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Fake News in Cubs Media


As demonstrated repeatedly this offseason, there are a lot of false sources in Cubs news. Today, I want to take some time and explain how to properly scrutinize what you see in Cubs news. How to separate the facts from fiction, but also be able to read the game that news outlets play.


Media is a business, above all else. All hail the almighty dollar. As you might expect, money can corrupt proper coverage. It's unfortunate, but it's the way the world works. Media personalities often make their money in clicks. As most free use websites are supported by ads, they get a certain dollar amount for every ad that you scroll past. They get more for each ad you click on. So it is in a writer's best financial interest to write articles that garner the most clicks. And what sells? Negative stories. It's why the evening news focuses on the bad in humanity, rather than the good.


There are three main ways that news will distort stories to get your attention and money:

  • Be First: the early bird gets the worm. First story posted gets the most attention. This comes at the expense of accuracy.

  • Be Emotional: tug at the memories and heartstrings of what the viewer holds dear.

  • Be Negative: problems sell, solutions don't.

The opposite of these three characteristics: accuracy, factual, and contextual. As we go through some media outlets and news stories, I want you to remember these three things with the handy acronym FEN: First, Emotional, and Negative. You'll find that when media drops the ball, they are often guilty of all three of those sins.


Regardless of their best intentions, all media is biased, one way or another. As people, we have egos and personalities. Whether we like it or not, the values we hold dear present themselves in our work. This is especially true in all forms of media. The media producers always have a point of view, and are trying to get you to agree with it. Sometimes it is blatant, and sometimes it's a bit more subversive. If you can be aware of the bias, you can determine the facts.


Unfortunately, as flawed people, we often have less than pure motives. Journalism is an industry, and there's a lot of writers who have their livelihoods at stake. Does this mean that they can burn the midnight oil, dig deep and reach far to be the best writers they can be? At times. More often, media personalities will resort to less savory methods to get your clicks.


In Cubs news world, this often manifests itself as wanting to be first to report the news. The first reporters get credit from other reporters retweeting their news breaks, and in turn get more followers. The more likes and follows, the better reputation you have. It's a race to be known as a top source of information. In this game, response time matters much more than accuracy. It's always easier for these people to apologize for a mistake than it is to be late to breaking a story. This focus on promptness outweighs everything else. Also, because clicks equal advertising revenue, it's financially beneficial to write anything that gets clicks. That's why the Athletic is so accurate. They rely on subscriptions, not getting every last click they can. They can afford not to write click bait articles.


As a bit of a sidebar, you'll notice that we are a bit different at Cubs DNA. When we started, the DNA started as a joke, for "Doomboners Neednot Apply." Basically a doom free zone. We were a group of Cubs fans who saw the glass as being half full. Not half empty. We are different from many. You'll notice that we generally don't report any rumors at Cubs DNA. We don't speculate, nor do we pretend to have all the facts. We don't pass around rumors or stories when we can't tell if they are true. This is very intentional. When we started this, we wanted it to be more authentic than most sources. And honestly, none of us are journalists. Some of us have experience in media, but none of us are nor claim to be experts. We don't have egos that need to be stroked by breaking Cubs news first. We don't try to get clicks by posting outlandish headlines that are designed to provoke an emotional response. We also don't make money from the site. We are who we are. We are a group of Cubs fan friends, who have the analytical skills to look beyond headlines and evaluate moves. We don't have over the top reactions to losses or trades, because we are capable of seeing the bigger picture. We aren't smarter than the front office, although we do strive to try and understand things at that kind of level (when possible). Over the years, I've learned quite a few things about how news is presented, and I'd like to share that with you so that you can understand how "fake news" can be pertained to Cubs news.


Who Are Some Of The Players?

Before I jump into the flow of things, I'm going to name some names so you have faces as I talk about the news cycle. There are three main categories of news: Beat Writers, Media Outlets, and Personalities.

