Before the Cardinals finished playing the Cubs at Busch Stadium on Monday controversy exploded over claims that when African American Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward came to the plate someone yelled the “N-word” over microphones ESPN had trained on the fans. It turned out that the charges were a complete hoax, yet many major sports outlets reported on it as though it were true.
Apparently, when Heyward, a former Cardinal, came to the plate ESPN’s cameras picked up a few boorish St. Louis fans heckling the former Card. There was no audio of the heckling, but it seemed obvious that the fans were dogging the player. As the game was being televised, Isaac Bennett, a Chicago sports blogger, tweeted that ESPN should be careful not to leave any mics open on the St. Louis crowd for worries that some of the fans may be uncorking foul or even racist language.
ESPN needs to be *very* careful with opening up their crowd mics. There are absolutely nasty things being said right now towards Heyward.
— Isaac Bennett (@isaaccbennett) April 19, 2016
It wasn’t long before a warning about harsh language by one tweeter turned into an accusation that some Cardinals fans spewed the “N-word” as the African American player took his turn at bat. Almost immediately a number of major sports news outlets such as Deadspin, the New York Daily News, HardballTalk, Yahoo, Forbes and even the St. Louis Post-Dispatch picked up the story which in turn caused an even bigger sensation on social media.
So, how did a tweet warning about the possibility of foul language get to “someone yelled the ‘N-word'” at the game? What proof did these major news outlets use to prove that foul language was recorded by ESPN’s mics?
It is beginning to look like they had no proof at all and the story was “substantiated” by a vicious tweet by an anonymous Cubs fan.
Chase Woodruff of the St. Louis sports blog Double Birds tracked down the timeline of the incident and traced the genus of the accusation to a short Tweet by an anonymous Twitter user named tinia_flab who wrote “Two n-bombs on hot mics so far on ESPN.”
It seems tinia_flab took his cue from the warning tweeted by Isaac Bennett and decided to maliciously up the ante by falsely claiming that the “n-word” was uttered on ESPN. Indeed, tinia_flab’s Twitter account is filled with foul language and mean-spirited taunts.
From there several other sports fans and bloggers picked up on the tweet and re-tweeted it hundreds of times. And, after the re-tweets of the false accusation began, the sports writers picked up on the claim and posted stories as if it were true, all without doing any leg work to see if the rumors were actually true.
As Woodruff notes, there is no video, no audio, no proof at all that any “n-bombs” were uttered during ESPN’s broadcast. But the tweet and then a dozen stories based on it went viral anyway.
Woodruff goes farther by saying the only reason the story was believed without any effort to track down the truth is because it has become fashionable to criticize Cardinals fans. But another problem is that all too often in a rush to “get” the story, people accept what they see without double-checking sources.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org