How a Few Cubs Fans Trolled the National Media Into Covering the Bogus Heyward Story

Returning to Busch Stadium for the first time since choosing the Cubs over the Cardinals this past offseason, Jason Heyward stepped up to the plate Monday night and was booed by morons. It was hardly unanimous—there were a few cheers, too, and most fans looked like they were choosing to do neither—but it was significant. ESPN aired the game nationally, and its cameras lingered on a few boorish dopes in Cardinals gear treating Heyward like he’d just spilled their nine-dollar Bud Heavies on their new boat shoes. It was ugly to watch.

Seeing this ugliness, Isaac Bennett, a writer for BP Wrigleyville, Baseball Prospectus’ local Cubs site, tweeted the following: “ESPN needs to be *very* careful with opening up their crowd mics. There are absolutely nasty things being said right now towards Heyward.” Bennett told me yesterday that he hadn’t heard any slurs used, but thought that ESPN should “turn down [the] crowd mics to avoid hearing insults you’d hear at all parks.” This was maybe a bit much—various ESPN audio feeds did not, in fact, pick up “anything offensive”—but it seemed to be a perfectly harmless thing to tweet.

About a minute later, a Cubs fan going by the handle @tinia_flab tweeted something that was very much not harmless:

hot mics

As far as I can tell, this is patient zero for all subsequent allegations that racial slurs were shouted at Heyward on Monday night. Within minutes, one of @tinia_flab’s followers, a fellow Cubs fan named Matt Wells, sent his own tweet (after asking @tinia_flab if he was “serious” and getting confirmation that he was), which spread quickly:

Heyward tweet

“I deleted [it] once I realized it wasn’t true,” Wells told me on Twitter yesterday, but not before the tweet had been retweeted around 200 times—including by Matt Clapp, proprietor of Cubs blog the Blogfines, who was one of the first 15 people to do so and by far the most-followed account to do so early on. Within twenty minutes of @tinia_flab’s tweet, the claim was being repeated as fact all over social media, largely by Cubs fans. All of this was, of course, amplified by the execrable @BestFansStLouis from beginning to end.

@tinia_flab didn’t respond when I reached out to ask whether he still believes he heard slurs used on the ESPN broadcast—a claim that, again, he repeatedly doubled down on when several followers asked him to confirm it. But the timing of his tweet, a minute or so after Bennett’s, and the utter lack of anything that could be construed as a slur on the ESPN audio feed, leads me to speculate that he saw Bennett’s comment about “nasty things being said” and decided to make a trollish, inflammatory claim that he knew wasn’t true. (@tinia_flab doesn’t follow Bennett, but he does follow Randall J. Sanders, an MLB Jersey Numbers contributor and Cubs fan who was the first to retweet Bennett’s tweet.) Presumably, he didn’t expect that this bogus claim would ultimately be covered by the New York Daily News, Yahoo Sports, HardballTalk, Bleacher Report, Deadspin, Forbes, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Chicago Tribune, among plenty of others. But that is—somehow—exactly what happened.

* * *

The second half of this story has been dissected much more extensively already. The New York Daily News, a reputable news brand whose digital operation nonetheless closely resembles the Chicago Sun-Timescontent-farmish Sun Times Network, published an article sourced by four tweets—Bennett’s and three others, two of which have now been deleted. Presumably, little else needs to be said about what a journalistic dumpster fire it was.

The Daily News story, though, absolutely exploded on social media. As of Wednesday night, it was still the most popular story in the Daily News sports section, and had been shared over 15,000 times on Facebook—the next most-read story, for comparison, had about 300 Facebook shares. With those kinds of numbers, it’s a good bet that the story has received well over a million pageviews. Unbelievably, it hasn’t been retracted or corrected; a clarification was slipped in later on Tuesday without an accompanying note.

By that time, the story had already been picked up by national outlets like HardballTalk, Yahoo, and Forbes and local papers like the Post-Dispatch and Tribune. ESPN reviewed its audio and found nothing. The Cardinals conducted an investigation and found nothing. Heyward—along with Joe Maddon, Dexter Fowler, Mike Matheny, and others—was asked about it and said he’d heard nothing. The whole sorry spectacle eventually produced a rarity for the ages: a Deadspin post defending Cardinals fans from charges of racism.

Unlike some others, I don’t necessarily take issue with the outlets that picked up the Daily News story later on Tuesday, even after it was obvious that the claims were unsubstantiated (something that most of those outlets tried to make clear). To be sure, if they had chosen to ignore the story until further evidence surfaced, fewer people would now believe something that’s false—and make no mistake, tons of people who saw these allegations at sites like HardballTalk are now irrevocably convinced that they’re true. It’s tempting to see increased the number of people who believe a falsehood as a fair standard by which to judge a news outlet negatively, but given that both ESPN and the Cardinals had acknowledged the claims and said they were looking into them, there’s a case to be made that the story was newsworthy.

