Manti Te'o interview mishandled by ESPN

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Manti Te'o finally spoke, but because of how things were presented we were left with a surreal, confusing report about what he said.

Manti Te'o finally broke his silence on Friday night, speaking to Jeremy Schaap in an off-camera interview that bled into Saturday morning. But for those hoping to gain some kind of clarity, the Te'o interview instead made a confusing story about a fake dead girlfriend even more complicated, thanks in large part to how the information was presented.

Set aside what Te'o said for a moment. The contents of the interview are not important for the purposes of this exercise. Instead of judging his response to the Deadspin investigation, it is important to understand what happened on Friday night. And what happened was quite a show.

Late Friday night -- during the first half of the Thunder-Mavericks match-up on ESPN -- word came down that Schaap was interviewing Te'o. The interview was off-camera, which was made clear from the start. Schaap was going to give a rundown of what happened after the game, but as word emerged from ESPN that they'd secured a sitdown, the interview was ongoing.

This should've raised a few red flags. First, we're talking about an interview on Friday night -- after midnight -- in Florida. Despite the massive interest in the story, it was going to get buried. The timing of the interview and when Schaap did his initial stand-up on SportsCenter after the Mavs-Thunder game flipped the newscycle.

The interview also ran more than two hours. With two-and-a-half hours of information to parse, it is going to take a significant amount of time to digest what happened, transcribe Te'o's words, review notes, then form something of a coherent report. Schaap didn't have time. He had a short period to figure out what he was going to say live on air, and enough time to paraphrase some of what Te'o said.

Oh, and the interview wasn't on camera. There would be no ability for the viewer to parse Te'o's body language or hear him in his own words, outside of a few allowed audio clips. ESPN had to make concessions to get the interview, but these are fairly massive ones.

As a result, the first five or so minutes of SportsCenter at around 12:45 a.m. on Saturday morning were both bizarre and surreal. There was Schaap, doing a live hit and trying desperately to get information out. But instead of clearing this up, Schaap's segment was akin to watching a Twitter feed during a big breaking news event. Information was disjointed, coming in small bursts and then changing later throughout the night. There wasn't a complete story to tell, mostly due to the fact that Te'o had just finished going over a significant amount of information with Schaap. And there wasn't clean and easy video to fall back on because the interview was not on camera.

Both online and on live television, ESPN rushed this story out the door -- which was part of the original problem in the saga of Manti Te'o and the girlfriend who didn't exist. Information flew through while on deadline and things weren't thoroughly vetted, leading to different timelines and, you know, a story about a dead girlfriend that never actually existed. It was all incredibly confusing and surreal.

For instance:

  • Schaap stated Te'o told him that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo sent him a Twitter direct message two days ago owning up to creating the hoax and apologizing for what he had done. The story online included a passage about Schaap being shown the direct message. But later, Schaap said the confession and apology came via phone. And Te'o may not have even been following Tuiasosopo on Twitter, which means a direct message couldn't happen.
  • There was a line in the online story stating a woman claiming to be Lennay Kekua showed up at Notre Dame's team hotel in the run-up to the BCS Championship Game. Te'o saw photos of a woman he believed was Kekua in the lobby of the team hotel and told Schaap it threw him off and affected his play against Alabama. That was all deleted and replaced by "a group of people connected to Tuiasosopo." And now the story reads (emphasis mine):

A group of people connected to Tuiasosopo showed up at the team hotel, after curfew, for the Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami. Te'o said he knew they were at the hotel because the group took photos in the hotel lobby. Someone in the group called Te'o, saying they were waiting for Kekua to join them in the lobby and asking if she was with him. Te'o then hung up. Te'o said it affected his play in the game, where Notre Dame lost to Alabama 42-14.

These are two somewhat small examples, but the evolution of the description of the interview was a constant theme throughout the night. Schaap was trying to parse and distribute information on the air with little time to prepare -- while staff was working to get a full story online -- and the result wasn't pretty.

Considering the confusing nature of the story, the length of the interview, and the web of lies already involved in this hoax, the interview should've been done quietly, prepared, and ran on Saturday morning. There was no rush to hit the big "Friday at 1 a.m." news cycle. Clarity should've beat speed in this case, with Schaap and ESPN painting a clear picture instead of throwing things at a wall in an effort to get something out the door.

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