SBD/January 23, 2013/Media

N.Y. Times Details ESPN's "Awkward Position" In Handling Of Te'o Story

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Te'o's interview with Couric was his first on camera since the story broke last week
As ESPN reporters investigated the story surrounding the purported girlfriend of Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o on Jan. 16, some inside the company “argued that its reporters -- who had initially been put onto the story by Tom Condon, Te’o’s agent -- had enough material to justify publishing an article,” according to Sandomir & Miller of the N.Y. TIMES, who examine the decision-making process at the company. But other execs were “less sure and pushed to get an interview with Te’o." For them, it was “a question of journalistic standards,” and they “did not want to be wrong.” ESPN Senior VP & Dir of News Vince Doria said, “We were very close. We wanted to be very careful.” ESPN “held the story, and then lost it” as Deadspin broke it.  Deadspin editor Tommy Craggs said that he had “also received a tip about the hoax, a day after ESPN had been alerted.” For some, the debate within ESPN “quickly gave way to regret and reflection.” Three ESPN execs said that they “should have published on Jan. 16.” The execs said that the net’s “focus on waiting until getting an interview with Te’o was a mistake.” One exec said, “If I had my druthers, we would have run with it.” Sandomir & Miller write there “does not seem to be any obvious competing interest that might have blunted ESPN’s vigor in reporting the story,” except, perhaps, for the “value it attaches to having its subjects on camera.” ESPN said that it “needed to talk to Te’o.” Deadspin editor Tim Burke said that it “took only 24 hours after being tipped to the hoax to locate the person whose photograph was supposedly Te’o’s girlfriend.” Burke said, “I have no idea what ESPN’s investigation was. They didn’t talk to anyone who we were talking to” (N.Y. TIMES, 1/23).

NEXT STEPS: After Deadspin broke the story, ESPN was “left scrambling to try to obtain an on-camera interview Jan. 17 with Te’o,” whose team of advisers “did not want him to sit before any cameras.” Matthew Hiltzik, a PR adviser to Te’o, “adamantly set a critical condition” with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap. ESPN “could interview Te’o off the air last Friday night only, in an intimate setting without cameras or a group of technicians.” Doria said that ESPN was “also limited to using two minutes of audio.” Doria: “We accepted that. The main aspect for us was no limitations” on questions. ESPN President John Skipper said, “It wasn’t ideal. We’d love to have video. But it was made clear that it was not negotiable.” Sandomir & Miller write ESPN “finds itself in an awkward position.” First, it “hesitated in the hope of a Te’o interview, and Deadspin got the story.” Second, by agreeing to talk to Te’o “without its cameras present, it lost the battle to put him on-camera to Katie Couric” (N.Y. TIMES, 1/23).

OTHER TAKEAWAY
: Blogger Ed Sherman looked at the story's impact and stated, "In my mind, one of the bigger stories here is that Deadspin beat ESPN." If the Te'o "fiasco showed anything, it's that Deadspin will be a player for these stories in the future." This "won't be the last time the site nails a big one" (SHERMANREPORT.com, 1/22).

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Of note, the N.Y. TIMES’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan reviewed the newsgathering process on the Te'o story earlier this month and stated it had “lessons for journalists, including those at The Times.” N.Y. TIMES’ Sports Editor Joe Sexton said one lesson was, “Trust but verify” (NYTIMES.com, 1/17). SI Managing Editor Christian Stone writes, "A story like this calls for an honest acknowledgement of our failure and a rigorous self-examination, but it also yields an opportunity. There is a story, a remarkable one that mutates with each news cycle, to be pursued and told" (SI, 1/28 issue). 
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