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College Player's Tragic Story about Girlfriend a Hoax; Tense Hostage Standoff in Algeria; "Idol" Judges Take the Spotlight; Notre Dame: Manti was "Perfect Mark"

Aired January 17, 2013 - 08:30   ET



SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: It's a story that defined Notre Dame's football season, star linebacker Manti Te'o losing his grandmother and then his girlfriend within 24 hours of each other. And despite the pain he went on to lead the team to the BCS championship game. It turns out, though, the girlfriend never existed.


JACK SWARBRICK, ATHLETIC DIRECTOR, NOTRE DAME: This was a very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax perpetrated for reasons we can't fully understand but had a certain cruelty at its core based on the exchanges that we were able to see between some of the people who perpetrated it.


O'BRIEN: Timothy Burke is the assignment editor at and he broke the story. Nice to have you with us. That was the athletic director talking about how they stand behind Manti Te'o, they believe he is telling them the truth, that this was a cruel hoax. Do you think that -- I mean to me the $64,000 question is, it's certainly a hoax. Who was involved? Do you think Manti Te'o is involved?

TIMOTHY BURKE, ASSIGNMENT EDITOR, DEADSPIN.COM: I'm not really in a position to say whether I think he's involved, except to sort of look at the story that he's telling, and especially that his claim that he did not know that it was a fake account until late December, which means that for more than a year he claims that an individual who we at "Deadspin" have associated with Te'o as somebody who he knows was pretending to be this person all the while, while presumably a presumably intelligent man like Manti Te'o never caught on. I really struggle to believe that he could have been suckered for that long.

O'BRIEN: So let's talk pro and con on this. People show "Catfish," it is all about that, and in fact the athletic director from Notre Dame mentioned that in his comments yesterday. I think we can play that for you, he talked about the show exactly about that, people tricked by online relationships. Let's play that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would refer all of you, if you're not already familiar with it, with both the documentary called "Catfish." It is a scam, probably revealing my television watching habits but covered by Dr. Phil extensively recently, that follows the exact arc of this.


O'BRIEN: So what makes you think or lay out for me the evidence that would make you think that, in fact, there is some connection, that Manti Te'o may be involved? Lay out what you've seen in evidence.

BURKE: Well, first I have to sort of take issue with the assertion that the movie "Catfish" was a documentary. There's a great deal of controversy and skepticism that that movie was entirely factual and not set up. So let's just sort of lay that out there, that there's a debate about that film's authenticity, but second, ask yourself why and what incentive a person would have to execute such a lengthy, time-consuming and expensive con that would involve multiple people and essentially consume his entire life just to screw around with a guy that he knows?

O'BRIEN: OK, but why, could you ask on the other side, why would he do it? Give me the rationale potentially. There are some people said you have a young man who stands to earn a lot of money, maybe that could be a motive that was raised in the press conference last night. On the other side the question of why also goes for Manti Te'o, like, why would he have to pretend to have a girlfriend? He is a star football player. He could just go find a real live girlfriend and pretend he's in love with her if he wanted to pretend.

BURKE: Absolutely, and I think the question would really be why would Manti Te'o, knowing that this person wasn't real, continue to talk about her as if she were a real person after she, quote, "died." When we ask, you know, if he was a complete, if he was the patsy in this, where is the incentive for the person who coned him, and we can't find any.

But we can find at least a sliver of a possible incentive for Manti Te'o, because we know every story written about him this college football season after his girlfriend died mentioned his inspiring story about coming back through and perseverance through personal loss and tragedy. It became a major narrative in the college football season this year and propelled him to being a Heisman finalist. Now, I'm not saying anything that I think that Manti knew all along. I'm just saying that there was incentive for that to be part of his personal story.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Tim, this is Will Cain. How did this story get to you? How did you first gain your suspicions?

BURKE: We got an e-mail last week at that said, "Hey, there's something real weird about Lenay Kekua, Manti's allegedly dead girlfriend, and you should check it out." We get a lot of e-mails like that but my colleague, jack Dickey and I decided to check it out. We start Googling the name. We can't find any evidence of this person that isn't attached to the story about her being Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend. CAIN: Does it give you any pause or how surprised to you after a two- hour conversation and supposedly a big investigation, Notre Dame stands by Manti Te'o.

