“Aren’t you splitting hairs a little bit here, Manti — didn't you actually say things that weren't true, and isn't that, in essence, lying?” Katie Couric asked during her much-anticipated sit-down with Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o Thursday afternoon.
Te’o’s the football star who suckerpunched Oprah Winfrey last week when word broke his dead girlfriend — the one he mourned as he helped Notre Dame to its wildly successful season and landed in the Heisman trophy derby — never existed.
In the week since sports Web site Deadspin broke the story that the love of Te’o’s life was an online hoax and that Te’o lied about having met her, the Internet has exploded with theories as to what Te'o knew when, and Oprah’s sitdown with Lance Armstrong became yesterday’s news, sinking that highly hyped interview’s ratings.
And, with Oprah having apparently lost her status as the first station of the cross on the road to redemption for troubled celebrities (one pollster says people came away from the interview liking Armstrong less) Katie Couric had a lot riding on Te’o.
There’s big ratings, and ensuing ad rates, in becoming The Go To Interviewer for celebrities looking to do damage control after getting involved in a breathtakingly image-killing Fill In the Blank.
The trick is to keep viewers happy with the tough questions they want to hear — but not so tough as to scare off the professional crisis managers who direct the movements of scandalized celebs. It’s a delicate dance, and Oprah’s been the belle of that ball for years.
But Thursday, it was Katie’s turn. Dressed in Diane Sawyer-like blonde-on-little-black-dress, she began to quiz the guy :
* “Did you somehow help concoct this hoax or are you, in fact, an innocent victim?”
* “Why did you lie to [your dad]?”
* “You’re a big man on campus. You're reportedly very well-liked…I imagine there are a lot of nice young women who go to school there — why wouldn't you want a real girlfriend who you could actually spend real time with in person?”
*"One of the theories is you created this whole scenario to cover up your sexual orientation. Are you gay?" (“No,” Te'o blubbered, adding "far from it!”)
When she got to the Sports Illustrated cover story — the one in which he told the reporter he met his non-existent love of his life at a football game — Couric put on her Not Kidding Around Voice and the chic no-nonsense eyeglasses she’d been holding in her hand for most of the interview.
“Can you see how people would view this as at worst, a complete lie, and at best, as incredibly misleading?”
Te'o rambled on about being embarrassed that he had been so committed to a person he never met. But Couric wasn't buying what he was selling. That’s when she delivered her “splitting hairs” gag.
Te'o said the lie he's most sorry for is the one he told his dad — that he had met Lennay in person.
“We'll talk to your dad about that later,” Couric responded, which is as close to "Just wait until your father gets home!" as we've ever heard in a TV interview.
But the glasses only lasted a few minutes, because it was time for Couric to put on her softer, disappointed-parent face and tell a few jokes.
“Are you that technologically challenged? I am, but someone your age shouldn’t be, right?” she asked when Te'o said he video chatted with his girlfriend while her computer’s camera was malfunctioning.
“I hope you have rollover minutes,” she joshed when Te’o said he would fall asleep with “Lennay” on the phone every night.
”Manti, that doesn't make sense to me,” she chided when he explained why he didn't go see Lennay in the hospital after a supposed car accident, even though he was in the same city.
”He's not a liar. He's a kid. He's a 21-year-old kid trying to be a man. And I love him. I really do,” Te’o’s father told Katie as things were wrapping up.
Instead of asking 21-year-old Te’o how he liked being described as a kid trying to be a man — Couric cut to commercial.