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The Te'o Hoax: The Damage of Deadspin

How new media cloaked itself in real journalism but ended up sitting in a pool of hypocrisy.

J. Meric

It feels like a month has passed since the news broke of the Manti Te'o hoax but it's only been a couple weeks. In that time One Foot Down hasn't officially posted any sort of editorial to the story. Now that the dust has settled the time feels right for an editorial on this whole affair.

As the days have passed this story has died down and the shock of the initial wave of news has certainly numbed many people across the country. By now, many are sick of the story and the media's coverage of it.

In the months ahead it will be interesting to see how much Te'o remains the focus of the news. Less than 2 weeks later he's still the brunt of some jokes but the narrative has taken quite a turn in recent days. For a lot of people Te'o won't be the story as much as the website Deadspin will be.

This website has received a ton of accolades and praise for "breaking the story" and in many ways they deserve that credit. However, the tribute and acclaim has gone way too far.

As many of you know Tim Prister from Irish Illustrated eviscerated Deadspin for their handling of the Te'o story and his thoughts closely mirror mine here today.

So let's just walk through how this story broke.

Manti informed his parents and the University of Notre Dame and the latter launched a quick investigation from a private firm. They quickly determined Te'o was innocent and was the victim of a hoax. Soon, the news is leaked to ESPN and hours later Deadspin finds out and goes to work researching the story.

ESPN waited---wanting more information on the confusing story and an interview with Te'o.

Deadspin did not wait.

Think of all the information that came out after the initial Deadspin story---phone records, the flower receipt, the hoaxers re-contacting Te'o in December, the hoaxers pretending to be in Miami, the confessions of multiple individuals who spoke with 'Lennay' on the phone, the numerous people who saw Te'o deal with the phone call of Lennay's death, the emergence of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo's cousin as the voice behind Lennay---all this information and more was absolutely crucial to the story and Deadspin missed out on it.

Deadspin received praise for digging in to this story but they didn't do their homework and get the truth. They couldn't, because their MO was to expose a high-profile athlete and that's why they made one phone call each to Manti and his father, didn't get an answer, and figured "Eh, we'll be fine."

That sounds a lot like the criticism Deadspin loves to throw at the traditional media. They didn't follow up on the entire story and try to get all of the facts because it wouldn't fit their narrative of exposing Manti Te'o.

Deadspin set the narrative that Te'o was complicit in the hoax by stating:

A friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo told us he was "80 percent sure" that Manti Te'o was "in on it," and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua's death with publicity in mind.

A lot of people have tried to defend Deadspin and say that they weren't really implicating Te'o as guilty in creating the hoax, but we know this isn't true. This article set the TE'O IS GUILTY narrative 100% and without regret. How can anyone, especially knowing Deadspin's MO, think that the website didn't go after this story frothing at the mouth thinking that Te'o was the perpetrator of the hoax? Everyone involved at Deadspin wanted a Notre Dame cover-up and for Te'o to be the mastermind behind the hoax and that bias infected their entire coverage of the ordeal.

This whole episode was supposed to point out the failings of the traditional media in not doing their homework and fact checking, but yet after the fact we're supposed to be so naive as to accept the notion that Deadspin didn't get ridiculously lazy with the above quote and intentionally frame the narrative that Te'o was guilty in creating the hoax?

Deadspin needed dirt so bad and that's what the went after, but it's unfortunate they got none.

It's great that Deadspin connected some dots and published a convincing story for people so eager to jump all over a naive college kid. Yeah, new media!

It's just too bad they didn't connect all the dots and effectively got a huge part of the story wrong---wrongfully tarnishing the name of Manti Te'o in the process.

It's at this point that we need to understand what Deadspin is all about, specifically in regards to this story. They were not concerned with the full truth. They weren't concerned with getting Manti Te'o's side of the story. They weren't concerned with following up their initial report with more facts or finding out if Te'o was in on the hoax or not. No, Deadspin was in on this to shake its finger at the traditional media and then rack up the page views.

Essentially, the site Deadspin gets all the praise just because they broke the story first. Is that what journalism is all about now? We're supposed to fall to our knees because Deadspin hurried a thorough but inaccurate and sensational story for the masses to eat up?

Recently, SB Nation's Andy Hutchins wrote a piece titled, "Why the Manti Te'o Girlfriend Hoax Story Matters" and part of his argument revolved around Deadspin 'turning journalism on its ear.'

Here are some excerpts from Hutchins:

"...I genuinely think Tim Burke and Jack Dickey should be nominated for prizes for their efforts."

"The greatest thing about Deadspin, for my money, is that it gives zero ***** about having or maintaining access for the purposes of making people in sports look good, and that makes it incredibly dangerous to its sports media competitors, where access, the nectar that reporters crave, is traded for positive coverage of the subjects outlets' audiences care about."

"But this entire story only exists because Deadspin did more diligence in checking out "Lennay Kekua" than dozens of writers did last fall, and it's the spectacular failure of media members at all levels to ensure that the tremendous story they told was true that makes this story most interesting to me."

It's funny because within that story by Hutchins he links to another post by Scott Berinato in the Columbia Journal Review that criticizes Deadspin saying:

Why didn't the likes of Deadspin find out sooner? Instead of focusing on all the ways the rest of the media got things wrong, Deadspin could be chasing down those named in the initial report. It could assign a reporter to explore the culture around the Internet phenomenon of "catfishing" that Te'o seems to have gotten wrapped up in, either willingly or unwittingly. Or it could advance the story by interviewing an expert on the nature of fraud (see this excellentNew Yorker story for brilliant reporting on how and why this kind to thing happens, especially if you've found yourself saying, "How could someone be so stupid?").

