The long con

Thoughts on the nonsense of the moment.

Update: Journamalism from Pete Thamel, author of the now-infamous Sports Illustrated cover story. Short version: Te’o gave Thamel an enormous amount of information about his imaginary girlfriend and her family, none of which he was able to verify. So I guess the moral of the story is that fact-checking at SI only requires checking into purported facts, as opposed to actually verifying any of them, at least if the story is good enough.

50 comments on this post.
  1. rea:

    It’s quite possible for the same guy to be both an inspirational cancer survivor and a PED cheater.

    And, of course, making a big deal of Armsstrong’s PED use is a bit . . .odd, when they can’t find anyone to whom they can award his titles who was not using PEDs. Maybe this is all necesary to clean up a corrupt sport, I guess, but I’d feel better about the result if they had stepped in and cleaned up the sport a couple of decades ago, leaving a level playing field for a clean Armstrong.

  2. The prophet Nostradumbass:

    People are making a big deal out of it because for years Armstrong was a sanctimonious bully who pointed his finger at everyone else, copped a “how DARE you” attitude toward people who wondered about him, and intimidated people into shutting up, going as far as threatening legal action against people. He used his cancer survival as a shield against these accusations which are, whaddaya know, true.

  3. mark f:

    There are also stories about how he used his charity as a slush fund, or at least misrepresented whether he or the foundation would be paid for his participation in fundraising events, and behaved like a dick to the people paying him while doing it.

  4. Ken Houghton:

    Why do we assume Te’o and Lizzy Seeberg’s attacker are necessarily two different people?

  5. mark f:

    Oh, that’s an interesting thought. Consider the AD’s weird quote about Te’o being the most trusting person he’d ever met; isn’t that the kind of language usually used by rape-victim-blamers regarding the accused?

  6. rea:

    Why do we assume Te’o and Lizzy Seeberg’s attacker are necessarily two different people?

    Well we don’t have much more evidence that Te’o did it than we have that you did it. But, go ahead and speculate if you want.

  7. rea:

    And if you look at the article linked in the previous post, you’ll see that, although the player accused of being the rapist has not been identified, his lawyer has said that the player is black.

  8. Paul Campos:

    It’s well-known among people who follow these things who the accused player is (it’s not Te’o).

  9. rea:

    So, it’s the Bonds/Clemens thing–using PEDs is bad, but using PEDs and being a dick is how you really get people mad at you.

  10. mpowell:

    Armstrong was also into suing people. There was a lot going on there.

  11. ploeg:

    Certainly it makes for a good story that has many phases:

    1. The cancer survivor who returned from death’s door to be the greatest champion of the most prestigious stage race in the world, and who incidentally saved the sport from itself after the doping scandals of the late ’90s.
    2. The ringleader of the greatest doping conspiracy in known human history.
    3. The penitent outcast who confesses, repents, and makes good for his sins, thereby saving the sport from itself again (or the vile pretender who exposes himself as a sham and who is cast away from his betters into the pit, take yer pick).

    Funny thing is how the role of the longtime sponsors of these teams are ignored in all this. (What, you think that these sponsors spend all this money without some assurance that they’re going to get a good return on their investment?)

  12. Darkrose:

    Pete Thamel needs to have his degree revoked. Seriously?!? On two separate occasions, you can’t confirm any information so you just leave it out of the story? I did better than that when I was a high school journalist.

  13. Jonas:

    One of the many reasons there were so many folks using PEDs on the tour was that Armstrong threatened to kick riders off his team if they didn’t dope.

  14. J.W. Hamner:

    I don’t know Campos… Thamel had two different people (T’eo’s dad and a friend from back home) saying that they talked to her frequently… and specifically because T’eo supplied lots of information you are not likely to doubt that she exists. It’s also not like he tried to find some way to explain why they shouldn’t contact Stanford about her.

    The red flags were that there was no evidence that she graduated from Stanford (including that the person she asked didn’t know her and it’s a small campus) and that there was no newspaper article about the accident.

    What is your version of minimal journalistic due diligence that should have been done for the story to be published?

  15. commie atheist:

    Indeed.

  16. commie atheist:

    Contacting the girlfriend’s parents, and promising to keep whatever they said off the record in order to maintain their privacy?

  17. Richard:

    Because the attorney for the alleged attacker has stated that his client is African American. It’s not Te’o

  18. J.W. Hamner:

    Uhmwut? That’s what fact checking is. If you can’t confirm something you don’t put it in the story, not “if you can’t confirm something you start a full blown investigation into whether that thing even exists.”

  19. ploeg:

    Lance Armstrong is a unique character, but nobody gets to be patron of the peloton without having an unhealthy respect for No. 1.

  20. Paul Campos:

    In this case the thing that couldn’t be confirmed was that this girl existed. Hindsight is 20/20 but it’s journalism 101 that if a story is too good to be true it probably isn’t. Thamel even says during the interview that the story Te’o is telling is “unbelievable.” Too bad he was speaking figuratively.

    This happened in the fall of 2012 not in the bad old says of Stephen Glass, when it was a lot easier to make something up and get away with it. Now you may well say how was Thamel supposed to know he was dealing with a sociopathic liar? (If nothing else this interview confirms that Te’o's account of what happened is utter bullshit).

