Behind the Te'o hoax: Q&A with Deadspin's Burke
Wednesday's huge revelation from Deadspin.com -- that the sad story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's girlfriend dying of leukemia in September was a huge hoax and that she never existed at all -- was co-written by St. Petersburg resident Timothy Burke, who has been an editor at Deadspin since October 2011 and had spent much of the previous five days reporting the story with Deadspin writer Jack Dickey, who is a student at Columbia.
Burke, 34, is working on a doctorate in communications from USF, he's on Twitter at @bubbaprog, and he also runs a blog, 30fps, that has a cult following for its hilarious archive of screengrabs and video captures from TV. After a Skype appearance on CNN to speak with Anderson Cooper about the story on Wednesday night, he talked to the Times about his story and newfound celebrity.
Auman: It must be a strange -- and still proud -- acknowledgement, to see your story rolling along the ticker on ESPN, also as great publicity for Deadspin.
Burke: It's just bizarre to me. We had ESPN on downstairs all night, and every time I go down there, in the corner, "BREAKING NEWS: Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend did not exist." What a bizarre statement? Think about how crazy that is. That's so weird to me.
Auman: Take me back as much as you can to how this started, and all the reporting that led to this story.
Burke: We got an anonymous e-mail Friday that said "Hey, there's something sketchy about Manti Te'o's girlfriend. You should check it out." I was actually out with (wife) Lynn somewhere in western Hillsborough County at an orange grove at the time. Both Jack Dickey and our editor-in-chief, Tommy Craggs, were messaging me frantically. 'Can you check in on this?'
What do you do when you're looking for information? To start, you go to Google. We googled "Lennay" and you find Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend. Nothing about her from before she was dead. That's a little strange. We went into 'Does she exist?' Did she go to Stanford? We called Stanford, got copies of their yearbooks, knew she wasn't a graduate, finally got word she had never attended. Does this person exist in any Social Security records? No. The Associated Press said she was buried in Carson, Calif., so we called every mortuary and funeral home in Carson. Any word? No. It just continued to go from there. Every point we looked for evidence that she existed, there was none.
Auman: It's a difficult thing to prove a negative. What was the real smoking gun that there was a hoax involved?
Burke: We tracked one of her old Twitter profile pictures to an actual person. I got a hold of her on Facebook and said 'Hey, is this you? Which of these pictures are you?' She said 'All of them are me.' We got a very fortunate break, that one of the pictures used at that time in the Lennay Twitter profile was a picture that (the actual person) had sent to this kid. She knew he was the only one who he had it. She gave us his phone number. He didn't answer the phone, answer any of our questions, but we were able to find relatives and people he had scammed in the past, learned he's been doing this for a long time.
Auman: Notre Dame came out Wednesday night very much in defense of Te'o, saying he was the victim of a hoax and not complicit at all, though there certainly seem to be lies from him and family members in terms of him saying he had met a girlfriend when he had a relationship exclusively online and by phone. What do you make of that?
Burke: I think they did Manti Te'o a huge disservice, as I think him releasing a statement did himself a disservice. This is a situation where nothing you can say is going to improve your situation. Every time you give a reaction, it keeps the news cycle focused on the embarrassing story. I think it would be better for Te'o if he'd come out and said 'Yeah, I set it up to win the Heisman.' Whether he did or not, for his professional career, it would have been better for him to show he was cunning and clever and smart. He's a middle linebacker who has to show he can be cold and calculating. Instead, he told everyone he was a patsy. If I'm an NFL GM, that doesn' sound good to me. I would not have published any response, let it go away.
Now he's offered a statement, and we can go through the statement and say 'He's lying right there.' He realized Dec. 26 and has been honest ever since. Well, he was asked about his girlfriend, he answered the question before the BCS championship game. He could have opened up and said 'I want to clarify some things.' ... He could just said 'I don't want to talk about that.'
Auman: You found so many discrepancies even among the different stories that had reported on Te'o and his supposed girlfriend. A lot of journalism people are pointing to this as a reminder about the importance of fact-checking at very basic levels, to question everything.
Burke: Tomorrow's article will have all the discrepancies. I don't put this on Manti Te'o. I don't put this on the kid who scammed him if he did it. I put this on the fact-checkers at SI that let Pete Thamel write an article that had a bunch of stuff that didn't happen in it. It's not lazy or bad, it's just sloppy. This is a really great example of what can happen when everybody is sloppy.