The two-paragraph email from the anonymous tipster arrived at Deadspin's New York headquarters at 4:31 p.m. ET on Jan. 11. At the time, Tim Burke, the 34-year-old video and assignment editor for the website, was picking tangerines with his wife at an orange grove near their home in St. Petersburg, Fla. It would be his last bit of serenity for a couple of days. When he returned to his house, he was met by messages from Deadspin Editor-in-Chief Tommy Craggs and editorial fellow Jack Dickey. "They said there was something that needed to be checked out," Burke said.
Thus began a reporting journey that has morphed into one of the most bizarre sports stories in recent history: Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o claims he was the target of an elaborate online hoax in which he fell for a woman who does not exist. Te'o says he played no role in the hoax but has admitted that his own lies added confusion to the story.
Deadspin and ESPN have been at the center of the Te'o reporting. Sports Illustrated also plays a role in the narrative because the magazine, among others media entities, contributed to the mythology of Te'o. SI's Oct. 1 cover story on Te'o was assigned to senior writer Pete Thamel when reports surfaced that Te'o's 72-year-old grandmother, Annette Santiago, and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had died within six hours of each other, on Sept. 12 and 13. This story has sparked plenty of journalistic soul-searching, but SI's Tim Layden says the self-examination will ultimately be good for the profession. Transcripts of Thamel's interviews with Te'o and others at Notre Dame are here, and this week's magazine also offers an Editor's Note on our reporting.
The Deadspin Story
The Jan. 11 tip to Deadspin was vague, but suggested, according to Burke, that the tipster had gone looking for information on Lennay Kekua, Te'o's supposed girlfriend, and could not find anything. The tipster, a man, believed that Deadspin was better equipped to do the search. The site's reporting, according to staffers, was done mostly through Google searches and phone calls. The editors and writers shared a Google Doc to track the inconsistencies in the story, and Burke, who completed his doctoral studies at the University of South Florida and whose expertise is identity, said that even if nothing else had turned up, they at least knew they had a story on how badly the sports media had botched the Te'o story. Poynter has a good Q&A with Craggs on the reporting and editing trail.
Given that Deadspin quoted an anonymous source who said he was "80 percent sure" Te'o had played a role in the hoax, I asked Burke if Deadspin is too invested in that being the truth. "We would have printed whatever our sources said," Burke said. "We had three separate sources, all of whom were directly connected to somebody who had known [alleged hoaxster] Ronaiah Tuiasosopo themselves or had spoken with Tuiasosopo about the hoax. All three of those people expressed the belief that Te'o had a part in the hoax. When we are trying to gauge where in the situation responsibility lies, we are going to ask the people closest to the situation. We reported what they told us. Whether or not Te'o is involved does not matter to me -- it's not of interest."
What does Burke feel are the biggest questions remaining in this story? Burke says Deadspin knows Te'o received a series of tweets in early December that informed him that Kekua did not exist, and that he responded by blocking all of the individuals on Twitter who told him the information. "I would like to know why he did [that]," Burke said, "and if we believe his current timeline, why it took him until [Jan. 16] to actually believe she wasn't real. Why was he blocking people telling him she wasn't real? ... [Te'o] admitted he played up the depth and degree of the relationship because it made for a better story. We know that there is an incentive for him to have this part of his personal narrative. What we don't know is the motivation and incentive for Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and his confederates to enact this hoax for such a very long time that required such an immense amount of time, effort, money and resources. What would they have to get out of it?"
Burke, for one, does not believe the full truth will ever come out. "Too many people who have stakes in it have already stated what their positions are, and once people tell their side of the story, they tend to stick to it for a very long time," he said. "Look at Lance Armstrong."
The ESPN Story
ESPN says it first became aware of the Te'o story late in the day on Jan. 10, when one of Te'o's Creative Artists Agency (CAA) representatives told the network there was something going on with Te'o's girlfriend but he was not sure what. "[The rep] called us because he had met with Te'o and his parents and was not sure what the story was, but he felt it was something they might want to get in front of and that Te'o might want to do an interview," said ESPN senior vice president and director of news Vince Doria. "From there, we started pursuing the story, dug up a few more sources, and began to pull together a story that seems to suggest there might be some sort of question about the relationship or existence of the girlfriend that supposedly died in September. But we were never able to nail it down. I think we were close, but there were holes in the story. Obviously, it was a story that we wanted to be very careful with. There were still some big questions about it. We felt we were close to reporting it, and Deadspin got it first. First-rate reporting by them. I congratulate them."
