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As debate raged at ESPN, Te’o story slipped away

By Richard Sandomir and James Andrew Miller

New York Times

LAST UPDATED: 01:55 p.m. HST, Jan 23, 2013

Last Wednesday, a fierce debate raged inside ESPN. Reporters for the network had been working for almost a week trying to nail down an extraordinary story: Manti Te'o's girlfriend — the one whose death from leukemia had haunted and inspired him during a triumphant year on the field for Notre Dame — might be a hoax.

Some inside the network argued that its reporters — who had initially been put onto the hoax story by Tom Condon, Te'o's agent — had enough material to justify going public. Others were less sure and pushed to get an interview with Te'o, something that might happen as soon as the next day. For them, it was a question of journalistic standards. They didn't want to be wrong.

"We were very close," said Vince Doria, ESPN's chief for news. "We wanted to be very careful."

ESPN held the story, and then lost it.

That afternoon, Deadspin, the sports website, reported that the girlfriend did not exist. She had never met with or talked to Te'o over the many months he thought he was in contact with a thoughtful, gravely ill Stanford alumna named Lennay Kekua. Deadspin strongly suggested that Te'o was complicit in the fake tale and had exploited it to bolster his bid for acclaim.

Deadspin, its editor said in an interview this week, had also received a tip about the hoax, a day after ESPN had been alerted. The website assigned two reporters to the story.

At the heart of the article Deadspin published was a reverse-image Internet search of the photograph on Twitter that Te'o, a star linebacker, had relied upon as proof of Kekua's existence. It had been lifted from the Facebook account of an unsuspecting California woman who had never spoken with Te'o.

"Given the same amount of information that we had, I can't think of a media outlet that wouldn't run with that," Tommy Craggs, Deadspin's editor, said.

For some, the debate within ESPN quickly gave way to regret and reflection.

Three ESPN executives interviewed in recent days said they should have published last Wednesday.

"If I had my druthers, we would have run with it," said one executive who did not want to be identified. "We've had a bunch of discussions internally since then, and I don't think it will happen this way again. I wonder sometimes if perfection is the enemy of the practical."

ESPN, as a journalistic matter, said it needed to talk to Te'o. But ESPN, as a competitive broadcaster, also dearly wanted that to happen on camera.

"When they talk about standards, they may be talking about waiting for some kind of official response from Notre Dame or Manti, which is just idiotic," Craggs said. "This is a story about a social media hoax. As soon as the principals know we're working on it, the story starts to change. They start ripping things down."

Deadspin placed little or no priority on interviewing Te'o, and after it published its article, ESPN was left scrambling to try to obtain an on-camera interview on Thursday with Te'o, with the significant aim of having him clarify a bizarre and confusing scenario.

Te'o's team of advisers — he is training for the upcoming NFL Draft — did not want him to sit before any cameras, at least not yet. They believed that the Deadspin article would prompt other people with knowledge of the hoax to emerge and help make clear that Te'o had no involvement in it. And they did.

A woman told ESPN last Friday that the man believed to have perpetrated the hoax, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, had tearfully confessed to her his role in duping Te'o. Two other people recalled to ESPN that day how their cousin was fooled by Tuiasosopo in a similar scam.

Doubts endured and mysteries seemed to multiply despite those interviews. And ESPN still wanted an on-camera interview with Te'o, and one of its veteran reporters, Jeremy Schaap, was in pursuit of it.

But Matthew Hiltzik, a public relations adviser to Te'o, adamantly set a critical condition with Schaap. ESPN could only interview Te'o off the air last Friday night, in an intimate setting without cameras or a group of technicians. ESPN was also limited to using two minutes of audio.

"We accepted that," Doria, the news chief, said. "The main aspect for us was no limitations" on questions.

After a 2 1⁄2-hour interview at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., Schaap started delivering reports early Saturday morning. Instead of video, Schaap quoted and paraphrased Te'o's comments.

Despite being proud of the work done by Schaap to advance the story, ESPN now finds itself in an awkward position.

First, it hesitated in the hope of a Te'o interview, and Deadspin got the story.

Second, by agreeing to talk to him without its cameras present, it lost the battle to put him on-camera to Katie Couric, whose syndicated program will televise a taped interview with Te'o and his family on Thursday to a general, nonsports audience. (Hiltzik also represents Couric.)


I loved Te'o, hoaxer tells Dr. Phil

Kelly doesn't know if hoax affected Teo's play

Dr. Phil to interview alleged girlfriend hoaxer Tuiasosopo

Te’o sheds more light

Face of Te'o's girlfriend says hoaxster confessed

Notre Dame president defends handling of Te'o

Voice of Te’o prankster? Couric plays voicemails

As debate raged at ESPN, Te’o story slipped away

'What would you do' Te'o tells Couric

Woman in Te'o fake girlfriend photo speaks out

NFL teams get their turn at Te'o

Records link California home and Te'o case

Alleged mastermind of Te'o hoax may tell his story

Te'o to be interviewed by Katie Couric

Te'o regrets tainting name

Records link California home and Te'o case

Te'o provides answers, but more may be asked

'There is no way I could be a part of this'

