In the frenzy to cover Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s triumph over tragedy in his final season as a college football player, reporters failed to pick up on one not-so-minor detail: Te’o’s recently-deceased girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never actually existed. After Deadspin exposed the hoax this past Wednesday, the media outlets that initially covered the Te’o saga scrambled to explain how they had been duped.
Sports Illustrated, which holds the dubious honor of having dedicated its Oct. 1 cover to Te’o, along with a feature by senior writer Pete Thamel titled “The Full Manti,” tried yesterday to back up its reporting. On the Dan Patrick Show, Thamel said, “There were small red flags,” such as the fact that he couldn’t find an obituary or death notice for Kekua, or any reference to her in LexisNexis, but he was “able to write around it.”
Later, Thamel published a transcript of his interview with Te’o on Sports Illustrated, which included several suspicious answers from Te’o. When asked how he and Kekua met, he said, “We met just, ummmm, just she knew my cousin. And kind of saw me there so. Just kind of regular.” As for when his girlfriend had graduated from Stanford, which she had reportedly attended, or what she had studied, Te’o wasn’t able to give a straight answer. Thamel asked a contact at Stanford to find any record of Kekua, which he was unable to do. It was “the most glaring sign I missed,” said Thamel, but again, he wrote around it: “I thought that maybe she didn't graduate, so we took any reference to Stanford out of the story.”
ESPN senior columnist Gene Wojciechowski, who produced a segment on Te’o that aired in October, also defended himself during an appearance on SportsCenter on Wednesday night. “Short of asking to see a death certificate, I'm not sure what most people would do differently in that case,” he said. But he had also found red flags: “In researching it before I wrote the script, I remember trying to find an obituary for [Te’o’s] girlfriend and could not. And couldn't find any record of this car accident.”
An obituary would have come in handy for the slew of reporters who gave contradictory dates for Kekua’s death, with outlets from the New York Times to CBS citing Dec. 11, 15 and every day in between, according to Deadspin. The South Bend Tribune—Notre Dame's local paper—even managed to contradict its own reports of Kekua’s death: On two separate occasions, the Tribune reported that Kekua had died on the 11th, but in three other articles, wrote that she had passed on the 12th. The paper also didn’t seem sure whether Kekua or Te’o’s grandmother had died first, reporting both versions multiple times.
Tribune sportswriter Eric Hansen, who wrote a lengthy story about Te’o and Kekua on October 12 titled “What Dreams May Come” (“Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te'o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes,” it begins), told local news station WSBT yesterday that he had no reason not to trust Te'o's father's confirmation that the couple had met face-to-face. "Do I need to do my job differently when I’ve had multiple sources I trust confirm things?" Hansen asked. “Do I need to go get a picture of a corpse?”
Other outlets reporting contradictory facts about the Te'o story included everything from the New York Post to the Palm Beach Post to TV channels in Hawaii. While it’s hard to fault reporters for believing a star football player’s tragedy-laced story that friends, teammates and family readily backed up, some of the mistakes—like the AP saying that Kekua had been buried in Carson City, Calif. (which doesn’t actually exist) or nearly every outlet overlooking the lack of a death certificate—are equally hard to defend.