On Friday, Jan. 25, ProPublica reporter Marshall Allen interviewed Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey — the Deadspin reporters who first broke the Manti Te'o hoax. Their story, "Manti Te'o's Dead Girlfriend, the Most Heartbreaking and Inspirational Story of the College Football Season, Is a Hoax," caused an instant sensation in the sports world and the general culture alike.
Because it was such a juicy investigative story, we invited Burke and Dickey on the MuckReads Podcast to find out how they pieced the puzzle together. It started with a simple email to their generic "send a tip" line and quickly became the biggest sports scandal of the year. While other news outlets were debating how to handle the story, Deadspin tracked down the real person behind the photos of the nonexistent "Lennay Kekua," traced her connection to Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, developed more sources that helped them confirm the allegations and published the story.
"There are so many hoaxes going on here. The first hoax is that this girl existed," Dickey said to Allen while describing what they found. Burke added that the second hoax is, "that she had to fake her death in order to get away from drug dealers....the third hoax is that Lennay Kekua was the love of Manti Te'o's life."
Burke and Dickey go on to discuss why we may never learn the full truth, when and why the Kekua myth really took off, how they felt when the story was finally posted online and why the story resonated so widely. Ultimately, the pair said, "it's about fact checking." Burke noted, "There are two really huge parts of the story. There's the Manti Te'o having a fake, dead girlfriend and the person behind it. But there's also the hey look, the sports media and the media in general have been reporting a story that wasn't true. And we sort of highlighted both of those."
Marshall Allen: The Manti Te'o hoax started with an epic myth. Manti Te'o, a star Notre Dame linebacker and a finalist for the Heisman Trophy was inspired to play by the love of his girlfriend, who died mid‑season of cancer. As Notre Dame marched toward the National Championship game, the story got wide play in the mainstream media. But then a sensational scoop, by the irreverent website Deadspin, brought the truth to light. Manti Te'o's girlfriend did not even exist. I'm Marshall Allen, a reporter, here at ProPublica. The Muckreads podcast features investigative reporters sharing the behind‑the‑scenes details about an important investigative story. In this podcast, I interviewed Deadspin reporters Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, who got the scoop on the Manti Te'o hoax. I began by asking them to tell us about their website, Deadspin.
So the Deadspin tagline is "Sports news, without favor, access or discretion." So I'm wondering if you can start off by telling us a little bit about the mission of your site and how it differs from maybe more traditional media outlets.
Jack Dickey: Sure. I think the tagline is a little bit of a joke to us now, because we occasionally have access like if we want to do a story with access, we don't have a ton of trouble getting it. We have a ton of favor for [laughs] a number of our...we have particular team allegiances. We will write about them in such a fashion. And discretion, we have some, not much, [laughs] but just a little bit. I think we have that tagline basically to say a big part of our job is to hold the mainstream sports media accountable. A lot of the time, that winds up just being like calling out ESPN when they're perpetuating some silly narrative about something, or over‑covering something that most sports fans don't care about, like Tim Tebow, but occasionally we can challenge them on a more substantial basis, like we did with this.
Allen: To say the least, you're not afraid of being irreverent and reveling in it almost, right?
Allen: You're having a lot of fun with it. So can you put this story into context? Some of our listeners may not be real familiar with college football, but Manti Te'o was like a mythic figure, almost, in the college football world. Can you describe a little bit about the mythology around this guy, and his girlfriend in particular?
Burke: Well, there's a mythology about the Notre Dame football program already, and we have all of these legends about Knute Rockne inventing the forward pass, or, "Win one for the Gipper," and all of these stories. And Manti Te'o playing in the memory of, and inspired by, the deaths of his girlfriend and grandmother on the same day instantly became both a major sports story and, to some degree, a story outside of the world of sports.
When he had two consecutive, very good games against Michigan State, and then Michigan, first on the Saturday after he learned of their deaths, and then, supposedly, the Saturday that his girlfriend was buried, he rose from being a star NFL linebacking prospect to being a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.
Allen: So you guys get the tip that this story is not what it seems, and that this myth is truly a myth. How did you get the tip? When did it come? What form did it come in? Tell us about the tip.
Jack Dickey: Yeah so we got a tip over email the Friday before we published. At Deadspin, we sort of rely on our tips line a lot. We know to cover something if it's coming into tips, if three or four people have tipped us off about it. We'll get, I don't know, 100 emails a day. Does that sound right?
Burke: Probably about 100 emails.
Dickey: Yeah, so most of them are not of the variety of crazy tips we should investigate. Most of them are just like, "I saw this article," or, "I saw this story."
Burke: Or PR pitches.
Dickey: Yeah, some PR pitches, and some people who are mad about our coverage of something or other, but occasionally we will get sort of out‑there things to investigate.
Allen: What did the email say?
Dickey: The email said, "I'm from Hawaii, and people around here know that Manti Te'o is a fraud, that his story about his dead girlfriend is made‑up. It's not true. He's never met her, and he hasn't met her because she doesn't exist." Now, the tipster also said stuff that turned out not to be true in the course of our reporting. He said that Manti had basically killed this girl off once she had become too big to manage, which we don't believe to be true. I think that's fair, right?
Dickey: The thrust of his email was, "This is what I know. I've done a little bit of amateur detective work on it, but I trust you guys could do a better job, and could unmask Manti."
Allen: Now, apparently, this tip, I don't know if this is the exact same one, but ESPN had gotten a similar tip as well, right? Did you know this at the time?
Dickey: Well...Tim, do you want to take this, talk about the ESPN tip?
Burke: Well, we believe the ESPN tip not to have come from a tipster, but to have come from Manti Te'o's agent himself. In fact, that's been published. That's been reported elsewhere.
Dickey: Yeah, it's been reported in the New York Times and SI.
Allen: Was this after you started making calls?
Dickey: No. After we published the story, ESPN's PR guy said, "Just to clarify, we've been working on this story for about 10 days," and our initial reaction was, "Oh, ESPN is trying to poo‑poo our big scoop." I don't think that was what they were doing. I think they were trying to clarify to angry viewers, or readers, or whatever, just that they had been aware that something was going on and just hadn't been able to confirm it.
Later, we found out that the tip came from Te'o's agents, who, according to Sports Illustrated, contacted ESPN, because they thought it was something they might want to get in front of. [laughs] That was the basis of their tip. So it was, "Let's perhaps...we may, in the near future, need to stage an interview, because something weird has happened with Manti Te'o's girlfriend. We'll get back to you [laughs] about that interview."
Allen: I see. I see. How reliable did you think this tip was? Did you feel like, "Oh, we've got to check into this right away."? Or did you go, "Oh, another kook."?
Burke: Well, I was actually out taking one of my very rare days off, when we got the tip. I was in an orange grove at the time. So I returned home and had a series of instant messages from Jack and from our Editor‑In‑Chief, Tommy Craggs, saying, "Hey, this is something worth looking into." And Jack had been looking into it for a while. I just started. I went to Google. I googled the name LennayKekua and what I saw immediately told me that this was something that we needed to look into.
Allen: Did you have an element of excitement, at this point? Because the other thing is, to put it into context, this would be a huge, huge scoop. When you get something like that, as a reporter, the adrenaline starts pumping. Am I right?
Dickey: Yeah. When I read it in email...I'm sort of a conspiracy minded guy and we have a group chat system, Campfire. I put it into Campfire, two minutes after the email came in, "I'm going to look into this, because this is awesome." Then I started talking to Burke and Tommy. To answer your question from earlier, we weren't sure how reputable the tip was, but we knew that, if it was right, we would be able to verify it pretty easily. We could at least get a sense of the record that didn't exist for her. Burke and I and Tommy, by the end of the day Friday, were [laughs] all sort of excited. Tommy was g‑chatting, "I want this so bad. This is the best Deadspin story. We've got to do this."
Allen: Did you get, though, a sense of how much was at stake here? One thing that weighs on me and I know on my other colleagues here at ProPublica, when you do investigative reporting, you're going out on a limb to find out something that other people don't know and often don't want you to know. There could be legal ramifications, if you're wrong. Here's a guy, who is the number one draft pick. He's going to be wealthy as anything. If you get this story wrong, he will not unlikely sue you. Not only that, it could cause his draft status to be reduced. It could cost them money. Sometimes it can be kind of paralyzing, these thoughts of, "Oh wow, what if we make a mistake?" Did any of that go through your head?
Burke: It did. But, after about 24 hours of looking into this story, we had located the person who actually appeared in the pictures. At that point, we felt, at the very least, we had a story that, whatever was presenting itself as Manti Te'o's girlfriend is actually a living person, who has never met Manti Te'o. We knew that fairly early.
Allen: You had a minimum story.
Burke: Right. She had also given us the name of the person, who she believed to be the person behind it. That name corresponded with another tip that we had gotten. Now we had two different sources pointing toward who was the real person.
Allen: Yeah. RonaiahTuiasosopo was the one, who was allegedly behind this. Tell us first, how did you track down the girl, whose photo was being used as the girlfriend?
Burke: The first thing we had to do was try to collect every image that had been used by the alleged LennayKekua to represent herself online. That was difficult, because all of her accounts, her Instagrams and most of the Twitter accounts, etc., had been shut down. We had to use various services that collect what user pics looked like at the time and we built a collection of maybe 15...
Allen: Various services. What do you mean? Do sites do this?
Burke: Sites that collect old tweets or searchable databases of Twitter pictures often will cache the user's image at that time or a link to that image. Fortunately, maybe I shouldn't say this, because maybe they'll change the policy on this, Twitter never deletes any user pictures. Every twitter picture that has been used to represent as an avatar for that user is kept in the original format on the server in perpetuity. As long as you have the URL to that image, you can find it. By using these pictures and then doing a series of reverse image searches, using various services, including Google's own Reverse Image Search, we were able to find an account for someone, who was not listed as LennayKekua, that had that same image as one that she had posted to Twitter as its profile image. By using the information on that individual's -- it was actually her MySpace page -- MySpace page to gather other information, we were able to find her name. By having her name, we found her on Facebook and then we contacted her.
Allen: And what did she say, when you got in touch with her? How did you reach her?
Burke: I sent her a Facebook message. She sent me one right back, saying, "What's your number? I'm concerned about this." She called me the next morning.
Allen: What day are we on here?
Allen: Monday. We're already on Monday, OK.
Burke: Yeah. I had found her on Saturday and I had sent her the Facebook message. She did not get back to me on Sunday.
Dickey: Sunday we spent mostly watching football too, as a staff.
Sunday, I also contacted...
Allen: Even the scoop went on hold. Wow.
Burke: Well, I did contact...and this may have prompted her to actually get in touch with me...there was one public image on her Facebook profile and it had a person tagged in that image. I also sent a message to that person saying, "We are trying desperately to get in touch with this individual."
Burke: She has gone on TV. We can say her name. It's Diane. Her name is Diane.
Allen: Right. Mm‑hmm.
Burke: Diane calls me on Monday morning and says, "OK, what's the deal?" I had prepared a list of images that had been used by Lennay Kekua to represent herself online. I sent that list of images to Diane and I said, "Can you identify which of these pictures you appear in?"
Dickey: Right. Because we were still unsure whether the woman...whether there was one woman in all the Lennay photos or whether there were a number of women.
Burke: Right. Diane said back to me, "It's me in all of them." She had appeared in all of the pictures. And furthermore, one of the pictures she knew was not public. It was not something she had put on her Facebook or her Instagram, but it was a picture that she had taken specifically for one person and sent it to that one person as a favor. That one person was RonaiahTuiasosopo.
Allen: So she learned that her image, her picture, was being used publicly on Twitter and elsewhere as Manti Te'o's girlfriend, who had died. How did she feel about this?
Burke: She wasn't entirely sure who Manti Te'o was. She sort of confused him with Johnny Manziel, who actually won the Heisman. She had sort of looked him up. I said, "Well, no. It's the guy, who lost the Heisman." She was very shocked.
Allen: She was disappointed it wasn't Johnny Football himself.
