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What Manti Te'o has Taught Us About How ESPN Determines Veracity

One of the most fascinating (and frustrating) elements of the bizarre Manti Te’o “fake girlfriend” story is how the media, and specifically ESPN, have handled the issue of determining whether Te’o was a “victim” or a “perpetrator” of the “hoax.”

In a very real sense, that same question was also central to the Sandusky scandal when it came to evaluating the culpability of Joe Paterno and other Penn State officials. Much like Te’o, they were either innocent victims of a fraudulent personality, or they, at least in some manner, helped maintain the deception because it was somehow in their own self interest to do so.

With that as the backdrop, it seems very possible to evaluate the two situations in this context and to particularly assess the coverage of ESPN on the basis of journalistic consistency, or lack thereof. (For those who say the situations are not comparable because one was far more important a story than the other, please keep in mind that I am NOT referring to the treatment of Jerry Sandusky, who actually committed those crimes, but to those around him who may or may not have been duped by the false persona he created in order to get away with them for so long.)

When it came to the Sandusky story, here is how ESPN covered it with regard to evaluating the credibility of key Penn State figures in the case:

Based on nothing but a 23-page grand jury document written by the prosecution, Sandusky was immediately presumed to be completely guilty and the account of Mike McQueary’s testimony was assumed to be 100% accurate.

Tim Curley and Gary Schultz were instantly accepted to have committed perjury and to have protected a pedophile for years. Graham Spanier’s defense of them, despite the fact that they were only really contradicted by the prosecution’s interpretation of McQueary’s uncross-examined grand jury testimony, was immediately and roundly condemned.

Meanwhile, when Joe Paterno was denied by his bosses (actually John Surma) the opportunity to go on camera to address questions about his knowledge of Sandusky’s crimes, it was instantly concluded that this must mean he had something to hide. When he said that, in hindsight, he wished he had done more to stop Sandusky, it was universally interpreted as somehow being an admission of guilt. Later, when he finally declared his innocence in an interview with Sally Jenkins, it was treated almost as if O.J. Simpson had publicly claimed no responsibility for the murders.

When the Freeh Report was released, ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, who had previously been outspoken about how Paterno needed to be fired immediately, breathlessly declared, prematurely and grossly inaccurately, that Freeh had determined that the 1998 investigation led to Sandusky’s 1999 retirement. When Freeh concluded that the motive for Penn State “covering up” for a former assistant whom no one really liked was the avoidance of “bad publicity,” this was unanimously accepted without serious question.

So let’s contrast that coverage/narrative with what has happened so far with regard to the revelation that the heart-breaking story of Manti Te’o’s girlfriend dying within a day of his grandmother was not true and that the girlfriend never even really existed.

ESPN has almost universally conveyed that they think that Te’o was simply duped into thinking that he had a girlfriend who died, but who never really existed.

They have allowed him to do an interview with no cameras and with his lawyer present, even after having canceled on them previously. The interviewer (ironically, the former Paterno prosecutor turned Te’o defense attorney Jeremy Schaap) literally, and inappropriately, testified passionately on behalf of his truthfulness and bent over backwards to excuse the “no cameras” and “lawyer present” terms of the interview. Then, get this, they sent Syracuse-protector Mark Schwartz to interview Notre Dame's AD (off camera) whose truthfulness he also verified.

The many contradictions and inconsistencies in his story have been largely ignored.

There has been no comprehensive attempt to explain how Te’o’s story could possibly all make sense (seemingly because its just not doable).

With only a few exceptions (oddly, their NFL pre-game show being the primary dissenter) the absurdity of his being fooled to this extent has been accepted as perfectly plausible and he has been routinely referred to as the “victim” of a “hoax.”

His possible motivations for helping to create the hoax and the many admitted lies he told about it have been barely mentioned.

There have apparently been no live trucks outside of his residence and Te’o has seemingly had no problem going about his daily routine.

It is obvious that, even grading on a generous curve because of the obvious gap in the magnitude of the two cases, ESPN’s hypocrisy here is truly staggering.

For instance, let’s take a look at the issue of motivation. Somehow, becoming famous (he got on the cover of Sports Illustrated because of his fake dead girlfriend) and almost winning the Heisman trophy as a defensive player, is apparently not considered by ESPN to be enough of reason for someone to fake, or at least go along with, the death of “girlfriend” (though apparently the thrill of cruelly pranking such a player is enough of a motivation to expend a ridiculous amount of time and effort on the plot itself).

