The Death of Credible Media in the Age of the Internet: Media Standards More Dead Than Non Existent Therefore Not Dead Girlfriend of Football Celebrity
By Nate Thayer
For months, major news outlet once known for being credible, reliable sources of information with rigorous internal standards ensuring accuracy and quality control, from the New York Times to CBS to Sports Illustrated, have all highlighted repeatedly a riveting, wrenching story of a rising American football hero and his inspirational reaction to the tragic death from leukemia of his longtime girlfriend.
The only problem, it was revealed yesterday, it is all a breathtaking lie and hoax, with TV, print, radio and Web media stories reporting for months on someone who never existed and splashing headlines about events that never happened.
Although it’s still not clear who created the heroic-sports-star-and-his-tragically-dead-girlfriend hoax, it is exactly clear that the media repeated the fraud, victimizing news consumers, since last September without engaging in even rudimentary inquiries challenging a narrative that, only a few years ago, would have waved so many red flags even Jimmy Olsen, Clark Kent’s hapless boy reporter in the Superman comic book series, would have been skeptical.
So a celebrity and sports star lied; no news there. That every major media outlet in the country fell for it, repeatedly and without exception, is a very big story, indeed.
Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s non-existent dead-from-leukemia girlfriend, whose tragic death he said inspired him to play harder and was the catalyst to his team winning the national college football championship, has some explaining to do.
But much more important than the fact the dead girlfriend of a celebrity sports star was never alive and, by extension, never his girlfriend, was that virtually every respectable trustworthy media outlet in the U.S. wrote repeatedly creating this fictional, evolving narrative for months.
Now scores of reporters, major media outlets, the multi-billion dollar football industry and the universities who profit from them, are going through what would be comical acrobatics trying to point the finger somewhere-anywhere-as long as it away from themselves, if the wholesale indictment of what used to be a reputable free press was not so deeply exposed as the real hoax that in the age of internet news, and is such a sadly false presumption.
Another example of the effect of the absence of journalistic standards that happened at the same time as the non death of the non girlfriend of the sports celebrity almost caused world war three. Details on that story, which falls smack comfortably into the same roots and causes of this football sports embarrassment to journalism but actually was serious as cancer, are further below in this story.
Here is an interactive map that shows the impact last September of the power of the the new news media to throw the world into convulsions within moments:
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View Muslim Protests by John Hudson in a larger map
The universities say it was a hoax perpetrated against him. Football star Te’o say he is the victim. The reporters who trumpeted the story say they are the aggrieved ones, and the major news organizations who published this transparent fiction, which never would have made the news under pre-internet quality control systems, are all silent.
While the girlfriend was clearly a hoax in this convoluted story, the bigger hoax was perpetrated on the news consumer; another example in what is now routine shoddy reporting that passes as news. Not long ago, any half bright half trained idiot would have seen the inconsistencies, and, if they didn’t, there would have been editors employed to scrutinize the sausage making process that used to ensure such a ruse never saw the light of print.
As a journalist, I get lied to every day for a living. A good chunk of my life has been spent waiting in hotel lobbies for someone to come downstairs and lie to me; trekking through Godforsaken jungles or warzones to talk to people who lie to me; paying for someone’s bar bill so they can get drunk on my dime ir order to lie to me; or, increasingly and mind numbingly annoyingly true these days, being forced to talk to some overpaid nitwit with far too large of a hair care budget, usually with the title of spokesman or press officer, whose very existence and job description is that of a professional liar charged with preventing me access to the truth regardless of what the issue at hand is.
The uninterrupted theme here is people lie to journalists and it is the journalists job to disassemble these collection of various degrees and shades of dishonesty and create a credible version with a minimum threshold of veracity of whatever newsworthy event is at issue, so that issues worthy of common knowledge of the masses is available in its as accurate and unvarnished truth as can be presented.
Our job is to make sure those lies are sifted through, balanced between other lies, tweaked, massaged, challenged, rejected, exposed, and then all pieced together like some Satanic inspired Rubik’s Cube, to form something as close to being accurate and true as possible.
Before the internet and the collapse of journalism as we knew it, there were internal standards and policies in place to ensure that process worked pretty well, if a news organization was committed to it. Those job positions, and the commitment to quality and accuracy of reporting they were responsible for, have virtually all been eliminated from every major news organization in the free world. Those not in the free world very job is to lie to us. That is why there is the North Korean state media and no one else allowed there to operate, as one example.
When journalism consists of believing and repeating people’s statements and contentions of versions of events without a strict internal process of fact checking, verification, qualification, confirmation, balanced opposing views and an inviolable internal system of rigid structures of quality control, it ceases to be a credible profession.
It becomes a hobby, political platform, bully pulpit, or venue to deceive or manipulate public opinion driven by an agenda different from providing quality accurate information in the form of news for consumption for the common good.
The dirty little secret is there is today, essentially, no such thing as journalism as we have known it, having been stealthily transformed by the unstoppable tsunami of the new digital information age and, left in the equally as profoundly positive as utterly negative of its equally as constructive as destructive path, the dead carcass of what was once quality, reliable journalism.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Quality journalism as an institution is officially dead.
