Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The one thing that didn't add up in Deadspin's coverage of Manti Te'o

When Manti Te'o was drafted last month by the San Diego Chargers, it marked a natural transition point in the catfishing saga.

Deadspin broke the story in January that Manti's dead girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never existed, and that a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo was behind the online persona.  Te'o quickly became one of the most disliked athletes in the country—not just because "Lennay Kekua" was a fraud, but because people now assumed Te'o had knowingly lied about her death to garner sympathy.

Deadspin never explicitly said Te'o perpetuated the hoax.  However, they presented several clues that Manti and Ronaiah were friends, and they repeated a rumor which implied the two men collaborated together.  As Vanity Fair's Ned Zeman explains:
Then came the money shot: “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.”
The sentiment was widely shared. That afternoon, ESPN’s on-air news ticker shrank the story to a headline: deadspin reports: 80 percent chance te’o involved in hoax. The ticker failed to mention that the claim was based on speculation by an unnamed source who proved to be wrong. Given that ESPN is to sports media what tass was to the Soviet Union, nightfall brought a riot of screaming media attacks on Te’o.
The general consensus now is that Te'o was very gullible, but that he never participated in the hoax. From the start, I suspected Te'o wasn't in on it.  I didn't know much about Te'o's reputation, but I noticed who Deadspin had assigned to the story:  Jack Dickey and Timothy Burke.  This told me the story would probably wind up being 50% true and 50% B.S.

Now, before going further, I should explain something:  I personally don't trust Timothy Burke, and the reason is because I've caught him lying in the past.  He was using sockpuppet accounts on the website Reddit to spam his own sports articles.  After he got banned for spamming, he went on Twitter and tried pinning the blame on an imaginary pedophile conspiracy.  I exposed him when he tried using yet another sockpuppet account.

When you catch someone pulling that type of stunt, it gives you a clear sense of their ethics.  This is the man whom the media trusted to explain the Manti Te'o hoax.  And it turned out that Te'o was actually a victim.  So the question I want to raise now is:  Did Timothy Burke have proof that Te'o was not complicit in the hoax?  In other words, did he allow the story to be published even though he knew the implications about Te'o were wrong?

Maybe Burke really was being objective in his reporting, and maybe my suspicions are completely unfounded.  But considering how much Deadspin has heckled Te'o these past four months, I think it's worth a second look.

I'll start with Deadspin's justification for using what Ned Zeman called the "money shot."  During an interview with the National Sports Journalism Center, Deadspin's editor-in-chief Tommy Craggs was asked about the wisdom of including the "80%" quote--which by then had been attributed to a man named J.R. Vaosa.  Craggs responded with typical disdain:  "This is a concern troll's complaint.  It's moronic.  That's a quote from a source who knew both the hoax and hoaxer better than anyone we'd spoken with."

That really was an interesting rebuttal.  J.R. Vaosa knew Ronaiah for a one-month period in 2008, when Vaosa's cousin was being catfished.  According to Vaosa's twitter feed, he caught on to Ronaiah and cut off all ties with him.  In other words, Tommy Craggs is saying the person who knew the "hoax and hoaxer" better than anyone else was also someone who apparently hadn't spoken to Ronaiah in over four years.

However, there was a woman who had spoken with Ronaiah much more recently and who'd heard Ronaiah's confession, and whom Deadspin relied on as a primary source:  Diane O'Meara.

Diane is the woman whose photos were stolen by Ronaiah in order to impersonate Lennay Kekua. Diane was referred to as "Reba" in Deadspin's article, and they located her thanks to reverse-image searches. She and Ronaiah briefly attended the same high school together, where they didn't really interact, although they were friends on Facebook.  In interviews conducted by ProPublica and ThePostGame.com, it's explained how Timothy Burke handled most of the key phone calls during Deadspin's investigation, including the calls made to Diane O'Meara.

Timothy Burke first spoke with Diane on Monday, January 14th.  Diane confirmed it was her in the photos of Lennay, and she was shocked to learn about the hoax. She also revealed that Ronaiah had sent her a Facebook message one month earlier. (This part was included in Deadspin's story.) Ronaiah had requested that she take a photo while holding up a sign saying "MSMK," in order to help cheer up a cousin who'd been hospitalized following a car accident.  Diane had complied, even though she thought the request was strange.