The problem is that everyone who covered this as it unfolded Tuesday considers the fact that absolutely no corroborating evidence turned up to be the end of the story. This is bananas. Highly inflammatory (and easily falsifiable) claims of abject, brazen racism were amplified by dozens of major national media outlets, probably reached millions of people, and ultimately proved to have been based on nothing. A few random baseball fans were able to con the sport’s entire media apparatus into a wild-goose chase regarding just about as serious a subject as it will cover all year. If I were a national baseball writer, that seems like a story I’d want to explore.

* * *

Tracing the claims back to a single anonymous Twitter troll, as I’ve tried to do above, is only part of that story. Anyone familiar with the digital-media landscape can pretty easily intuit how this hoax migrated from the unchecked swamps of Twitter to an unscrupulous traffic-hungry news organization to aggregation by dozens of other sites. The more relevant question is why this happened. Why did a random Twitter user decide to make frivolous allegations of racism during a Cubs-Cardinals game? Why did those allegations spread so far so quickly, despite a total lack of corroborating evidence?

You can’t answer these questions without understanding that this story would’ve been far, far less likely to play out as it did with almost any other fanbase in sports. A lot would have been different if @tinia_flab’s accusation had been about Yankees fans or Braves fans or Mariners fans: the initial tweet(s) would have been less likely to go viral; the Daily News would have been less likely have run a story sourced by nothing but those tweets; a quicker and more forceful debunking would have been more likely to blunt the story’s momentum; and national outlets would have been more hesitant to aggregate it.

At every stage, this bogus story gained more steam than it otherwise would have, for the sole reason that it involved the specific fanbase that it did. A story about something so serious, with such an obvious lack of evidence, doesn’t spread as far and as quickly as this one did unless people want to believe it. And people wanted to believe this about Cardinals fans in a way they wouldn’t have if it had happened in New York or Atlanta or Seattle.

This is not an easy thing for national baseball writers, who are exposed daily to fans from all over the country screaming “bias!!!” at their work, to accept. That became clear pretty quickly on Tuesday and Wednesday as I exchanged some tweets with Craig Calcaterra, who covered the story for HardballTalk.

There’s a political pundit named Ron Fournier whose whole shtick is to write worthless analysis in which “both sides” are always equally to blame, and then declare any and all criticism of his bad arguments to be “partisan” and therefore invalid. This is pretty much what it felt like as Calcaterra repeatedly assured me that this story wouldn’t have played out any differently with any other fanbase, and that all arguments I made to the contrary are invalid because I’m in a “bubble.”

Again, it’s understandable that a national writer would end up thinking like this; people are total rabid idiots about sports, and to be constantly on the receiving end of that total rabid idiocy must be exhausting. It’s much harder to make an effort to separate worthwhile criticism from the chaff than to develop a bunker mentality in which all criticism that comes your way is leveled by loons with persecution complexes—even when the criticism in question is less about your work specifically than systemic trends in coverage.

But you’ve got to be blind not to see that antipathy for the Cardinals and their fans has grown into something beyond the likes of making Santa Claus cracks about Philadelphia or mocking Red Sox fans with Good Will Hunting bits. Deadspin—one of, what, the five most influential sports websites in existence?—isn’t shy about antagonizing anybody, but the vigor and consistency with which it’s trolled Cards fans in the last four years has no parallel. You don’t need telepathic powers to observe that the site, editorially speaking, has it out for the Cardinals; its editor says so right here. Most obviously and quantifiably, nothing remotely as popular as @BestFansStLouis exists for any other fanbase in sports; it’s highly unlikely that Monday’s allegations would have turned into a national story if they hadn’t been immediately and indiscriminately amplified by an account whose 31,661 followers include hundreds of national sports media figures.

The crucial, categorical difference in the anti-Cardinals sentiment that @BestFansStLouis, Deadspin, and others have tapped into in the last few years is the way that expressing contempt for the Cardinals has become an act of political signaling. Cards fans, to the average Deadspin reader or BFSTL follower, aren’t just smug and obnoxious but racist, sexist, homophobic, gun-humping meth-addicted proto-fascist Trump voters; to hate the Cardinals is to align yourself against these things (and a convenient substitute for actually doing anything to combat them). Lots of teams get hated on, but no team’s fans have been made unwilling participants in a proxy culture war as much as Cards fans have, and ultimately, that’s the sole reason an anonymous Cubs fan was able to reach millions of people with a single trollish tweet Monday night.

It’s also toxic and corrosive and wrong, as Adam Felder laid out in this space earlier this week. People should be repulsed that a group of (largely white) Cubs fans hurled frivolous charges of racism essentially as trash-talk, as if racism were just abstract fodder for their dumb sports grudge and not the deadly serious issue that it is. They should be repulsed that this is more or less what @BestFansStLouis has done consistently for four years now. At a minimum, any journalist who took part in any stage of this sordid news cycle should be asking how and why it went down the way it did. Not even that seems to be happening, unfortunately. Who knows how many more times a story like this will have to play out before it does.

Update: This still gets a lot of search hits and I’ve always hated how overwritten those last few sentences were, so consider them withdrawn. See this follow-up for an articulation of my point that wasn’t written in a bleary-eyed late-night rush.