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Something to Talk About

The Manti Te'o girlfriend saga played out fittingly and fascinatingly in the lurid light of daytime TV

The MEDIA Circus

Say what you will about talk-show journalism, or whatever you want to call the hectoring, not wholly dignified pursuit of ratings on afternoon TV: It gets results. A story that languished for months in the feel-good domain of mainstream coverage, with no hint of truth to separate it from a Lifetime movie, can, in the right hands, get stripped for parts between commercial breaks, the players limping from the studio like the small-time grifters they really are, experts opining on why this will never happen again, and a genial host reminding us, kindly, what saps we humans are at heart.

And so did the Manti Te'o "hoax" wind to its conclusion (we think), the whole improbable yarn unspooling at three in the afternoon, first with Katie Couric on Jan. 24 and then—in a memorable two-parter last Thursday and Friday that involved voice experts contracted by the U.S. Secret Service—with Dr. Phil. It's a shame to summarize their findings so briefly, given the entertainment value of this tale, but after a week of daytime television, they go like this:

Girl meets boy; girl loses boy; girl and boy reconcile; girl has an automobile accident, goes into a coma, dies of leukemia, then calls boy.

As this is what passes for courtship these days, when pretty much anything can happen in cyberspace, it hardly bears further comment. But complicating the story was the inconvenient fact that the girl, known to all parties as Lennay Kekua, was actually a love-struck boy named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. In addition, it mattered that the equally love-struck (if somewhat played) boy was Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o. What might have lived and died as an Internet spoof was instead elevated to the realm of national news story. That Te'o bought into it helped it spiral out of control.

Once the story was busted, Te'o took the chair across from Katie to try to establish his innocence in the plot, or at least his naiveté. While he was convincing about his motivation in the scheme—he was the one punk'd, after all—he nevertheless appeared vulnerable to charges of being a bit of a drama queen. Katie seemed surprised that anybody could conduct a believable relationship online, but that is merely an old fogey's ignorance of modern romance. Where do you meet your beaux, Katie, barn dances? More suspicious was Te'o's insistence, long after the truth was revealed to him, on the reality of a dead and consequently awe-inspiring girlfriend.

Far more disturbing was Dr. Phil's two-day interview with Tuiasosopo, in which the elaborate yearlong relationship was boiled down to the simple yearnings of a damaged, if highly articulate and well-organized, young man. It hurt to see Tuiasosopo reveal his sexual abuse at age 12, how "filthy" he felt and how his courtship of Te'o, however impossible, reassured him of his own capacity for love. It hurt to see him sit with his parents and admit this; hurt to hear him, at Dr. Phil's insistence, re-create the falsetto voice with which he fooled Te'o. The whole thing hurt.

So after a week of syndicated sausage-making we learn that the affair was nothing more than a horribly misguided case of puppy love that, for reasons mostly to do with the media's appetite for stories that fit heroic/tragic templates, escalated to tabloid sensation.

Of course, as this story has already taken more twists and turns than is usual, all the key elements cherry-picked from the soaps that normally precede Katie's and Dr. Phil's, it is important to remain vigilant, skeptical, even cynical. What if, now that we think about it, Tuiasosopo is merely one more layer of the onion, another invention in a scam that has ensnared even Dr. Phil? Possible, of course, but nothing to worry about. It's not as if there aren't other talk shows out there.

"After a week of syndicated sausage-making, we learned that the whole affair was nothing more than a horribly misguided case of puppy love that, for reasons mostly to do with the media's appetite for stories that fit heroic/tragic templates, escalated to tabloid sensation."



THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW Tuiasosopo's sitdown with Dr. Phil (left)—complete with falsetto voice re-creations—was painful to watch.