In the old crime dramas of gumshoe detectives, they said that you can’t have a murder if you don’t have a body, or words to that effect.
If only the modern media, with its frightening, lightning-fast power to shape public opinion, held the same basic standard.
Instead, the 2012 college football season was largely defined by a story perpetuated from coast to coast of the tragic death of a young woman – quite conveniently without a body.
The story fueled endless pages of print and hours of coverage about this dead girl, many of those stories in the most trusted media outlets in America. And yet nobody thought to look for that dead girl before perpetuating the tale in sometimes intimate details.
You know what they say: never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
There's no better example than this story.
You’ve certainly heard the details by now: star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend was all an elaborate hoax, the full likes of which we probably won’t know for quite some time. The story was broken by Deadspin.com Wednesday.
The NFL conference title games are just a few days away. But the Te'o hoax, a dead girlfriend who never actaully existed, is the big story in sports today.
Te’o, who also lost his grandmother early in the 2012 season, rode the wave of sympathy to national acclaim, nearly won the Heisman trophy and played for the national title.
The story is utterly fascinating a multiple levels.
Based on what we know now, Te'o was at best a naïve victim duped in an online scam who then clumsily failed to own up to the deceit. At worst, it was an insidious and elaborate ruse, with the family, the team and the school in on it, the purposes for which we still do not know and which are spurring plenty for rumors right now.
So there’s a lot of speculation and not a lot of Cold, Hard Football Facts.
Here’s what we do know: major media outlets were complicit and even largely responsible for the scam, fueling a story with no evidence. It's quite possible, and even likely, that they did it for the same reaons that Te'o might have fueled the false story: for the purposes of their own gain, whether readers, viewers, ratings, whatever.
The public is the big loser: duped by Te'o, sure. But also duped by society's fact checkers who simply failed to check the facts at a near comical level.
You've heard of the Keystone Kops. This is the Keystone Press.
The No. 1 player on the No.1 team in the nation’s most popular sport suffered the tragic death of his girlfriend. She was apparently in an auto accident at some point before dying of leukemia. The lack of details on either and the pair of tragedies somehow linked together in a cloudy, shapeless storyline were odd in and of themselves.
EVERYBODY ran with the story. NOBODY looked for a body.
Nobody read the obituary. Nobody called the family. Nobody called her friends. Nobody called the hospital. Nobody called the funeral home. Nobody called the police. Nobody looked for picture of the auto wreckage. Nobody checked the death certificate. Nobody even looked her up on Facebook.
Are you serious?
Nobody died when Te'o lied.
Nobody did a single ounce of the most basic journalistic legwork in one of the biggest stories in sports during the 2012 season. In this day and age, where not even the most private life of the most private citizen is actually private, in an era in which you can Google map somebody’s driveway in seconds – nobody took one second to confirm the story of the dead girlfriend of one of the most popular players in football.
The same media that digs up every salacious detail about a player's sexting habits, that turns fans in the stands like Jenn Sterger or Katherine Webb into instant celebrities, that digs through the trash of Sara Palin, never bothered to ask ONE question about Te'o's dead girlfriend.
It's impossible to believe that this is true, that not one person in the media checked the most basic fact of the story: a woman died.
The only explanation, then, is that the media told the story once and couldn't take it back -- much like Te'o. So they both kept running with it.
It’s an ultimately innocent example of the amazing power of the modern media to quickly shape public opinion without a friggin’ shred of evidence. (Innocent in that nobody was hurt and, certainly, nobody was killed.)
It’s also an example of how frightening this power could be. People might wonder how a Third World hellhole like North Korea remains under the thumb of a family of mentally disturbed tinpot dictators.
Is there really any wonder? They control the media. They control public opinion. They control everything. And as we saw in the Te'o story, the public is ultimately helpless without a diligent media uncovering the truth.
If the media can convince us a woman who never existed is dead, and make millions follow and believe the story, they can certainly control public opinion in more urgent national matters.
Te'o and those around him will be ultimately responsible for this hoax. But the media was also in on it at worst, gleefully feeding a fake story because it was good for business, and almost criminally negligent at best, failing to do the most basic tenet of the industry and check the most basic fact of the story.
It's a frightening amount of power. The media are supposed to be the fact checkers of society. But they're not checking the facts, and nobody's checking the fact checkers.
In this day and age, too, stories spread like wildfire in ways they never have before. Deadspin publishes a story. And seconds later that story is national news thanks to Twitter, etc. Of course, it cuts both ways: it's this fractured, democratized modern media that will ultimately get us to the truth in the Te'o story, no matter how bizarre it might be. So maybe there is hope.
According to our pals at WEEI in Boston, one Notre Dame player said “(Manti Te’o) lied, but the media blew it up.”
Gee, do you think?