And yet, ESPN seems universally completely convinced that the avoidance of “bad publicity” (which, it is important to point out, probably would not have even occurred) was somehow enough of a motivator to cause four men at Penn State with sterling reputations to risk it all late in their careers in order to allow a former employee whom they didn’t even like to continue to molest children.

Seriously?  This massive disparity in logical standards literally doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

Then there is the issue of how ESPN determines someone’s credibility. Paterno, a man who for over a half century was known for his honesty, has been branded a liar (even a perjurer) based solely on one, maybe two, incredibly vague e-mails which were written by someone else and which don’t even refer to him directly by name. Meanwhile, Te’o is considered to be telling the truth even though his story makes absolutely no sense and he himself has admitted telling numerous lies during the evolution of this “hoax.”

Can you imagine how the press would have reacted if Joe Paterno had tried to explain his way out of culpability in the Sandusky by saying, “yeah, I lied about not knowing about the 1998 investigation, but I was embarrassed. You’ve got to believe me about the rest of my story”? But, for all intents and purposes, that is pretty much exactly what Te’o has so far gotten away with. And yet, Jeremy Schapp has put his reputation on the line to say that Te’o is telling the truth and, to my knowledge has still never corrected his gleeful misreporting that Paterno lied about why Sandusky retired (which was then repeated on ESPN by, among others, Brent Musburger).

Finally, there is the issue of whether a story makes basic sense globally. Here, ESPN’s “double” standard actually takes the form of a willingness in both stories to throw fundamental logic out the window as long as it suits their perceived purposes.

Te’o’s narrative is so absurd on its face that about the best you can say for it is that it is so weird that it just might be true because no one could possibility make it up.

Specifically, how can he possibly even explain calling a woman he now says he never met, “the love of my life”? How could it “never cross” his mind to visit the “love of his life” in the hospital or attend her funeral? Why did he continue to discuss his dead girlfriend after he got the call telling him it was a hoax (his own explanation here that he wasn’t immediately sure it really was a hoax is contradicted by the fact that friends are saying he told them long ago he suspected it all might be a hoax)? Even for a naïve loser in a remote area of Alaska the whole long-term fake girlfriend thing seems like a stretch, but for a star football player at Notre Dame, it just seems impossible (unless of course you work at ESPN or NBC News).

Conversely, it has always baffled me as to how ESPN and others so easily and fervently bought into a storyline at Penn State which was not only not backed up by the evidence, but which makes maybe even less logical sense than Te’o’s does.

I have to wonder whether ESPN really believes (sadly, my guess is that they have never even really thought about it this way) that Mike McQueary really saw a boy being raped, did nothing about it, told Joe Paterno and others about it, and they decided, after about a dozen people already knew about the story, to go ahead and cover it up and let a former employee they didn’t like continue to rape young boys. Oh, and by the way, they made no effort to make McQueary, Sandusky, or the boy part of their cover up, made no effort to keep McQueary from testifying, Paterno decided to help blow up the cover up by testifying himself, and Curley (who had a nine year old son who was consistently exposed to Sandusky in 2001) lavishly praised Paterno, who presumably led him into a cover up which destroyed his life, at his death.

As ESPN’s NFL crew might say, “Come on man!!”

Even if there was some real evidence to back it up, that scenario is just plain nuts and yet it is accepted throughout the media as if it is gospel and even questioning this narrative is almost sacrilegious.

The greatest irony in all of this is that there seems to be a highly plausible scenario (meaning one which would not defy nearly all of the known laws of logic like ESPN’s version of both the Te’o and Penn State stories) where Te’o and McQueary actually went through pretty similar situations. It seems to me that both could have easily gotten caught up in circumstances not of their making, felt locked into stories that were not totally true, and then saw it in their self interest to perpetuate and exaggerate (rather than recant) once things got out of control.

I want to make it clear that I am still not certain what level of “guilt” Manti Te’o has in all of this hoax mess. That is not really the point here. What I am absolutely positive of is that even a cursory examination of how ESPN has treated Te’o story in comparison to that of Paterno/Penn State makes a slam dunk case that their brazen hypocrisy has been once again exposed.

The worst part may be that I would be shocked if anyone in Bristol has even thought about it in this way.