Yesterday’s lead editorial discussed celebrated cyclist (and cancer survivor) Lance Armstrong, who came clean on his use of performance-enhancing drugs — on the “Oprah” show, no less. Today, we take on Notre Dame gridder Manti Te’o, who did not have a girlfriend after all, much less a dead one. Journalism-wise, Mr. Te’o’s is the more fascinating story.
Whether young Mr. Te’o was the victim of a spectacular hoax or played an active role in perpetuating one still awaits resolution. What we can highlight, with some certainty, is the gullibility of the nation’s press in covering what was a feel-good tale of triumph trumping tragedy.
As media observer Howard Kurtz has stated, all it would have taken to verify the basic facts of Mr. Te’o’s heartrending tale of lost love was a few more phone calls. Either they were not made, or when they were, rationalization erased any doubt, whether fleeting or nagging.
Why? Human nature kicked in. The Te’o tale was so achingly beautiful and his response to adversity — his beloved grandma and supposed girlfriend dying within hours of each other — so apparently genuine that even the most hardened and cynical sportswriter wanted to believe it.
As ESPN correspondent Gene Wojciechowski stated, “In retrospect, you can see where some of those things weren’t adding up to make sense. 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.”