    But how was he supposed to know that he wasn’t?

  21. ploeg:

    Well, since the girlfriend of a college defensive linebacker was so obviously any of our business, why didn’t said girlfriend rate at least a paparazzo on a motorcycle?

  22. medrawt:

    Indeed, what I’ve found interesting about the handling of this case now is that ESPN and others have been framing the story as “Mante Te’o got Catfished!” and then somewhere in paragraph 8 noting that there’s some weirdness to that interpretation of events, given the rich amount of detail about personal interactions with multiple members of Te’o's family that became part of the narrative around this girl’s death. Unless this was the most painstaking pointless hoax of all time, to the extent of getting at least one real woman to actually meet Te’o in person, spend hours on the phone with him, etc., then the most generous interpretation of events is that Te’o thought she was real but in the wake of her “death” decided to gild the lily as much as possible, whether to gin up sympathy or out of embarrassment at feeling so distraught over an internet girlfriend he’d never really met.

    At this point I’m leaning towards less generous interpretations.

  23. mark f:

    Well, no, I’m rather more offended by his alleged bilking of people intending to donate to LiveStrong.

  24. J.W. Hamner:

    If the only person who had ever talked to her was T’eo, I think your point is much stronger. However as I mention below, his dad and his friend from back home allege to have talked to her frequently. So the “does she exist?” conspiracy involves at least three people now. I think you have to agree that three people making up the existence of a woman whole cloth is highly implausible (not that it didn’t happen!).

    I can’t see how you can expect Thamel to suspect anything other than that there is something fishy. Are accidents with injuries always reported in the paper? You would know better than I, but unless every accident with injuries is expected to be in the paper I don’t know why this would be so shocking.

    The Stanford thing strikes me as the most damning, since it doesn’t strike me as too hard to see if they have any record of her at all not just whether she is in the alumni registry or whatever.

    But I don’t know that really rises to the level of “should never work in journalism AGAIN!!!”

  25. Murc:

    I can’t see how you can expect Thamel to suspect anything other than that there is something fishy.

    When you’re a journalist, that’s supposed to be enough.

    Remember, Thamel was actually writing a feature here. It’s not like he just conducted an interview. He went out and started fact-checking, and that’s where he drops the ball.

    I agree with you that when his entire family, his friends, etc. are talking about his girlfriend, you just sort of assume the girlfriend exists. But when you start doing your basic background (and fair credit to Thamel; he actually seems to have done actual journalism, verifying facts and suchly) and you hit THREE brick walls?

    That’s when you go ‘okay, this is no coincidence.’ You go back to Te’o and say ‘hey, I’d love to talk to your girlfriends family’ or ‘do you know where she graduated from?’ or suchly. Either that or you chop her from the story entirely.

    It’s a very egregious case of journalism malpractice.

    Having said that…

    Thamel actually did go to the trouble of looking shit up and verifying things. And we all fuck up occasionally. I would say that this isn’t a fireable offense if his work has otherwise been solid. But it’s definitely bad, the sort of thing where if he does ANYTHING else wrong his career can and should end.

  26. John:

    An imaginary paparazzo on a motorcycle was exactly how Te’o's imaginary girlfriend got into her imaginary car accident!

  27. Murc:

    What is your version of minimal journalistic due diligence that should have been done for the story to be published?

    There’s a two-step process here.

    If at any point (the Lexis-Nexis search, the Stanford search, etc.) he encounters verification of the facts as states by Te’o, he can stop. He doesn’t need to verify EVERYTHING. Like, if it turned out this girl had never been hit by a drunk driver and hadn’t ever done anything with children in New Zealand, but did actually exist and had gone to Stanford, nobody would give a fuck.

    But when you do routine background checks and get a goose egg? At that point basic, standard journalistic standards require you to not go to press. Period. He can publish everything else about Te’o. But he can’t go to press about the girlfriend.

  28. Darkrose:

    Yeah, what Paul said–sorry I wasn’t clear.

    He was told the girlfriend went to Stanford, but when he checked, she wasn’t in the alumni directory so he left her being a Stanford student out of the story.

    Later, he tried to find a record of the car crash that had supposedly left her in a coma. There was nothing, so he “took the drunk driving reference out. It was just a car accident.”

    Either one of those alone? Eh, maybe. But two instances where you can’t find any evidence of something that the subject of your interview explicitly said was true?

    Of course, shrugging and saying, “It’s just a car accident” is par for the course. At least it wasn’t “It’s just non-existent WMD’s.”

  29. Darkrose:

    She was our business because Te’o and Notre Dame used her to hype his “story”. Devout Christian + star athlete + tragically dead love of his life…it’s practically made for ESPN. And almost certainly was.

  30. Darkrose:

    But I don’t know that really rises to the level of “should never work in journalism AGAIN!!!”

    Because no one on this site ever engages in hyperbole for dramatic effect.

  31. Darkrose:

    Plus, I didn’t say that he should never work in journalism again. I said he should have his degree revoked because he apparently failed Journalism 101: “Trust, but verify.”

