In the wake of Deadspin’s stunning report yesterday that the girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, Lennay Kekua, who supposedly died of cancer during the 2012 college football season, never existed, various media outlets and reporters came under fire for writing features on Te’o and including the story of his fake girlfriend without figuring out she didn’t exist. One of those reporters: SI’s Pete Thamel, who wrote this story in October. Today, Thamel posted the full transcript of his interview with Te’o that served as the basis for his story, and in so doing ensured that everyone will keep right on obsessing over the Te’o story for the foreseeable future.
Thamel called the level of detail Te’o provided him about Kekua “staggering” – and for someone who tuned out not to exist, it was. Take, for example, this passage in which Te’o recounts “her” time in the hospital following a “car accident”:
SI: How long was she hospitalized?
TE’O: She was in that hospital for about two months.
SI: Wow, did she get out?
TE’O: She didn’t get out. She went from there. Remember she got in the accident and she was in a coma. We lost her, actually, twice. She flatlined twice. They revived her twice. It was just a trippy situation. It was a day I was flying home from South Bend to go home for summer break. It was May. Mid-May. That was the day where they said, “Bro, we’re going to pull it. We’re going to pull the plug.” I remember having this feeling like everything is going to be OK. They were telling me, “Say your goodbyes.” From April 28 to around mid-May, I was always talking to my girlfriend who was on a machine.
We still, of course, don’t know whether everything Te’o said was the work of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the friend of Te’o who was, according to people Deadspin spoke to, the original architect of the Kekua hoax, or whether Te’o himself was in on embellishing the story. What we do know: whoever was in on it put a lot of effort into it – enough that it makes sense Thamel and others wold believe Kekua was a real person. More from Te’o, on “her” “leukemia diagnosis”:
TE’O: As she started to make progress. She had her good days. And then the next day she’d say, “Babe my back is sore. I can’t feel it. Something is wrong. I don’t know what’s wrong. My chest is burning.” And stuff like that. They said that they took her in and ran some blood tests and that’s when they found leukemia. From that hospital she was treated for cancer and then she went to St. Jude’s. She was in St. Jude’s and then she went to another hospital.
That’s not to say, however, that there were no reasons for skepticism, even if they’re only blindingly obvious in hindsight. Thamel says as much himself:
When I checked Lexis Nexis to find out more about Kekua, I couldn’t find anything, though that’s not uncommon for a college-aged student. Nor was there anything on her supposed twin brother, Koa. I was unable to track down any obituaries or funeral notices, but that might be explained by the fact that she had three recent places she called home, or by her family not wanting publicity.
We searched for details about the car crash. [Manti’s father] Brian Te’o told our fact checker and Manti told me that a drunk driver had hit her. We couldn’t find any articles about that accident and took the drunk driving reference out. It was just a car accident.
And there was this section of the Te’o interview:
SI: What did she study?
TE’O: She graduated in 2011 or 2010. 2011.
SI: What was her major?
TE’O: Her major was in English and something. I’ll double check.
SI: I can call Stanford and check. They have to have some record or note that she passed.
Stanford, of course, didn’t have any records of her, her being a made-up person and all. Thamel said he “thought maybe she didn’t graduate,” so he made no mention of Kekua being a Stanford graduate, and called this “the most glaring sign I missed.” And it does look glaring, that Thamel couldn’t seem to find a record anywhere of Kekua ever doing anything, and didn’t dig deep enough to find out that everything was a lie.
But it looks especially glaring now, knowing what we all know. It’s easy to look back and ask how a guy who, as a journalist, is supposed to be an eternal skeptic, missed all these signs. It’s a different beast when you’re sitting face to face with a college kid who’s telling you, in detail, about his dead girlfriend – and who, according to Thamel, is actually tearing up at times. Spock would have a tough time remaining emotionally detached at that sight.
None of this is to completely excuse Thamel, or Gene Wojciechowski, or anyone who failed to crack the Lennay Kekua mystery. Journalists everywhere are citing this story as an example of just how important is it to verify everything you’re told, and maybe if a story as crazy as this one comes along again anytime soon, reporters will be able to sniff out what no one did for so long in this case. It is to say, though, that another quality journalists are supposed to have besides skepticism is empathy, and that’s a quality that’s going to cut into one’s ability to think, “Hey, nice sob story about your dead girlfriend, but I think it’s all a bunch of BS.”
But BS it was all the same. Exactly whose BS it was we can’t be sure, but either Tuiasosopo, Te’o, or some combination thereof spun a hell of a yarn, and Thamel, despite having some clues at his disposal that something was amiss, failed to unwind it. But he wasn’t alone, and the guess here is that nearly anyone in the same situation would have come away thinking Te’o’s story was genuine. Thamel – an the editors who asked him to release the transcript – deserve some credit for spelling out exactly what happened, and in doing so giving reporters everywhere a guide on how not to get fooled next time.
Getty photo, by Jonathan Daniel