As Deadspin was celebrating its victory in reporting the Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax, the blog's contributors began to tell the story of how the mainstream media dropped the ball.
"This is as damning for certain media folks as it is for Te'o," Deadspin writer Barry Petchesky said on Twitter.
"It's remarkable to watch so many media outlets that think so little of online journalism clean up the crumbs Deadspin left behind," added a tweet from contributing editor Brian Hickey.
The site compiled a package titled "Here’s Everything The Media Screwed Up In Reporting The Story Of Manti Te’o’s Fake Dead Girlfriend" and featured the article at the top of its homepage.
Meanwhile, Manti Te'o's reputation was falling to pieces. The star linebacker for Notre Dame was revealed to have a fictitious girlfriend, and what's worse, it was asserted—beginning with Deadspin's scoop—that he created the hoax in order to gain publicity.
Today, almost two weeks from Deadspin's initial story, we have a lot more information. It now appears that Te'o had little to do with perpetuating the hoax, and the falsehoods he permitted were not for the sake of raising his profile, but rather, and far more sympathetically, out of a desire to lower it: he'd met his "girlfriend" over the Internet, and he found the detail embarrassing.
Nevertheless, the notion that Te'o had something to do with creating the hoax has proven resilient. "I still believe he was in on the whole thing," read one of the most popular comments on NBC's Pro Football Talk website five days ago, four days after another man had confessed to the hoax and several people had described how he'd pulled it on others. 308 people agreed with the comment and 67 disagreed.
Why would so many people believe a discredited theory? It has to do with the stickiness of false information and, according to some legal scholars, a borderline case of libel. Deadspin's article, it turns out, didn't require people to update their notions of online journalism after all. Cobbled together and torqued for maximum impact, the piece confirmed the basest assumptions everyone had all along.
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"A friend of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo told us he was '80 percent sure' that Manti Te'o was 'in on it,' and that the two perpetrated Lennay Kekua's death with publicity in mind." So read a passage near the conclusion of Deadspin's breaking story about Manti Te'o, bringing a bizarre tale into the realm of conspiracy theory and willful intrigue. "The sheer quantity of falsehoods about Manti's relationship with Lennay makes that friend, and another relative of Ronaiah's, believe Te'o had to know the truth."
The passage set the tone for Deadspin's report, and the story's authors spent the next several days intimating that Te'o's hands were dirty.
"Not buying anything ND says about their 'investigation,'" the story's co-author Timothy Burke tweeted after Notre Dame held a press conference revealing that they'd already investigated the hoax and found no credibility to the theory that Te'o created it. Burke added to Matt Lauer of Today that it required "a great deal of faith" to believe Te'o wasn't in on the scam.
"If you need @YahooForde, he'll be out looking for Nicole Brown's real killers," Deadspin writer Drew Magary tweeted in response to an article by Yahoo!'s Pat Forde that urged people to wait for more details before making their judgments.
The rest of the media world, freshly burned by the false narrative of Te'o's triumph over adversity, picked up on Deadspin's skepticism.
"The whole Te'o thing is going down just like the Weiner scandal," tweeted BuzzFeed political reporter Andrew Kaczynski in a representative example. "Deny in a presser. Hire a 'firm' to investigate. Deny in sit down interview."
When ESPN insinuated that it also had been in the process of reporting the Te'o story, but had held back from publishing in order to wait for the player's side of things, Deadspin managing editor Tom Scocca reacted with vitriol.
"Seriously, John Walsh: you got housed by Jack Dickey," he tweeted, referring, respectively, to ESPN's executive vice president and the co-author of Deadspin's story. "Maybe next time you go to a j-school class, sit down and ask the kids a question."
The kids, however, were in trouble. No evidence emerged connecting Te'o to the hoax, and no one developed an explanation for why a projected first-round NFL draft pick would need to concoct a risky and elaborate scheme in order to gain publicity. All the while, small pieces of evidence—phone records, Facebook messages, reported confessions—began surfacing to corroborate Te'o's defense.