BURKE: Notre Dame has to stand by Manti Te'o. That's what Notre Dame does. It would not be accepted by their community, by their boosters for them to throw him under the bus. They're going to stick by him.

If I had been offering advice to Notre Dame or Manti Te'o yesterday I would have told them don't even respond to it. Don't keep the news cycle going with stories about Manti Te'o's fake girlfriend. Just ignore it, because anything they say is going to be more evidence to be used against them to find more times when Manti or his father were being deceptive, because we know either Manti or his father were lying about how he met her in the first place. And the more they try to explain it, the more they can be caught.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR, "EARLY START": John Berman here, big fan of "Deadspin" and congratulations on the story. Lot of what you say focuses on the friend of Manti Te'o, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Explain to me his role in this.

BURKE: We talked to a lot of people who knew Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, and he is a very curious individual, a former star quarterback in high school who was supposedly offered scholarships to play in college and never did, and kind of fell off the face of the earth for a while.

We talked to his friends. We talked to his relatives. They told us he has been doing the Lenay Kekua fake online profile for several years, and that he's caught other people in his trap, but that they caught on way earlier than Manti Te'o did. In fact the longest he ever got away with pretending to have an online relationship with somebody was about a month.

So you sort of question especially when you consider that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo knew Manti Te'o, that they spent time together, that there are pictures of them together supposedly on his Instagram account, how dense would Manti Te'o have to be to not realize this was his friend who was behind the account the entire time? I don't believe that Manti Te'o could be that dumb.

O'BRIEN: I am so looking forward to what he has to say. They say within a couple of days he'll have some press conference more than the statement that we have seen where he says he's a victim of a hoax. It's fascinating, the report on your story on is riveting, unbelievable. Timothy burke nice to have you with us, we certainly appreciate it.

BURKE: No problem, thank you.

O'BRIEN: Other stories, believe it or not, this morning to talk about. John's got that.

BERMAN: There is a tense hostage standoff involving Americans happening in Algeria right now. Islamist militants attacked a gas facility near the border with Libya. The attackers ambushed dozens of foreign employees traveling to the local airport. At least two people were killed and a number of hostages including Americans were captured. Algerian media reports say there was an escape but we do not yet know who tried to escape or how many.

CNN's Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon right now. Barbara, what is the strategy right now for the U.S. dealing with this hostage situation?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: John, right now our sources are telling us the U.S. and the other allies that have hostages there are relying on Algerian forces. A short time ago a bit of a slight update, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told ABC news new details about this, he said the hostage takers have rocket-propelled grenades. The situation remains chaotic. He said the U.S. would take proper and necessary steps to deal with this.

But the bottom line, John, now, day two, information still very sketchy, but the U.S., the other allies are relying on Algerian security forces to deal with this, it's a remote location, tough to get to, very complex, a lot of people involved and it would be tough for the U.S. to take any action, not to say that U.S. troops aren't on some kind of alert to be ready to go if ordered.

BERMAN: You say tough to get to, the troops on alert. If there is military action what might that look like?

STARR: What we know is there is a small unit of U.S. Special Forces particularly dedicated to Africa and to North Africa. They came into being as a unit after the Benghazi attack in Libya when the U.S. didn't have the firepower to get there quickly. We know as of yesterday that very small unit now has been put on a short string essentially if ordered, to be ready to go in less than four hours

But whether they are called into action would depend on a very critical issue: the Algerian government would have to ask for help. This is solvent territory of Algeria, and of course President Obama would have to order them into action. John.

BERMAN: A tense situation as we said developing by the minute. Barbara Starr of the Pentagon, thanks very much.

STARR: Sure.

BERMAN: An American soldier accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians, nine of them children, is said to be arraigned today. The defense attorney said Staff Sergeant Robert bales will plead not guilty. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

With flu jitters running high right now, a study confirms it is safe for pregnant women to get a flu shot. This is the largest study on the safety and value of flu vaccinations during pregnancy, more than 100,000 women. Some drugs and vaccines can be harmful to a fetus, which is why there are big concerns about giving medicine like this to pregnant women.

O'BRIEN: John, thank you. Still ahead on STARTING POINT we continue to cover the Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax mystery. Should the media have dug deeper into the story? Howie Kurtz is going to join us with CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES" and "The Daily Beast's" Lauren Ashburn will join us to weigh in. We're back in just a moment.


