The Manti Te’o Hoax: What the Hell Were Thousands of Media Professionals Thinking?
My first job out of college, at a quarterly magazine, was a quaint little thing called “fact checking.” (Also, to be fair, copy editing, web content, and even the occasional bit of writing — it was a pretty good gig, as far as those first jobs go. But the key part of it for today’s purposes is the fact checking.)
Fact checking is not a particularly sophisticated art. It involves going through the rough draft of a story and making a little mark in red next to every statement of checkable fact. So if the lede is something like “Dr. John Dongley Thompson, an erectile dysfunction specialist at Sweet Mother of God Hospital in downtown Chicago, is having a hard time keeping up with demand for his services,” the fact checker goes through and makes a little dash or something above “Dr.,” above the name, above the specialization, and above the hospital name and location.
Then he/she hastens to yon internet and double-checks that all those things are, in fact, true — that this guy exists and has a doctorate from somewhere, that his name is spelled right, that he does indeed practice the kind of medicine the story says he practices, and that he is in fact employed by the hospital named and that it is still in business and located where the article says it is.
It’s not a very glamorous job. But it is an important one, and at the risk of self-aggrandizement, I’m going to go ahead and say that having done it for a summer more than qualifies me to ask: where the hell were everybody’s fact-checkers when they were running their heartwarming Manti Te’o stories?
If you’re like me, “Manti Te’o” was not a name you’d heard before this week. He is apparently a bit of a somebody in college football? But this year he was especially somebody because he not only played football well, he also had a heartwarming story about a sick girlfriend and, eventually, a dead girlfriend, along with a dead grandmother or something like that.
And like many people this week, I found out about this whole precious story because Deadspin blew it out of the water. I’d never heard of Manti Te’o, much less his girlfriend and her tragic battle with cancer or whatever, until Deadspin (Deadspin! Fucking Deadspin!) ran a blockbuster “scoop” pointing out that Manti Te’o doesn’t have a dead girlfriend. So maybe it’s a little too easy for me to pass judgement.
But seriously? From the Deadspin article:
Manti Te’o did lose his grandmother this past fall. Annette Santiago died on Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 72, according to Social Security Administration records in Nexis. But there is no SSA record there of the death of Lennay Marie Kekua, that day or any other. Her passing, recounted so many times in the national media, produces no obituary or funeral announcement in Nexis, and no mention in the Stanford student newspaper.
Nor is there any report of a severe auto accident involving a Lennay Kekua. Background checks turn up nothing. The Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news. Outside of a few Twitter and Instagram accounts, there’s no online evidence that Lennay Kekua ever existed.
The photographs identified as Kekua—in online tributes and on TV news reports—are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua. She is not a Stanford graduate; she has not been in a severe car accident; and she does not have leukemia. And she has never met Manti Te’o.
This would not be a big story if every major news source in the country hadn’t run something or other, at some point, about all of those untrue claims the Deadspin article just listed.
ESPN talked about his inspiring story. Sports Illustrated talked about it. The South Bend Tribune wouldn’t shut up about it, ever. And they were all printing something completely unsupported by the simplest and most checkable of facts, and then other news sources picked it up and ran the same, bogus story, without ever checking it on their watch.
The sad part is that Deadspin finally figuring their shit out (and even they got an anonymous tip that got them moving; it’s not like they started doing basic journalism on their own either) is being treated like a serious investigative scoop, when all they did was what everyone that ever touched this story should have done: check the goddamn facts.
Did the guy tell you his girlfriend went to Stanford? Brilliant! Check their student registries. He talks about a car crash? Look up the accident report! She’s in the hospital? Maybe think about calling around and seeing if anyone has a patient by that name.
These things are thirty second jobs, maybe a minute, tops, for a $12-an-hour summer intern fresh out of undergrad. There’s no excuse for The New York Times to be running a story that refers to a made-up woman as a “Stanford alumnus” — but the Times did. And the list of top-tier media sources that made the same basic error goes on and on; the Deadspin article quite gleefully — and quite correctly — calls them out on it one by one.
Sports writers are going to be making a lot of hay out of who knew what when, and whether Manti Te’o was in on the scam and if so how deep, and so on, but that’s all a bunch of barn-door closing. The real story here is that, for at least a year, sports media have been making front page news out of a bogus story, and not even a very good one. Five minutes of fact-checking could have spiked any one of the dozens of headline Manti Te’o/Lennay Kekua articles that ran in 2012.
Good job, guys.
Deadspin (fucking Deadspin; seriously now) sums it all up bluntly:
There was no Lennay Kekua. Lennay Kekua did not meet Manti Te’o after the Stanford game in 2009. Lennay Kekua did not attend Stanford. Lennay Kekua never visited Manti Te’o in Hawaii. Lennay Kekua was not in a car accident. Lennay Kekua did not talk to Manti Te’o every night on the telephone. She was not diagnosed with cancer, did not spend time in the hospital, did not engage in a lengthy battle with leukemia. She never had a bone marrow transplant. She was not released from the hospital on Sept. 10, nor did Brian Te’o congratulate her for this over the telephone. She did not insist that Manti Te’o play in the Michigan State or Michigan games, and did not request he send white flowers to her funeral. Her favorite color was not white. Her brother, Koa, did not inform Manti Te’o that she was dead. Koa did not exist. Her funeral did not take place in Carson, Calif., and her casket was not closed at 9 a.m. exactly. She was not laid to rest.
Lennay Kekua’s last words to Manti Te’o were not “I love you.”
And that’s the real story here.
If your mother says she loves you, check it out.