Why didn’t the media find out about Manti Te’o hoax sooner?

Of all the questions arising from Deadspin’s Manti Te’o story, maybe the biggest is: Why didn’t other journalists uncover the hoax sooner? The story broke Wednesday night, and news geeks are still trying to put the pieces back together.

• What did Manti Te’o know, and when did he know it? Both he and Notre Dame said he learned his dead girlfriend Lennay Kekua wasn’t dead, because she never existed, on Dec. 6. And yet he referred to her on Dec. 8 and 9, Associated Press reporter Tom Coyne writes:

Te’o was in New York for the Heisman presentation on Dec. 8 and, during an interview before the ceremony that ran on the WSBT.com, the website for a South Bend TV station, Te’o said: “I mean, I don’t like cancer at all. I lost both my grandparents and my girlfriend to cancer. So I’ve really tried to go to children’s hospitals and see, you know, children.”

It happened again in a Bill Dwyre column that ran in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 10. Dwyre wrote: “He said girlfriend Lennay Kekau ‘made me promise, when it happened, that I would stay and play,’ Te’o said Sunday night.”

• Here’s a list of Te’o quotes about Kekua.

• Sports Illustrated reporter Pete Thamel published transcripts of interviews with Te’o and others that went into his Oct. 1, 2012, SI cover story on Te’o. “[I]n retrospect there were some red flags,” Thamel writes.

When I checked Lexis Nexis to find out more about Kekua, I couldn’t find anything, though that’s not uncommon for a college-aged student. Nor was there anything on her supposed brother, Koa. I was unable to track down any obituaries or funeral notices, but that might be explained by the fact that she had three recent places she called home, or by her family not wanting publicity.

Also, Thamel writes: “Why would you ask someone if he’d actually met his girlfriend who recently died?”

In this exchange, Te’o appears to tell Thamel he met Kekua in person:

SI: Where did you meet her in California?
TE’O: She actually came to one of the games. She saw me at one of the games.

• That SI cover is a “monument to media gullibility, laziness and incompetence,” Erik Wemple writes. “Until you listen to its author, SI’s Pete Thamel. Then you realize that it’s also a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I tale.”

There’s a simple and reason-defying takeaway from Thamel’s account. His mistakes are at once understandable and inexcusable.

• “Maybe reporters’ noses didn’t get to twitching earlier because they were coated in tears,” Jack Shafer writes. But news orgs can’t doink the “simpering copy” Deadspin EIC Tommy Craggs decried in an interview with Poynter’s Mallary Tenore Thursday:

If readers can’t get their simpering from their news sources, they’ll stop reading and viewing and desert for the movies. Had the story of Te’o been true — and face it, it is not impossible for a college player’s girlfriend to get car-wrecked and vanquished by cancer in short order and for him to go on to play — it’s difficult to resist the power of its archetypal simper.

• “One thing nobody seems to mention in excoriating early media acceptance of the Manti Te’o girlfriend tale…is that many reporters are no longer given *time* to report,” Diane Werts writes in a letter to Jim Romenesko. “Let’s lay some blame on their outlets’ editors — or, better yet, the ownership.”

• Steve Buttry takes a fascinating look at the fractured landscape of newspapers’ obituaries businesses. Lots of newspapers’ notices aren’t on Legacy.com, he notes.

But obits aren’t the only way to confirm a death. If you can’t find someone’s obituary in a Google search or a search of the local newspaper’s site or Legacy’s obituaries, you can also search the Social Security Death Index. Unless the person who died was a child (and even children today should have Social Security numbers) or died before 1937, you should be able to document someone’s death there. And failure to do so should raise not just a red flag, but a huge stop sign.

• Speaking of business models, Gawker Media doesn’t regularly sell remnant space, so it wasn’t able to monetize Deadspin’s world-beating pageviews on its world-beating Te’o story, Jason Del Rey reports. “Web publishers have traditionally had trouble making money off of sudden surges in visits to their site,” he writes. “The rise of real-time bidding for ad space on exchanges can help publishers find buyers for unexpected supply, but the trade-off is often a much lower price for those ads.”

Still, the Gawker Media ad team seems to acknowledge that it can’t continue to let these opportunities go unmonetized, and says it is exploring creating a private ad marketplace as a solution. The private exchange would give the company the ability to gain some control over which advertisers, or categories of ad buyers, would have the ability to bid on unexpected ad space and at what price they could do so.

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  • JTFloore

    this probably happens much more than we realize (or are willing to admit). for the most part, we (journalists, too) believe somebody until the red flags go up and there is suddenly no reason to believe them ever again. when’s the last time someone prominent in the news claimed that a girlfriend had died who didn’t even exist? it’s such a preposterous lie that it’s hard to imagine it could ever happen. now it has.