Manti Te'o and the Fake Girlfriend: How a Good Story Gets in the Way of the Truth

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterJanuary 17, 2013

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 08:  Heisman finalists linebacker Manti Te'o of the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish speaks during a press conference prior to the 78th  Heisman Trophy Presentation at the Marriott Marquis on December 8, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Manti Te'o story of love, lies, deception and football is just starting to unravel, with more information sneaking out of the dark corners of the Internet by the hour. Deadspin deserves a ton of credit for breaking this story wide open based on an email tip that led to amazing research by Tim Burke and Jack Dickey. 

We will continue to find out more and more details of this sordid tale, and if the Internet tea leaves are telling the right story today, it should happen soon. This saga is just beginning, and it's shortsighted to comment on whom to believe until all the facts come out.

The biggest question is still out there: How much did Manti Te'o know about the hoax and when?

What we do know: Someone eventually questions the details. But many others, such as the media who covered Te'o during his Heisman Trophy runner-up season, can get too busy celebrating the story to actually uncover the truth.

That's the thing with human interest; it's interesting. We want to believe gut-wrenching stories are true because it's not in our nature to question whether something as horrific as a loved one dying would be faked for amusement or, worse, career advancement.

Moreover, we wanted to believe this was true because the story is so good. Mike Greenberg of ESPN's Mike & Mike in the Morning said on his radio show Thursday (and I'm paraphrasing) that before news of the hoax came out, this was the feel-good story of the year in sports.

A woman supposedly died of cancer that doctors found in her body after a horrible car accident, but the grief and pain through which Te'o played a football game, to some in our industry, is a heart-warming allegory.

In some ways, the fact Te'o's tragic story was always told within a football context made Lennay Kekua even less of a person than she eventually turned out to be.

We wanted the story to be true because we thrive on adding context to the lives of those we cover. Who really cares if the stories are real? Athletes are just the actors we sports writers get to talk about.

For better or worse (read: worse), investigative journalism took a back seat to human interest a long time ago. (Full disclosure: I am not an investigative journalist, but I do dabble in plenty of human interest.)

Even more than that, we all have biases based on whom we like in the industry. Writers who like Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick believe he was telling the absolute truth about Te'o being the victim. Others who don't know or don't like Swarbrick think the exact opposite, pointing out the obvious question of why Notre Dame sat on this information for weeks and allowed members of the media to continue to tell the story when they knew it to be a lie.

As much as a story about Te'o, Deadspin's wonderful reporting showed the great lengths we, as a reporting populous, will go to ignore glaring facts. If you are the fourth person to write a story about a linebacker whose grandmother and girlfriend died in the same few days, isn't it your responsibility to notice the three previous reports had different specifics? Wouldn't it then be your edict as a journalist to find the truth?

Nobody took the time to cross-reference the truth because the story we were being fed was too damn good.

Now, it's all bad. No matter how it ends up—if Te'o is the victim or the mastermind of a dastardly plot to use someone's death for his own public relations gain—the immediate lesson is that everyone needs to start paying a lot more attention to what's right in front of them. (Or, in Te'o's case, on the Internet.) 

For his sake, let's hope his statement about being duped is true. Notre Dame believes him, and its investigators have corroborated his story. Having said that, it's in Notre Dame's best interest to believe him, and after learning these public stories were fabricated, it did sit on the information for weeks. That can't be overstated enough. 

Deadspin's initial report is the first step in the real story coming to light. It may be far less heart-warming for some, but hey, at least a girl didn't actually lose her fight with cancer. There would be human interest in that story, if only she were real.