Beat Writers: sportswriters who focus specifically on a specific sport in a specific town. Sometimes they are Cubs or Sox specific, sometimes they cover both. They often have a prestigious job for a newspaper or TV station. They also have insider access to teams, allowing them to break stories quickly. For those who cover the Cubs, they include Jesse Rogers, David Kaplan, Russ Dorsey, Paul Sullivan, and Gordon Wittenmyer.

Media Outlets: Newspapers, TV, Radio, Internet, but also team centric blogs. Blogs and radio often take what the beat writers or national outlets are saying on Twitter and regurgitate it. These outlets don't often gather their own information, unless they have a beat writer working for them.

Personalities: Sometimes these people have a job covering the Cubs. Sometimes they just tweet a lot about Cubs baseball and have a lot of followers. Either way, they are often thought of as being a source for Cubs information. They can include sports radio hosts and popular Twitter accounts.


What is the Sports News Cycle Like?

Have you ever played the game telephone? It's where you line up, the first person gets a message, and then has to whisper it down the line until it gets to the end. The last person gets the message, says it out loud, then everyone laughs at how off base it is from the initial message at the start of the line. Sports news breaks much like this game.


The beat writers are often closest to the actual news sources, and typically break news first. Then the media outlets grab that info, and begin to add their two cents to it. Then the personalities grab that and begin to add their opinions to that even more. All of these outlets will often present their opinions very strong, whether through a headline, or how they phrase the information presented. This trend results in occasionally misconstrued information, oftentimes when someone's opinion is considered fact.


Every news break is shaped at the top, then corrupted by each level it goes through. Jon Lester's option might be declined because that's what makes most business sense for an aging pitcher, but if a beat writer interjects with his opinion that ownership just needs to spend more money, the narrative becomes "cheap Tom Ricketts." Beat writers control the narrative, most of the time, as the media outlets and pundits typically just echo what they have to say.


There's also a fair amount of fake news pundits out there. Basically, these are just people making up news. Their motives are often either to just be a troll or to gain followers to stroke their ego. But occasionally these accounts will correctly guess a move, catch fire and then be used as sources. Media outlets will wonder if they stumbled upon Jed Hoyer's anonymous account. No, it's just someone trying to be cute. If the media outlets report this misinformation, then illegitimate news can spread fast.


One such "source" is Charles the Cat. Charles is known for having an inside edge on Cubs news. In reality, he projected that The Cubs would sign Yu Darvish in January, phrased it in such a way that he appeared to be on the inside. In reality, he bet a bunch of street credit on the Cubs signing Darvish, then it paid off handsomely when it actually happened. He still boasts of that moment to this day, with a pinned tweet:

How can you tell this is nonsense? No new pinned tweets in three years. He's still living off his past success, and hasn't won big on a guess since then. In Twitterland, three years is ancient history. If he was an actual insider, this pinned tweet would be updated several times a year with newer correct news breaks. Real sources of information don't bask in what they have accomplished, they move forward. Also, he's a cat.


Now that you understand the news cycle, I want to show you how deceptive it can be. I have analyzed several offseason scenarios from this past year to help illustrate what's at stake:


Kris Bryant' Unhappiness:

On January 21st, Kris Bryant spoke on Red Line Radio. During that interview, he mentioned some of the struggles he's had, and talked about his level of having fun while playing baseball. As you could expect, every beat writer and blog listened to that interview and had immediate reactions. What we got is a tale of two stories built from within Bryant's comments. Two Cubs beat writers provided differentiating angles and headlines. One painted a picture of Kris having struggles at times, while the other was more definitive in saying Kris has lost joy while playing baseball. Here they are:

In his article, Russell Dorsey details the context of Kris Bryant not enjoying being a part of trade rumors. Kris liked the childlike glee he once had, and how he's trying to get back to that place. Russ lets KB's quotes do the talking, instead of interjecting his views or spinning quotes out of context to control the narrative. In my opinion, Dorsey did well. Here's an example of the opposite:

Talk about a stark contrast. Rogers plays his card sharply in both the headline and first paragraph. He is clearly focused on whatever unhappy feelings Bryant has, regardless of what caused them or how frequently they are appearing.


