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 examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the weekend.)
1. Unlike Fox, CBS opted not to send its pregame show to Gillette Stadium for the Ravens-Patriots game and it was a missed opportunity. Fox's pregame show offered immediacy for viewers -- the feeling of something big happening behind them. Conversely, CBS's The NFL Today felt distant from its own championship game -- the second biggest game it will air this season. You also had to feel bad for James Brown, who once again drew the short straw as the interviewer for the absurd and painfully unfunny E-Trade baby segment. Given how much CBS has hyped its onsite coverage at the Super Bowl, it was a strange (though certainly cost-saving) choice.
1a. Fox announcer Joe Buck joked about viewers not hearing what Pam Oliver said prior to the start of the Falcons-Niners game -- the crowd noise in Atlanta drowned her out -- but the network failed to inform viewers immediately afterward what Oliver said at the start. That's a big miss.
1b. Solid work by NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport with this piece on the lack of minority hires in the NFL.
1c. Liked that CBS highlighting of O.J. Brigance, a former Baltimore Ravens linebacker and the team's current senior advisor to player development, following the game in the Ravens locker room. Brigance suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease), which has robbed the former player of speech and body movement. (He communicates via a high-tech device called a DynaVox.) It gives me another opportunity to recommend this brilliant piece by ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown on Brigance from a couple of weeks ago.
1d. Steve Tasker was the best of the sideline reporters this weekend, from his salient information during the Pats-Ravens game to handling a post-game interview with Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty after New England coach Bill Belichick declined an on-camera interview.
1e. On this note, bravo to The NFL Today's Shannon Sharpe, who lambasted Belichick for ditching Tasker. "There is something to be said about being gracious in defeat," Sharpe said. "We have seen the New England Patriots five times in the last 12 years be victorious, and we have seen the opposing coach that lost come out and talk to our Steve Tasker. Bill Belichick makes it real easy for you to root against the Patriots. You can't be a poor sport. You are not going to win all the time. And he does this every time he loses. It is unacceptable."
1f. Niners coach Jim Harbaugh also did not talk to Fox after the Niners-Falcons game. Said a Fox spokesperson: "We don't know why. It's frustrating."
1g. Nantz said last week that the Pats-Ravens game was the 62nd game his crew had called a New England game.
1h. The NFL Network will have 140 hours of Super Bowl coverage the week leading up to the game.
2. NBC Sports and Te'o: NBC Sports has a financial relationship with Notre Dame football -- the network pays an estimated $15 million a year for its regular-season package which expires after the 2015 season -- as well as an independent newsgathering arm. I asked the network the following questions regarding Te'o and how it covered the story.
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.
2a. NFL Network and NBC analyst Mike Mayock has seen Te'o as much as any analyst. Here's his take on his future prospects: "I've gotten to know him over the last few years and at this point all I can do is what I think NFL teams are doing, which is taking a step back [and] waiting for the facts to come out. And ultimately these facts will come out. In addition to the public understanding, I also think that all 32 teams will get ample opportunity to interview this kid. How he handles this going forward is going to be critical to his future as an NFL player."
2b. Katie Couric, who shares a spokesperson with the Te'o Family, has landed the first television interview for the Notre Dame linebacker, according to The New York Times.
2c. I asked a pair of recent Pulitzer Prize winners, Ken Armstrong of the Seattle Times and Amy Nutt of the Newark Star-Ledger -- both have extensive experience covering sports -- for their thoughts on the Manti Te'o story.
3. More Te'o, Part I: A number of readers asked why ESPN edited the transcript that appeared on ESPN.com. Here's Doria's answer: "There were words spelled wrong, there were words misunderstood. The transcription companies are not much different than the closed captioning material you see on television. I believe they went through three transcribers from the service who listened to difficult audio. The original transcript had plenty of errors in it. We had a difficult audio connection down there. Several of us were listening in on the interview but as you know, transcription taken from an audio interview like that -- and Te'o is a fairly soft-spoken guy -- some of the stuff was inaudible and difficult to understand. You had to compare the transcription text with the audio to figure out exactly what some of the material was. It was a time-consuming process and we were working under obviously difficult deadlines."