This is what's most interesting in this New Media vs. Old Media debate. Deadspin found out about the story at the same time as ESPN, rushed out a story 1 week later, and...I can't stress this enough...GOT THE STORY WRONG.

We're praising a company that got the story wrong!?

It was the perfect storm for Deadspin. They hurried a detailed report and looked like the only media outlet that was willing to "expose" everything. So what if their research missed the mark---they were the first to report and could point their finger at the traditional media for failing to do the same!

It's shocking how many congratulations Deadspin has received for breaking a story that was served up to them on a platter, even as they missed the mark on their findings.

We're supposed to be impressed by that?

So it's not only the narrative that Te'o was complicit in the hoax (which sold the story) but also the narrative that Deadspin "beat out" ESPN for the story. If you noticed, Deadspin's content following their initial story leaned heavily not towards reporting the new facts that were coming out (facts that were making their research look like amateur hour) but rather to discredit and be sarcastic towards other media that were doing more digging in to the story.

We're supposed to respect a site who quickly made a joke of the story and dismissed new evidence as conspiracy and spin?

It also allowed Deadspin to draw a line in the sand a day after their January 16th bombshell story---they alone were the truth-bearers in this saga while ESPN, CBS, and all the other media that jumped on the story afterward and were getting Te'o's side of the story were manipulating the narrative to protect a sacred hero.

As Berinato points out:

Even as that second (Deadspin) post called the media "the other angle" to the story, for Deadspin it appears to be the angle.

It is, in fact, ceding the story to the others so that it can ridicule how they handle it.

Just take a look at Deadspin's content since January 16th, and it's clear they really wanted nothing to do with continuing to dig and find all the facts behind the story. Instead, they created the first half-ass breaking story, sat on their high horse, and then took shots at the rest of the media, Notre Dame, and Manti Te'o as more facts came to light making Deadspin's initial report look like one written by a jilted Bo Schembechler back from the dead.

Deadspin says Te'o and Couric share the same agent?

Compelling evidence! Assumed guilt! Journalism being turned on its ear, everybody!!

Everyone lauded Deadspin for reporting the story first, and they're still doing the same today even as Deadspin has egg all over their face when more facts came to light, thanks to the work of those other terrible, lazy, and detestable media members. Deadspin dug up some facts, made some bold allegations that Te'o was in on it on the back of some weak and amateur evidence, and then they couldn't be bothered to back anything up and keep following up on the story.

How does this make Deadspin better than the traditional media? Is this what we have to look forward to with the New Media? If so, I think I'd rather keep the Old Media around instead.

Deadspin is the paparazzi of sports journalism.

That's exactly what happened here---the paparazzi was able to break the story, control the narrative, and then sit back and deflect any blame for their actions simply because they clicked 'publish' before anyone else.

Welcome to the 21st century of sports journalism.

Some have called this story Deadspin's "Watergate" moment. Oh, how laughable that is.

Can you imagine if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had spent a week investigating the Watergate scandal and then reported to the world that their sources said President Nixon wasn't involved?

"We reported what they told us. Whether or not Te'o Nixon is involved does not matter to me - it's not of interest."

The above is an actual quote from Deadspin's Timothy Burke. When you put Nixon's name in there and use the analogy with Watergate it shows how ridiculous Deadspin's investigation was.

"What's that? We got the story wrong? So what, we were the first to report it. Screw off!"

Deadspin skimmed the surface of the hoax, packaged it in TE'O KNEW headlines, and then took shots at the other media outlets who went through the effort to set the story straight. Woodward and Bernstein went to great lengths to dig for clues and get the right facts, and they came out with the truth.

Deadspin can only hang its hat on reporting the story first. Would Woodward and Bernstein have been given so much praise if they missed the truth of the Watergate scandal just because they happened to report it first? So why does Deadspin get so much credit for swinging and missing on their research?

Now, if people want to say that Deadspin isn't the New York Times and they shouldn't investigate this Te'o story any further, that's fine. At the same time we can't hold Deadspin up on a mantle as some virtuous media outlet that does things any better than the traditional media. If Deadspin really wants legitimate praise jump in the pool and go and get it---don't dip your toes in, run a smear campaign of a college kid, and then blame everyone else for swimming in the pool and getting the story right.

Deadspin is just as hypocritical and fraudulent as the Old Media. They rail against the traditional media for protecting their heroes and gaining access for stories, but Deadspin has no problem assassinating someone's character with flimsy evidence and turning a story in to a joke once they've earned their page views.

They perfectly balance themselves as a site that criticizes others but when that criticism is turned their way they somehow aren't responsible. They are the kid who wants to be taken seriously, but can't help but make everything a joke whenever they're wrong on a topic.

They are the kid who stands up to a bully by sucker punching the bully and then hiding and running away when the bully shows up for payback.

Does that make them better than the bully?

Deadspin deserves some respect for connecting the dots early on with their first article on the Te'o hoax, but they came to the wrong conclusions and acted like a 6-year old once their narrative crumbled in the days that followed. Deadspin let what could have been a great piece of research drown in their quest to nail Te'o as complicit in attempt to convince the world that Te'o had never talked on the phone all those hours nor been told of the death of this woman.

But hey, Deadspin reported it first!

As far as I'm concerned, Deadspin gets zero awards and they deserve all the criticism they've faced this month.