Five minutes tells you a lot about the ghost named Lennay Kekua. There’s no official record of her death. No U.S. newspaper printed an obituary or death notice. No female by the last name of “Kekua” has died since 2004. No one by her name registered to vote, or appeared in court records, judgments or bankruptcies.
The industrial-strength LexisNexis people locator shows no person by that name, or one similar, exists.
No U.S. media outlet mentioned her until Sept. 14, 2012, the day the ghost came to life.
How could you resist the story? Not when Kekua, long-distance girlfriend to star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, died after a bout with leukemia.
The tragedy quickly became the myth Notre Dame’s season and Te’o’s unexpected Heisman candidacy were built around, at a university that is no stranger to the myth-making possibilities of its football program. No more talk about camera operator Declan Sullivan’s death during a football practice in 2010 or George O’Leary’s resume lies that ended his career as the university’s coach before it started or Charlie Weis’ disastrous run in charge of the program.
The ghost lived in story after story that chronicled Te’o’s crushing heartache. The Eagle Scout and devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and one of Hawaii’s most decorated athletes lost the love of his life — that’s what he called Kekua — and his grandmother, Annette Santiago, within hours of each other and, still, he gritted through game after game.
The fiction unwittingly assembled by dozens of media outlets was a hoax, of course, blown apart Wednesday by 4,000 astonishing words from Deadspin. The girlfriend never died. She never existed. Notre Dame and Te’o claimed he was a victim of a cruel prank. But the truth of what happened is lost for now in the fog of unanswered questions around Te’o, once lauded and lionized as an example of the best of college athletics.
Everyone looks bad, from Notre Dame sitting on the hoax during the national championship game against Alabama earlier this month to Te’o’s unclear level of involvement, if any, to the veteran journalists, some of the elite of this business, who repeated the fiction.
For four months, we didn’t deviate from the inspirational, unquestioning narrative that, in hindsight, was riddled with inconsistencies and gaps in basic logic. The tale was repeated so many times, in so many venues, that the myth became real.
“Well,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told the South Bend Tribune in November in unintentional foreshadowing, “it’s a great story.”
Were we simply fooled, or did we become stenographers caught up in the narrative’s tear-jerking power, instead of reporters?
Expecting this to be a hoax, of course, would border on paranoia best suited for a dusty corner of the Internet. But in a media age where immediacy trumps truth, bluster passes for insight and clicks drive decisions, basic tenets of the profession fell by the wayside.
Why, for instance, did the date of Kekua’s supposed death shift? The Tribune reported she died Sept. 11, followed by Te’o’s grandmother the next day. The Associated Press and others reported the opposite. The Tribune later wrote that Kekua sent a text message of condolence to Te’o’s parents on the grandmother’s passing. In December, the New York Post put the gap between deaths at three days.
The Associated Press reported the funeral was in Carson City, Calif., a city that doesn’t exist, while The Palm Beach Post had it in Hawaii.
Sports Illustrated had Kekua diagnosed with leukemia two months after a car accident; ESPN had it at eight months. The Tribune dated the diagnosis to three years earlier when they started dating.
The Tribune conveyed an anecdote about them meeting outside of Stanford’s stadium, in a story since pulled from the paper’s website. They never met, Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick insisted Wednesday.
Notre Dame said Te’o learned of the hoax Dec. 6; he continued to field questions about Kekua’s death.
Even a cursory check of Twitter would’ve revealed a series of posts between @ceeweezy51 and @jayrahz on Dec. 12 detailing the hoax.
Why did no pictures of the couple exist? Why didn’t they meet when Notre Dame played at Stanford, where the fiction had Kekua enrolled as a student, in 2011? Why wasn’t there an obituary or death notice? Why did the woman have no public trail other than a Twitter account, as if she materialized from underneath Notre Dame’s golden dome? Why did Te’o’s father describe her visiting Hawaii? How could Te’o date a woman for three years, as the fiction went, describe her as “truly loved,” yet not attend her funeral?
Like Lance Armstrong, Te’o became a story we wanted to be real, a feel-good tale that really was confirmation bias spewed in thousands of black and white words. We built another legend.
Being scammed is a risk run by any reporter. But journalists exist not to build legends but to, best as we can, find the truth.
Five minutes would’ve shown you’re chasing a ghost.