It’s been a high-profile week for U.S. sports journalism -- and not in a good way. Following the three days of rumors and speculation leading up to Lance Armstrong’s quasi-confessional interview with Oprah Winfrey on Thursday, the week ended with a chorus of conjecture and finger-wagging regarding the news media’s compliance in the cycling superstar’s 13-year doping denial -- a denial he confirmed was false. It doesn’t help that the interview came on the heels of the mind-boggling hoax surrounding the nonexistent girlfriend of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o.
In that case, too, it has been impossible not to fault the mainstream sports journalists who had reported on girlfriend Lennay Kekua’s battle with cancer and ultimate death, despite the absence of a death certificate and having no evidence that she ever existed. When Deadspin blew the lid off the hoax on Wednesday, writers Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey called out a “compliant press” for perpetuating the tradition of “Notre Dame mythmaking.” It was simply easier, and more compelling, to report on the story of a rising football star who lost his girlfriend to leukemia only to overcome adversity and become a hero on the field.
Now as the week comes to a close, media circles are abuzz with questions about what these two falsehood-filled revelations say about the state of sports journalism. In an insightful analysis of the week’s events, Poynter’s David Griner wrote on Thursday that the industry is facing a “moment of self-reflection” not unlike the one that presented itself to NPR last year, when producers of “This American Life” discovered that they had been duped by monologist Mike Daisey’s fact-challenged account of his trip to a Foxconn factory in China. Host Ira Glass’ response to that embarrassing incident was to dedicate an entire show, “Retraction,” to humbly explaining where it went wrong. Perhaps even more vital to the healing process was Glass’ acknowledgment of the weight of the situation: In failing to verify key aspects of Daisey’s story, NPR had failed its listeners.
Griner wrote that the news organization's dealings with this week’s fallout can learn something from Glass. “Each news outlet that ran the Te’o-Kekua story owes it to its readers to give a similar full accounting of why it did not appropriately check the story’s veracity,” he wrote. “So far, the process is off to a slow start.”
Slow as it may be, the process is at least in first gear. On Monday, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Buzz Bissinger, who continued to defend Lance Armstrong long after suspicions of doping abounded, published an earnest, if not exactly humble, mea culpa on the Daily Beast website, admitting that an article he wrote for Newsweek this summer (“I Still Believe In Lance Armstrong”) now makes him cringe. “I called him a hero, using typically defiant and outspoken language,” Bissinger wrote. “There were millions who felt the same way. But none of these millions had the power of the printed word like I did.”
Buried within Bissinger’s admission, meanwhile, was a refusal to take all the blame: “Because I was played by Armstrong,” he added. “I was played when he told me with such heartfelt conviction that he was 'at peace' with the decision he had made not to fight the USADA any longer.”
And Bissinger is not the only one throwing up his hands. Appearing on “Sports Center” Wednesday night, ESPN senior columnist Gene Wojciechowski -- one of the many journalists who inaccurately reported on the Te’o drama -- said the reason he didn’t investigate Lennay Kekua’s death deeper was out of respect for Te’o’s grieving processes.
“Short of asking to see a death certificate, I’m not sure what most people would do differently in that case,” he said.
Deadspin, still giddy from having uncovered the hoax, gleefully reposted Wojciechowski’s comments hours later. In fact, if there are any clear winners in this week’s sports-born controversies, one of them is the snarky Gawker Media-owned sports website that schooled legacy media on the value of old-fashioned investigative journalism. The other, of course, is Winfrey, whose long-struggling OWN cable network saw a welcome spike in viewership and unprecedented cultural relevancy.
In the news industry, deceit is still good for business. And that’s no lie.