It would be fair to say that 2016 has not been the best year for political journalism. This is not to stay that there hasn't been fantastic investigative work being done; I do not subscribe to the theory that the results of the 2016 election were some sort of referendum on the competence of the American press. But even viewing through the most charitable lens, it has been a disaster.
The essential point of a free press is to find truth, and spread it. But there has never been a worse year for truth than 2016. Fake news stories actually received more traffic in 2016 than real news stories. Our president-elect didn't even bother wrapping up his deceptions in the usual politician speak, and the press was unable to combat him. Millions of people voted for him -- not all of them, not even close to all of them, but a lot of them, enough of them -- out of downright blatant disinformation. Check out this amazing, chilling video in which a voter, in a CNN panel, claims that millions of people voted illegally in California as if she is claiming the sky is blue, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. (It's not only not true, it was, in fact, orginally a manufactured fake news story. But all that matters is that the voter doesn't remember where she saw it. Facebook, maybe?)
Fake news is a massive problem in the world of political news, and it's one that the political media, hopefully with the help of a more-discerning public, is going to be wrestling with for years to come.
But you know where it's not a problem? It's not a problem in sports.
This is not to say that people do not try. This is the Hot Stove season of willfully absurd rumors flying everywhere, with this player headed to this team, that guy headed there, someone heard this rumor, Sources Report Heavy Interest. Some of this -- most of this -- is floated by people with an agenda, a team trying to distract from an impending move, an agent trying to drum up interest in his or her client. But a lot of it is made up, out of whole cloth, explicitly to deceive.
On Wednesday, a fake Twitter account called @kenn_rosenthal tweeted out the following:
Source Confirms: Edwin Encarnacion to Astros, 5 years, $115M. Pending Physical- Ken Rosenthal (@kenn__rosenthaI) December 1, 2016
It's an old trick, and not a particularly good one. "@kenn_rosenthal" doesn't even look right. The trick is doing, like, "@j0nheyman" or changing the last "l" in Rosenthal's name to a capital "I." It's a nice touch attributing the initial scoop to Antonio Puesan, an actual baseball writer whose Twitter account is entirely in Spanish, all the easier to confuse and dupe the average reader just casually paying attention. The reason any of those hoaxes work, in sports or in politics, is because the average person has other stuff going on and is just sort of checking in occasionally. They don't have the time or the inclination to fully vet whether or not that's the real Ken Rosenthal. And thus it spreads, and thus, for a brief time on Wednesday, a not-insignificant number of people thought Encarnacion had signed with the Astros. Enough of them that a number of legitimate reporters, with their names spelled correctly and everything, had to check out the rumors and deem them false.
I've been told the Astros have NOT signed Encarnacion. Carry on.- Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) December 1, 2016
Now, I understand why this is frustrating for baseball reporters digging for scoops during this time. They're working their sources constantly, trying to find every piece of news they can, nail down every detail and scrap possible, and that's difficult enough without having to sift through all this junk. It's a difficult job. I'd be terrible at it.
But … well, I just have a hard time getting too worked up about it. Because this fake news, I'm sorry, is just different than that fake news. The reason, ultimately, is sports.
The thing about sports is that, eventually, all the speculation and guesswork and innuendo and rumor-mongering ends. A player either signs with a team, or he does not. A team makes a trade, or it does not. A star is injured, or he isn't. Your favorite teams wins on Sunday, or it doesn't. One of the primary appeals of sports is that there is always an endgame, and there is always certainty. We always get an answer. That answer might not be entirely satisfying, that answer might not be the one we were cheering for, but at the end of the day, we do get that answer. We can look back and see who was right, and who was wrong. The rumors, by definition, can't help but ultimately give way to fact.
Thus, the issue of false rumors and fake Twitter accounts is one of inconvenience and expedience rather than downright disinformation. If you're Jeff Passan, or Jon Morosi, or another reporter on the trail of scoops, it's irritating to have to chase down false rumors. But if you're anybody else, well, it's entirely harmless. It's not like a fake rumor about Encarnacion signing with the Astros is going to lead to him accidentally signing with the Astros or something. The only inconvenience is in the short-term. We are duped, but only because we were so impatient about having to know immediately what we'd end up finding out for sure down the line.
Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus' "Effectively Wild" podcast has joked in the past how enjoyable Spring Training would be if there were, in fact, no reporting of offseason maneuvering, and everyone simply showed up in March to their new teams and we all found out then -- hey, look who's on the Cubs now! But this is in fact not a terrible way to think about it. You can scan Twitter all you want, or refresh MLB Trade Rumors constantly, and the best possible result for you is that you will find out a big free agent signing roughly one to two minutes before everybody else does. If occasionally a fake Twitter account fools you for a couple of minutes, well, this is the price of your obsessive expedience, no? If you hadn't have been so impatient, you wouldn't have been fooled.
Compare this to, say, politics. False stories in politics have no logical endgame. You can be three weeks out from an election and still believe that Hillary Clinton was out murdering people with a yak. The only game they end up playing at the end of an election is an actual election, and the thing we've learned about actual elections is that they are not nearly as effective at providing a definitive result as a sporting event does. If we all believe Encarnacion is going to be an Astro, it does not, in fact, make him an Astro. We've learned, in the realest way possible, that elections are quite different.
So while I absolutely understand the frustration many baseball reporters have with all these fake accounts and wild rumors, ultimately, they are just smoke. They eventually go away. One can even argue they are good for us. They force us to be more skeptical, to follow up, to verify, because if we don't, it's incredibly easy to prove us wrong. Fake sports stories, as irritating as they are, have a short shelf life. It's what, in the end, makes them harmless. Nobody really gets hurt. They just remind us we're being impatient. This is not the worst reminder.
You won't see some Astros fan in April doing a television interview about how excited she is that Edwin Encarnacion is an Astro even though he signed with the Yankees months earlier.
Sports always has an answer. If only we could be so lucky in politics.