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January 17, 2013

Manti Te'o Deception Exposes Failings of An All-Too-Easily Duped Media

By Matt Baron, Founder, Inside Edge: Public Relations & Media Services

Just so there's no mistaking things, the words that are italicized below are satirical. There really is no such thing as a "National Liars Association," at least not to my knowledge.

I issue this warning because it seems that so many people — even journalists who are entrusted to be the watchdogs of accuracy and truth — will take so much at face value.

By the way, typing in the made-up National Liars Association into Google does turn up at least a few interesting links on the first page of returns: a reference to the National Education Association and the actual home page of the National Rifle Association.

You can make of that whatever you will.

For now, though, let's get onto the italics (remember, for purposes of this post, italics=made-up stuff!)

According to the latest AP poll, disgraced bicyclist Lance Armstrong is still clinging to his #1 position in the newly formed National Liars Association.

However, keep an eye out for up-and-coming Manti Te'o, who has burst into the Top 20, ahead of seven politicians, among others, to move up to #3 behind convicted murderer Drew Peterson at #2.

In related news, Notre Dame's team of ace "investigators," who have supposedly vetted Te'o's story and believe he is a victim of an elaborate hoax, are now looking into reports that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are not "actual people."

By this point, you have probably seen the name "Manti Te'o." Before today, his was a household name only among college football fans. Now, though, he's become a household name, period. That transformation comes courtesy of this this Deadspin investigative piece.

It's not the first time that a young guy has been caught lying after spinning a web that got so tangled, there's no squirming free. But what is troubling is how easily duped so many members of the media allowed themselves to get.

Whatever happened to the admonition I learned in journalism school? Harsh and humorous in one fell swoop, it goes like this: "If your mother tells you she loves you...check it out!"

Journalists these days aren't being "harsh" enough by prying loose basic details to confirm a story's accuracy. As a result, the joke is on an already-beleaguered industry and storied media empires that are getting shown up by lesser-known roll-up-their-sleeves outfits like Deadspin.

I had never read any of the accounts of Te'o and his now-demythologized girlfriend. But from reading the Deadspin piece, it's stunning to see the details that went unchallenged (or at least unverified) for so long.

I am very interested in reading reaction pieces from those journalists who unwittingly spread the false Gospel of Te'o.

Did they try to contact the girlfriend? What happened when they did so? Were their published stories clear that this was only an online relationship?

There are so many holes in the Te'o/Notre Dame account that I believe it will be a matter of hours—not days or weeks—before the university comes to regret its hastily convened press conference and standing behind Te'o.

While backing him up may seem noble, and is even understandable in a familial "we're in this together" sense, it's obvious to any objective observer that Notre Dame officials are all too willing to believe the unbelievable.

In that respect, sadly, they are mirroring the fundamental error committed by so many in the media.

For more than 20 years, Matt Baron, founder of Chicago-based Inside Edge: Public Relations & Media Services was a staff and freelance reporter for small-town weeklies, big-city dailies and national magazines. Through workshops, webinars and columns, Baron has trained thousands of reporters and PR professionals how to tell stories more effectively.

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