But unfortunately there is no one now employed in a position to report this fact.
It was killed by the rise of the internet, and no one has come up with a viable business model to create what will its inevitable rebirth, because a reliable, trustworthy, honest, quality free press is a vital institution to free societies and free people. And it will rise again.
But the ugly truth is, today, don’t believe anything you read. Anywhere.
And the sad fact, and dirty little secret, is that applies to virtually every former bastion of the credible free press and such heralded names as the AP, Reuters, AFP, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, anything that Rupert Murdoch owns, the BBC, and so on and so forth and etc etc.
The quality of journalism has been mortally wounded by layoffs of tens of thousands of professionals in the last five years. Experienced reporters and editors have been thrown out of newsrooms across the world. Foreign budgets, stringer budgets, editor positions, and those responsible for ensuring accuracy and quality control have been summarily eliminated. Seasoned journalists and editors, whose job it was to act as gatekeepers to sound journalistic standards and ethics, were deemed expendable by the executives who only care about the bottom line.
Remember, quality journalism, by definition, has to be independent from governments and their restrictions and money. There can never be any government imposed restrictions on an unfettered free press to publish whatever garbage or heroic truth, regardless of how important or offensive, full stop.
This means it is a private enterprise run by businessmen whose objective is to make a profit. The honest truth is these media owners don’t care whether they are selling toothpaste or the unfettered truth of news of issues vital to the common good of free societies. If they can’t make a profit doing so, they will stop making that product.
And by and large, in the business of producing and selling quality news, they have.
The fictional story of the pathetic football celebrity presented as fact and truth is the result of all of the thousands of budget cuts that have eviscerated quality news reporting since the dawn of the internet.
This kind of sloppy reporting is not an anomaly; it is the new journalism and will only increase in the years to come. The consequences of that are bad for societies of course, and is increasingly viewed as it well should be, as bad for the news media industry.
Credibility used to be the backbone of the free press, which is, by its very nature, a for profit business. Now credibility is an expendable luxury, and thousands of laid off journalists remain unemployed, under threat of being so or have transitioned into other careers.
Here are some of the stories facts: Te’o first said he met this woman on the Stanford University Campus. Now he says it was a pure online only relationship. The photo Te’o used was stolen from a real girl’s FaceBook account. Te’o’s family stated several times they met the girlfriend in person in Hawaii. Te’o now says he never met her in person during what he has long publicly claimed was a three year relationship and he was in love with her, during which time she was in a car accident, but he never went to see her; She was diagnosed with leukemia, but he never went to see her; and she died, but h e never went to see her.
No one checked to see there was no record of an obituary, no one contacted her family of which they would have found didn’t exist, there was no public death notice, no records of her alleged graduation from Stanford University, and no one could produce a photograph of her because there are not pictures of people who, well, aren’t.
“In retrospect, you can see where some of those things weren’t adding up to make sense,” said the ESPN reporter who covered this story prominently for months. “It’s easy to say now, but at the time it never enters your mind that somebody was involved in that kind of hoax. We wanted to believe it so much.”
In October, Te’o told ESPN that Kekua was “the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met,” He added to the ESPN report that “Faith is believing in something that you most likely can’t see, but you believe to be true. You feel in your heart, and in your soul, that it’s true, but you still take that leap.”
The Associated Press reported on Sept. 22, 2012 that Kekua’s funeral was held in “Carson City, Calif.,” a city that does not exist, probably meaning Carson, California, but, according to the Los Angeles Times, Te’o skipped the funeral, saying Kekua insisted he not miss a scheduled football game.
In December, CBS news reported Te’o suffering “unimaginable anguish” from the deaths of his grandmother and nonexistent girlfriend. CBS refused to comment saying only “Like many other news outlets, we are now aware of the circumstances.”
Sports Illustrated wrote how Te’o would speak on the phone with Kekua as she lay dying in her hospital bed, perk up at the sound of his voice, but didn’t bother to inquire what hospital that was. The magazine even wrote that Te’o would fall asleep on the phone and wake up in the morning with Kekua still on the line.
Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated Oct. 1 issue, above the headline, “The Full Manti” in a story describing him as a devout Mormon who led his Catholic university, Notre Dame, to football victory after suffering personal tragedies of as Sports Illustrated wrote, the death of his grandmother and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, within six hours of each other in September,
22 years old Lennay Kekua was seriously injured in a car accident only to then be diagnosed with leukemia, wrote Sports Illustrated Pete Thamel, who said the football players comforting phone calls to her hospital room were crucial. “Her relatives told him that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice,” Thamel wrote.
Te’o appeared on ESPN’s and spoke of the letters Kekua had written him while dying and how he would send letters to parents of sick children imparting his comforting tale of personal grief. The South Bend Tribune wrote the couple met when she was a Stanford student and he a Notre Dame football star, after a football game at Stanford.
