Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

January 18, 2013

Gary's World: Check the facts and live in the real world

By Gary Nelson
Senior staff writer

CROSSVILLE — Once again the national news media, mostly television, looks like a bunch of fools for promoting a heartbreaking, inspirational love story that turned out to be a total fabrication and hoax.

The main reason, I suppose, is laziness and because nobody checked their facts and just paid the story forward in order to make themselves look good and get the story out quickly.

I'm referring to the most recent and very confusing story involving Notre Dame football's linebacker, All American player and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o and his alleged girlfriend — who we are now told never actually existed.

The story goes like this: Te'o meets this girl, Lennay Kekua, on the Internet and carries on an online relationship with her for years. Supposedly, he met this girl a few times. She then claims to have been diagnosed with Leukemia after a serious car accident and eventually dies on Sept. 12, a day after Teo's grandmother died.

All season Te'o has played in honor of his grandmother and the dead girlfriend, overcoming his obstacles and tragedy and going on to lead Notre Dame into the BCS National Championship football game. There were several stories and interviews with Te'o this past fall about the situation and it has just been passed along from newspaper to magazine to national television news. All along, the story grew a little more dramatic and heartbreaking.

Each news source made the same critical mistake as the next by assuming the original facts in the story were true and adding a little bit of detail to the story. Why didn't anyone check into this story a little more than just assuming what they were told or heard was the truth?

I mean, journalism 101 tells you to verify the facts with a credible source before you run with a story — print or broadcast.

Te'o claims he received a message and then a phone call on Dec. 6 while he was at the Home Depot College Football Awards Show from the number that he associated with his dead girlfriend, Kekua. The same voice, he said, told him she was not dead. Te'o told his parents, but not anyone with the football program at Notre Dame until Dec. 26, according to the South Bend Tribune.

Notre Dame then funded an investigation into the case after meeting with Te'o on Dec. 28.

There are now hundreds of questions that are unanswered and Te'o has not yet made any statements about the case. The story about Te'o's girlfriend not existing went live Wednesday on Deadspin.com.

It is unknown who the person was who created the fake girlfriend, or why. Deadspin.com in its story insinuates that Te'o may have been in on the hoax from the beginning for publicity and sympathy from the nation.

I personally don't know what happened, but it seems to me that if you want to carry on a relationship with someone, the best way to do so would be in the real world and not through some online, social media web sites.

I mean, whatever happened to meeting someone in person, having conversations in person and hanging out together? Is it me or is it too much to ask to communicate with someone in reality, in person, rather than on the phone or via texting and messaging?

Call me old fashioned, but whatever happened to checking into some background details before publishing or broadcasting a story? I mean, these national news people hadn't even communicated with this alleged girlfriend's family.

It's unbelievable. One thing is certain, as the details unfold regarding the story and the truth eventually comes out, the lawyers will line up and lawsuits will be filed here and there for everyone to get there "fair share."

Was Te'o involved or was he duped like the rest of the country? I don't know.

I just hope the national media will learn from this major mistake, but I have my doubts because this type of thing has happened repeatedly in this modern day world of "hurry up and be the first to report" journalism.

I can see my college journalism professor shaking her head and laughing right now over this series of national bloopers.

• • •

Gary Nelson is a Crossville Chronicle staffwriter. His column is published each Friday. He may be reached at gnelson@crossville-chronicle.com.