We have talked a lot about the Manti Teo story on here and I won’t go into my thoughts on here as to whether he is simply a naive sap, a deceptive liar, or possibly both. No to me what is more interesting is the side of this beyond Teo, specifically the media’s complicity in the train wreck. Specifically, I find it fascinating that the two reporters who have been made to look the worst in the Teo situation are Pete Thamel and Pat Forde. As the Big Blue Nation surely knows, these two names are memorized by even the youngest of the Blue faithful as examples 1 and 2 of reporters who seem hell bent on bringing down John Calipari and going after his every move. For the first year of Calipari’s tenure (until ESPN made him stop writing about UK due to his Pitino connection), Pat Forde was constantly critical of Calipari, proving in print what I famously heard him say at the Calipari introductory press conference, “I just don’t like him.” For Pete Thamel, the methodology has not been character assassination in the form of columns, but instead the Henry Hyde “never ending series of investigations” mindset. If Calipari has a player, Thamel will investigate and hope to find something, no matter how minute in order to make a splashy headline. Both have been successful at getting attention with the Calipari exploits and both have been praised for their work as “journalists” in the truest sense. But ironically, the two most notorious Calipari critics/investigators have now also been shown to be the two most easily duped people in the entirety of the national sports media.
In Forde’s case, it stems from his laughable column last night in which he said he “believed Notre Dame.” Now don’t get me wrong. Everything that the Notre Dame AD said last night may be true and he may have done nothing wrong in promoting or covering up the Manti Teo story. While the entire spectacle seemed to me to be a mistake and a horrendous PR decision, at this point we have no reason to say definitively that he, or the school, has done anything wrong in this case (as opposed to say the way the Lizzy Seeberg case, for whom no tears were shed, was handled). But that is the heart of the matter…we don’t know. However Pat Forde thinks he does and believes Notre Dame…why? Because (to quote him), “I know Swarbrick fairly well over the course of maybe two dozen interactions, both professional and personal — well enough to have a read on his personality.” So there you go. Pat Forde has had dinner with Swarbrick a dozen times, they are friends and as such is able to tell with authority that he must be telling the truth. It isn’t Pat Forde as a journalist telling you this, he has no facts one way or the other, it is Pat Forde the friend and confidant of the man on which he is supposed to be reporting/commenting. Of course in making this absurd assertion, he is ignoring the most obvious lesson of the entire Manti Teo saga, the fact that we shouldn’t believe ANYTHING from public figures without verification. But rather than acknowledge the inability to make definitive judgments about ANYTHING in this case, Forde says we should believe Notre Dame because he saw the AD’s “chin quivering.” It is so unbelievably naive that it honestly is beyond further mocking.
Now as for Pete Thamel, little can warm UK fans’ hearts more than Thamel being the reporter whose false story started the Teo narrative. Thamel’s defenders will argue that it isn’t surprising that he did not pick up on the problem, because who would think a player would talk about a girlfriend dying who didnt exist. Fair enough. But as Pete himself notes today, he saw “red flags” in the story when he did the initial interview. However because he wanted to respect the player, had bought into the Teo mythology and was on a 2 hour deadline (I love that he threw in the time excuse, as if rushing a random story into the dead medium of print somehow justifies the biggest journalistic hoax in recent sports memory), let the discrepancies go. No death certificate, accident record, Nexus search or proof that his girlfriend went to Stanford, all of which to Thamel’s credit he says he noted, but for Thamel, still no problem. How does this happen? Well the best explanation is that of Slate.com today, which notes that Thamel was simply buying into the “good guy/bad guy” narrative that is standard for him. When the subject is someone Thamel doesn’t like (for instance John Calipari or the Honey Badger), no stone is left unturned in order to bring the person down. If he is a good person who Thamel believes “doesn’t have it in him” to lie to the public, then facts are just pushed to the side for a good story. Even now, Thamel says he “feels sorry” for Teo, because to admit any possible hole in Teo’s character, would also mean acknowledging the problems with his own. He is able to take the mantle of the crusading journalist against those that are perceived bad (or don’t like him) and the feel-good storyteller of those that assumed good (or give him the best scoops for him to break). It is a great dual-role that allows Thamel to confirm his biases, win praises (and retweets) from his peers, all the while controlling the narrative by selecting which facts he chooses to pursue.
To be honest, I have no idea what Manti Teo knew or when he knew it. And while I have a prurient interest in that story, it doesn’t really matter. But the journalistic bias that showcases itself with Forde/Thamel is much worse. If either member of the dastardly duo of deception is your friend, then they will write books with you, take public your leaked transcripts of players you weren’t able to recruit and break your stories when you want a nationally respected media member to be used as University public relations. When they don’t like you, they will travel to Birmingham, Louisiana or even Turkey to try and get the facts needed to bring you down. But hey, try to challenge them and you will be slapped on the wrist for not understanding the role of “objective” journalists. They don’t have bias because apparently they don’t care who wins the games. So this means they must be “objective” and simply “doing their jobs”, But unless objective means with a specific goal in mind or “doing their jobs” involves writing complimentary articles for those coaches with whom you have a financial relationship, go bar hopping or leer at Hooters waitresses at Summer recruiting events, then I don’t know how that term truly applies to them. Instead, what they are is no different than any blogger, local radio host or fan who is lucky enough to have a voice, but with the prestige that comes with a national media outlet.
Tony Kornheiser has often joked that for a writer or tv personality, the reason to get famous is in order to “help your friends, crush your enemies and get a good table at dinner.” And in today’s world of media “celebrity” caused by television and the internet allowing articles to flourish nationwide, such perks have never been made more available. For Pat Forde and Pete Thamel, any public embarrassment from this screwup will likely blow over. Their colleagues won’t call them out on it, and the only critics will be random bloggers or members of the non-sports media critics. Life will go on, as will their agendas. And in the end, they will still be able to do what they have already done. Because based on their status and recent work, they have helped create and preserve the myth of Manti Teo/Notre Dame, shed light on the supposed sins of John Calipari and the Honey Badger and will never want for the finest place setting the next time they visit South Bend.