Burke: [laughs] Yeah. She was in shock and wasn't entirely sure how to process it. But she did know immediately that she needed to call Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. She then called me immediately after her phone conversation with him and reported to me exactly how he reacted. His reaction told us a lot about his involvement and how the hoax went about, the entire time.
Allen: What did she say about how he responded?
Burke: She said that he "freaked out" and that he started acting really weird but that he assured her that he would take care of it and there was nothing to worry about. In Diane's words, she said, "He said there's nothing for me to worry about, when my picture is all over the Internet as a dead woman. I'm worried."
Allen: Now what are your priorities, at this point, when you're thinking about this story? Are you thinking more about being first, because being first is a big deal with a story like this, or are you thinking about, "We need to make sure this is right," or both? How do you balance those?
Dickey: Well, I mean, yeah. It's both. With first, I think we didn't really hear footsteps in the process. But, at the same time, we knew that there were two problems, if we reached out too early in the process to try to get the story from at least Te'o or from Notre Dame.
Dickey: The first problem is that, because it's a social media story, people can erase things, some of which Tim and I can find, some of which we can't, if it's been deleted. That was our first concern basically. If you spook people, who are involved in the story, they are going to go dark. A lot of people actually, peripheral characters, who we didn't get to talk to in the reporting process, have deleted their accounts since the story published. That was the first concern. The second concern was basically, if you tell Manti Te'o and Notre Dame that you're sitting on this story, we learned afterward they had been already in conversation with ESPN. So they go to ESPN. They're going to tell an incomplete version of the story. They're going to tell, basically, the story that Manti has been telling in public since, which we don't know whether it’s true or not. We know that he lied to the press about his girlfriend having died from December 6th through the 8th. Our concern was not so much that we hurry with the story, but that we do it quickly enough that we not get scooped by one of the principals in the story.
Allen: Yeah, and not let them spin it in their own way...
Allen: ... and undermine the truth, which is what you're trying to report and get out there.
So what other steps did you take? Essentially the difficulty here is proving a negative, right, trying to prove that someone did not exist?
Burke: We had a lot of help from other members of our staff, including Dom Cosentino and Tom Ley, who did a lot of the work to prove things that we already knew were true, calling Stanford and getting them to...finally...that was sort of a struggle to get Stanford to confirm for us that nobody by the name Kekua had ever attended school there or especially had graduated, which was reported in several prominent publications that she was an alumna. We also had to call the LA County Health Department and make sure that nobody had died under that name…things that we already knew, because we had already solved the hoax part of it, in the first few days. But we had to go back and do some of the legwork to further bolster what we already knew, but be able to establish that for our readers.
Dickey: Right. Dom was calling funeral homes in Carson to ask if they had processed anyone by that name. That's a big step to take. Especially Tommy Craggs…he was dead set about just retracing every step we possibly could in the reporting process, so we would get at least the central fact that this girl didn't exist.
Allen: Right. It's ultimately this process of verification. That's what we all do, right, on these kinds of stories? How many people were involved in this process, in total, on the whole story?
Dickey: There were Tim and I, then our two editors, Tommy Craggs is the Editor‑In‑Chief and Tom Scocca, who is the Managing Editor. We had reporting help from Dom Cosentino and Tom Ley. Jim Cooke did the art. So, all told, I guess there were seven of us.
Allen: When you did go to the family and Notre Dame, when did you decide to do that? When did you pull the trigger on that and how did that go down?
Dickey: That was Wednesday, a little bit more than an hour before we published the story. If we had gotten in touch with them or gotten something from them, we might have changed the time of publication. We weren't saying, "We will contact them an hour before publication."
Allen: Right. But you had a draft down. You had a story ready and you could have changed it, if you had heard something.
Dickey: Right. We tried calling Manti. The phone number we had for him wasn't taking calls. We tried calling Brian Te'o. He was in a meeting and declined to speak to us.
Allen: You did tell him who you were. Did you tell him what you were writing about? Did you tell him what the story was?
Dickey: Actually, I don't know. I think we told him. We said it was about Lennay, I believe. It was Tommy making those calls.