BERMAN: A quick look at the "Top Stories" right now.

The Obama Administration's push to expand gun control measures is expected to get a major boost today. Vice President Joe Biden who led the commission that made the recommendations to the President delivers a high profile address today before the conference -- the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Nearly 300 mayors are expected to attend.

All right, check out this scary video as firefighters trying to save people from a fire in Russia, that was a chunk of snow that fell from the roof under one firefighter sending sliding back mind you, he is up on a ladder four stories high, look at that. A fellow firefighter managed to hang on and help his colleague and amazingly they were able to save a small child.

So "American Idol" is back for Season 12. The claws are out for new judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj have already had trouble getting along believe it or not.


MARIAH CAREY, SINGER: If she calls me something that begins with a "B" and ends in an itch, I rebuke it. I just want to know. What is going on with you, Miss Minaj?



BERMAN: It's a lot like "Citizen Kane" in terms of the quality of the drama that goes on there. Hundreds auditioned for the judges, but so far I'm told there have been no major standouts.

O'BRIEN: I'm going to take, I'm going to steal that, just say to someone, "I rebuke that". I don't even know what it means but it's awesome. I want to say that.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, we're going to talk about the media's role in this Manti Te'o story. Should there have been more vetting of the -- into the girlfriend, considering now we know she didn't exist? We'll dig into that coming up next.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. We've been talking over the last couple of hours about this mystery involving Notre Dame's Manti Te'o and his quote/unquote "girlfriend." We were told, of course, that she died of cancer; it turns out she never existed. So was he the victim or the perpetrator of an elaborate hoax? And what exactly was his involvement? The university though, you know is standing by its star player.

Joining us now, Howie Kurtz the host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES" and Washington bureau chief for "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast"; Lauren Ashburn, is contributor for "The Daily Best", editor-in-chief of "The Daily Download". It's nice to have you both with you us this morning.



O'BRIEN: Wow, lots to talk about. First and foremost do you have a gut on this?

ASHBURN: He's, yes there is -- he had to have known. I mean, it seems like that to me, because there are so many inconsistencies. If there weren't, how did he not figure it out?

O'BRIEN: There are stories we know of people who have been defrauded by people online and there is a lot about "catfish" but even that specific thing has a lot of questions about it. But there are other stories about people who were taken for a ride by someone they never met, they only had a relationship online.

KURTZ: And I was willing to believe that for the first ten minutes that it's just an online relationship because people spend so much time now on establishing this intimate connections online until I read that he talked to her on the phone before he went to sleep at night. And so now I mean, the level of hoax would have to be so elaborate that it really does strain credulity.

BERMAN: What about the journalism here? I'm so glad you guys are here because there were stories written about their relationship in very, you know, prominent papers and magazines.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: News organizations.

BERMAN: So -- so you know what do you do here if a guy tells you that he had a girlfriend who died -- as a journalist what do you do?

ASHBURN: But here's the problem, I don't have a problem with them not going after the girlfriend, you haven't seen her picture, and you're relying on the father to talk about it, you're relying on the brother. I mean, you feel like the family is behind it, OK, she exists.

My problem exists when news organizations are reporting different facts and news organizations continue to report those facts that are incongruous. I don't understand how we don't go back and check other people's reporting.

O'BRIEN: Well but do we not go back -- we don't go back because the family doesn't want to talk about the tragedy, because it's his girlfriend, it's not an investigation into some fraud and crime. I mean those are the reasons those questions aren't asked, right. ASHBURN: No, no, that's not fraud. No, Soledad -- my point is that there were different -- different pieces of information, when did she die, give me an example when did she die, did she die at this time, did she die at that time, did she die on this date.

O'BRIEN: But someone is writing a tough piece about a guy who is the star lineman, right? They're not doing an investigation whether or not he was a part of Enron.

KURTZ: Absolutely and to some extent journalism runs on trust. But as this became a bigger story and as CBS was doing it and "Sports Illustrated" and ESPN and the others. You know if you look back it would have taken one phone call to discover that there was never any death notice, there was never any record of her birth, she didn't go to Stanford. "Deadspin" did a terrific job but you know all of these other journalist, everybody is just use to taking it.

RANA FOROOHAR, ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR, "TIME": But why is university is standing behind him and what's going to be the cost to them?

