I'm a former journalist, but I'm not purporting to be one right now.
Simply put, I'm appalled at how the media have reported on the hoax surrounding Manti Te'o, the Hawaii native who starred at linebacker for Notre Dame.
ABC’s Katie Couric and ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap both emerged from their exclusive Te’o interviews saying that Te'o presented himself in a very believable manner. Schaap said he thought Te'o was "very believable." Couric said she didn't "think he concocted this hoax."
Yet, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, ESPN TV personality Stephen A. Smith, and a host of other high-profile journalists and guest commentators find it “strange” that the most popular athlete and big man on campus resorted to an online girlfriend when he could have had live relationships all along. They make no mention of Te’o’s morals or the fact that he is a bright student-athlete.
We are living in an online world. It is difficult for others to comprehend that the younger generation communicates and dates through social media. The news media downplays the experience that Te’o has gone through emotionally and mentally. Can you imagine your child living through public scrutiny perpetuated night after night that never goes away?
As a matter of full disclosure, Manti Te’o is a personal friend. Like President Barack Obama, he graduated from the prestigious Hawaii school Punahou. My child is one of his schoolmates and best friends.
I respect his parents, Brian and Ottilia Te’o, greatly and worked closely with his father's mother in the late ‘90s. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he comes from religious stock and has a proud culture with high expectations, which include protecting his last name.
The country witnessed this Laie, Hawaii, boy’s loyalty to his parents when he spoke to Couric on Jan. 24. While he gave candid answers that still do not satisfy skeptics today, I was frustrated by the talk show host’s body language, eyebrow crunching and voice intonations. Since then, she has come out saying she believed Te'o was indeed the victim.
However, national headlines after Couric’s interview focused on the fact that “Manti Te’o briefly lied.” That’s not what we heard in the interview! He said: “I wasn’t as forthcoming about it, but I didn’t lie.” He was still unsure if his girlfriend was alive or dead on Dec. 6, when he says he got a call from the person. "I never was asked, ‘Did you see her in person?’" he told Couric. "Through embarrassment and fear of what people may think, that I was committed to this person I didn’t meet, that scared me."
While he did admit briefly lying to his father, his quotes hit the media like wildfire. There are few reports of Hawaii’s island son being a victim in this horrendous prank. The fact is, truth and goodness do not sell as well as the image of a "bad boy" or dishonest person.
You tell me a child who has never told a lie. Fact is, Manti Te'o is not perfect, but I know him to be an obedient child and a loving son.
Why is it so difficult for some people to believe that this young man who holds strong morals is able to develop a genuine relationship online? Journalists poke fun of Te’o’s “imaginary girlfriend,” but there was nothing imaginary about the texts, voice messages from a female and hundreds of hours of phone calls, with records that exist, that eventually turned into heartache for the Te’o family.
Do you think that a bright Punahou kid would deliberately put himself through all these twists and turns for more than a year? There were reports following the death of his grandmother and girlfriend last Sept. 12, how the linebacker erupted in anger, with others there to witness his grief. It is preposterous that there are people out there who still believe Te’o perpetuated the hoax for personal gain.
In my personal opinion, Manti Te’o is guilty of following the teachings of his parents by reaching out to those who are in need. In this case, he found peace and comfort with a young woman whom he connected with as his soul mate, and whom he believed battled cancer and faced death in the eye.
Ottilia Te’o explained it best to Couric: “He did exactly what I would expect a responsible, respectable young man to do, to extend himself to someone who said that they lost their father and now they have cancer. ... It just hurts to see, you know, his picture and his name being displayed as someone that is dishonest.”
Why isn’t anyone talking about Brian Te’o’s Christian gesture of reaching out through an intermediary to the alleged perpetrator's family? He sent words of comfort from parent to parent, rather than slap the alleged hoaxster with a messy lawsuit. Perhaps because that would be a story of good parents, which isn’t quite as sensational as what journalists prefer to cover today.
No harsh words of bitterness were uttered from the mouths of the family despite the pain they have suffered. They instead have preached love, forgiveness and family loyalty.
“Kids, listen to your parents,” Manti Te’o said to Couric and her live audience.
But we’re not going to see quotes like that very much in print. The media prefer to talk about fake girlfriends, timelines and the sensational aspects of this story. Fact is, they are missing the real story of a humble, scholar-athlete who wears a CTR ring, reads scriptures, adores his parents and became a loyal, loving friend to a prankster who lost control of reality.
Te'o is an Eagle Scout who earned his wings by achieving the ultimate Boy Scout award. He garnered his accolades because of hard work and dedication to football, loyalty to his parents and faith in God. He did not need a sensational story to win those awards. His grandmother's death was tragic enough.
This has been an exhausting and confusing roller coaster that has taken a toll on the emotions of a family that has worked to keep away from controversy and protect their last name.
I am friends with the family. If the pressure is enough to make my blood boil and blood pressure rise, can you imagine what the Te’o family is going through?
I know Manti Te’o as a humble, respectful, loyal and dedicated kid who through these trying times has emerged as a resilient young warrior. He could have easily crawled under a rock and broke down, but he didn't. The Hawaiian-born Heisman runner-up comes from a strong foundation and continues to garner the support of his Punahou and church friends. We stand behind him with unwavering faith, while Manti Te’o continues to strengthen and inspire those around him with his trials and tribulations.
I know because I consider Te'o one of my own.
Sandra Sagisi Moser is a former public affairs media rep for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Hawaii Public Affairs Council and television and print journalist.
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