Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Media | Sports

February 12, 2013

The Human-Interest Story to End Human-Interest Stories

Jack Dickey, who helped break the Manti T'eo girlfriend hoax story for Deadspin, hopes the keen interest in the strange tale helps sink sports sob stories.

Adam Rosen

It takes a special kind of sports story to make Inside Edition. Though professional and collegiate sports aren't exactly trouble-free, they're generally plagued by ho-hum controversies: domestic disputes, match fixing, abuse of deer antler spray. A murder-suicide may be just lurid enough to catch a producer's eye, but in general the long-running TV tabloid seems devoted to more exotic tragedy. (A recent feature, "Real-Life Barbie And Ken Happy To Emmulate [sic] Famous Dolls," is instructive.)

Jack Dickey
"Anyone would stumble trying to make anything more than the flimsiest link between linebacking success and personal tragedy."

Jack Dickey

On January 17, however, "America's Newsmagazine" decided to cover the bizarre story of Manti Te'o, the (formerly) beatified Notre Dame linebacker who led the Irish to a perfect season, nearly won the 2012 Heisman award, and stole the country's heart in the process. (If you're reading this site—and especially, this article—you are most likely familiar with the Te'o "girlfriend" saga; if you're not, click here before going any further.) To get to the bottom of the story, Inside Edition invited Jack Dickey—who along with fellow Deadspin reporter Timothy Burke revealed that Teo's girlfriend never existed—to sit down in the studio.

Dickey's interview on Inside Edition was relaxed, and not all that different from the 30 or so interviews (including TV, radio, print, and online) he says he's done since the story broke on January 16. Since most of the shocking details of the ruse were revealed in his initial Deadspin post, Dickey's public conversations have largely focused on the nuts and bolts of uncovering the fable and theorizing about whether or not the "hoax" was a hoax at all. For all of their intrigue, however, the particulars of Manti Te'o's personal life are a distraction. The real scandal, Dickey suggests, is that there was a scandal at all. Had the press not failed in its most basic responsibility, the linebacker's too-amazing-to-be-true tale couldn't have wormed its way so far into the national conversation.

To find out how it did just that, Gelf caught up with Dickey, who, in addition to his hard work at Deadspin, is a 22-year-old English major at Columbia. In the following interview, which was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity, Dickey comments on media "tunnel vision," Dr. Phil, and why treacly human-interest stories in sports should be put down.

Gelf Magazine: Why does this story matter?

Jack Dickey: There's the first part of it, which is fairly simple: Manti Te'o lied about his girlfriend and created a scrum of sympathetic media in the process. The first thing our story did was correct the (widely disseminated) record. It also relayed a few compelling human dramas: What was it like for Diane O'Meara to realize she had been the face of a dead woman? What was Ronaiah Tuiasosopo's life like? Even better than that, it undermined the piety that eternally surrounds the Fighting Irish. It's always gratifying to do that. Anybody who thinks football is more than just football deserves to be reminded, repeatedly and embarrassingly, that football is just football.
But then there was another part of it. Why did the press run with this story in the first place? It's because they wanted a tidy, simplistic human-interest story, one to score with violins: Religious N.D. Linebacker Raises Play, and Team, After His Girlfriend's Tragic Death. That story doesn't probe the human side—if reporters had probed the human side, and tried to learn more about Lennay Kekua, they would have found that she didn't exist. And it doesn't really say much about Te'o's play, either: Anyone would stumble trying to make anything more than the flimsiest link between linebacking success and personal tragedy. It's bad sports reporting, and it's bad human storytelling. Te'o's deception—and our story about it—put that sort of work on trial. I'm stealing a line from [Deadspin editor Tommy] Craggs here, but Manti's become one of America's best media critics.

Gelf Magazine: To what extent have you, or Deadspin, "become the story"?

Jack Dickey: I don't know. There's been a lot of attention paid to me and Burke, and to the site, almost all of it positive. (This wasn't the case with Brett Favre's penis, where our reporting methods and the penis photos themselves overshadowed the important story of a powerful man sexually harassing a female subordinate.) People who weren't fans of ours before, or weren't familiar with us, are now seeing the merit in our outsider approach. That's been pleasant. And, really, it makes sense that people would focus on us, given how much the Te'o story—both the story itself, and our breaking it—is really an indictment of access-based sports media's approach.

Gelf Magazine: Implied in the media's praise of Deadspin's scoop—and shock at their own miss—is, I think, the belief that it seemed so unlikely. Do you think their, uh, oversight will have any effect on the way ESPN or Sports Illustrated reports future stories?

Jack Dickey: One hopes that the lightweight, sappy stuff will vanish from pages and airwaves and websites. That's not to say that there's no place for human-interest coverage, only that there's no place for human-interest coverage done so poorly that the reporter fails to recognize when a principal in the story doesn't exist.
One hopes, too, that a decreased focus on personal, off-field events might lead to an increased focus on what actually happens on the field. It's not that everyone has to be Chris Brown or anything, but who couldn't use more discussion of football strategy?

Gelf Magazine: I'm not much into sports, admittedly; the first I'd even heard of Te'o, much less his "girlfriend," was right after your story broke. (I think I saw a link on CNN.) Why is this considered more newsworthy than other jams athletes get themselves into, such as, say, a DUI or a strip-club shooting?

Jack Dickey: Hmmm. "Newsworthy's" kind of thorny, isn't it? It's a more interesting human story. That's why it captivated Katie Couric and Dr. Phil and Access Hollywood and Inside Edition. And it's rarer than a DUI or strip-club fracas. Is it more important? I dunno. From a sports-media standpoint, it is, but that's probably not what you're talking about.

Gelf Magazine: In retrospect, many of the details of the hoax that were known seem suspiciously overdramatic: Lennay was in a near-fatal car crash and had leukemia? Why did it take so long for it to be exposed?

Jack Dickey: It's pretty mystifying. I suppose it's that the few reporters who had both access to Te'o and interest in the story found themselves afflicted with tunnel vision. Look at Sports Illustrated's follow-up, even though their first report had raised a bunch of fact-checking red flags. Here were new family members and more details. They had the journalist's skepticism they're trained to have, but instead of acting on it, they just powered through it. That's what's hard to believe.
We came to the story from an opposite perspective—we had been tipped off that the girlfriend didn't exist. It wasn't super-challenging to expose the hoax from there.

Gelf Magazine: The revelation that the voice of Lennay had a chin beard felt preposterous, but not implausible given the tale's succession of wildly dramatic turns. How surprised were you that "she" was a man?

Jack Dickey: Very. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo remains a cipher, despite the Dr. Phil sit-down. This guy was supposed to be talented enough to become a college quarterback! And here he is instead, an underemployed religious musician who uses a phony identity to romance a college-football star. The voice—and his appearance on Dr. Phil, which was damn near 100 pounds heavier than we had seen him before—just capped the craziness.

Gelf Magazine: What does this story tell us about the American sports fan?

Jack Dickey: I'm not sure it says as much about the American sports fan as it does about what the companies who produce sports content think of the American sports fan. They think he or she likes this stuff. But does he or she really? I'm not sure.

Gelf Magazine: Has anyone made a joke yet about Te'o winning the Butkus Award?

Jack Dickey: Not that I've seen. Congratulations.

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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