"Jason Heyward blitzed with N-word taunts from Cardinals fans in return to Busch Stadium," ran the jaw-dropping headline in today's New York Daily News. Heyward, who played for the Cardinals last year before signing a free-agent contract in the offseason with the rival Chicago Cubs, is black. Cardinals fans until pretty recently were famous for being super nice, and are still famous for being super knowledgeable, so this story was especially distressing. Here's the original wording in the News:
Jason Heyward's return to St. Louis was marred with racial slurs.
In addition to booing, ESPN crowd mics picked up multiple Cardinals fans yelling the N-word at the new Chicago Cubs right fielder, who played last season for the Redbirds.
Must have had some pretty solid reporting to back up those confident assertions, right? Think again. The sum total of evidence supporting this bold claim was four tweets.
One was from Cub fan and BP Wrigleyville contributor Isaac Bennet, saying nothing specific about an N-word: "ESPN needs to be *very* careful with opening up their crowd mics. There are absolutely nasty things being said right now towards Heyward." Upon being challenged about whether he really heard something horrible, Bennett tweeted "You could literally hear it on the broadcast."
The second tweet came from Bradley Ard, who describes himself as an "Equality activist, injured guitarist, and all-around geek" who does not care for people who are "homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, [or] racist." Ard, whose tweets are protected, is quoted by the News as writing "Hey, #Cards fans! While you were too busy yelling the N-word and booing Heyward, the #Cubs were busy winning!"
The third tweet is from musician Jr Terrazas: "Hey @Cardinals how about addressing your racist fans calling Heyward the N-Word?" And the fourth, from someone named A.J. Manuzzi, no longer exists, but at some point said, "Jason Heyward has been referred to via N-word 2x already on audio by Cardinal fans in return to St. Louis. Stay classy #BestFansInBigotry."
So did ESPN mics really pick up fans saying the N-word? Not according to officials from ESPN and the St. Louis Cardinals who reviewed the tapes, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Officials with both the network and the Cardinals said later in the day that they were unable to find [evidence.]" The paper also noted that the Daily News article has since been updated; now the magic word "alleged" appears in the headline; the name "ESPN" has been removed in front of "crowd mics," and some other hedging has been introduced.
So to sum up: Based on exactly four tweets from people who were not (as far as we can tell) at the ballpark, and who were mostly or all Cubs fans, the Daily News stated, originally as indisputable fact, that multiple fans at a Cardinals game yelled "Nigger!" at a black man in a highly public setting. With no audio corroboration, no iPhone footage, no eyewitness testimony, and despite the fact that that widely reviled slur is an ejectable offense at Cardinals games.
So surely this bit of journalistic irresponsibility wouldn't be passed on wholesale as the factual truth? Ha ha, j/k.
"Cubs' Jason Heyward Called N-Word In Return To St. Louis," ran the headline at CBS Detroit. "Racism at the ballpark: Cubs star Jason Heyward called N-word, booed by fans in his return to St. Louis," blared Salon, adding in a factually dubious subhed that "ESPN mics picked up multiple Cardinals fans yelling the N-word at Heyward for his so-called betrayal." Fox 2 Now St. Louis at least added some new tweets to the allegation, including one from a guy ("That Brown Guy," to be precise) that at least referenced having friends at the game who "feel very uncomfortable."
How bad was the by-now widely disseminated Daily News report? This bad: Deadspin, the sports arm of Gawker, conducted an exhaustive examination of all available audio evidence, and concluded with the headline "No, ESPN Did Not Air Cardinals Fans Yelling Racial Slurs At Jason Heyward." Better luck next time!
As we keep learning, the evidentiary bar for calling people racist is appallingly low, even among institutions that are supposed to be in the corroboration business. Thank Buddha there's a universe of smartasses ready to use the BS detector that newspapers once prided themselves on.