It's a tale of two narratives, based off the exact same interview. With how different the two headlines are, surely one had to be more accurate than the other. Which one do you think would get more clicks, just based off those headlines alone? Clearly Rogers' article. There was one click in particular that he did get:

Kris Bryant tweets just a handful of times each year. This was one of them. Bryant was spot on. Late January is often a very slow time for baseball news. Fans are hungry for content, and will absolutely read something that talks about Bryant being unhappy. Does that means he wants out of Chicago? Fans have to know the answer.


Lesson:

Most media outlets will spin headlines and content into overly negative manners to garner attention.


Jon Lester:

Jon Lester had his Cubs option declined, making him a free agent. He would go on to sign a 1 year $5m deal to go to the Nationals, with some heavily deferred money. With that affordable of a deal, reports like "insulting offer" and "Ricketts is cheap" quickly made the rounds. How could the Cubs not want Lester back on that little money?


In actuality, he's had back to back bad seasons which put him on par with some of the worst starting pitching we've seen in the Ricketts era. There's a very real possibility that Jed didn't bring Lester back because of money, but because he's been bad. The Cubs have since spent similar money on other pitchers, going for more of a quantity approach instead of quality. But Lester being bad or the Cubs going for a different approach doesn't get as many clicks as "JED DISRESPECTS CUBS LEGEND WITH INSULTING OFFER" or "TOM DOESN'T WANT A HERO BACK." Do those phrases sound like an overdramatic exaggeration? Read on.


When Jon Lester left, here's how beat writers started the game of telephone, with Gordon Wittenmyer immediately declaring that the Cubs should sell the team:

Gordo doesn't pull any punches, even if most of it is just opinion and speculation. Other beat writers were similar. The Cubs blogs then formed an echo chamber around this idea:

And then the pundits ate it up:

What actually happened? Jed Hoyer moved on from a pitcher who has had a two year stretch on par with some of the worst SP performances we've seen in the Ricketts era of Cubs baseball.

  • Edwin Jackson 2013: 4.98 ERA, 1.460 WHIP, 10.1 H/9. The year he led the NL in losses.

  • John Lackey 2017: 4.59 ERA, 1.277 WHIP, 1.9 HR/9. The year the league homered him out of baseball.

  • Tyler Chatwood 2018: 5.30 ERA, 1.804 WHIP, 8 H/9. The year he walked himself out of the rotation

  • Jon Lester 2019/2020 combined: 4.64 ERA 1.453 WHIP 10.4 H/9 1.4 HR/9.

Lester just turned 37. I love the guy for what he's done, but let's be honest. He's running out of gas quickly. Since Lester went to the Nationals, the Cubs have signed rebound candidates Trevor Williams, Shelby Miller, and Kohl Stewart as an assortment of replacements for similar money as Lester's heavily deferred Nationals' deal. But don't let facts get in way of the narrative.


Lesson:

Negativity sells, even if it's actually a good move for the Cubs. Also, watch closely for how narratives develop at the top and work their way down.


Kyle Schwarber:

The Cubs are cutting payroll after being over the Competitive Balance Tax for two straight seasons in 2019 and 2020. Many call it a lame excuse for billionaire Ricketts, but the tax is at least partially true. No team in MLB pays the escalating luxury tax many years in a row. Even the Dodgers and Yankees cut payroll to reset the penalties. The Cubs were over in both 2019 and 2020, and had 0 playoff wins to show for it. Some money was coming off in the way of big contracts expiring, but the Cubs couldn't play the game of hoping it would all figure itself out and are choosing to make deeper cuts. Schwarber's name fell on the chopping block after a negative WAR season and when he was due to make $10 million. His league average defense wasn't an asset like Javy Baez's glove is, and he's never had the monster seasons that Kris Bryant has. LF is one of the most easily filled positions in baseball, so he became expendable. It was a sad move to lose playoff legend Schwarber. But after missing 2016, and having major slumps in 2017, 2019 and 2020, his production was inconsistent at best.


