Sometimes, a good news story can be as difficult to predict as any type of weather that doesn’t involve a winter inversion along the Wasatch Front. But when someone strikes a pick into the heart of a vein of gold, the rush can be on in ways that run roughshod over two of the media’s most important tools — caution and skepticism.
By now, the Manti Te’o story is becoming about as tedious as last month’s fiscal cliff. But if you’ll indulge just this one further observation of a bizarre tale involving the death of a fictional girlfriend, the lesson to be learned is that the age-old tug-of-war between being first with the story and nailing down the facts has entered hyper-drive in the digital age.
For you, the news consumer, there are lessons, as well. One of them is that the line between consumer and journalist is becoming as blurry as a horizon in a snowstorm, and skepticism is a good reading lamp to have handy.
The New York Times this week highlighted one aspect of the Te’o story. ESPN apparently was close to breaking it first but decided to wait until it could get an interview with Te’o himself. Meanwhile, the website Deadspin came in and got the scoop.
Caution can cost the race. This aspect of the story is actually comforting, however. Deadspin apparently had confirmed the story without the need to talk to Te’o. Such an interview easily could be a next-day story. ESPN, meanwhile, can comfort itself by knowing there are worse sins than not publishing for fear of being wrong.
The troubling aspect of it all actually goes much farther back. It involves how so many media outlets were in love with the idea of an inspirational dying girlfriend and a football star that they perpetuated the hoax without bothering to check some obvious details.
I pause here to note a high degree of personal hesitation in lapsing into any sense of personal outrage. One cannot spend 30 years in the news business without collecting an unwritten resume of errors and regrets. Every criticism begins to look a lot like a boomerang.
It’s worth noting, however, that both the pressure to be first and the complete collapse of credibility never have been more slippery cousins toward the cliffs of ruin than they are today.
I know a thing or two about breaking sensational stories. One of my most memorable experiences took place 29 years ago when the phone rang while I was the lone nighttime reporter in a Las Vegas newsroom. Earlier that day, an actor by the name of John-Erik Hexum had died as the result of an accident on the set of a television show called “Cover Up.” The actor’s family had arranged to have his organs harvested for transplanting.
The story had meant nothing to me personally, but that changed when the man on the other end of the phone said he knew who had received Hexum’s heart. It was the owner of a Las Vegas escort service. I spent the rest of that night pursuing the lead, finally and triumphantly convincing a hospital official to confirm it to me near midnight (this was an age before privacy laws). I had it first, and the horde soon followed.
I’ve often wondered how that would have played out today. Would the person who called me even have bothered, or would he have tweeted the news himself? What about any of the other people I spoke to along the way? Would blogs and Facebook statuses have forced my hand before I was ready? More importantly, would I or my colleagues have run with a good story that was broken elsewhere without completely vetting the facts?
I’ll be the first to admit today that the Hexum story was of dubious merit. It flashed and faded. Today no one remembers who got it first, even if by chance they remember the incident at all.
Being first has its immediate, but short-lived, rewards. Being first and wrong, however, can last a long time, indeed.
And breathing life into a fictional girlfriend because it makes for a great story can leave a long and messy exhaust trail of mistrust in its wake.
For the public, the good news is the truth eventually comes out. But in an age when information moves at light speed, it shouldn’t take that long.