What ESPN really wanted was an interview with Te'o. Reporter Jeremy Schaap and producer Sean Fitzgerald flew to Bradenton, Fla., on Thursday, Jan. 17, thinking they'd be interviewing Te'o that day, on camera, but Te'o's camp shut them down. On Friday, Teo's reps agreed to a sit-down, but they had specific guidelines: no video cameras, and limited use of audio, about one or two minutes. Why was ESPN comfortable with these ground rules?
"Seeking an interview, the only stipulation we make is we can ask any questions we want," Doria said. "We obviously cannot dictate the format in terms of video, print, audio, whatever it happens to be. The integrity of the interview, as far as I am concerned, is in the questions you ask. We are out to get the story. Obviously, a video platform is the best platform for us, but we will not turn our backs on a good story, a big interview, simply because we cannot get it on video. We decided to accept those stipulations, but we would not accept any limitation on the questions were able to ask, and in fact there were no limitations on those."
I asked Doria if at any point ESPN pulled back on its reporting to curry favor with the Te'o camp to land the interview. "No, we were pursuing the interview," Doria said. "In a perfect world, we get the story first and an interview along with it and he would be able to answer questions that we were having a hard time getting answers to. But if we had felt certain we had the story nailed down, we would have reported it. As far as we knew, his reps could have been close to talking to other people about an interview. We have never tied our reporting to having to get an interview. Sometimes you have to get an interview to complete the reporting."
Schaap, his producers, and a number of ESPN news staffers put together a list of potential questions for Te'o. The two-and-a-half-hour interview last Friday concluded around 11 p.m. ET, and Schaap did live reports on SportsCenter at 12 a.m., 1 a.m., and 2 a.m. Schaap stated on the air multiple times that he found Te'o credible and believable.
How did Doria feel about his reporter offering such a judgment? "I think in this particular case, it is part of the reporting of it," Doria said. "Typically, when people are making judgments on the credibility of someone like this, you are able to see his eyes, see his body language, hear his voice, make judgments about the delivery. Obviously, none of that was available here. My sense is -- and Jeremy is an extremely experienced reporter who has done a lot of big interviews with some who have told him the truth and some who have not -- he definitely has the credibility to make some judgments like that. I think it was appropriate in this case."
So where will ESPN go now with this story? "We have to see," said Doria. "Obviously, it is a difficult story. This is a story that appears to involve a lot of young people trafficking on social media and the Internet. It is difficult to track down a lot of the material, difficult to check on the truthfulness of some stories. Our interest in the story was Te'o, and he has now told his story."
The Noise Report
SI.com: How would you characterize NBC Sports's reporting on Te'o, and your reporting on how the university responded to the purported hoax story?
NBC Sports spokesperson Christopher McCloskey: "Our handling of the Manti Te'o story has been appropriate and consistent with how we handle any big story. We have not shied from the topic at all. There has been appropriate and consistent analysis and discussion across our television (The Dan Patrick Show, Pro Football Talk, NBC Sports Talk), online (ProFootballTalk, CollegeFootballTalk, Inside the Irish) and all our radio assets. Numerous NBC Sports personalities have appeared on NBC News outlets (Mike Florio on Nightly News; Dave Briggs on Morning Joe; Rob Simmelkjaer on MSNBC). TODAY and The Dan Patrick Show both hosted Deadspin writers/editors. Digitally, ProFootballTalk, CollegeFootballTalk, and Inside the Irish have covered the story with 34 different posts so far since the news broke on Wednesday.
SI.com: How would you respond to the assertion that NBC is not covering this story aggressively because of its financial partnership with Notre Dame?
McCloskey: We're unaware of anyone making such assertions. If someone did, the assertion would be inconsistent with the facts we outlined above.
SI.com: Have any stories about Te'o on NBC Sports.com or its sub-sites been edited or pulled since news of this hoax emerged?
McCloskey: No stories have been pulled or modified from NBCSports.com.
Some non-sports pieces of note: