Twitter is to sportswriters as hammers are to construction workers. It's a tool that no sportswriter can live without, and in this day and age, it's absolutely necessary to get the job done.
But in the wrong hands, a hammer can do more harm than good. So can Twitter.
We're reminded of this seemingly every day, and we were reminded of it once again when rumors started to spread across Twitter on Thursday that New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano was about to be suspended for a positive PED test.
A lot of people found out about the rumor through word of mouth. But like all rumors, this one had a single source. All roads led back to Dan Tordjman, a television reporter out of Charlotte, N.C.
The tweet that started it all read simply: “Can’t confirm this but I’m hearing that Robinson Cano tested positive for PEDs. Announcement from MLB coming shortly.”
There are a couple things worth noting here.
I wasn't a journalism major in college, but I'm fairly certain that the words "can't confirm this" should never precede a report that is sure to generate loads of controversy (or any report, for that matter). And in baseball, a player testing positive for PEDs is high up there on the list of lightning-rod stories that are going to get people riled up.
If you're going to report a scoop like that, you better be damn sure that your sources are accurate. Assuming, of course, that you have sources in the first place.
The fact that Tordjman couldn't confirm what he was hearing should have been enough to keep him from reaching for his keyboard. He made things worse for himself by tweeting an unconfirmed report and then tacking on that an announcement from MLB was coming. In a span of 140 characters, Tordjman said that the positive test was unofficial, but that it would soon be official.
It didn't take long for his report (if you can call it that) to get debunked. Among the first to come to Cano's defense was David Lennon of Newsday, who had it on good authority that the rumor was "completely false." Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News also had it on good authority that no suspension for Cano was forthcoming.
Meanwhile, Tordjman amazingly found ways to put himself in an even deeper hole. He reiterated in a tweet that an announcement was coming in the very near future. Once he started to feel the heat from the skeptics and, well, rational people, he made a pathetic attempt to go into damage-control mode.
“Take a deep breath folks. I stated I ‘could not confirm’ the Cano PED report. Just a rumor. Stay tuned," he tweeted.
And then: “Good God. Everyone calm down. Don’t know how clearly I can state it — I HAVE NO CONFIRMATION THAT CANO PED RUMOR IS TRUE.”
To which everyone rightfully replied: "THEN WHY THE HELL DID YOU TWEET ABOUT IT IN THE FIRST PLACE, MORON?!"
As much as Tordjman wanted to play the victim, Ken Davidoff of the New York Daily News is correct in pointing out that Cano was the true victim. He was the one who had to go and clear his name despite the fact that charge levied against him was totally out of left field and straight from the mouth of a dingbat with no credibility. The Yankees in general were also victims in their own right, as they too were suddenly forced into looking out for their integrity.
In all, it was a mess.
It was also, unfortunately, a sign of the times.
We've seen stuff like this happen before. The first thing that popped into my head was the rumor that started spreading early last December that Texas head football coach Mack Brown was going to retire. Sort of like the Cano rumors, the Brown rumor traced back to an unknown sports reporter out of Topeka, Kan.
In the baseball world, we saw something similar happen in late July when rumors of an incoming PED suspension for San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera started to surface. CSNBayArea.com Giants beat writer Andrew Baggarly made the mistake of giving the rumors the stage when he noted them on Twitter:
There's a rumor on Twitter that Melky Cabrera will be suspended for positive PED test. I asked Melky and he said it's totally untrue. ...— Andrew Baggarly (@CSNBaggs) July 27, 2012
Baggarly's tweet was met with the same kind of negativity and outrage that followed the report of Cano's incoming suspension. However, the two situations are decidedly different for two reasons.
First and foremost, Baggarly did the right thing when he issued a public apology to Cabrera for lending credence to a rumor that he couldn't confirm. For that, he was sorry.
However, his apology included this bit, which seems almost too relevant right now: "I wasn’t looking to create a story. I was trying to squash one that has no basis in fact."
Baggarly wasn't blowing smoke in saying as much. His initial report of the rumor came complete with Melky's own denial, and he noted in subsequent tweets (via CSNBayArea.com) that Melky was hearing from his agent and the union that the rumor was "unfounded."
So Baggarly's mistake wasn't that he reported a rumor that he couldn't confirm. His mistake was not debunking the rumor before he reached out to Melky and his people.
In retrospect, Baggarly's mistake barely seems like a mistake at all compared to what Tordjman did. Furthermore, we know now that there was actually something to the Melky rumors. A couple weeks after the rumor came out, MLB officially reported that Melky had tested positive for testosterone.
I'll admit that my mind raced to the Cabrera situation when the Cano rumor first surfaced on my radar. Since that rumor panned out to be true, why couldn't the Cano rumor?
Well, the biggest difference between the two situations is that nobody from MLB came to Melky's defense when the rumor of his positive test first surfaced. The union and Melky himself came to his defense, but not the league.
The Cano situation is different. Bob Nightengale of USA Today was able to get in touch with an MLB official with knowledge of the league's drug testing, and the official was able to confirm that Cano had done nothing wrong.
So basically, Cano himself, the Yankees and Major League Baseball all had to come out and say "no" just because some guy in North Carolina said "maybe."
In a sense, this makes the Cano situation not too different from Skip Bayless' insinuation that Derek Jeter may be using PEDs these days. He didn't have any basis to suggest that Jeter was using PEDs, but he did anyway just for kicks.
“I am not saying he uses a thing,” Bayless said, via SportsGrid.com. “I have no idea."
Translation: I can't say for sure that Jeter is using PEDs, but he might be.
Like everything else he says, Bayless said his piece about Jeter just for shock value. His suggestion certainly had the desired effect, as a mini firestorm ensued and Jeter himself eventually had to come out and defend himself.
Tordjman's report (again, if you can call it that) had a similar effect. It created a firestorm, Tordjman himself got a ton of attention, and Cano had to come to his own defense.
Judging from the way he reacted, Tordjman either didn't anticipate the reaction his report ended up getting or was too naive to think that there would be any reaction at all. The attention he's gotten has forced him into a hole, and it's now quite obvious that accountability is not one of his strengths.
The danger is that there are a lot of impressionable idiots on Twitter who can clearly see what kind of firestorm Tordjman's original tweet started. It's not crazy to think that some random dude could start a fake PED rumor on Twitter just to have a few cheap laughs.
This is the Internet we're talking about, after all. Cheap laughs are half the reason people use the blasted thing.
The use of fake rumors to generate a few cheap laughs is something that's already happening, of course. As recounted by NESN.com, it wasn't that long ago that a tweet from a fake Twitter account masquerading as ESPN basketball reporter Chris Broussard about an imaginary Celtics-Kings trade came out. The report was retweeted over 1,000 times.
With every fake sports rumor that comes out, it's only becoming more apparent that using Twitter to stir people into a frenzy is a little too easy. All it takes is a computer, an Internet connection, a wild idea and a few retweets. The viral nature of Twitter takes care of the rest.
A lot of sports fans who are active on Twitter are smart enough to be skeptical about rumors that they hear when they're not coming from tried-and-true sources. The problem is that even skepticism can feed the viral spread. Anybody who notes that there's a rumor while also saying that it's probably complete BS is helping the rumor spread across Twitter, whether that's his intent or not.
There's no easy way to stop the use of Twitter as a soapbox for ne'er-do-wells who like to stir things up with fake rumors. Accounts can be reported as spam, and people can cry and moan all they want, but it's not like Twitter itself can institute some sort of screening process for rumors. That would defeat the entire point of sports journalists using Twitter: They use it so they can get stuff out there immediately.
So we may as well be honest. It's become widely accepted that Twitter and sports journalism are perfect bedfellows, but it's not such a great partnership, because sports journalism is too easily faked and Twitter is too easily fooled.
Idiots and generally reckless people could make up wild stories before Twitter came along, of course. All Twitter has done is make it a lot easier for these wild stories to get out there, and there are more coming every day.
I won't say that Twitter hasn't helped the sports journalism industry, but I'm not out of line in saying that it's done quite a bit of harm to the industry as well. Effectively, Twitter has blurred the line between the good, respectable news sources and the kind of crap you still see in the checkout line at the grocery store. You know, the stuff that just wants your attention.
The question now is how this line can become un-blurred again.
Honestly, I have no clue.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. Don't worry, I only ever tweet my thoughts, and they're always confirmed.
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