RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
You've very likely heard, by now, the strange story of Manti Te'o. He's the Notre Dame football star who overcame the death of both his grandmother and his girlfriend on the same day, but the girlfriend's very existence then turned out to be a hoax. The story has raised questions about what Notre Dame and Te'o knew and when they knew it. But as NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports, the episode casts an unwelcome light on the practices of the news media as well.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Manti Te'o's story proved irresistible for the press, a saga of tragic romance, religious faith and athletic prowess that inspired an entire team. CBS's Chip Reid filed his version earlier this month from Hawaii where he was covering a vacationing President Obama. Reid interviewed Te'o's neighbor and a high school coach there and used clips of Te'o from the CBS station in Chicago.
MANTI TE'O: Every letter, she said, remember, be humble, be gracious and always remember that I love you.
FOLKENFLIK: But Te'o's girlfriend Lennay Kekua was revealed by the website Deadspin never to have existed. She was a hoax. Notre Dame and Te'o say he was victim. Yesterday, Reid revisited his piece.
CHIP REID: Manti Te'o's inspirational story was featured all over, everywhere from ESPN to Sports Illustrated. I reported on the story, as well, for CBS "This Morning" on the day of the BCS championship game. But it turns out, we were all duped.
FOLKENFLIK: He's right. They were duped. But Reid talked as though he had been a bystander to an unfolding disaster. That's not how reporters typically think of themselves. They envision themselves as a hard-boiled lot that gives this warning to the intern. If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.
And yet, little of that happened here. Instead, reporters left their skepticism at the door. Gene Wojciechowski interviewed Te'o for ESPN. He spoke on the channel last night.
GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI: I sat across from him, and I was moved by his story. And it was heartbreaking and it was heartwarming, and as it turns out it was totally untrue. But short of asking to see a death certificate, I'm not sure what most people would do differently in that case.
FOLKENFLIK: Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel pumped up the pathos in a cover story as he wrote of the fictitious girlfriend's presumably equally fictitious brother, Koa, sobbing as he called to break the news of her death. The South Bend Tribune weighed in with a particularly florid account of Te'o's meeting Lennay Kekua, said to be a Stanford student, after a game.
Te'o now says he only spoke to her online and by phone. The truth is, at a certain point, reporters are just like everyone else: They largely believe what they read in the papers and see on TV. So each successive journalist unconsciously relied on the last for confidence in what he or she was presenting to the public. CBS's Charlie Rose pressed Reid on the reporting process this morning.
CHARLIE ROSE: Chip, did we reach out to Notre Dame?
REID: Oh, we did repeatedly, Charlie. That weekend before the BCS game and before our story aired, we contacted them repeatedly, asking for interviews with coaches or Te'o himself, and they never returned our calls.
FOLKENFLIK: Great impulse, there, Charlie Rose. But why didn't some enterprising reporter call Stanford to verify Kekua's attendance and academic major? Even if you didn't doubt her existence, these are the small details, the color that help fill out and solidify a story. Why not check out local papers and records and hold off when you can't pin down any details?
Sports Illustrated's Thamel told radio host Dan Patrick that he spent four days on Notre Dame's campus.
PETE THAMEL: So by the time I got to Manti Te'o on Sunday, I mean, there wasn't a whole lot of, like, does she exist thinking in my head.
FOLKENFLIK: Both Thamel and ESPN's Wojciechowski said they tried and failed to find obituaries and other records for her. Wojciechowski said he was rebuffed by Te'o when seeking numbers to call the girlfriend's family.
WOJCIECHOWSKI: And so in that instance, and at that moment, you simply think that you have to respect those wishes. But in retrospect, you can see where some of those things simply weren't adding up to make sense.
FOLKENFLIK: So here's an instance of a reporter who tiptoed to the edge of the truth and didn't quite believe where his reporting took them. The story was too important to let the absence of verifying facts get in the way. Just like fans in the stands, the reporters wanted the story to be true. David Folkenflik, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.