January 18, 2013
Manti Te'o
Manti Te’o (Winslow Townson / The Associated Press)

The Deadspin story on Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o took apart the hoax of his dead girlfriend with unimpeachable reporting. In disproving the fact that she ever existed, it relied on public records, public records, and more public records. In documenting the Twitter relationship of the non-person with Te’o, it did some first-rate Internet sleuthing. And in smoking out the alleged mastermind of the hoax, it mixed great web reporting with human sourcing.

It was only when it came to Teo’s possible complicity in this scandal that Deadspin relaxed its standards. Here are the paragraphs in which the site addresses that question:

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. According to the friend, there were numerous photos of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo and Te’o together on Tuiasosopo’s now-deleted Instagram account.

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. Mostly, though, the friend simply couldn’t believe that Te’o would be stupid enough—or Ronaiah Tuiasosopo clever enough—to sustain the relationship for nearly a year.

An unnamed source with a fifth of doubt about the topic at hand isn’t the sturdiest underpinning for Te’o’s alleged complicity, a fact that isn’t news to Deadspin’s reporters and editors. Recent news suggesting that Te’o could really have been a hoax victim yields the possibility that Deadspin got a touch greedy on the complicity question, that it may have taken its world-changing scoop just a half step too far.

The Erik Wemple Blog put that question to Deadspin and received this response from Managing Editor Tom Scocca:

Here’s what we know: Sometime between the day Manti Te’o met his fake girlfriend on Twitter and the day our story ran, he lied about her.

Two of our sources–who had some experience with the hoaxer and the hoax before–believed it had begun as a prank, and that at some point Te’o decided to play along with it. One guess was that her cancer death had been his way of getting rid of her after finding out she was fake.

There were multiple details in the coverage of this tragic love story, written during the season, that were impossible to square with it having been an online-only relationship. Manti’s own father mentioned that the two had met in person.

One of our concerns in writing the story was making sure not to be the outlet that triumphantly accuses Stephen Glass of being victimized by the clever hoaxers at Jukt Micronics. We thought–and continue to think–the evidence supports some skepticism that Te’o was an unwitting dupe up until Dec. 6.

And so to cover that base, we included a section where our sources speculated about the possibility of his involvement. That was the context of the “80 percent” quote—which did, after all, contain its own grain of salt. Most people wouldn’t bet their lives on an 80 percent chance of something, so it seemed like a fairly transparent way to address the uncertainty, putting it in the source’s own words.

Now we’ve seen reports that Te’o’s teammates thought all along that he was, if not lying about his girlfriend, at the very least bullshitting in the Harry Frankfurt sense–that he was inflating the importance of their relationship, without regard for the underlying truth, because it made such a good story. Your piece on Thamel’s interview transcript noted how squirrelly Te’o got when he was asked about the

kind of specifics that most people would know about their soul mates.

Is it possible that the misstatements and falsehoods of a duped, heartbroken, and then panicked young man happened to coincide with a great Heisman PR narrative? Stranger things have happened. But we’re not buying it quite yet.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.