I don’t know the details of the Manti Te’o story and am not going to find them, but this exchange between Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman interested me for their reflections on why people believed the story. Gladwell analyzes “the singular genius of the hoax itself.”
The young girlfriend of a prominent football player is severely injured in a car crash and then dies of leukemia. It’s so good. It’s three of the great modern inspirational narratives, all in one.
The first element is: beautiful young girl dies of leukemia. It’s Love Story, right? The most influential Hollywood tearjerker of the past 50 years. Ali MacGraw dies tragically of leukemia, leaving Ryan O’Neal bereft: Love means never having to say you’re sorry.
Then there’s the “inspirational outsider” motif, which goes all the way back to Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, and the famous “win one for the Gipper” speech. . . .
Then comes the third part — the Icarus myth. Our hero flies too close to the sun. This is the story of the star who dies tragically in a car or plane crash. . . . Too fast to live, too young to die.
Gladwell finishes his letter saying with obvious enjoyment that the “fantastic’ story “is all three narratives, all in one. It’s Love Story meets Icarus meets inspirational outsider.”
It wasn’t enough that Manti’s love affair be doomed, that his girlfriend had leukemia, and that he drew from her death the inspiration to go out and get 12 tackles in the crucial defeat of Michigan State. She also had to be severely injured in a car accident. It’s a combo platter! It’s so over-the-top I am in awe. You couldn’t be more right that this is an “aggressively modern” scandal. Why would anyone in the 21st century settle for just one played-out story line?
Klosterman responds by asking whether this makes Te’o's knowing about the scandal more or less likely, and then reflects on how people would react to the news that he knew, with reference to Lance Armstrong:
But I’ve noticed something about the people who always argued he was innocent — for the most part, they now say things like, “Actually, I don’t even care if he used steroids. Everybody in cycling uses steroids, and he did a lot of good things for society by out-cheating the other cheaters.” They all began by supporting his innocence, but — when that became impossible — they continued to support him as a non-innocent person.
I wonder if something similar will happen with this case. I suspect a lot of society will want to believe that Te’o was totally bamboozled and that the entity we’re supposed to hate (and blame) is the culture of the Internet.
But even if that theory slowly erodes — if details continue to emerge that suggest Te’o was aware of what was happening and might have even sculpted the fabrication — all the people who initially believed in his innocence will suddenly decide that the whole story is irrelevant (“This doesn’t take away from what he did on the field,” “He’s still a first-round pick in the draft,” etc.).