Pete Thamel dropped the ball on Manti Te’o’s girlfriend hoax

Jan. 17, 2013, 3:58 p.m.

How dare you, Pete Thamel?

I’ve never been so angry at a journalist in my life. Today, Pete Thamel published a story explaining his actions in publishing Sports Illustrated’s Oct. 1 issue’s cover story on Manti Te’o. Thamel’s reporting is an embarrassment.

Thamel admits that, though he “had little reason to believe she didn’t exist… in retrospect there were some red flags.”

Some red flags? Are you kidding me? I can barely find anything that sounds truthful in the whole interview.

Let’s start with some of the most glaring issues. Thamel looked for funeral notices, obituaries and articles about her car crash. What did he find? Nothing.

Thamel called Mike Eubanks, Stanford Football’s primary media contact, to verify Kekua’s graduation year. Eubanks couldn’t find any record of her at Stanford and mentioned that he “thought it was odd that, on such a small campus, he’d never heard of a student dating Te’o.”

“This was the most glaring sign I missed,” Thamel admits.

That was the red flag. That was the sign that should have brought down the entire hoax. Thamel could have even combined it with Te’o’s claim that Kekua graduated in 2010 or 2011 but died at the age of 22 in Sept. 2012 – not impossible but extremely unlikely – to have an excuse to dig deeper.

But what did Thamel and Sports Illustrated do? They simply “took any reference to Stanford out of the story.”

That was Sports Illustrated’s journalistic response? For a cover story in one of the nation’s leading magazines, Sports Illustrated was content to just remove the Stanford reference?

Let’s say that instead, Thamel made one more phone call to literally anyone at Stanford. After speaking with Eubanks, he could have called Stanford’s public relations to check for any official records of Kekua at the school, which Deadspin later did.

He could have called us at The Stanford Daily or anyone else in Stanford student media. We regularly receive emails and phone calls from national media seeking to clarify a Stanford aspect of a story or asking us to check something in our archives. That’s why the managing editors’ contact information is so readily available online.

To put this in perspective, Editor in Chief Billy Gallagher was interviewed by ESPN for a fluff piece on The Play from the 1982 Big Game, but no one at The Daily was ever contacted to confirm Kekua’s existence.

Within an hour – and I’d guess it would actually take closer to 10 minutes – Thamel would’ve been able to confirm that Kekua had never actually gone to Stanford, a glaring hole in Te’o’s interview. Is that too long to spend fact checking a Sports Illustrated cover story?

Journalists are supposed to question stories. Journalists are watchdogs, given the task of asking the tough question to sort out right from wrong. Journalists are curators of the truth.

Even if Pete Thamel, so pressured by the looming two-hour post-interview deadline to submit the story, felt that he had to submit without including the Stanford piece, how could he now follow up? Just one more phone call, and the whole story could have unraveled months ago.

Right now, we don’t know how much of a part Te’o had in this “hoax.” Te’o claims that he was fooled through December. If that is true, not only did Thamel let the public down by not reporting deeper, he also let Te’o down. He let Te’o suffer for his girlfriend’s death for three more months, all because he wasn’t curious enough to make one more phone call.

This story is one of the most complex and unreal stories of our generation. Yesterday, the entire Stanford Daily sports staff, myself included, agonized over missing it. We spent hours debating what we could have done to break it.

Why didn’t any of us stumble upon the South Bend Tribune article back in October that mentioned Lenny Kekua as a former Stanford student? Why didn’t any of us catch another brief reference to Kekua’s Stanford connection in The New York Times just days later? Just a hint of the word Stanford, and this story was ours.

But those two references slipped through the cracks, so we missed. Pete Thamel was lucky, though. Manti Te’o mentioned that Kekua graduated from Stanford. Not only that, but Te’o stumbled on her graduation year and her major. Te’o gave Thamel two excuses to call Stanford and clarify facts on Kekua, and he still missed the story.

Maybe I can’t understand Thamel’s deadline pressure. Maybe I can’t understand how Thamel could have been sold by Te’o’s emotional story face to face. Maybe I’m wrong to judge him for missing the story.

People have spent the last day blaming my staff and me for missing the story. Believe it or not, I actually think that’s fair. I blame myself too. Honestly, I feel that I should read The New York Times sports section every day, and if I did, I would’ve broken the story in October when I read that Lennay Kekua graduated from Stanford.

That was my one chance, and I didn’t even come close to grabbing it. Pete Thamel had it gift-wrapped for him and tucked it away in the corner for Deadspin to discover almost four months later.

Maybe it’s more than just Thamel. Is this a national problem occurring with journalism around the world?

We are supposed to do everything in our power to print the best version of truth at the time of publishing. Based on Thamel’s account of his conversation with Mike Eubanks, the story of Lenny Kekua was not the best version of the truth when he sent his story to his editors.

Journalists cannot let this happen any more. If part of a story is unsettling to you or a source, then dig deeper. Certainly don’t ignore it. Otherwise, you’re just doing a public relations piece, and I’ve read enough of those, especially on Manti Te’o and Notre Dame.

Contact Sam Fisher at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @samfisher908.

Sam Fisher is the managing editor of sports for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 244. Sam also does play-by-play for KZSU's coverage of Stanford football, Stanford baseball and Stanford women's basketball. In 2013, Sam co-authored "Rags to Roses: The Rise of Stanford Football," with Joseph Beyda and George Chen.

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