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The sports editor at The South Bend (Ind.) Tribune was, not suprisingly, in a meeting when we called Wednesday to ask about the Deadspin bombshell that the widely reported stories of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o's girlfriend were an elaborate hoax.
“I can tell you we’re as baffled as anybody,” said the staffer answering the phone on the sports desk. In a statement published online, Tribune Executive Editor Tim Harman said, “If this story was a cruel hoax, as the University of Notre Dame has now indicated, we indeed were taken in, as were many others, including officials of the Notre Dame football program.”
Deadspin reported at 4:10 p.m., in a narrative so twisted it’s difficult to summarize, that every bit of a long-running media storyline of Te’o's girlfriend “Lennay Kekua” — how they met after a football game and talked every night on the phone, how she suffered a serious car crash and later died of leukemia — was entirely fake.
Deadspin writers Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey really stick it to other news media in their post, highlighting the many times that outlets like the South Bend Tribune, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The New York Post, CBS, The Associated Press and the L.A. Times ran stories about Kekua or their relationship.
How could so many people write versions of this fairytale relationship without checking it out?
The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone has a theory:
Te’o's story was the type sportswriters — or really, journalists in general — flock toward. Here was a talented young man, who in the face of deep personal loss, triumphed on the field. The problem was that there’s no such person as Lennay Kekua, the nonexistent girlfriend whose life and death was referenced by several news organizations. …
It’s understandable that journalists may not have double-checked Te’o's account of how, say, he supposedly met Kekau after a football game. But it’s amazing that news outlets were so quick to cover a woman’s death without any verification — an obituary, local report from the funeral, or comment from the family. …
The Deadspin investigation may be remembered as much as an indictment of the media’s herd mentality than for its revelations about the hoax itself.
Burke discussed the backstory to his and Dickey’s big scoop in an interview with CBS Sports:
We originally got an email last week that said, “Hey, you know, something is fishy about the Te’o girlfriend story, you should check it out.” And so my colleague Jack Dickey and I started working on this, and the deeper that we got into it the stranger it got and the weirder it got.
And a long history of a fake online identity, which was the one that had been identified in every news report about Te’o’s tragedy, Lennay Keku, had been what we believe to be a figment of someone’s imagination. And pictures were all of a woman whose name was not Lennay, does not have leukemia and most certainly was not dead. …
One of the problems with a story that deals with false identity is that the more answers you get, each answer raises two more questions. …
That part of the story is only really half of it. The other half is how what was obviously not a true story became truth through the media. And that there were so many really sort of obvious discrepancies in the way the story was told that if anybody would have looked at it, they would have said, ‘Hey wait a minute this can’t be true.’ …
As surprising as people find the facts of the story that we published on Deadspin, I find it far more shocking that we’re the first ones to actually look into it… We’re gonna publish a follow-up that illustrates exactly [that]. And we’re not talking local newspaper guys who are at fault, although certainly many of them are. Major media organizations and writers that I respect a lot were taken in, and didn’t do their fact-checking or overlooked discrepancies. So that’s, to me, as a journalist, that’s what really shocked me about this story.
The Tribune, the home-town paper that covers the Fighting Irish regularly, has posted a story citing Deadspin and says it’s working on its own report. The paper also collected all of its archival stories about Te’o's girlfriend in one place, including an account that asserts many “facts” about their relationship — including a face-to-face meeting between them — without attribution or attributed to Te’o's father.
Allan Joseph, editor-in-chief of Notre Dame’s student paper The Observer, initially told Poynter’s Mallary Tenore that the Observer has written general features about Te’o and mentioned his girlfriend, but hasn’t written any features specifically about the two of them.
Later, Joseph released this statement:
The Observer is investigating the news, originally reported by Deadspin.com, that the story of Manti Te’o’s girlfriend and her death was a hoax. The University has confirmed the hoax and is still investigating the matter.
We, along with many others in the media, football program and public, were taken in despite our efforts to report accurate information in our coverage of Te’o and his season.
For their part, Te’o and Notre Dame are saying that the linebacker himself was not in on the hoax, he was a victim of it. Te’o released a statement, as reported by ESPN:
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.
To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.
It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life.
I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been.
In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.
Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I’m looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.
Notre Dame issued this statement on Facebook:
On Dec. 26, Notre Dame coaches were informed by Manti Te’o and his parents that Manti had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name Lennay Kekua apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia. The University immediately initiated an investigation to assist Manti and his family in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.
University Spokesman | Assistant Vice President
Julie Moos and Mallary Tenore contributed to this report.