A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
In an early scene from The Godfather, a depressed and wilting Johnny Fontaine mutters in the shadow filled study of Vito Corleone, "Oh Godfather - I don't know what to do; I don't know what to do". As he absored his Godson's tale of woe, Marlon Brando's visage tightens, gathering the shadows of the darkened office into an all but visible storm cloud on his brow. Finally, unable to endure the singer's maudlin wallowing a moment longer, Corleone explodes out of his chair, gives his Godson a vigorous shake, and screams, "You can act like a man"!
Two years after this iconic motion picture, Morris Albert released a song that has a secure place on my personal Worst Songs of All Time List - Feelings. Julie Andrews was offered a chance and some easy money to record the song, but refused. The great singer/actress did so because she felt that, due to its lack of meaning or purpose, the song was too difficult to sing; a decision which can only leave one retrospectively exclaiming, "Bravo"!
What vignette from film or selection from pop music could better stand as commentary on the tawdry tale of Manti T'eo?
The Romans built a Colisuem and filled it with gladiators, Christians, and lions. In America today we have the bottomless, churning maw that is our 24/7 media and news cycle. And since that same media has no choice but to feed the cycle and fill that maw, it manufactures tales that are not newsworthy, and prolongs stories that should not occupy more than a few seconds on the national stage. And thus we see the spectacle of Mr. Te'o paraded before us. And to our collective shame, we consider it INTERESTING. We consider it NEWS.
It is time to start thinking about our media, and our increasing reliance upon the portable technology that tethers it to us; a giant, unsleeping Cyclops whose electronic eye sees all. And having seen, it pours it all into our flat screens, computers, and smart phones; an assault that leaves our senses dazed, stunted, and overwhelmed. Like water running over rough stones, no immediate impact can be seen; but over time; it is real and significant. And therein lies the insidious impact of this dynamic. Of the many debilitating results, one is that we spend too little time THINKING about issues, and too much time FEELING our way through them.
Meanwhile; Manti-Fest rolls on unabated. He graced ESPN and Jeremy Schapp, then took his epic tale of woe to the chair of media diva, Katie Couric. One wonders if Manti-Fest will roll tsuanmi-like into Oprah's Studios; the same ones recently occupied by Sir Lance A Lot of Lies. There Number 5 might once again pour out his tale in a continuing attempt to secure some elusive emotional catharsis. While choosing not to watch or listen to anything more than sound bights of the story, completely avoiding it has been impossible. It is more than odd - it is weird; it is freak-showish; it is theater of the absurd.
As to what actually happened or didn't happen with his fictitious, electronic girlfirend; I care not. It is the media's obsession with the story that for me, is the "story within the story".
At best Manti Te'o demonstrated galactically poor judgement. At worst, he consciously chose to become complicit in a sick and sordid scheme, knowingly perpetuating the very saga that he now bemoans. But I am more concerned over the lava flow of coverage this sad story has generated. Given how tawdry the tale, why does he seek to perpetuate it? Isn't there some cool-thinking, objective counselor in his life to pull him aside and say, "let go of all this; get off the talk show circuit and MOVE ON". As for ESPN and Ms. Couric; their elevation of this "story" to the height of national attention achieves the all but impossible feat of making carnival barking an honorable profession.
While it takes effort, one can ascribe to Mr. Teo some benefit of the doubt. He is young, and as a standout athlete on one of the Nation's most recognized college football teams, occupies a crucible of scrutiny that we cannot imagine. And being young his experience is, by definition, limited. It doesn't give him a pass, but it makes it more understandable.
But there is no such benefit of the doubt to afford the leaderhsip of Notre Dame's athletic department. The Athletic Director at this most recognized of Universities leads and commands vast resources, staff, and students. Manti-Fest clearly caught the University's leadership by surprise, and in fairness, anyone would be hard pressed to make sense of such a story as it unfolded by the moment.
But what happened at a press conference a few weeks ago? First and foremost, an A.D. holds a responsibility to protect the position and good name of his or her employer. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, that office was presented with the opportunity of an enormous, nation-wide "teachable moment". The individual involved could have claimed the need for more time to properly assess and evaluate the entire incident. Or - he could have made some wise and adult-like comments as to the dangers presented to young people, particularly those young people who stand in the immediate and direct gaze of the Cyclops. He could have warned them of the overarching and penetrating power of the media, and of the need for some circumspection on their part. He could have urged Te'o, and any young people snared in the closing mandible of the media's maw, to be careful. He could have recalled that time tested and time honored admonition of not wearing one's heart on one's sleeve.
But alas - such options were eschewed. It was an enormous opportunity to offer instruction, the wisdom of experience, and that vanishing of notions - CONTEXT - to a University and nation of young people.
Instead, the press conference became a proveribal chorus of that syrup-laden song, Feelings. The A.D. got all weepy, and bemoaned Manti's loss of innocence, and blathered about poor Manti never being able to fully trust anyone again. One could only long for Vito Corleone to stride into the press conference, issuing the same remonstration he once did to Johnny Fonatine.
Manti Te'o may be guilty of a healthy dose of self-asborption, but beyond that, he seems a fine young man, and I wish him well. But the media's utter fixation on this story, and its endless telling and re-telling of the squalid tale, is revealing. I believe it reveals things about our collective consciousness and our culture. And it warns us that, when it comes to the news and entertainment information we absorb, in the long run, "we are what we eat".
In viewing the press conference, I nearly wept myself, but not for Mr. Teo.
I was saddened by the lost opportunity.
And I was saddened by the implications that fofeiture holds for our broader culture.