A Colossal Hoax  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 2012/January 2013

A Colossal Hoax   

How did the widely reported but bogus saga of the football star’s doomed romance go undetected, and what are the lessons from the embarrassing episode? Thurs., January 17, 2013.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It simply jumps off of the page.

It's just one quote in one of the numerous accounts of the much-celebrated but nonexistent relationship between star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and the ephemeral Lennay Kekua (or maybe "Lennay Kekua").

ESPN reporter Gene Wojciechowski, in an interview on his own network Wednesday, spoke of his mounting doubts about the too-good-to-be true saga of their doomed relationship after he interviewed Te'o in October. For one thing, he couldn't find an obituary for Kekua after she supposedly had died of leukemia. When he asked the football star how he could get a picture Kekua, he was told that the family didn't want to be bothered. So he backed off.

"In retrospect, you can see where some of those things weren't adding up to make sense," Wojciechowski said. "It's easy to say now, but at the time it never enters your mind that somebody was involved in that kind of hoax. We wanted to believe it so much."

We wanted to believe it so much.

That was exactly the problem. Much of the world of sports journalism wanted to believe the story of the star-crossed lovers, a saga, as Deadspin put it in its truly impressive debunking of the hoax, that was "heartbreaking and inspirational."

This was a tale that makes soap operas look like C-SPAN. The football star meets the love of his life in Palo Alto, California, after Notre Dame polishes off Stanford. Love blooms. But so does tragedy. First Kekua is involved in a car accident that, in the words of Sports Illustrated, leaves her "on the brink of death."

As she's recovering, she's diagnosed with leukemia. He stays on the phone with her all night as she sleeps. She gets a bone marrow transplant.

Te'o's grandmother dies. So does Kekua. Te'o doesn't go to Kekua's funeral, instead playing in the Fighting Irish's win over Michigan. That's how Kekua would have wanted it, he says. "Babe," she wrote, "if anything happens to me, you promise that you'll stay there and you'll play and you'll honor me through the way you play." He gets a couple of interceptions for her. And, as she asked, he sends her white roses.

It's often said that journalists are a cynical, hard-bitten lot, and that news organizations only like to print the bad news. But there's another side of the coin. There's long been a big market for the uplifting and the heart-wrenching. Journalists and readers alike love the schmaltz.

And so the nation' sports pages and Web sites and sportscasts, not to mention "CBS This Morning," wallowed in the irresistible story of the football star and his doomed damsel.

The story unraveled Wednesday after Deadspin received a tip and then put on a clinic in investigative reporting. Deadspin is a sports Web site that is part of the Gawker empire and is better known for snark than serious. But it deserves major props for blowing up this fraudulent narrative.

The Deadspin article, "Manti Te'o's Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax," is both an extremely detailed piece of detective work and a riveting read.

Step by step, it eviscerates all the deception and all the lies.

What emerges is a fascinating account of a Twitter-fueled faux-romance. Rather than Lennay Kekua, Deadspin suggests that the person exchanging tweets with Te'o was actually one Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, an acquaintance of Te'o and a onetime high school football star who is now a musician.

One of the coolest aspects of the probing by Deadspin reporters Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey is the way they track down the identity of the woman whose image appears as Kekua's avatar on Twitter as well as on "CBS This Morning."

The photos were actually of a woman from Torrance, California, who had gone to high school with Tuiasosopo and whom the authors call Reba. Burke and Dickey write, "All of those photographs – with one important exception – came from the private Facebook and Instagram accounts of Reba, whom we found after an exhaustive related-images search of each of Lennay's images (most of which had been modified in some way to prevent reverse image searching)."

So was Te'o part of the hoax? That's not clear. The Deadspin piece suggests he was. It quotes s friend of Tuiasosopo saying he was "80 percent sure" that the linebacker was " 'in on it,' and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua's death with publicity in mind." The friend, the story said, "simply couldn't believe that Te'o would be stupid enough – or Ronaiah Tuiasosopo clever enough – to sustain the relationship for nearly a year."

But Notre Dame said in a statementthat the football star "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."

Te'o also issued a statement portraying himself as an innocent dupe. "To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating," he said.

So how could all of this chicanery go unnoticed? In the early stages of the story, it's somewhat understandable. Beat reporters are busy, and they wouldn't necessarily assume the girlfriend a revered football was talking about was fictitious.

But it is odd that as the story unfolded, no one tried to track down Kekua and interview her. Wouldn't that be an obvious way to flesh out this ennobling chronicle?

And as improbable "Love Story" detail piled up upon improbable "Love Story" detail, where was the scrutiny? When Kekua "died," the whole thing should have exploded. Why were there no obituaries? Why did she have no digital trail? As Digital First Media's Steve Buttry has pointed out, the simple effort to find a link to her death for online versions of the story could have raised the right questions.

The only positive aspect of journalistic embarrassments – and this is a colossal one – is what is learned from them. Let's hope this triggers a recommitment to skepticism and dogged reporting, and not just in the sports departments of America.

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