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

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS / ESPN IMAGES
    Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o paused during an interview with ESPN's Jeremy Schaap
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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.)

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