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The Te’o Hoax And The Fall Of Journalism

There’s one big loser in the saga of Manti Te’o, Heisman Trophy finalist turned international punchline. And it’s not Manti Te’o.

Since Deadspin broke the news Wednesday afternoon that Te’o had either masterminded, was complicit in, or fell victim to one of the most sensational hoaxes of the century, the Notre Dame linebacker has been thoroughly undressed for all the world to see. His once-promising professional career may be in jeopardy, his intellect, sexuality, and mental stability have been called into question, and his status as the feel-good story of the season has been vanquished. But someone is even more culpable in this scam than he.

It’s the legacy media, which since the “death” of Te’o’s “girlfriend” in September has been tripping over its collective self to plaster the linebacker’s angular mug on every magazine cover, and lead with his heart-tugging tale on every program from SportsCenter to the Today Show. Media outlets didn’t merely embrace the story of the linebacker playing though his grief and leading his team to victory. They exalted in it, elevating Te’o from mere man to a model of modern stoicism. 

Yet in the rush to anoint Te’o, ESPN and NBC and The New York Times and Sports Illustrated and all the others forgot their purpose, or at least their original purpose: journalism.

That’s right, the J-word: asking questions. Following leads. Checking sources. Reporting facts. Telling the truth.

The Te’o hoax is hardly the first time the press has refused to let facts stand in the way of a good story, but it’s the most sensational example of journalistic failure we’ve seen since Dewey defeated Truman. It may also mark the culmination of the news media’s transition from the age of Cronkite, Morrow, and Wallace to the age of Maddow, Beck, and Grace. As veteran investigative reporter John Solomon termed it, “The industry’s mantra has shifted from ‘get it first, but first, get it right’ to ‘get it first, and hope it’s right.’”

What changed? The rise of the almighty advertising dollar, the digital-age decline of the American attention span, and the birth of thousands of new media outlets over the past generation, from cable TV to blogs to social media. Americans have more ways to consume news than ever before, and choose news outlets that provide them with the types of stories they want to see. Naturally, the media has responded by flooding the airwaves and headlines with the stories we’re asking for.

And what do we like? Gossip. Sex. Murder, especially when the killer is a family member. Intrigue. And above all, we love heroes. We salivate at the thought of a red-blooded American overcoming obstacles and fighting through tragedy with dignity and stoicism.  Heroes sell newspapers, spur nationally-televised tearful press conferences, and generate web traffic. The media sustains itself daily on tales of violence and sex, but makes its money on stories of tragedy and triumph.

Thus, Te’o proved too much for the media to resist. The story of a handsome young man playing America’s game at America’s university, a beautiful woman’s life cut short by a terrible disease, and an inner power propelling the man and his team to victory week-in and week-out all set amidst the golden domes of South Bend and the swaying palms of Hawaii could not have been written any better by a Hollywood screenwriter. Why would the media look this gift horse in the mouth–particularly at a time when their audience was wearied by politics and looking for a reason to cheer?

No one questioned Manti Te’o. No one wanted to question Manti Te’o. Americans may have wanted to believe in Te’o, but the media needed to believe in him. For four months, no stone was turned. Why look under a multi-million dollar rock?

The fall of journalism is something we brought upon ourselves–we’ve received exactly what we’ve asked for, and if the media is to change, we need to start demanding accountability in news once again. This is why Watchdog Wire, the Citizen Watchdog program, and our parent organization the Franklin Center exist: to ask the questions no one else is asking. To hold those in power accountable. To aggressively follow leads and check facts. To cast aside sensationalism and info-tainment, and report on the events that shape our society.

In short, to tell the truth.

Kevin Palmer

Staff writer at Franklin Center. Contact me at kevin@watchdogwire.com

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