Embarrassment for media as well as Manti Te'o

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o looks on during

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o looks on during the second half of Notre Dame's 21-6 win over Boston College. (Nov. 10, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Neil Best

Newsday columnist Neil Best Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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The big winners in the Manti Te'o affair -- other than sports talk radio hosts -- are journalism professors, who had an easy lesson plan dropped into their laps.

But in truth, there is nothing new to be learned from the sordid episode that is not already addressed by one of the oldest sayings in the business: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

To extrapolate from that a bit, if the star linebacker at the storied football program tells you he was inspired by a girlfriend who died in 21st century America leaving behind no verifiable record of her existence -- CHECK IT OUT!

As an observer of the passing scene, I have found the still-unfolding Te'o train wreck as entertaining as the next guy. But as a veteran sports journalist, this is disturbing, depressing and dispiriting.

The failure of any traditional media outlet to sniff this out until Deadspin.com did so a week after Alabama turned Notre Dame into catfish stew is nothing short of a collective embarrassment.

It invited the public to forget the vast evidence that sports journalists are as committed and professional as any others and instead revived an old stereotype of myth-building lap dogs more interested in press box catering than fact-checking and healthy cynicism.

At least some -- but not enough -- journalists took on Lance Armstrong's tall tales. Te'o escaped scrutiny despite many holes that should have invited red challenge flags, including several different reported dates of death.

Reading Deadspin's story made it even worse for the rest of us. A site with a history of snarkiness and salaciousness played it straight, taking Journalism 101 steps such as asking Stanford if anyone by the name of the allegedly dead Lennay Kekua happened to attend the school.

No?! Oh . . .

Although anyone who reported anything about Kekua bears a sliver of the responsibility, it must be said that given their resources and influence, Sports Illustrated and ESPN bear more than most.

SI's Pete Thamel and ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski, both respected, experienced reporters, have been open in discussing their stories about Te'o from this past autumn. But their explanations of how they and their editors/producers didn't expose the deception fall short.

Thamel said on Dan Patrick's radio show that during four days on campus he came to believe the Kekua story after discussing it with numerous people, then finally with Te'o.

But why was there no record of Kekua? Thamel said he looked for an obituary or death notice and did a LexisNexis search but came up empty. He said it is not unusual for college-age adults to lack a "footprint" of public documents.

Thamel wrote on SI.com that he checked with Stanford about Kekua and was told she was not in the alumni directory, nor could the official he spoke to recall her. He removed Stanford from his story. "This was the most glaring sign I missed,'' he wrote.

His reaction when he read the Deadspin story?

"It's just sort of that punch in the gut," Thamel said, "where it's like, 'oh, boy. Oh, boy.' "

Wojciechowski said on SportsCenter that after interviewing Te'o, he looked for an obituary or news of a memorial service. Nope.

"I found that odd at the time," he said.

He also asked Te'o "repeatedly" for pictures or to speak to Kekua's family. No dice.

"Somewhere in the back of my mind," he said, "I simply thought Lennay's family, such as it was, wanted to keep this intensely private and we had to respect Te'o and the family's wishes in that respect."

Te'o acknowledged in his statement Wednesday that the story was "incredibly embarrassing" to discuss. He's not the only one who feels that way.

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