Like most everyone else on the interweb Wednesday, I read more than my fair share about the amazing Manti Te’o fake dead girlfriend story or hoax or whatever it is you want to call the bizarre and fascinating lie revealed by Deadspin.
The BBN is focusing on the fact that one of its top media villains, Pete Thamel, played a prime role in publicizing what turned out to be a myth when writing a profile of Te’o for Sports Illustrated. It was Thamel’s reporting on Enes Kanter that led the NCAA to rule the Turkish center ineligible to play at Kentucky.
Of all the pieces I’ve read, this Slate piece by Josh Levin does a good job of theorizing how journalists fall into traps and don’t check facts on some stories as closely as they do others.
So why didn’t Thamel and his cohorts at ESPN and elsewhere figure out they were all on a Catfish-ing exhibition? Because they fell victim to confirmation bias. Even before his great 2012 season, Te’o’s golden-as-the-dome image had been cemented. He was a humble leader, a Boy Scout, a religious fellow who put family first, a player who returned to Notre Dame for his senior season because, in the words of his father, “he was led there to do something.”
Manti Te’o was a sports hero, and his standout play this year demanded the details to flesh out that story line. There’s a journalistic cliché: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. For sports hagiographers, it’s more like: If he makes a lot of tackles, don’t you dare check anything. Stardom demands that feature writers color in the lines with off-field greatness. And Te’o’s character, it seemed, was unimpeachable. After all, there had been all these stories about how humble and religious he was, and how he’d been led to Notre Dame to do something.
Levin points out that Thamel was much more thorough in his reporting on Tyrann Mathieu, another college football star with a much different image than that of Te’o.
Thamel wasn’t the only journalist who got burned. There is a long list. ESPN’s Gene Wojociechowski, who did a video tribute to Te’o, admitted that he’d been duped. Same goes for Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune and Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune.
There are a lot of sportswriters, myself included, who are saying this morning, “There but for the grace of God go I.”