Among the many news outlets fooled by the hoax involving Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend was the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, the newspaper that covers Te’o’s football team, Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, like a cornerback draped all over a wide receiver.
The Tribune didn’t just mention Lennay Kekua, Te’o’s fictitious girlfriend, in passing in its many stories about the team’s near-championship season. The paper was virtually a player in the saga, drawing many column inches and much pathos from the tale of a heartbroken football star who played through the anguish of losing his soul mate and sweetheart.
Despite being duped, Tribune sports editor Bill Bilinski expressed no regret. “I can’t fault anything we did. If we had known anything different, if there had been a hint or a tip, we would have reported it differently. But there wasn’t.”
The Tribune was the first to report the “news” of Kekua’s death on Sept. 13, in a story that may have established the outlines for subsequent media accounts. “Long before Lennay Kekua’s valiant run at beating leukemia took a sudden and tragic twist Wednesday, she posted her creed in the bio section of her Twitter account: ‘Don’t be afraid to do right; love faithfully, give cheerfully & forgive freely,’ ” began reporter Eric Hansen’s first piece about Kekua.
There were follow-ups, too. Hansen, the paper’s football beat writer, had known Te’o’s family since he was a freshman three years earlier and used his connection to flesh out the tragic-yet-inspirational details. In a lengthy feature story in October, he described Te’o and Kekua’s first meeting this way:
“It never felt like a chance meeting, although it probably appeared that way from the outside looking in. Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes.”
The description suggests the impossible: that Te’o met his nonexistent girlfriend in the flesh.
The source of that detail, according to Tribune editors, was Te’o’s father, Brian, whom Hansen also interviewed for his Oct. 12 story. The reporter quotes Brian Te’o in the article as saying, “Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there. . . . And we came to the realization that she could be our daughter-in-law. Sadly, it won’t happen now.”
Which suggests another of the many unanswered questions about this bizarre story: Did Te’o’s parents ever ask their son about their would-be daughter-in-law — a young woman he supposedly knew for three years before she purportedly died of leukemia?
Until the sports Web site Deadspin.com broke the story this week, Tribune editor Tim Harmon said his paper had no idea that the Te’o-Kekua relationship was bogus. “It just seemed to be a fact,” he said Friday. “Everyone here in South Bend believed it. The university, the media, the players, the fans — it was all part of a big season” for Notre Dame’s team.
Bilinski said there are limits to how much fact-checking any media outlet, particularly a relatively small newspaper such as the Tribune (circulation: 65,000) can do. “If a college kid says he worked at Wendy’s at age 16, are you going to call up the manager at the Wendy’s to find out the dates he worked there?” he asked.
While a story about the death of young woman romantically linked to a Heisman Trophy candidate might be a bit more consequential than an anecdote about working at a fast-food restaurant, one of the Tribune’s sports journalists did, in fact, look deeper into a dramatic story involving a Notre Dame player.
In early November, sports columnist Al Lesar wrote about reserve running back Cam McDaniel, who sought permission from his coaches to change his uniform number to that of a high-school teammate who had died in a swimming accident.
Lesar didn’t take McDaniel’s word for it. He researched the circumstances of the former teammate’s death in Texas and other facts about the teenager. The story checked out.
“I didn’t do it to check that it actually happened,” Lesar said. “I did it to know more. It was an impulse, and I just wanted more details. It was easy to look up.”
The same might be said of Kekua. “We don’t want to be defensive about this,” Harmon said. “Certainly, in hindsight, we could have checked. Anyone could have checked. But nobody did. I think we’ll all be a lot more skeptical next time.”