The Los Angeles Times, which called Manti Te'o "the heart of Notre Dame" in a glowing November profile, is now polling readers on whether they believe he is a victim of "catfishing" or somehow complicit in faking a dead girlfriend.
Less than two weeks ago, USA Today lauded his stamina and emotional fortitude through his supposed tragedy. But now USA Today has found "discrepancies" in his defense.
The outlets are among many that are now expressing skepticism about whether he was really the victim of a "Catfish"-style Internet hoax — even after they previously accepted his story hook, line and sinker.
Blame it on laziness, the ever-increasing pressures of the 24-hour news cycle, or just a desire to believe what appeared to be an inspiring story, but journalists were duped.
There's an argument to be had about whether reporters are now responding to new facts, or are just lashing out at the Notre Dame linebacker because they feel foolish about accepting his past account. Te'o was praised for leading Notre Dame to a 20-3 win over Michigan State just hours after the death of his grandmother — and, supposedly, his girlfriend.
But as Deadspin now reports, there was no girlfriend. A picture of the woman he was supposedly grieving now turns out to have been a 22-year-old Californian with a different name.
In a beaming cover story in October, Sports Illustrated writer Pete Thamel depicted him as the lionhearted backbone of his team. On Thursday, Thamel published the transcript of his interview with Te'o and pointed out the player's now-blatant verbal ambiguity when describing his lover — ambiguity that Thamel didn't point out in October, before he had the details he does now.
Thamel did not respond to TheWrap's request for comment on Thursday.
There are many questions about the relationship, most of which are only being asked now: How did the relationship go on so long without the so-called couple meeting in person? Why did Te'o reportedly say he met the fake girlfriend — named Lennay Marie Kekua — after a Stanford-Notre Dame football game? Why did Kekua apparently stop writing him letters?
In a post Thursday, Gawker raised several possible theories, including one that Te'o fabricated the whole affair to improve his chances of winning the Heisman Trophy — or that he at least kept the discovery that his girlfriend was fake a secret, so that it wouldn't distract from his chances of winning.
Daniel Durbin, the director of the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society, said news outlets have skipped the usual soul-searching that accompanies egregious errors, and are instead turning up the heat on Te'o.
"There's a side effort by the media to, at some level, lay this at Te'o's feet," Durbin told TheWrap. "He was either so naive that he fell into this or he was somehow complicit in this. They cannot fathom that the story as he tells it is true."
The Twitter handle @LennayKay, deactivated after Kekua's supposed death, resurfaced on Wednesday evening and began retweeting Te'o previous 140-character love notes, giving it the appearance that the account had been active for months.
The person tweeting from the account promised a statement, and journalists from MSNBC, among other outlets, anticipated a mea culpa. Meanwhile, the account racked up as many as 19,000 followers.
At 11:31 a.m. PT, the keeper of the account revealed him or herself to be a mere troll.
"My statement: This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about," the tweet said, "but I have been told by Alabama's offense that Manti Te'o is not real."
The number of followers quickly diminished. But journalists — like many others — had been tricked again.