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Let Manti Te'o be the end of sports hero worship

By Howard Kurtz, CNN Contributor
January 26, 2013 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Manti Te'o saga is the latest of a series of embarrassing failures by journalists
  • Howard Kurtz says reporters covering sports can't fall victim to hero worship
  • People in news business are accustomed to being lied to, Kurtz says
  • Kurtz: It's time for aggressive and tough-minded sports reporting

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- We in the media seem to be dealing with a whole lotta liars:

A college football star who told the world he had met his imaginary girlfriend. A cycling champion who lied about doping for a decade. A coach who abused boys and covered it up.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

And that's just from the wide world of sports.

What's clear, as these stories have unfolded, is that journalists don't possess lie-detector machines. But they do have BS detectors. And these are apparently getting rusty.

Take the case of Manti Te'o, who confessed to Katie Couric in an interview broadcast Thursday that, well, he kinda made up the minor detail that he had met his imaginary girlfriend. He was "going to be put on national TV" after saying that the girlfriend had died, Te'o told Couric. "You know, what would you do?"

Um, tell the truth?

Opinion: Te'o story, big fail for sportswriters

We still don't know whether the Notre Dame star was in on the hoax earlier. But we do know he didn't want to ruin the heartwarming story line that the media utterly swallowed -- that his play was inspired by the girlfriend's demise.

Couric, by the way, did a masterful job of poking holes in Te'o's tale while also expressing empathy for a troubled young man.

Hear voice mail left by Te'o 'girlfriend'
Hear voice mail left by Te'o 'girlfriend'
Manti Te'o's own words

Yet the lack of journalistic skepticism on this heartwarming tale of tragedy was stunning. No one had seen the girlfriend. Te'o said he mainly communicated with her online. There were no pictures of them together.

Watch: How Katie Couric artfully exposed Manti Te'o

The malfeasance was even worse after Lennay Kekua's alleged death. Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated has acknowledged that he ignored a number of red flags. No obituary for Kekua. No funeral notice. No record of what Te'o described as an earlier car accident. No mention of her in Lexis Nexis. No record of her brother's name so he could spellcheck it. But he went ahead and published anyway, as did CBS, ESPN and others, to the shame of the sports journalism world.

Once there were rumblings that Kekua might not exist, ESPN was chasing that story but, after an internal debate, the network held off while trying to get an interview with Te'o, according to The New York Times. The hope of access trumped the investigative reporting, so the hoax was exposed by the snarky but solid sports blog Deadspin.

Watch: New York Post mocks Hillary's anger at Benghazi hearing

Lance Armstrong was another case study in deception and deceit. In the early years, as he won one Tour de France after another, virtually no one in the media wanted to mar the story line of the guy who overcame cancer and kept piling up championships. He said he never took banned substances -- wasn't that good enough? Didn't sportswriters hope to get the next Lance interview?

Obviously the story line about drug use grew in recent years as former teammates hurled allegations, and U.S. anti-doping officials mounted an investigation that would wind up stripping Armstrong of his titles. Finally, of course, he went to Oprah Winfrey and said he'd been lying all along.

Even so, some of his media defenders were less than outraged. Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins told Charlie Rose that Armstrong had called her:

"He said he was sorry for misleading me. He said he was sorry -- and this is a very small thing -- but he expressed that he was sorry that my reputation had taken a hit because of my association with him, which I appreciated. And it wasn't a very long conversation, but it was a meaningful one to me."

Watch: Paula Broadwell and media redemption

Jenkins said she wasn't mad at Armstrong and that "that there's a level of anger at Lance that is out of proportion to the offense of doping."

I'm not feeling as charitable. I'm angry because Lance lied.

As for the Penn State debacle, it's hard to deny that the worship of college football blinded the media to the notion that the sainted Joe Paterno might do anything wrong -- such as looking the other way after allegations that his assistant, Jerry Sandusky, was sexually abusing children. This sickening scandal unfolded under the nose of the sports media establishment until it was exposed by a local reporter, Sara Ganim of the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Ganim now works at CNN.)

We in the news business are accustomed to being misled and misinformed by politicians and their operatives. We've been through too many scandals to believe otherwise. And while we sometimes fall down on the job, we bring to the political arena a certain battle-hardened skepticism.

Watch: Beyonce lip-synced -- oh well

The tradition has always been that sports is different, a kind of protected zone where athletes compete and no amount of spin can alter their performance on the field. Hero worship was baked into the cake, especially when covering local teams.

If that was once true, it's hardly the case now in the era of steroids and strikes and lockouts and violence, as was sadly underscored when Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs fatally shot his girlfriend and himself, and Bob Costas was skewered for talking about the NFL's gun culture.

The notion that today's sports journalism can be anything other than aggressive and tough-minded is now as fictional as Manti Te'o's imaginary girlfriend.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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