Te'o not alone in claiming online wishful thinking

EXCLUSIVE: Woman tried new hoax in December call to Te'o

Te'o denies being part of dead girlfriend hoax

Alleged architect of Manti Te'o dead girlfriend hoax reportedly confesses

Man admitted duping Te'o, woman tells ESPN

Notre Dame to Te'o: Time to speak up

'Catfish' jumps to prominence amid murky Te'o hoax

Residents rally around hometown hero

History of a hoax

With Te'o silent, questions about hoax mount

Te'o spoke of girlfriend after hoax revelation

Damaging silence

Manziel shocked by Te'o girlfriend hoax

Draft guru: Te'o's stock took hit before hoax

Te'o mentioned 'girlfriend' twice recently

Timeline of Te'o quotes in girlfriend hoax story

Te'o interview 'scrapped'

Laie backs Te'o after girlfriend hoax

Te'o could drop in NFL draft after girlfriend hoax, expert says

Fundraiser 'shell-shocked' by Te'o girlfriend hoax

Ex-Cardinal fullback says he met Te'o's girlfriend

Football star's dead girlfriend an online hoax

At this point, who really knows what to believe?

The naive get reeled in when 'catfish' nibble online

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CriticalReader wrote:
Oh wow! I feel so sorry for ESPN now. Deadspin scooped them in the race to ruin Te'o's life.
on January 23,2013 | 01:01AM
da808 wrote:
Well said!
on January 23,2013 | 04:11AM
OldDiver wrote:
It was Manti's camp who leaked the story to ESPN. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/23/sports/ncaafootball/as-debate-raged-at-espn-manti-teo-story-slipped-from-its-hands.html?smid=tw-share&pagewanted=all&_r=0
on January 23,2013 | 06:09AM
allie wrote:
anything for exposure I guess. He is desperate for publicity.
on January 23,2013 | 09:23AM
That is exactly it-You keep GUESSING. Maybe you should take a lesson from Manti and JUST SHUT UP!
on January 23,2013 | 12:53PM
fishwrider wrote:
allie claims that this story and Manti are overplayed and a bore yet posts another message on the subject. At least "allie" and Tuiasosopo have something in common....both guys pretending to be women on the internet. LOL.
on January 24,2013 | 06:13AM
BluesBreaker wrote:
There was no intent to ruin Te'o's life. Where do you get that? This is about news organizations competing for a big story that will attract readers/viewers and enhance their image as news sources. Matni Te'o is a sports celebrity who garners a lot of attention. Nothing malicious about it on the part of the media.
on January 23,2013 | 04:57AM
CriticalReader wrote:
Are you kidding? This was a story about one "media" source gloating (Dead) gloating about having gone forward with a story written to accuse Te'o of being a perpetrator of the Hoax, and another commiserating because it never went forward even though it didn't have the whole story. The point is that both wanted to be FIRST to write about the controversy, complete accuracy be damned. ESPN's solution? Next time, GO!
on January 23,2013 | 06:31AM
Shh wrote:
That story was not a big story, It looked like there were some jealous people that wanted to ruin Te'o's life. He has done some good things so far and to bring out something so minuet as this is ridiculous. Let him live his life and move on from this.
on January 23,2013 | 07:43AM
droid wrote:
Clearly, you have no clue what constitutes a “big story.” When a college football player uses the drama of his dead grandmother and his dead “girlfriend” to boost his chances to win the Heisman, it’s already a big story. When it turns out the “girlfriend” was a hoax, it’s the story of the year! That is why every major news outlet nationwide has covered this story in the first place. Try to keep up.
on January 23,2013 | 09:40AM
allie wrote:
This is not a sports story so ESPN should not have been involved. Media is exploiting the sex angle and the exposing of a dimwitted player who got exposed as weak in the Alabama game. I say let Teo deal with his own lies and personal life and leave us out of it. It is a bore.
on January 23,2013 | 09:23AM
fishwrider wrote:
lol, bitter much?
on January 24,2013 | 06:14AM
Loki wrote:
I don't feel sorry for ESPN at all. They've ruined other peoples lives without the facts before. Mike Leach?
on January 23,2013 | 06:44AM
control wrote:
enough already - a 2 second news story now in it's second week. Get a life people!
on January 23,2013 | 07:05AM
Wazdat wrote:
WHO CARES ALREADY, lets move on. This is a young man who made a mistake and did NOT hurt anyone.
on January 23,2013 | 07:09AM
Peacenik wrote:
on January 23,2013 | 09:14AM
posterized09 wrote:
Deadspin ran the story too soon claiming Te'o was involved. They are now the laughing stock of the media. They claim they had a source that says he was 80% sure Te'o was part of it. I'm pretty sure his source was Ronaiah duping them too.
on January 24,2013 | 05:11AM
fishwrider wrote:
This story isn't as bad as the one about the mandan indians losing their land and the high crime rate against women on the reservation. shameful.
on January 24,2013 | 06:15AM
puuloke wrote:
Wonder what the media would do if Manti stole a friend's car and wouldn't return it. What if Manti sold drugs to his teammates or was a regular user? Worst, what would they say if Manti was a regular customer of prostitutes? Imagine, if the media found out that Manti regularly conned friends and roommates out of money. Current NFL hopefuls have done all of the aforementioned dirty deeds, yet the media is silent. The poor kid was embarassed, shamed, harassed by another Samoan. If all these horrible and immoral acts can be committed with no media attention, why can't you just let the poor kid be. Let's not continue the a'ama crab syndrome!
on January 24,2013 | 04:39PM