There’s a great line in the movie “Absence of Malice.”
The lead character, Michael Gallagher, played by Paul Newman, says to a newspaper reporter played by Sally Field: “You don’t write the truth; you write what people say.”
I was 15 years old when I heard that line in 1981 and a few months into my first journalism class at Southport High School. The line immediately struck a chord. I knew it was true.
I thought of that line as I watched former Indianapolis attorney and current Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick standing before a packed press conference addressing the issue of Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend.
As it turned out, she hadn’t had a bad car accident. She didn’t die of leukemia. In fact, she never existed.
I’m not saying Swarbrick intentionally withheld the truth. Rather, in my best estimation, I’d say Swarbrick was relating the truth as he knows it. I admire him for standing in front of a throng of skeptical reporters and answering every question.
I’m not sure Swarbrick gets high marks for getting out in front of this story, but at least last night he wasn’t running from it. And I don’t think he’s dodging it. At least I hope that’s not the case.
Swarbrick related that he believes that Te’o, the Notre Dame star football player who finished second in this year’s Heisman Trophy voting, was deceived to think he had a relationship with a girl that never existed. Swarbrick says he doesn’t think Te’o is a part of that hoax.
Swarbrick is taking a huge risk in standing firmly behind the Te’o story. He’s putting his own reputation on the line, as well as that of Notre Dame. It doesn’t appear to be something he was compelled to do. He could have chosen to distance Notre Dame from this story.
It didn’t take long for the skeptics to line up to take shots at Swarbrick, who choked up as he related how the deception perpetrated on Te’o has affected Notre Dame’s innocent football star. Swarbrick was getting hammered on social media during his press conference.
For Swarbrick's sake, I hope Te'o is telling the truth. Because there's no more getting the benefit of the doubt.
And where is Brian Kelly? The Notre Dame football coach is eventually going to have to step out from behind Swarbrick and answer what he thinks and knows about Te’o’s tale. Even though the media fumbled this story the first time around, you can bet they’re going to run with it now, and Kelly, like Swarbrick, will have to stand and deliver.
Swarbrick is far from the only one taking a beating. And for me, as a journalist, that leads to a bigger issue, and back to that line that keeps echoing in my ear: “You don’t write the truth; you write what people say.”
The South Bend Tribune, ESPN and Sports Illustrated also are getting hammered in the wake of this scandal. To some degree, they probably should be.
How could these and so many other media outlets have reported the story that Te’o’s girlfriend had been in a horrific traffic accident and some months later died of leukemia without checking it out?
The story on the Deadspin website made these news organizations seem like The Three Stooges. But I’m not wagging my finger.
It’s easy in retrospect to criticize the news organizations that furthered the lie that Te’o was either snared in or participated in. In retrospect, there were dozens of red flags, from Te’o’s unwillingness to help news organizations get a picture of his girlfriend and put them in touch with her family to not being able to find an obituary of any kind.
All that said, I’m not sure I would ever think to ask for proof if someone told me their wife or girlfriend had died. In fact, I’m fairly certain the thought would never cross my mind.
My mother has told me a million times, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
I’d like to think I would have dug a little bit on Te'o's tale, but if I answer honestly, I probably wouldn’t have doubted his story.
I was on a jury last fall. And it was an ugly case involving child abuse. As a reporter, I’ve learned to look at things critically and skeptically. I questioned everything about the case, and in several instances I stood as the lone dissenter on certain votes. I was pointedly asked if I understood the inner workings of the minds of the people involved in this case.
I answered quickly and instinctively.
“I’m not a mind reader,” I responded. “But I’m a newspaper reporter. I’ve had 25 years experience of people lying to me.”
I answered that question truthfully.
I don’t mean to say that everyone I interview lies. Nothing could be further from the truth. But there are enough people who lie, deceive and bend the truth as a habit or a lifestyle that as a reporter you have to always be on guard.
As reporters, simply "writing what people say” isn’t good enough. It can’t be. Otherwise we are simply agents to perpetuate untruths that seek to be told.
Let’s hope this case serves to remind us of that.