The story of a college football player's fake girlfriend is also a story about a media that was bamboozled by a fraud that was, in retrospect, very easy to spot.
Deadspin rocked the sports world on Wednesday when it revealed that, in its words, "Manti Te'o's Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax."
The tale of the hoax (and the questions about Te'o's possible complicity in it) was astonishing enough. But equally damning was the list of prestigious media organizations that swallowed the hoax, apparently without question. From the AP to Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe to the Chicago Tribune, outlets across the country helped push the story out into the world. "CBS This Morning" even ran a 3-minute story on Kekua, using a fake picture.
Timothy Burke, one of the reporters who wrote the Deadspin story, told Anderson Cooper on Wednesday night that he and his colleague Jack Dickey had not had to strain too much to figure out that something was very wrong with the story. But even they were apparently not suspicious until they received a tip.
"We did receive an e-mail last week that was an anonymous e-mail that said I think there is something wrong or weird with Lennay Kekua, and you should check her out," he said. "And ... Jack Dickey and I started, you know, what do you do when you first want to know something? You Google it, right, you Google search. And Google searches for Lennay Kekua only showed up articles about her dying and inspiring Manti Te'o. There is no evidence of her existing in any way other than after she allegedly died. We thought that was a little weird."
He also spoke to CBS Sports about the media's failures:
"What was obviously not a true story became truth through the media," he said, according to Poynter. "...Major media organizations and writers that I respect a lot were taken in, and didn't do their fact-checking or overlooked discrepancies. So that's, to me, as a journalist, that's what really shocked me about this story."