On Jan. 16, 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 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.
Regret at ESPN
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 on Jan. 16. The executives, who would not be identified because they did not want to second-guess their organization by name, said that the network’s focus on waiting until getting an interview with Te’o was a mistake.
“If I had my druthers, we would have run with it," one executive said. “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 has faced considerable skepticism over the years about its ability to aggressively report on potentially embarrassing issues involving the leagues and universities with which it has an array of lucrative broadcast deals. Just days before learning that the Kekua story might be a hoax, ESPN televised Notre Dame’s loss to Alabama in the national championship game before the second-largest audience in cable television history.
In this instance, there does not seem to be any obvious competing interest that might have blunted ESPN’s vigor in reporting the story. Except, perhaps, the value it attaches to having its subjects on camera.
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. Despite its broad expansion into radio, print and digital outlets, ESPN’s greatest strength is built on the power of video.
“On-camera is always our primary interest," a senior ESPN executive said.
Craggs, the Deadspin editor, does not think much of ESPN’s assertion on the value of video or its invocation of standards.
“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."
ESPN, for its part, would not detail what it had nailed down by Jan. 16 or respond to Deadspin’s criticism.
Deadspin placed little or no priority on interviewing Te’o, and after it published its article, ESPN was left scrambling to try and obtain an on-camera interview on Jan. 17 with Te’o, with the significant aim of having him clarify a bizarre and confusing scenario. But it could not confirm the interview.
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. Doria said that ESPN was also limited to using two minutes of audio.
“It wasn’t ideal," John Skipper, the president of ESPN, said of the network’s agreement to not televise the interview. “We’d love to have video. But it was made clear that it was not negotiable."
He said that there was never any reluctance to accept the off-the-air condition even though he could not recall a situation where a newsmaker had made a similar demand on ESPN.
Schaap defended the deal, saying that to abandon the interview because it was not on-camera “would have been an abdication of our journalistic responsibilities."
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.)
Excerpts from her interview will also appear Wednesday and Thursday on “Good Morning America," “World News with Diane Sawyer" and “Nightline" — programs that are produced by ABC News where Couric is also a special correspondent.