Don’t Be Too Hard on Writers Duped by the Manti Te’o Hoax

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By Jonathan Mahler

Somebody has to do it.

I am here to offer a (qualified) defense of the humiliated journalists who were duped by the story of Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o and his fictitious girlfriend.

I am not doing this to encourage the sort of oleaginous sportswriting that Te’o’s improbable story unleashed on the reading public. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel will never live down the image of Te’o reading his fake girlfriend's fake love letters before each game.

As for ESPN, it has an economic incentive to “humanize” all its sports reporting, to slather it with as much emotional grease as possible: Who could resist tuning into the Fighting Irish’s weekly games once they knew the heartbreaking, inspirational story of the team’s star linebacker?

Still and all: It’s not quite fair to mock the journalists who were taken in by Te’o.

ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski, who did a five-minute segment on Te’o’s triumph over tragedy, has said that he tried to find a record of the fake girlfriend’s death, and that he asked Te’o if he could contact her family. Te’o apparently said that her family would prefer that he didn’t. Wojciechowski decided to respect their wishes.

You can call this being intimidated by your subject. And you can argue that any self-respecting journalist would have insisted on talking to the family, or at least a couple of her friends. But the mindset of the journalist matters. This wasn’t meant to be an in-depth expose -- like, say, the impressive Deadspin piece uncovering the hoax. It was supposed to be a relatively short, soft-focus profile.

Which leads me to my larger point: When it comes to the media, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t hate reporters for their intrusiveness -- for sticking microphones in people’s faces, for knocking on the doors of the families of victims, etc. -- and ridicule them when they don’t push for more details when dealing with someone who claims to have just lost a beloved girlfriend.

If we want a news media that presses and prods, that scrutinizes every claim made by everyone it interviews, no matter who they are and what they (seemingly) have just been through, then let's at least accept that it's not always going to be pretty.

(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

-0- Jan/17/2013 20:13 GMT