MCGRATH: Feel-good stories lure media in hook, line and sinker
BY DAN MCGRATH For Sun-Times Media January 19, 2013 11:28PM
In a photo provided by ESPN, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o pauses during an interview with ESPN on Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, in Bradenton, Fla. ESPN says Te'o maintains he was never involved in creating the dead girlfriend hoax. He said in the off-camera interview: "When they hear the facts they'll know. They'll know there is no way I could be a part of this." (AP Photo/ESPN Images, Ryan Jones) MANDATORY CREDIT
Updated: February 21, 2013 6:53AM
However the Manti Te’o story, hoax, saga or fable plays out, it will remain one of the more bizarre incidents of my experience, and I’ve been at this awhile.
I don’t know Manti Te’o; a few snippets of conversation postgame are the extent of my dealings with him. He came across as courteous and well-spoken (as do most media-trained Notre Dame athletes), surprisingly open about all the sadness in his life and willing to share with any reporter who got to a poignant story late but still wanted in on it.
I probably read each version of that story, and I occasionally wished I had written it myself. In time, as Teo became both symbol of and spokesman for Notre Dame’s renaissance season, so many writers took a turn at telling it that there was no point in putting another spade in that well-plowed ground.
The basic narrative didn’t change, but there were discrepancies in the details, which might be why we have come to this who-knew-what-and-when confusion, with no easy answers for what comes next.
It happens. Even the best and most well-meaning journalists are susceptible to a desire to take a good story and make it better, particularly one that has been told before and might require a fresh take to justify seeing print.
There’s ego involved, too. Wait till you hear this story in my words.
Jerry Rice, a Te’o-like symbol of excellence during the 49ers’ championship years, always attributed his almost inhuman work ethic to his father, who hauled bricks on a construction crew during blisteringly hot Mississippi summers. Rice would assist him on breaks from school, and he wondered if the almost inhuman strength in his hands came from his experience handling bricks while growing up.
The story ‘‘got legs’’ as out-of-town writers tracked the 49ers into the playoffs. The source of Rice’s remarkable dexterity moved from supposition to accepted fact. By Super Bowl Sunday, various embellishments had every member of the work crew tossing bricks at young Jerry from every corner of the job site.
No wonder he catches everything.
(‘‘Blisteringly hot’’ is my detail, by the way. I’ve never been to Mississippi in the summer, but I hear it’s really warm there.)
Bob Ford, a smart writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, picked up on the swamp-thing myth encroaching on Brett Favre before it swallowed him whole. A mid-’90s Packers-Eagles game prompted a visit to Kiln, Miss., Favre’s ancestral home.
‘‘Every time Favre throws a touchdown pass,’’ Ford wrote, ‘‘another alligator crawls out of his background.’’
Sure enough, with the Packers headed for the Super Bowl in 1996 and a caravan of writers traveling to Kiln, legend had a young Favre wrestling alligators with one arm while flinging touchdown passes with the other.
And those gator-skin boots he favored were hand-made. By Brett hisself.
Derrek Lee was a good high school basketball player in Northern California, though not avidly recruited because he was going to be a high pick in the baseball draft and almost certain to sign. While courting a left-handed-pitching teammate, North Carolina coaches told Lee they’d love to have him in Chapel Hill, too, and he might be able to walk on to the basketball team or maybe try out if he were interested.
How many times have you read or heard that Lee turned down a basketball scholarship to North Carolina to sign with the Padres after they took him in the first round of the 1993 draft? Pretty cool story, although not quite true. Lee always set the record straight when asked, but he rarely was, and North Carolina became part of his background.
Somehow, the Tar Heels soldiered on without him.
I feel bad for Teo. It’s hard to believe he was complicit in a scheme that simply wouldn’t withstand vigorous reportorial scrutiny once someone decided to apply it, and props to Deadspin for doing so.
As for the reporters who failed to, myself included, we could have pushed to learn more about mystery woman Lennay Kekua, sure. But we don’t reflexively ask married athletes to see a marriage license or wedding pictures.
And forgive us our eagerness to find and tell a feel-good story after Tiger Woods, Joe Paterno, Lance Armstrong and the steroid-driven shutout at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Should there be a next time, we’ll know better, especially if we recall two tenets of journalism that remain sacrosanct:
If your mother says she loves you, check it out. And if a story seems too good to be true, it probably is.