Almost exactly a year ago, “This American Life” did what it did best: ran a story that tugged at the heartstrings and enraptured its audience. The piece, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” so perfectly suited TAL’s storytelling style, none of the talented journalists on staff took enough time to wonder if it might in fact be a lie.
And of course it was a lie. Mike Daisey did not uncover underage or disfigured workers in China, a fact that should have become obvious under proper scrutiny. At the time, it seemed like too good a story to let fact-checking get in the way. “This American Life” would deeply regret that decision.
This week, the entire field of sports journalism is facing a similar moment of self-reflection after learning that several reputable journalists unwittingly helped spread the tragic — and completely false — story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s deceased girlfriend.
Deadspin’s jaw-dropping deconstruction of the Lennay Kekua hoax on Wednesday called out a litany of top-tier news outlets for spreading the story of a grieving Heisman candidate and his beautiful girlfriend lost to leukemia. Mentioned by name in the piece were Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The Los Angeles Times, The South Bend Tribune, “CBS This Morning,” The New York Post and Fox Sports. There were, of course, many others who carried stories about Te’o and Kekua, turning the fiction into a widely accepted reality.
It was a painful and embarrassing day for the mainstream sports media, doubly disheartened by the fact they were disrobed by — shame of shames! — a blog. It also broke the same week that Lance Armstrong owned up to a career full of infractions, which some observers felt were tacitly suppressed by U.S. sports journalists who were overly dubious of doping allegations against a beloved national hero.
It’s a gut-check moment for sports reporters, and if they’re wise, they’ll use this opportunity to do three things “This American Life” did when it ended up in a similar situation last year.
Full transparency and accountability
When “This American Life” host Ira Glass learned that one of his own public radio colleagues, Marketplace’s China correspondent Rob Schmitz, had serious concerns about “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” Glass quickly green-lit a follow-up investigative piece helmed by Schmitz himself.
On March 16, 2012, “This American Life” aired an episode called “Retraction,” in which the staff spent the better part of an hour picking apart their own failed fact-checking and (albeit too late) cornering Daisey into kinda, sorta admitting that yeah, maybe he made a lot of that stuff up. It was a painful hour of radio for any journalist to hear, but it was a far more painful hour for the “This American Life” crew to record.
“I and my co-workers here at ‘This American Life’, we are not happy to have done anything to hurt the reputation of the journalism that happens on this radio station every day,” Glass told listeners. “So we want to be completely transparent about what we got wrong and what we now believe is the truth.”
Each news outlet that ran the Te’o-Kekua story owes it to its readers to give a similar full accounting of why it did not appropriately check the story’s veracity. So far, the process is off to a slow start.
Initial coverage of Deadspin’s exposé by the news outlets involved has primarily highlighted Notre Dame’s version of events: that Te’o was the blameless victim of an online scam. If you have faith in Deadpsin’s coverage, then this explanation is riddled with holes that journalists should be prodding mercilessly. If Te’o never met his cyber-girlfriend, why did the South Bend Tribune describe them meeting after a 2009 game in Palo Alto? Why did Te’o’s dad tell the same newspaper that Te’o and Kekua would meet in Hawaii to spend time together?
The first test of transparency for these news outlets will be the level of skepticism they bring to bear on the emerging narrative favored by Te’o and Notre Dame. To its credit, The South Bend Tribune is obviously working quickly and dilligently to put the pieces together and find out why they were fed information from Teo’s father that simply couldn’t have been true.
When I was a regional news reporter for an Indiana daily, I once had to interview a small-town editor in our coverage area after his newspaper helped raise money to send a young cancer-stricken girl to Disney World. During her trip, a relative revealed to the paper that the cancer was likely an elaborate hoax by the girl’s mother. Sure enough, the story quickly unraveled, and the mother was soon in police custody.
“I don’t want to live in a world where I have to ask a mother to prove that her daughter has cancer,” the editor told me. But he then proceeded to list all the procedural safeguards he had put in place in the newsroom to keep something similar from happening again. He didn’t want to live in that world, but he knew he had to.
“This American Life” also moved fact-checking to the fore, even when it meant asking difficult questions of people in sensitive situations. A TAL piece in June 2012 about comedian Jackie Clarke’s highly dysfunctional family, for example, ended with Ira Glass detailing all the ways his staff had tried to confirm her story with her estranged relatives. It was an awkward coda, breaking the storytelling structure by closing with footnotes and minutia, but it was one of the clearest signs that the program had learned to put accuracy above narrative.
Sports journalists are clearly dealing with a similar realization. ESPN columnist Gene Wojciechowski seemed half-contrite, half-naïve when he explained to “SportsCenter” why he ran with the Te’o-Kekua story despite a lack of factual evidence to back it up:
Well, I sat across from him and I was moved by his story and it was heartbreaking and heartwarming and as it turns out totally untrue. But short of asking to see a death certificate, I’m not sure what most people would do differently in that case.
He later says that he asked for photos of Kekua and contact info from her family, but backed off when Te’o didn’t want to supply them. When a story requires no factual support despite a lack of what should be obvious evidence, it’s clear that there is little or no process in place for ensuring accuracy.
When “This American Life” ran its retraction and apology, Glass sounded like a man who had been sucker-punched by his own child. He was clearly exhausted from a week not only of intensive reporting but also intensive reflection. He had revisited the moments that led to his error in judgment, and he had judged himself guilty.
“We should have killed the story right there and then,” Glass admitted. “And to do anything else was a screw-up.”
It’s never easy to admit you screwed up. It’s far easier to find excuses, like being lied to or misdirected by an otherwise reliable source. The easy way out for news outlets who wrote about Te’o and Kekua would be to write about Notre Dame’s version of events and move on. But that would leave too many questions unaddressed – questions more important than who was behind Te’o’s fictional girlfriend.
Sports journalism has always inhabited a murky ethical zone that can make hard-news reporters uneasy. By nature of their jobs, sports reporters typically have a closer relationship with the players, coaches, venues and institutions they cover compared to their peers on the City Hall or crime beats. Their rules on everything from free food to fraternizing with sources are often more liberal than those for news reporters.
But this relaxed approach to sports coverage — which certainly isn’t universal — is only part of the problem. More problematic these days is the fact that sports writers and producers are always on the hunt for a narrative, something that can elevate games above boring statistics and leaderboard shuffling.
All journalists love telling a good story, but sports coverage and presentation have become reliant on it. A game can’t just be a series of pre-prepared tactics and random interventions of chance. These days, it needs to be a clash of iconic personalities, the heroes of our modern mythology playing out their epic storylines one installment at a time.
In the case of Manti Te’o, the quest for a storyline appears to have clouded the judgment of otherwise sensible journalists. And Notre Dame helped fuel the story, likely hoping that it would make Te’o a more compelling case for a Heisman.
While Te’o so far denies knowing his girlfriend was fake, it seems from Deadspin’s coverage that he (or at least his father) continued to spool out more details of his faux relationship as it became clear how much positive press it was generating for him and his team. In other words, each piece of the sports machine benefited from the narrative, and in the end each suffered for it.
It is my hope that this week – the week of Armstrong and Te’o – sports journalists across the country will have vigorous debates among themselves and their colleagues about how they should approach their work. That process begins by admitting there is a problem — several, in fact.