KURTZ: The university's role here is pathetic because --

FOROOHAR: They knew.

KURTZ: Because to know -- Notre Dame officials say that they found out what December 26th that this was a hoax, they allowed other news organizations to go forward without saying a word and to perpetuate this myth, this piece of fiction as if it was a real story. It's scornful.

ASHBURN: Even this morning I heard a reporter on another network say I called Notre Dame, I called them before the BCS game, I said, give me your reaction, and they never returned his phone calls.

The other thing I want to raise here --


KURTZ: A cover up is what it was.

ASHBURN: -- what the other thing I want to raise is that the role of social media reporting in the "Deadspin" article is fascinating. What they did was they said Lennay Kekua's Twitter name was @lovalovaloveYOU from 2011 to 2012; from April until this it had been @LennayKay and -- and all of the pieces started to come together. And I think that as reporters start to learn more about social media that the opportunity for doing real reporting on Twitter via Facebook accounts and Twitter accounts exists.


O'BRIEN: The university said it is Te'o's story to tell. Right, they didn't just say well, we're not going to comment. They said he is going to -- we believe what he has presented to us, very emotional, "We believe him to be a trustworthy guy. He's a kind, nice guy." I think that what they're is positioning themselves for we were duped, too. Aren't they I mean to some degree.

KURTZ: Yes but Notre Dame officials are never going be able to adequately explain why they allowed news organizations to perpetuate something that they knew was false. But clearly they are looking at this and saying we're going to have a reputation to protect here, when this flows up and -- you know if there is the possibility that Te'o was in on it, Notre Dame doesn't want to get the black eye.

CAIN: Soledad's point this was puff piece, all along it was a puff piece. It didn't ever solicit deep investigation has some merit but you both make --

O'BRIEN: Thanks, Will.

FOROOHAR: That was a gratuitous.

O'BRIEN: Completely gratuitous, but carry on. Could you take that knife out of my back please.



CAIN: I think you're both making the same points about social media and the trusting nature of journalism in general.

Is there a larger indictment of journalism? That's my question. This story -- is there a larger indictment of journalism?

ASHBURN: Because is this a puff piece? OK, it's a puff piece, it's not Enron, it's still journalism. You still have to get the facts right.

KURTZ: I think media organizations wanted this story to be true because it was so touching and so poignant and she died, he played in the game. Nobody really wanted too. And again it didn't take -- you didn't have --

SOCARIDES: It's a great story.

CAIN: One that's indictable on a larger level.

KURTZ: You didn't have to bring in Bob Hubard on this -- a couple of basic phone calls even a cyber search would have shown there was no Lennay.

SOCARIDES: You know, it's going to a great book, too. This guy is going to have a great book deal whether he's lying or telling the truth or something in between. He's going to have a great deal.

O'BRIEN: I have not seen him quoted where he talks about meeting her. All the conversation about looking in the eyes -- those are all paraphrased by newspapers. They don't quote him directly as saying "I looked into her eyes and knew that I had met my partner for life." Someone else is writing that story and to some degree I'm trying to figure out how much of it was captured by sort of other snippets. He could have, if he's lying he could have said "Yes, she's 5'10", you know, her hair's down about this long, she's lovely, she told me the other day when we were out having lunch, blah, blah, blah." You have no quotes of him ever saying that.

ASHBURN: Why didn't he say, this is not true, I never met her. I never was staring into her eyes.

O'BRIEN: He's at his job. He's at his job.

ASHBURN: If someone said something about me that wasn't true I would go to that news organization.

O'BRIEN: Really that was wonderful and that was leading up to you potentially winning a major award -- no, you wouldn't. You would be like, well it's not true, but, I might win a Heisman so shh.

ASHBURN: I don't think I would. Maybe some people would.

O'BRIEN: We are having -- of course, it's a fascinating conversation. We appreciate you guys talking about it with us this morning. We have to take a break. We'll be back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: Tomorrow on STARTING POINT, the cycling champion John Hustis reacts to the details of what Lance Armstrong tells Oprah Winfrey. Plus former New York Ranger Adam Graves, actress Angie Harmon, Delaware governor, Jack Markel -- all our guests tomorrow

CNN NEWSROOM" with Carol Costello begins right now. I'll see you tomorrow morning.