heart smashed into little pieces through "a sad and very cruel deception" designed, in the words of his school's spokesman, "to entertain its perpetrators."
But the truth is, the bulk of the alleged deception was dependent on a 19th-century technology: the telephone. Various press reports cited by Deadspin and others tell the tale of the devoted boyfriend and girlfriend spending endless hours on the phone together -- particularly during the summer of 2012 when Kekua was supposedly undergoing treatment for leukemia at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, Calif.
In September, she dies -- and heart-rending coverage of Te'o bravely soldiering on follows in the sports press. Added bonus, as Deadspin reported: On Nov. 6, Te'o tweeted to @LennayKay "I miss you!"
Te'o's official statement about the scandal begins, "This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her."
In a Wednesday night press conference, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbick said, "What I will tell you, this was exclusively an online relationship."
OK, fine. Let's disregard, for a moment, multiple previous reports in which Te'o and his father say that he met the gal in person. Devil's advocate: They misspoke, or they were misquoted (LOLZ).
If that's the case -- if Te'o never actually had a face-to-face with his girlfriend -- and he was really, truly duped by what was "exclusively an online relationship," per Swarbick (well, online plus phone calls), then Te'o is not only a rube of historic proportions, he's an awful person.
A gal you declare to the world is your girlfriend gets in a car accident and is later diagnosed with leukemia, and you never visit her in the hospital? When she ultimately dies, instead of flying out to attend her funeral, you send "white flowers," per news reports? (If it was an exclusively online relationship, why not just send a .gif of flowers?)
Also, you develop a deep, long-distance relationship with a girl "over an extended period of time" but you never think to Google her? Te'o and Kekua weren't in technological backwaters -- he was at Notre Dame, she was supposedly at Stanford -- and yet they never thought to Skype or FaceTime-chat? Te'o was satisfied, "over an extended period of time," with just a few pilfered still photos and long phone calls?
As the New York Post puts it this morning, the "holes in the linebacker's bizarre fauxmance story continue to grow."
We all get fooled a little bit by social media now and then. But if anything, these days -- even on Twitter, where fake names and parody accounts are still allowed (unlike, technically, Facebook) -- truth bubbles to the surface quicker than ever.
That is, if you're open to the truth.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.