Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, January 18, 2013 9:07 pm

Charlie Pierce on Manti Te’o


I do not know, nor do I care, about the Manti Te’o story, inasmuch as the Panthers, about whom I do care somewhat, will, if they are smart, draft a defensive lineman in the first round next April, not a linebacker.

But Charlie Pierce cares about the story both in and of itself and because of what it says not just about sports media but about all news media. In particular, he calls out the elite political loudmouths on the teevee who are using Te’o and coverage thereof as a Shiny Object to distract public attention from its own failings, a game they’ve been playing since even before Mark Hertsgaard published “On Bended Knee” a quarter-century ago. And Charlie knows enough about both sides of this particular game that when he speaks, you should listen:

There also is, or ought to be, a lot of soul-searching going on at the various media outlets that passed along this barrel of bushwah. The fact-checking system at a lot of important places utterly broke down. (Your fact-checker discovers that there’s no record of a person at the college she allegedly attended, and no record at all of the severe automobile accident that is so central to the story, and the response is to  “write around” these inconveniences? This is not good.) But, as someone who’s working both sides of the aisle at the moment, there is something up with which I will not put, and that is snarky comments from the elite political press about what suckers the people who write for The Toy Department  are. Knock it off, foofs. Careers are made in the courtier press by doing deliberately what probably may have happened by slovenly accident in the case of the sportswriters who passed along this tale of highly marketable pathos. What is the significant difference between the actual reality of Manti Te’o’s dead imaginary girlfriend and the actual reality George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford?

In the elite political press, mythmaking —  which the gang at Politico would call “building the narrative” — has become so deeply entrenched as a boon to various careers that hardly anyone notices any more.  Stephen Glass got away with it for longer than Manti Te’o did, and he did so at several different prestigious publications. Almost nine years ago, Sasha Issenberg pretty much tied David Brooks’s entire reportorial credibility up in a sack and dropped it into the Schuykill, and Brooks nonetheless has continued to thrive and will be teaching Yale undergraduates about humility next fall. So let’s not be doing the Superior Dance too vigorously in the faces of the sportswriters who got played in this case, OK, cool kidz?

But it’s not the spectacular cases that are the real problem. It’s the steady, day-to-day mythmaking — the encasement of grubby political transactions in shiny marble, the draping of togas upon unimaginative hacks, the endless who’s-up-and-who’s-down scoreboard watching that passes for analysis. All of these are just as phony as the ongoing farce in South Bend is. Only within this manufactured world are “the American people” worried right now about The Deficit. The creation of bad vaudeville spectaculars for public consumption is the way to the top of the ladder in political  journalism.

Al Gore ran for president and he was beset by a press corps that fashioned its own Al Gore out of nothing more than its own naked animus, and that Al Gore was no more real than Manti Te’o’s dead imaginary girlfriend was. (Alas, Melinda Henneberger, who has dogged the Lizzie Seeberg [link added — Lex] case, was in the middle of that fiasco back in the day, although she was far from the worst of them.) The grand prize of them all, of course, was the spectacular failure of the political press in the matter of Ronald Reagan, who made up more complete shinola about himself and his life before breakfast than Manti Te’o has in his entire life as a public figure. This particular failure has continued even after Reagan’s death.

Manti Te’o met his dead imaginary girlfriend and they “locked eyes” after a game at Stanford? Ronald Reagan knew a welfare queen in Chicago who was driving a Cadillac.

Manti Te’o hung out with his dead imaginary girlfriend in Hawaii? Ronald Reagan liberated death camps during World War II.

Manti Te’o said that his dead imaginary girlfriend was the love of his life? Ronald Reagan said trees cause air pollution.

Manti Te’o said that his dead imaginary girlfriend would have wanted him to play against Michigan State? Ronald Reagan told a story about an act of military heroism that never actually happened, but that he apparently got from a 1944 war movie called, A Wing And A Prayer and when Reagan’s spokesman was asked about this whopper, he replied, “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true.

So there’s a rough kind of historical symmetry in the fact that Ronald Reagan provided the whitewashed portrayal of the bounder, George Gipp, in the movie that launched the mythology in which the saga of Manti Te’o  and his dead imaginary girlfriend found such a proper and profitable home.