Deadspin's claim of Te'o's culpability slowly but surely turned out to be false. And the narrative of the fearless new school of online journalism beating the soulless machine of the establishment was severely complicated.
"Let's assume he played no role in the hoax: it probably would be defamatory," says David Ardia, co-Director of the Center for Law and Media Policy at the University of North Carolina and a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "To say that someone lied to the public in order to gain some measure of success through their public persona—that kind of a statement could support a defamation claim."
"The statement would certainly be the kind of statement that would hurt a person's reputation, but whether there would be any liability is a close call," says John Goldberg, Eli Goldston Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.
Both professors stressed that several barriers complicated whether such a case would succeed in practice: each emphasized that recklessness—which would need to be proven in order to find Deadspin at fault—would require evidence that the sports blog willfully ignored overwhelming signs that their claim was false and that, even so, modern courts rarely rule in favor of public figures in defamation suits. Ardia added that Te'o's fibs about the nature of his girlfriend could also lead a judge to rule that the quotation was "substantially true" for the purposes of the law.
Beyond the immediate details, however, Deadspin's article reflects an even more interesting question. According to Goldberg, the case is an example of the complicated bargains made by American law regarding free speech and reputation.
Before 1964, when the Supreme Court issued its landmark New York Times v. Sullivan decision, the Deadspin case "easily could have been one in which there was liability" according to Goldberg.
"Prior to 1964, the world looked very different, and there was much more potential for defamation liability," Goldberg explains. "The Supreme Court, quite self-consciously and for a variety of reasons, decided that First Amendment concerns had to win out over concerns about protecting reputation."
The Sullivan decision became a key element of the press's ability to cover civil rights, and it has been a cornerstone of free speech jurisprudence ever since. In this way, Goldberg explains, the ruling was a crucial development. But in more aggressively protecting speech, he adds, there are places in which the court has gone too far.
"I think there's very little defamation liability today for public figures, so pretty much anything you want to say about someone who's a public figure you can say, and I think that may not be the healthiest environment," he argues. "Because basically there's no incentive not to lie and stretch the truth pretty dramatically, given the low-risk of liability. So I just worry that it breeds a certain kind of irresponsibility."
It explains how the reporting team that Fox Sports Radio host Pat O'Brien called "the new Woodward and Bernstein" originated the false idea that Manti Te'o created his girlfriend.
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But how did the idea keep going? This latter question has to do with the stickiness of information, and the long-term role of original sources in the development of certain stories' narratives.
"The obvious example of this would be the MMR scare in the U.K.," says David Giles, a Reader in Media Psychology at the University of Winchester who has done research into the psychology of news influence.
In 1998, research surfaced in a British medical journal connecting the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine to childhood development of autism. The story was widely reported, and many parents declined to have their children treated with the vaccine.
But "within a few years," Giles explains, "several international studies were carried out that failed to find any connection between autism and the MMR vaccination." The scare, however, did not go away. Parents continued to refuse the vaccine for their children, and the resulting decrease in immunization gave rise to worries of an epidemic.
"Despite the contradictory evidence, and despite the U-turn by the press, even today there is still concern about MMR," says Giles. "Particularly among first-time parents who often can’t even remember why MMR was said to be controversial."
The MMR scare demonstrated how inaccurate material in the original report of a developing story can prove to be sticky, shaping that story's arc long after the claim has been disproved.
The saga of Manti Te'o is obviously a lesser affair, but it follows a similar principle. Once initial reports emerged connecting Te'o to the hoax, they were rebroadcast by additional news sources and found their way into commentary pieces. Other journalists who reported or built an opinion on the claim suddenly had a stake in maintaining its possibility, and even when the claim turned out to be false, it continued to color pundits' arguments.
"Which Look Is Worse for Te’o: Naivete or Involvement?" read one headline on Pro Football Talk, setting up a false equivalence between falling for a prank and mounting a world-class deception. The article, which discussed a segment on ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown, repeated a common refrain in the days following the revelation of the Te'o story: "Even if he didn't do it, he's so dumb that it's almost as bad as if he did do it."
