As the Manti Te’o controversy has been fiercely raging for the last several weeks, the reactions in the comments sections of online media outlets is pretty predictable: suddenly everyone is a hardcore PBS news junkie, outraged that CNN and USA Today isn’t talking about the problem of Gerrymandering in Jordan or Sequestration, as if those story are being pushed off the airwaves by Te’o’s fake girlfriend.
The T’eo story is not just entertaining for all of its bizarre twist and turns, but it is part of the American ethos on fairness. While our history tells a different story, our popular culture has long been obsessed with the idea that lying is wrong, that it is unfair if anyone benefits from cheating. That’s why the T’eo story is dominating the news — we don’t want this myth to be undone.
Te’o’s faux pas is not that he made-up a girl friend or grossly exaggerated the relationship — who hasn’t done that at one point in their life? — but that he allegedly did it to help generate sympathy to raise his national profile, which among many things, would boost his chances of winning the Heisman Trophy.
In popular culture you become a villain as soon as you are a cheat and liar. You can be despicable as long as you have integrity. This is why antiheroes are still heroes. Consider “Dirty” Harry Callahan from the Dirty Harry films. While he breaks all kinds of police procedures and criminal justice laws, it’s all for the purpose of catching the bad guy. Those tactics are not used for his self-enrichment — he’s not keeping seized drug money for himself or shaking down criminals.
Or consider Gordon Gekko. He’s not a villain because he buys up companies, raids the pension funds, and leaves all the workers unemployed — that makes him a captain of industry. He’s a villain because he relied on insider trading — he was not playing fairly. Greed is good as long as you don’t break the rules.
And the fairness aspect is the other aspect of the T’eo story that’s a reflection of our popular culture. We believe that everyone should have a level playing field, that we lookdown on people who game the system. We see this in everything from stories about racial equality, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, to ones about the business world, like Tucker: The Man and His Dream. And again, this is what our culture tells us America is about, even if the truth is very different.
The whole T’eo situation reminds me a lot of the movie Quiz Show, which was based on real life events. Charles Van Doren’s crime was that he entertained people under false pretenses. I’ve always felt that director Robert Redford never really made the case against Van Doren. If there was ever a victimless crime, this was it, but apparently lying and cheating is so taboo in American culture that Redford didn’t feel they need to try and articulate why it was so wrong that Van Doren knew the answers to the questions.
And that’s really the same deal as T’eo; he allegedly created narrative about a dying girlfriend that read like the plot of a low budget romance movie starring Channing Tatum. Americans love this kind of stuff — it’s why everyone got sucked in when it was initially reported despite the fact that it had nothing to do with football. It was just great entertainment — it somehow made the football more enjoyable.
And now that we know the truth we want to see him punished. He’s committed no actual criminal crime, so there is nothing the courts can do. So it falls to the shoulders of the media to mete out justice.
You might be saying that you don’t care about any of this, but if it wasn’t for the media trying to put our societal sense of fairness and cheating back in order, people would be demanding something be done, and next thing you know there would be Congressional hearings on this like there were on sports doping.