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Patrick Hruby

The Manti T'eo Dead-Girlfirend Hoax: Blame the Media (and also, WTF?)

The Atlantic Sports Roundtable on T'eoGate

The Atlantic online

Among the many unanswered questions stemming from the Manti T'eo dead girlfriend hoax-cum-Catfishing, one matters most: how did the professional media get suckered?

In this week's Atlantic Sports Roundtable, we point a few fingers ... and struggle for answers.

Jake Simpson: ... I mean seriously, what?!?!?!?!? This isn't 1913, it's 2013. How exactly does every major sports media organization in the United States re-package a story that turns out to be wholly false? Budgets are stretched, but do major magazines not even fact-check their cover stories? Were all the top sportswriters in the country so enamored with this tale of woe that they didn't think to, you know, do their jobs? Mr. Te'o will get his soon enough—at best, he exploited a situation he didn't really understand to enhance his fame and prestige, and at worst he perpetrated a fraud on the entire country. But this story about the (now proved fictitious) Lennay Kekua has been in the news cycle for months. SI may be the worst offender, because running a heartwarming cover article based in part on a lie is the nightmare bizarro equivalent of Sidd Finch, only this was real. But it's appallingly apparent that every member of the sports media who wrote about this basically copied and pasted from previous articles ...

Hampton Stevens: ... Incredible, isn't it? Not one of the highly-paid, well-respected journalists at SI or ESPN even bothered to check the most basic facts of their stories. Charlie Rose and CBS, with all that staff, with all that preaching about "original reporting," yet nobody at the whole network even so much as bothered to pick up a phone to find out if the girl actually existed.

That is simply pathetic. Incredibly lazy. Embarrassing. Every journalist involved with telling Te'o's tale should be ashamed. At the moment, guys, that's about the most sophisticated analysis as I can muster.

Patrick, maybe you can put this mess into some broader social context. Tell me this is somehow an indictment of our cut-and-paste society. Take us into Gladwell-land, and explain how everybody gets fooled in a Blink sometimes. Help me see the big picture. Because right now all I can see is a bunch of people who stink at their jobs ...

Patrick Hruby: ... Here's the most amazing—well, more like the 736th most amazing—thing about this whole story: It's not like the site's intrepid reporters got their hands on sealed grand jury testimony, or the Pentagon Papers, or rappelled into CIA headquarters to retrieve the NOC list. They basically checked public records and did a bit of elementary reporting to see if Te'o's supposedly dead girlfriend actually existed. Which means they also started out by doing the single most important thing any journalist—or really, anyone in today's information-overloaded, public relations-spun, truthiness-soaked society—can do.

They didn't take things at face value.

Look, I'm not saying all of us need to be more cynical. (Probably not possible in my case, barring major advances in the realm of theoretical physics). Nor am I saying we need to distrust everything, diving deeply into the conspiracy-minded rabbit hole of Grassy Knollers, Obama Birthers and, most recently and disgustingly, the Sandy Hook Truthers. (Also: I've been through the sports looking glass, and I have no intention of going back). No, all I mean is that we need to be skeptical, ask basic questions, forever guard against our own unreliable human nature. The lesson here is an old one, but afer Te'o's too-good-to-be-true tale and the shattered legend of Lance Armstrong and so many other comforting fables gone sour, it bears repeating: If you want to trick someone, lie to them. If you want to fool someone, tell them what they want to hear ...

Read the full article at The Atlantic online