Such a ridiculous thesis was only possible after many journalists had staked out an extreme position and needed a softer stance to fall back on, and the trick was so pervasive that barely anybody noticed the difference. No one stopped to think, Gee, if the original story was that a naive 22-year-old was cruelly deceived by an online relationship, would we really be so hard on this guy?
Instead, former NFL players like Tom Jackson and Cris Carter, whose conversation anchored the aforementioned Pro Football Talk piece, wondered whether Manti Te'o was too stupid to play in the NFL. This, in a league that's witnessed the extraordinary genius of Vince Young and the ongoing quest of Kenny Britt to expel himself from competition.
Cass Sunstein, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, has posited two processes that help promote this kind of spread of false information: social cascades and group polarization. Cascades can be understood by an example Sunstein gave in a 2001 article for the Boston Review:
"If Joan is unaware whether abandoned toxic waste dumps are in fact hazardous, she may be moved in the direction of fear if Mary seems to think that fear is justified. If Joan and Mary both believe that fear is justified, Carl may end up thinking so too, at least if he lacks reliable independent information to the contrary."
Group polarization explains that people not only "selectively assimilate" information according to their views but become more extreme in their original position over time. In fact, as he explains in a 2008 working paper, "correction of false perceptions can actually increase people’s commitments to those perceptions."
His description in the paper, which is titled "'She Said What?' 'He Did That?': Believing False Rumors," holds special relevance in light of the Te'o scandal:
"Suppose that there is a widespread social misperception about some person X, that Group A accepts the misperception, but that Group B is skeptical of it. Now suppose that the misperception is corrected by some salient source of news. Members of Group B will take the correction as such and view the world more accurately. Members of Group A, by contrast, may not be moved at all. Indeed, they might become even more convinced that their original position was right."
Sunstein's theory is supported in the paper by a study of people who were presented with an article about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and then presented countervailing evidence that such weapons never existed. The study found that people already inclined to distrust the report of WMD did so more strongly after the experiment, but that people predisposed to believe the report felt more strongly about their prior inclinations, too.
Hence the Pro Football Talk comment indicating the widespread belief that Te'o was in on the hoax: once Deadspin reported the accusation, the world would believe what they wanted and subsequent information would only make them surer.
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Deadspin's article, it was eventually reported, was the most visited story in its history. [Ed's Note: Although Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio tweeted that it was also the "biggest Gawker Media story of all time," a claim this article earlier repeated, this is apparently untrue.] It was not, however, the coup for new media that it purported to be. The article was sparked by an unsolicited tip in Deadspin's email inbox—earned, in all likelihood, thanks at least in part to the blog's reputation for publishing the scandalous (such as the photos of Brett Favre's penis that previously held the website's highest honor)—and the grand efforts of "the new Woodward and Bernstein" involved making a handful of phone calls to fill in the details of the story.
After Deadspin published its article, Poynter.org ran an interview with the site's editor-in-chief, Tommy Craggs. The interviewer asked Craggs what he thought of the description, that day in the Boston Globe, of his blog as "a website that has broken some high-profile stories but not an outlet regarded for journalistic standards."
“Whatever," Craggs replied. "Why should I care what a craven, slipshod outfit like the Boston Globe thinks of my 'journalistic standards'?"
It served as a rallying cry for the Deadspin faithful, with retweets and huzzahs echoing for the next several hours.
"Aw, Boston Globe calls Deadspin 'not an outlet regarded for journalistic standards' and then rides in its Te'o wake," tweeted contributing editor Brian Hickey.
In the minds of Deadspin's principals, the case was closed and victory had been logged for the challengers.
"Current coverage of the story ignores the lessons we should have learned from it," tweeted article co-author Timothy Burke, atop his perch, lecturing to the class.
Lessons, it might be said, that he could afford to learn as well, as Deadspin's turn in the sun becomes twilight.
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