The failure of sports journalism in this case is huge and spectacular but, in its impact, it is nothing compared to the discreet daily fabulism that attends so much of the coverage of politics in this country. “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true.” As anyone who follows elite political journalism in this country will tell you, this is now axiomatic in the field. It’s the way you get ahead. It’s the way you get on television. It is the crude way of saying that perception is reality, which is the fundamental journalistic heresy through which lies become truth simply if they work, and N. Leroy Gingrich becomes a visionary political leader. At least sportswriters still give you an honest account of what happens in the games.

The wealthiest 0.01% are expecting you and me, not them, to fix the deficit even though the deficit is actually well on its way toward fixing itself at the moment and would do so even faster if we worried less about it and more about jobs (particularly here in North Carolina, where the unemployment rate went back up in December). What the wealthiest 0.01% want will, literally, kill tens of thousands of Americans prematurely for lack of job safety and health care. But God forbid we worry about anything more important than a trivial fabrication by a naive/manipulative/closeted-gay (among the many hypotheses I’ve heard) college football player.

 

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6 Comments »

  1. Lex, I told my husband this morning that I was not sure that figuring this convoluted story out was worth my time. Sports nut that he is, he hadn’t waded through it. Turns out to be emblematic. Thanks for the heads up and elaboration.

    Comment by nancydrewed (@nancydrewed) — Friday, January 18, 2013 9:40 pm @ 9:40 pm | Reply

  2. Don’t thank me, Nancy. Thank Charlie Pierce. I care so little about the Te’o story in particular and college football in general that I likely wouldn’t have posted on this had I not read his blog post, because the breakdown in competence of American mainstream journalism over the past 30 years is something I *do* know and care a lot about. (Reading the Hertsgaard book I mention above literally changed my life: Before, I had thought the news media overly deferential to Reagan — particularly when they gave him a pass on Iran-Contra — but found so little support for this idea that I supposed I was probably just missing something. “On Bended Knee” documented not only that I was right but that things had been even worse than I’d known.

    And that matters because the problem continues today, obliterating any rational notion of a “liberal” media. Journalists spent the ’90s chasing Bill Clinton’s private parts, special prosecutors spent $60 million in tax money on a wild goose chase, and the everybody was good with that, but then Bush comes in and lets 9/11 happen and lies us into an illegal war in Iraq and orders torture and other crimes against humanity and nothing happens. Next to all that, college football, much as some of my relatives (including my wife) love it, is tiddlywinks.

    Comment by Lex — Friday, January 18, 2013 11:18 pm @ 11:18 pm | Reply

  3. Yes, our priorities are often wrong.

    Comment by Johnny Chung — Saturday, January 19, 2013 9:09 am @ 9:09 am | Reply

  4. I hadn’t heard the part about checking the college records and auto accident record and finding nothing about the girlfriend. Who did that?

    Aside from that, I think a lot of the criticism of the sports media over Te’o isn’t fair. We never had the resources to check out every player’s claim of having a girlfriend, and we certainly won’t as the budget cuts continue. It would never have occurred to me that Te’o’s girlfriend didn’t exist.

    Comment by Beau — Saturday, January 19, 2013 9:51 am @ 9:51 am | Reply

  5. How does my man manti rank with other famous liars? Check out the blog, cast your vote, and share your thoughts!! http://aidanfromworcester.com/2013/01/18/best-liar-manti-lance-armstrong-bill-clinton-o-j-alger-hiss/

    Comment by aidanfromworcester — Saturday, January 19, 2013 10:45 am @ 10:45 am | Reply

  6. Beau, it wasn’t obvious from Pierce’s post which outlet he was referring to, so I don’t know. I *do* know that a South Bend Tribune piece on Te’o and his girlfriend was taken down off that site after news of the hoax broke, so maybe it was them. Not many U.S. dailies even employ “fact checkers,” obviously; perhaps ESPN does. But Pierce seems to be saying that SOME news outlet had nontrivial reason to believe the story wasn’t true and published it anyway.

    One guess (and certainly no more than that): I’d read somewhere that ESPN had known for a while (the date Dec. 26 sticks in my head for some reason) and that the network had “sat on” the story until Deadspin broke it. Maybe what ESPN was actually doing was trying to resolve inconsistencies in its reporting, not “sitting on” a story.

    The bottom line about all this, though, is that I have no idea what did happen and no idea how so many news outlets got it wrong.

    Comment by Lex — Saturday, January 19, 2013 11:47 am @ 11:47 am | Reply


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