Notre Dame University released a statement yesterday, January 16, that their football coaches were informed by Te’o on Dec. 26 that he was duped had been the victim of his nonexistent girlfriend who “apparently ingratiated herself with Manti and then conspired with others to lead him to believe she had tragically died of leukemia,” adding “the proper authorities” are investigating a “very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.”.
The Sports Illustrated writer, Pete Thamel tweeted yesterday: “The big question here is whether Te’o was involved or not. Notre Dame is staking a loud claim that he got duped and had no involvement.”
No, Mr. reporter Thamel, the big question is why you wrote this ridiculous, easily verifiable fiction and published it without employing the rudimentary journalism 101 fact checking processes and duped your readers into believing the story to be true.
Even today, after all this was revealed, the football star is digging himself even deeper. “This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online,” he said. “We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.”
Indeed. But so what? Another very young celebrity on the verge of making millions does something really really stupid. But it is the reaction of the media and so called reputable institutions that are unacceptable and of far more disturbing consequence.
In the age of the internet, the truth is that the system of internal structures that assured basic credibility of news stories in reputable media outlets have been discarded under the pressure of competing for being first in the new era of instant news.
There use to be a reason why one read and gave credence to a story written by the Associated Press and was skeptical when it was published in the London Daily Mail. Now, the unpleasant truth is the rush to be first means there is a precious little sunlight to differentiate the two.
The absurd and even more sad story about the troubled football star and the rightfully embarrassed so called reporters that pass for what is now still called journalism could be a source of amusement if it didn’t represent the norm of media standards on stories of far more consequence to a peaceful world and the institutions that are vital to democracy and civil society.
On Sept. 11, 2012 a crude, 14-minute trailer of a hateful anti Muslim movie, “Innocence of Muslims,” was the most volatile internet event in 2012, sparking violent riots that left hundreds dead and spread like wildfire, engulfing two dozen countries after being broadcast in Egypt, culminating in the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, where four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed. The uproar over the video sparked furious protests from Somalia to Egypt to Sudan to Tunisia to Libya to Bangladesh to Indonesia to Pakistan.
There was a rush to find out who was behind the clearly intentionally incendiary movie, and the first to break the news was the Associated Press, which dominated headlines as the top world story as the entire middle east threatened to be engulfed in violence.
The Associated Press, the world’s biggest news organization first broke the story which defined the narrative of who was behind the obviously intentionally incendiary movie, naming him as Sam Bacile, an “Israeli-American real-estate developer” adding “Bacile, a California real estate developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew, said he believes the movie will help his native land by exposing Islam’s flaws to the world.”
The Wall Street Journal reported on September 12: “The movie, “Innocence of Muslims,” was directed and produced by an Israeli-American real-estate developer who characterized it as a political effort to call attention to the hypocrisies of Islam. It has been promoted by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor whose burning of Qurans previously sparked deadly riots around the world. … [The] film [is] about the Prophet Muhammad, portions of which in recent days have been circulating on the Internet. Contravening the Islamic prohibition of portraying the prophet, clips from the film show him not only as flesh and blood—but as a homosexual son of undetermined patrimony, who rises to advocate child slavery and extramarital sex, for himself, in the name of religion.”
Both the AP and the Wall Street Journal reported interviewing a Bacile, who claimed to be a California real estate developer who raised $5 million from Jewish donors to make his anti-Islam film. According to the Wall Street Journal “Mr. Bacile said he raised $5 million from about 100 Jewish donors, whom he declined to identify.” The AP reported on September 12, as riots and attacks spread throughout the middle east and beyond, and before the murders of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others were confirmed, that “An Israeli filmmaker based in California went into hiding Tuesday after his movie attacking Islam’s prophet Muhammad sparked angry assaults by ultra-conservative Muslims on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya, where one American was killed. Speaking by phone from an undisclosed location, writer and director Sam Bacile remained defiant, saying Islam is a cancer and that the 56-year-old intended his film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion.”
The AP story dominated the world headlines on a story that had now caused violence in dozens of countries. It continued “Bacile, a California real estate developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew, said he believes the movie will help his native land by exposing Islam’s flaws to the world. “Islam is a cancer, period,” he said repeatedly, his solemn voice thickly accented.”
As it turned out, within days it was shown that Bacile didn’t exist, the film makers were not Jewish, and there was no Israeli money involved. The real man was Egyptian with American citizenship and a Coptic Christian, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, who lived outside Los Angeles. The AP said the cell phone number it called for a telephone interview with Bacile in their original story matched Nakoula’s address.
By that time violent attacks had spread to dozens more countries, hundreds of thousands were prepared to murder millions of others, all based on misinformation and the absence to access to credible and accurate news.
So, instead of focusing on the prurient entertainment and shadenfreude of watching an inconsequential man with sporting talent implode in front of us, perhaps it might be useful to ponder the same causes that allowed that to occur could spark world war three. Then maybe we might make it a matter of national priority, on par with landing a man on the moon, to recreate a credible institution of a viable profitable business model for a free press, which is vital to a healthy and peaceful free society.