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Real Dead Girls vs. Fake Dead Girls

Becka and Danielle discovered one morning last week in the NWLC kitchen over coffee and yogurt that they shared a sense of confusion over a major news story – Manti Te’o – and why his saga was dominating the news cycle, so, being members of the Communications team, they decided to hash it out the only way they knew how – by blogging about it.

Manti Te'o on field in 2010 (Photo credit: Neon Tommy)
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o on field in 2010
Photo Credit: Neon Tommy

Danielle: So, let’s start out with a refresher on this Manti Te’o business and how it is that the story of a Notre Dame football player’s fake dead girlfriend came to be national news.

Te’o’s a linebacker on the University of Notre Dame football team and had a pretty spectacular senior season, capped off with an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game. He was nominated for the Heisman Trophy, and sports media spent a lot of time talking about Te’o’s on-field success while battling two losses: his grandmother and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who supposedly died within 48 hours of each other. His story was, obviously, extremely inspirational: Young man leads his team to championship game while dealing with great personal loss.

Becka: This had an inevitable book/movie deal written all over it. But there’s one problem: Kekua doesn’t exist. Sports blog Deadspin broke the news on January 16 and it feels like we’ve been hearing about this non-stop since! I heard about the news on Twitter first and then saw it reported as “Breaking News” on CNN and on the front page of the Washington Post. I’ve never been much of a sports fan, so the whole thing just baffles me – I don’t understand the fascination (and worship) of sports fans and their sports stars, but Danielle, I know you’re a major sports lover, so – what are your thoughts?

Danielle: As a sports fan, the coverage really frustrates me. The media blowup over this situation seems excessive. I really don’t care that much that Te’o was scammed or was in on some scam. If it was some sort of a point-shaving scam or something that actually had bearing on Notre Dame’s on-field play, fine. But part of this story is fake – so why has it been dominating headlines? Why was Te’o on Katie Couric’s show yesterday? Did we really need him to go on-air to hash out how he was fooled into believing he had an online girlfriend?

Becka: I’m glad that a sports fan feels similarly! It’s so frustrating to have these national anchors whom we look to for important, breaking news to continually focus on the story of a guy who was part of a Twitter scam and believed it for months and then lied about it once he realized it was fake. CNN, ABC – whether you’re a regular viewer or not, millions across the country look to them as important, reputable sources of major news. And when I see CNN reporting on it at 6:30 PM as a breaking news story, or ABC hyping up an interview with Te’o as an exclusive special feature, it’s just so aggravating to think about all the real newsworthy stories that we’re missing out on.

Danielle: Something that really fuels my frustration is all the attention this fake girl is getting, when real, living girls (and guys!) are being victimized on college campuses. Sometimes it’s even by these big-name athletes or even the coaching staff on some of these teams. Obviously Penn State comes to mind. That story is truly tragic, and truly news. But what really puts me over the top is the suicide of Lizzy Seeberg.

Becka: TELL ME ABOUT IT! Lizzy Seeberg’s story was the first thing I thought of when I heard that Te’o was a student at Notre Dame. Lizzy, 19, killed herself in 2009 after accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexual assault, and her case was put on the back burner – it took investigators five days to interview her accused assaulter, who was quickly cleared, and two and a half months for Notre Dame to start an internal investigation. Just days after this story broke, Notre Dame had already scheduled press conferences and hired an investigator to look into Te’o’s fake situation. And Lizzy’s isn’t even close to being the only story out there about administrations looking the other way on sexual assault.

Take the five women at the University of North Carolina who have filed complaints against the school. For Landen Gambill, Annie Clark, and three others, it took filing an official complaint with the U.S. Department of Education to see any action or movement at all on their case.

Danielle: The UNC allegations made my blood boil. I first heard about the UNC case after one of our former interns, Dana Bolger, tweeted about it. I first met Dana the morning I got back from a short vacation when she handed me her first-ever NWLC blog post to edit. And right at the start of the second paragraph, she talks about the rape she experienced her sophomore year at Amherst. Dana went back to campus and talked a lot about sexual assault in college culture and her experiences with the school administration after her rape. Dana’s story became part of a growing movement on campus fighting back against the unjust treatment many college rape victims receive from their school administrations.

Becka: Exactly – and the Te’o story still isn’t even close to dying down, now that he’s doing interviews. This is not to mention all the stories we fail to focus on regarding the situation for women abroad. During my recent trip to India, I was shocked to find that a girl had been brutally gang-raped and sparked protests around the country two full weeks prior to my visit and I had yet to hear anything about it! Granted, the story became bigger news in the States as protests escalated, but it still took quite some time to grab our attention.

Danielle: What do you think about the news that the trial of the five men accused of this gang-rape has already begun? From reading your blog I get the sense that this speedy trial is an anomaly for rape cases in India.

Becka: I’m thrilled that it seems like finally people are taking action and demanding change in the government – when I spoke to people in the country, it seemed like these kinds of things – not just rape, but child sexual assault and harassment – go unreported, ignored, or are extremely low priority. Right now we’re kind of in a “see-what-happens” holding pattern with the case and seeing if they implement the recommendations of the new government panel set up to address sexual assault laws – but regardless of outcome, the fact that many news outlets have shifted focus from this major news story is also disappointing. A Google News search for “Manti Te’o” from the past week resulted in over 3,429 hits, while one on “India” + “rape” for the same time frame resulted in only 17.

Danielle: To sum up, I think Annie Clark – one of the five girls who filed the complaint against UNC – said it perfectly when she said: “You hear about Amherst, then it dies down; you hear about Yale, then it dies down. We're tired of it just popping up and everyone saying it's really horrible and then nothing happens.” I’m tired of Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend and the whole sensationalized “did he or didn’t he know” narrative being a story. You hear about these stories from abroad, and the cycle moves on. And you hear stories from Dana and Annie and other college women, and you know there are women whose stories we’ve never even heard. It’s time we keep our attention on the things that matter – and tell the stories of real women instead of fake ones.


Further Te’o madness: Just before publication, Becka and Danielle discovered that the State Department issued guidelines on how to avoid online scams like fake girlfriends. Really America, did it need to come to this?

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