Burke: Yeah. Craggs made that call. I did call I think the Assistant A.D. for football or the Press Office for football at Notre Dame. I talked to a secretary there and insisted it was an urgent call and that we needed a comment. She decided that my call wasn't urgent enough and, instead, passed me to a voicemail. In that voicemail, I said, "Here is the story that we are about to publish. We need a comment from you as soon as possible." In the hour or so that followed, we did not get an answer.
Allen: Now, another process we go through here is we lawyer everything. Did you have a lawyer look at this?
Dickey: I think so.
Burke: One thing that's sort of important to understand about the reporting of this is that Jack was at home in Connecticut. I live in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Burke: So neither of us were working from the Gawker media offices during all of this. We were only communicating with our editors through the computer or on the phone. So anything that was happening in the office, any conversations with legal that would have happened, we were not really privy to.
Dickey: Although I can say I assume Tommy talked to the lawyers, because anytime we do a big story, we do that. Nothing got walked back from our initial draft, none of the factual claims.
Allen: So it's a standard thing there. You have a legal review on big stories.
Allen: It's not always at your level necessarily.
Dickey: The other thing is that Gawker publishes stories with much more potential legal ramifications [laughs] than this story.
Allen: Yeah, right. There is a type of risk level you can go with, with any story, where you can be extremely conservative or you can be a lot more risky. In my opinion, when I read the first story, I was like, "Whoa man, anonymous sources." I know you guys know who it is, but I'm reading this and I'm going, "Anonymous sources, Nexis searches." Those can sometimes be...again, you're trying to prove a negative and Nexis isn't always totally complete. But the thing that you did have was the girl. I think the girl was the linchpin almost. But there were essentially two things that you asserted in the story, two primary things, or at least the way I read it.
One was the girlfriend is a hoax. No question that one turned out to be absolutely accurate. But what about the second thing, which at least implied that he was in on it? In his story now, he comes out and he says, "I didn't know. I was tricked. I didn't know until the story came out that it wasn't true." What do you think now about your original story? Are you still 100 percent sure that was it, or was it a variation possibly?
Burke: We simply set out to report what we knew and what we had been told by people that we believed and had evidence of an intimate knowledge of the hoax. Nearly everyone that we spoke with, all the way back to the original tipster, either set explicitly or implied that Manti Te'o had some involvement in it. We quoted one of them in the piece. But we had two other people, who were very close to the situation, including one of Tuiasosopo's relatives, who came in as a tipster late in the story to try and force him to tell the truth, who, when asked, said, "I believe that Te'o is involved in this." So when the majority of your insiders to a situation all say that they believe something, I think that we had an obligation to communicate that, even if we did it in somewhat of a composite manner. And I've tried to communicate this elsewhere. If they had all said, "I don't think that he had anything to do with it and we think he's completely a victim," we would have had the obligation to report that as well.
Allen: How many off the record sources do you think weighed in to that decision‑making?
Dickey: Four or five, yeah.
Allen: But there were also people, who were really close to Manti Te'o or RonaiahTuiasosopo
Dickey: There was no one, who was close to Te'o we got to talk. But we did talk to people, who were close to Ronaiah.
Allen: Anytime I do a story like this, I know, from my colleagues here, when the story publishes, there is that moment of just almost panic, almost like, "I know that I've nailed this down. I am 100 percent confident in this story." But you're still almost wondering, "What if there's something out there I don't know about?" Did you guys have any of those moments, going through your head?
Dickey: Tommy definitely did. Burke and I were feeling pretty good about this, just because we had pinned down the girl. We had seen a number of people, who had accused Ronaiah of being in on it before his name even came up in our reporting, so we were feeling all right. But, I was told that, at the offices, when Notre Dame released a statement saying that she was a hoax, they were all jumping for joy and high‑fiving and stuff, just because they were going through that doubt more than we were.
Allen: Right. Right. And the story was immediately updated, I should say, too, because some of this is a little bit incremental. As you learn things, you update the story.
Burke: Right. I think that we set out to establish two answers, one, is she real, and two, if RonaiahTuiasosopo was behind it. Within a short period of time, we had the University of Notre Dame and Manti Te'o, later in his off‑camera interview with Jeremy Schaap, saying that it was RonaiahTuiasosopo. So we have a principal victim in this saying that the key findings of our article are correct. I didn't really get excited about that, because I feel like we already knew that. I feel that we were that confident in our reporting that there was nothing to sort of celebrate.