  32. daveNYC:

    If you define ‘dick’ as someone who destroys the careers of people who try and call him out and drives teammates off his team if they don’t get on board with all the doping.

  33. Hogan:

    That literally never happens.

  34. rea:

    So the “does she exist?” conspiracy involves at least three people now.

    And also, there’s a guy who played for the Cardinals who claims to have met her, and not through Te’o

  35. Scott Lemieux:

    If you can’t confirm something you don’t put it in the story

    But it went in the story!

  36. ploeg:

    Indeed. So if she was our business enough to mention her in a story, why wasn’t she our business enough to send somebody to snap a few candid photos?

  37. Pestilence:

    Christian? I thought he was a Mormon?

  38. The prophet Nostradumbass:

    replying to myself…

    Another reason Lance Armstrong needs to be raked over the coals, repeatedly, is this:

    He managed to force the Sunday Times to settle a libel lawsuit he filed against them, when they published allegations that he was doping, which were, hey, what do you know, true.

  39. Darkrose:

    Or, you know, to check publically available information like her Facebook and Twitter accounts–something the Deadspin writers did, but supposed professional journalists did not.

  40. rea:

    Mormons operate under the illusion that they are Christians.

  41. mark f:

    I’m not sure he was speaking figuratively. He seemed to be challenging Te’o (albeit gently) on basic details relating to the timeline, where she lived and even her name. He says “this is unbelievable” when Te’o starts talking about Lennay being brought to tears by his voice while in a coma. I think this is actually a case where “this is unbelievable” doesn’t mean “Wow!” but “I don’t believe you.”

  42. RedSquareBear:

    This is absurd. I demand your head on a pike for saying that!

  43. ploeg:

    Many Christians operate under the illusion that they are actual bonafide followers of Christ.

  44. NonyNony:

    As far as non-Christians are concerned, Mormons are Christians.

    Hell if Southern Baptists get to count as Christians, I don’t see why Mormons wouldn’t.

  45. Vance Maverick:

    So did Thamel screw up, or does this reveal the kind of journalism he does as useless in principle? I lean to the latter.

  46. Njorl:

    It was all part of the Post Office’s plot to take over the world by winning the Tour de France and distributing Pottery Barn catalogs.

  47. The Dark Avenger:

    Mormon theology isn’t quite the same as Christian theology

    Mormons believe in Jesus Christ as the literal firstborn Son of God and Messiah, his crucifixion as a conclusion of a sin offering, and subsequent resurrection.[51] However, Latter-day Saints (LDS) reject the ecumenical creeds and definition of the Trinity[52][53] (In contrast, the second largest Latter Day Saint denomination, the Community of Christ, is Trinitarian and monotheistic.) Mormons hold that the New Testament prophesied both the apostasy from the teachings of Christ and his apostles as well as the restoration of all things prior to the second coming of Christ.[54]

    Some notable differences with mainstream Christianity include: A belief that Jesus began his atonement in the garden of Gethsemane and continued it to his crucifixion, rather than the orthodox belief that the crucifixion alone was the physical atonement;[55] and an afterlife with three degrees of glory, with hell (often called spirit prison) being a temporary repository for the wicked between death and the resurrection.[56] Additionally, Mormons don’t believe in creation ex nihilo, believing that matter is eternal, and creation involved God organizing existing matter.[57]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_theology

    Not to mention the planet Kolob:

    Kolob is a star or planet described in Mormon scripture. Reference to Kolob is found in the Book of Abraham, a work that is traditionally held by adherents of the Mormon faith as having been translated from some Egyptian papyrus scrolls by Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Latter Day Saint (LDS) movement. According to this work, Kolob is the heavenly body nearest to the throne of God. While the Book of Abraham refers to Kolob as a “star”,[1] it also refers to planets as stars,[2] and therefore, some LDS commentators consider Kolob to be a planet.[3]

    Kolob has never been identified with any modern astronomical object and is not recognized by scholars as a concept associated with any ancient civilization. Kolob is rarely discussed in modern LDS religious contexts, though the idea appears within LDS culture, including reference to Kolob in an LDS hymn.[4] It is periodically a topic of discussion in criticism of Mormonism.

  48. FlipYrWhig:

    My hunch is that Te’o met a real person who was going by the name “Lennay Kekua,” and then was in phone, text, and Twitter contact with someone else purporting to be that same person. Because that matches up with some of the details of the story the Cardinals player told the other night about having met and chatted with “Lennay Kekua” himself.

    Thus Te’o was both (1) falling for a con (coordinated by Tuiasosopo) and (2) making up his own far-fetched romantic tales while trying to embellish an otherwise embarrassing story about his intense feelings for someone he had virtually no tangible contact with.

  49. Dilan Esper:

    No. Don’t pretend this is unique. Any time the rules aren’t enforced, they will be broken. Think of NBA players and traveling.

    The lesson of this is everyone dopes, and feels they have to dope to compete, when the testing isn’t done or won’t catch it. Now people just need to apply that to baseball.

  50. Dilan Esper:

    Most Christians don’t accept Christian theology either.

    Mormons are Christians because they accept the resurrection claim.

Leave a comment