4. More Te'o, Part II: Burke said Deadspin's story has become the biggest the site has ever produced based on unique visitors. As of Sunday afternoon, 2.174 million unique visitors had read the Te'o piece, passing the previous record for the story featuring Brett Favre allegedly sending X-rated photos to a Jets game day host. The site will run a story this week that breaks down how they reported the story.
5. ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer offered a really interesting take last week on the success of Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick: "They take the 6-5, 250-pound great athlete -- the biggest baddest dude on the block -- and they make him a quarterback and he gets this great training growing up and because of that, they're bigger, they're faster, they're stronger," Dilfer said. "They still have the passing skills. They're going to be more durable. It's a natural progression that the quarterback run-driven game is going to enter the NFL. And the NFL purists are going to continue to say, well, they'll write a book on it, figure it out, and that's not true. They've never had to deal with the Colin Kaepernick, the RGIII, the next generation of quarterback coming up that are pass-first guys but also have this physicality and this expertise in the quarterback run?driven game."
6. How will the labor stoppage impact the NHL's television ratings? As part of a media roundtable for SB Nation's "Puck The Media", I predicted not much in the short term. I think the diehard fans will return and there will be a significant curiosity factor among casual NHL fans. NBC Sports Executive Producer Sam Flood, who produces hockey for the NBC and the NBC Sports Network, said the return of the audience won't be instantaneous but believes the longterm prospects are good. "We're going to have to see how the audience responds and see how the pent-up demand for hockey means they'll come back," Flood said. "All we can do is cover the games as best we can and hope the passion for hockey bubbles back to the surface very quickly."
6a. NBC's regional coverage of the Blackhawks-Kings and Penguins-Flyers drew a 2.0 overnight rating, the highest overnight rating for a non-winter Classic game since 2002. The overnight ratings for Pittsburgh (19.4), Philadelphia (7.8) and Chicago (6.6) were NBC's highest in those markets for the NHL regular season, excluding Winter Classics.
7. There were some remarkable pieces on Lance Armstrong's admission, but none better than this from ESPN.com's Bonnie Ford.
7a. Esquire Magazine's Tom Junod spoke to NFL players about the league's theater of pain.
7b. Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins went on Charlie Rose to address her feelings on Armstrong, her partner on two books. Here is the transcript.
Some non-sports pieces of note:
7c. This Daily Show piece on investigative journalism is both sensational and depressing.
7d. ESPN The Magazine writer Kevin Van Valkenburg, a former staffer at the Baltimore Sun, remembers the late actor Robert Chew, who brilliantly played "Proposition Joe" on The Wire.
8. My review of Oprah Winfrey's interview with Lance Armstrong.
9. ESPN recently announced its early-season schedule (through July) for Sunday Night Baseball and the Rangers will make three appearances, the most of any team. The Angels, Braves, Cardinals, Giants, Tigers, and Yankees will each make two appearances. The Orioles will also make their first appearance since 2008 on April 14 against the Yankees.
10. Miscellaneous: Yes, that is Isiah Thomas you've been seeing on NBA TV. The network says he'll be making a few appearances each month on NBA TV (typically on Fridays and Saturdays) and writing a regular column for NBA.com.
10a. TNT NBA analyst Charles Barkley on Dwight Howard being named an All-Star starter: "Dwight Howard has not had an All-Star season this year. I disagree with that selection. Zach Randolph has been fantastic. Marc Gasol has been fantastic. Tim Duncan has had a better season than Dwight Howard."
10b. Lowest common denominator sports-talk radio, Exhibit 4524.
10c. HBO Sports anchor Bryant Gumbel on Armstrong: "While I can't think of any single athlete more undeserving of empathy, I'm sure many will note the money he raised for cancer research and see him as simply a flawed hero. But in light of his cited patterns of deceptions, intimidation, and coercion, it's hard not to see even his charity work as simply part of his con act. If the accusations of investigators are true, and by now there's no intelligent reason to doubt they are, Lance Armstrong threatened his friends, bribed his foes, cheated his fans, and deceived his sponsors -- all of whom thought he was one of a kind. Turns out there were right, he was one of a kind -- the worst kind."