Allen: Do you still think that he was in on it or do you think that he truly was duped in this hoax?
Dickey: That's kind of thorny. Our current belief, and I think everything we write really is to this effect, is that Te'o exaggerated his relationship with Lennay, particularly after she died, and there are a number of pieces of evidence that would point to this being the case. She never turned up in coverage of Notre Dame until after she died. He said she was in coma in LA, and he couldn't miss his flight to go see her, even though he knew she was in a coma. She was 15 minutes away from him in Hawaii. He couldn't commandeer a car to go see her. Just stuff like that, that he's told Jeremy Schaap and told Katie Couric, just sort of indicates this woman was not the love of his life, that she was just a girl he was talking to on the Internet, on the phone occasionally.
Burke and I have been describing it as a third hoax on top of a number of...I mean, there are just so many hoaxes going on here. The first hoax was that this girl existed. The second hoax is that...what is the second hoax?
Burke: That she had to fake her death in order to get away from drug dealers.
Dickey: Yeah, there was that hoax. There are so many layers here that it's sort of impossible to know what the biggest untruth is.
Allen: Which one is the third hoax?
Burke: Well, the third hoax is that LennayKekua was the love of Manti Te'o's life.
Allen: Right, which makes the story much better if it's true, obviously, right?
Dickey: Right. That was something that only emerged after she had died.
Allen: Without that, there would be no myth.
Dickey: Right, but she had been in a car accident, a near‑fatal car accident in April, when they were supposedly together, although Manti said the relationship got stronger after her car accident. She was in a coma, she had leukemia, and none of this ever was mentioned until after she died, and then it became the myth.
Burke: Even after all of the summer media appearances, media days for Notre Dame, all the interviews with Manti Te'o, you would expect a, "Yes, I'm dedicating this season to my girlfriend who has leukemia." You would expect that to come up, but no, it only came up after she died, and it's very convenient because if you think that someone is dead, then they can't refute anything that you say about them. This is one of those bizarre instances where the person who was dead could refute them because the person wasn't dead.
Allen: Right, exactly. We're getting very esoteric and philosophic now about life and death, people who don't exist, but the story hits, and the Internet, essentially, explodes. Again, I was telling someone else this. I can't think of another story that has just resounded through the culture on all levels so fast and in so many places. Did you guys expect this type of response to the story?
Dickey: No. We expected it would be a compelling story about college football, and a compelling story about the sports media, and those corners reacted strongly to it, but so many other people, who wouldn't have read Deadspin in the first place, and who wouldn't really have been aware of the Manti Te'o story, were also responding to it, which surprised me.
Allen: How do you guys describe how it resonated? Why do you think it did?
Burke: Well, there are two really huge parts of the story. There's the Manti Te'o having the fake dead girlfriend, and the person behind it, but there's also the, "Hey, look, the sports media, and the media in general, have been reporting a story that wasn't true," and we sort of highlighted both of those. What I really expected was for the media to downplay this story that we had published, out of embarrassment. Why would they highlight this article that says, "Oh, hey, major institution published a story that has things that aren't facts"? Our article, while not specifically in a pay‑on to this or whatever, is about fact checking. We sort of thought that the institutions, who didn't do the fact checking that led to this being able to be a story in the first place, would downplay it. And to their credit, they have embraced it.
Dickey: ESPN was saying the word Deadspin on air, over and over again, for a few days, which obviously killed them and gratified us.
Allen: Well gentlemen, thank you very much for coming in today. Thanks for giving us the behind‑the‑scenes story. It was very interesting.
Burke: My pleasure.
Dickey: Yeah, thanks for having us on.
Allen: That was Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey. You can read their investigation, "Manti Te'o's Dead Girlfriend ‑ The Most Heartbreaking and Inspirational Story of the College Football Season is a Hoax" at deadspin.com. For ProPublica, I'm Marshall Allen. Thanks for listening. [music]
Transcription by CastingWords