Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

January 23, 2013

Reporters face tough decisions with Te’o case

BLUEFIELD — Put yourself in this position. You’re a reporter, and someone of note has just told you his girlfriend died.

With a skeptical heart, do you go searching for her death certificate? Do you ask questions about how real she was? Or do you have the compassion, as most humans do, to express condolences and leave him to grieve?

The case of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and his apparently imaginary girlfriend brought these questions to my mind.

The story has exploded into the national consciousness by now. The story goes that Te’o apparently thought he was having a long-distance relationship with a young woman, only to be told she had died.

Of course, looking through a rear-view mirror, it’s easy for commentators to complain about how reporters initially introduced to this story should have sought out the facts.

Or somehow, they should have divined that this was a scam.

I can’t fault the reporters for exercising some human decency in their respect for what they perceived to be an intense loss.

The same commentators who’ve been castigating them don’t seem to be nearly as hard on the media members who watched and listened to Lance Armstrong for years and never nailed him for doping with banned substances.

The world knows that Oprah Winfrey and Armstrong recently had a talk. Te’o, his parents and Katie Couric are supposed to sit down before the cameras on Friday. Now that the ball is rolling, maybe Barbara Walters can book Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens or Rafael Palmiero — to get the story that generations of journalists never got fully.

Regarding the next chapter of the Te’o story, if enterprising reporters can get the goods on the person who apparently perpetrated the hoax on the Notre Dame linebacker, I’m all for it.

It will be a “cautionary tale,” as media observers like to put it, and may serve to warn other possible prank-pullers that such a stunt can lead to a lot of grief, for the instigators as well as for the “target” — and maybe worse.

At least, that’s the way the media company with the scoop will portray it, while they hope for bigger ratings or circulation jumps or internet hits or what have you.

It’s not the ethical goodness of a cautionary tale that they’re after, ultimately. It’s money, derived from exclusive headlines about someone’s love life.

But as this develops, is his love life really the story?

Another chapter is also being written, using the old “what did he know and when did he know it” line of questioning.

Not wanting to get burned again by blindly accepting Te’o’s telling of the chronology of this story, reporters are questioning the whole premise.

What if it was really a relationship, and not all long-distance? A newspaper reporter in South Bend, Ind., says Te’o’s father talked about Manti meeting with his girlfriend in person on multiple occasions.

What if Te’o kept talking about a dead girlfriend, after the date on which he now says he was informed it was a hoax?

Having felt the warm waves of sympathy after the “death” was reported, did he perpetuate the girlfriend story to get more mileage out of the publicity?

These are good questions, and deserve good answers. Good reporters are digging for those answers — now, if not a month ago.

On the other hand, there are more important questions than those surrounding the grief, or confusion, or maybe even the manipulative intent of a young man in a media spotlight who will turn 22 years old on Saturday.

As for me, I’d rather talk about the looming debt ceiling in Washington. There’s no death certificate involved.

Tom Bone is a Daily Telegraph sports writer and cartoonist. Contact him at tbone@bdtonline.com.

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