Deadspin never tried to explain what Ronaiah's reason was for contacting Diane out of the blue.  What we know now is that Ronaiah had tried "resurrecting" Lennay in early December to continue the relationship with Manti.  And Manti, being skeptical, asked for a proof-of-life photo with Lennay's full initials and the date.  That's why Ronaiah broke from the script and contacted Diane:  He needed her to pose in that photo.

The original "MSMK" photo, including the date.

(Of course, Deadspin couldn't have known all those behind-the-scenes details.  They never spoke directly with Manti or with Ronaiah, nor with anyone who personally knew Manti.  So I'll go back to what Deadspin would have known...)

After getting the news, Diane called up Ronaiah to confront him about the photos. Ronaiah acted strangely, told her not to worry, and he hung up.  Diane then immediately called back Timothy Burke to describe how Ronaiah had responded.  The Deadspin article reflects on that moment:

"Then, in a series of lengthy phone calls, Reba told us everything she knew about the classmate, a star high school quarterback turned religious musician named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo."

More succinctly:  "Then, in a series of lengthy phone calls, [Diane] told us everything she knew about....Ronaiah Tuiasosopo."

The article then gives a biographical sketch of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, but there's no indication any of the background info comes from Diane.  It's all of a general nature that could have been discovered by looking at news archives and social media websites.  (According to the interview with ThePostGame, Jack Dickey handled most of that research.)  So the reader never learns specifically what Diane said during those lengthy phone calls.

In the weeks to follow, Diane appeared on several TV shows--including Access Hollywood, Today, and Anderson Live--and gave interviews to the AP and the L.A. Times.  In these interviews, she revealed lots of new details about the hoax, including the the fact Ronaiah had continued contacting her during the first week of January, and she described three requests which Ronaiah had made:

1.)  A photo of Diane holding up a sign saying "MSMK" and "December 21st, 2012."
2.)  A video of Diane saying, "Good luck on the 7th."
3.)  A photo of Diane saying, "Good luck number 5."

The BCS championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame took place on January 7th, and Manti Te'o wore number 5 on his uniform.  It's hard to picture any scenario in which those messages weren't intended specifically for Te'o.  For any competent reporter, this should have raised huge red flags about whether Te'o was actually participating in the hoax.  It's clear that, even into early January, Ronaiah was still trying to mess with Manti's head.  And yet, Deadspin never mentioned these additional requests.  They didn't show the original, dated "MSMK" photo.  And they haven't mentioned "Diane O'Meara" or "Reba" a single time since the original story ran, despite the fact she kept appearing on TV.

Furthermore, Ronaiah called Diane on the evening of Monday, January 14th, and during a 45-minute phone conversation he confessed his role in the hoax.  Previously, Diane had called Deadspin immediately after talking to Ronaiah, so it would make sense that soon after hearing the confession, Diane would again call Deadspin and relay the information.  Diane would've had a window of approximately 40 hours to share this info with Deadspin before the article was published.

When Ronaiah confessed to a church friend back in December, he made it very clear that Manti was innocent and that he played no role in the hoax.  Did Ronaiah tell the same thing to Diane when he was confessing to her?

If so, then did Diane relay that information to Deadspin?  Based on Diane's interviews, it's clear that she personally would have been skeptical of anything Ronaiah told her on the evening of the 14th. However, what would matter is simply whether she relayed what Ronaiah said back to Deadspin.  It would then be Deadspin's obligation to repeat what their sources told them.

Burke has insisted several times--when asked about Deadspin's responsibility to make sure their story was accurate--that he was simply repeating whatever his sources told him.  But if Diane had strong circumstantial evidence as well as testimony which implied Te'o was an innocent victim, and if she told Burke everything she knew about Ronaiah, then why didn't that appear in Deadspin's reporting?

There is one caveat here that I'm well aware of:  When Deadspin says Diane shared "everything she knew" about Ronaiah, it shouldn't be taken 100% literally.  My assumption is that Diane shared the same story with Deadspin which she later shared with the AP and the L.A. Times.  And the fact Ronaiah kept hounding her with requests during January was a pretty big part of that story.  (Big enough so that the L.A. Times used it in their headline.)

Maybe that's where I'm mistaken.  If prompted, Diane could simply say, "No, I really only spoke with Timothy Burke for about 30 minutes, and we didn't discuss that part."  This could easily prove to be a waste of time.  Nonetheless, I'm surprised that no one else has tried filling in the blanks in Deadspin's investigation.