The Pointless Media Hand-Wringing Over Manti Te’o

Tim Layden makes his contribution to the orgy of media navel-gazing in the wake of the tragic death of Manti Te’o’s pretend girlfriend:

Prominent amid the animus directed at media in the wake of the Te’o story is that sportswriters are too willing accept the details provided to them in their pursuit of what mid-20th century New York City sports editor Stanley Woodard is credited with calling “Godding up,” athletes and coaches, as was common in his generation (and some would assert still is). The Te’o story of overcoming tragedy to lead Notre Dame’s return to mythic glory, for instance, was just too good to resist (or confirm) for everybody who passed it along, which was just about the entire media industry. The argument goes that sportswriters do this constantly, which I would dispute. But it’s a bad week for disputing. 

The events of this past week will lead to harsher scrutiny of those precious little — and big — details and therefore fewer unnecessarily fawning stories about people who play and coach games. That will be a good thing for everyone involved, as conferred by the lessons of Joe Paterno, Lance Armstrong and Te’o in just the last 14 months. Yet it might also lead to fewer narrative stories, period, and that would not be such a great thing. It’s vital to take the hagiographic mythmaking out of sportswriting, but it would be unfortunate if the pure storytelling were lost with it.

You see exercises in introspection like this anytime the media are made to look like dupes and/or frauds. But after all the chin-pulling and “lessons learned” articles, the same thing that was true after all the previous cases is true again after the Manti Te’o case: nothing is going to change.

Stories that are “too good to check” will still be too good to check. Stories the confirm a reporter’s biases will be played up; stories that counter those biases will be papered over. Facts are things they come up with to back up what they already want to say. This has always been the case and will remain so as long as the news is reported by human beings rather than robots.

If someone tells you that this Te’o debacle is going to forever change journalism, unless they’re in the process of installing a Reporterbot 3000, don’t buy it.

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