As Schwarber was a fan favorite, this move was coupled with a lot of heart language by the local media. They even went as far as to compare him to Babe Ruth.


Pundits jumped all over this move with overly dramatic language:

Even once the Cubs revealed they had a plan and found a suitable replacement, they still couldn't let it go.


In actuality, the Cubs got someone who's both a better hitter and defender for cheaper. It's a savvy move. Pederson has significantly better career WAR (10.6 to 5.4 BBref and 13 to 9.6 FG) and wRC+ (118 to 113). Jed Hoyer recognized that the outfield needed improvement, but couldn't just sign a big name when having to stay under the tax threshold. So he shaved a salary, even if it was at the expense of a fan favorite.


Lesson:

Stomping on warm fuzzy feelings and memories is a way to get negativity clicks. Be wary of overly emotional headlines.


Yu Darvish Trade:

Most of the media was shocked when the Cubs traded Darvish. It was a shocking deal. None of them could understand how you give up a Cy Young caliber pitcher for teenagers. To them, it was the beginning of some kind of rebuild. Next would come Bryant and Baez. The tank was on.


But in actuality, it wasn't a shockingly poor return, given Yu's expensive contract and advanced age. He was at peak value. Considering his disastrous 2018, it was not that long ago that his contract looked like a total sinker. While Darvish rebounded nicely for a Cy Young worthy 12 starts in 2020, it wouldn't be a massive stretch to expect regression in 2021. What would the Cubs get if he was a middle of the rotation starter in 2021, and still had 2 years and $40 million left as he entered age 35? It would be next to nothing. If anything, they might have to give up players of value to get that money off their hands. Rather than wait and have a possible mess on their hands, Jed Hoyer opted to restock some of the farm now.


But Jed Hoyer getting the maximum value for an aging pitcher isn't the headline that gets clicks. The one that does?

"Frightening." Really? Yes, it was a shocking and unorthodox deal for a team expected to compete in 2021. But there is a ton of precedence for this kind of deal, whether its James Shields for Fernando Tatis Jr, or Grienke to the Astros. As you can expect, others echoes this sentiment.

While the Darvish trade could have been a possible first step in a tanking, it just as easily could have been a reload based off max value. Considering the Lindor and Arenado trades, it's clear that top players making big money are not fetching top 5 prospects anymore. The "Darvish trade kicking off a rebuild" was premature. Why? Because a frenzy of bummed Cubs fans will give you a ton of clicks.


Lesson:

Negativity sells. It's in a media outlet's best interest to not see the upside in a deal, but to focus on the bad.


Michael Brantley to the Blue Jays:

This one is not Cubs related, but a recent example of fake news getting spread like wildfire. On January 20th, news broke that Michael Brantley was going to the Blue Jays and that the deal was wrapped up. Then just a few hours later, it was revealed that he was actually going back to the Houston Astros. Why the sudden and drastic turn of events?

One person tweeted it, and everyone jumped on it like a fumble. The original tweet was from some Charles the Cat-like pundit, who has since disappeared. But Hazel Mae retweeted it, and the fire spread:

As these aren't Chicago people listed in the above tweet, here's who they are:

  • Joey Vendetta is a sports radio host in Toronto

  • David O'Brien is an Athletic reporter based out of Atlanta

  • Hazel Mae is a TV sports reporter

  • Ben Nicholson-Smith is a sportswriter for sportsnet.ca

That was lot of big names who all got duped. Even Chicago's own Bleacher Nation fell for it, and Michael Cerami had to print a retraction.


Lesson:

Being first comes with a high risk of being incorrect. Sometimes even "reliable" sources get fooled and report bad information. Especially if they run to be first in line with the news. Breaking news does not equal accurate news.


Kyle Hendricks and Kris Bryant to the Blue Jays:

Here's another rumor that shook the web for a week this offseason. Again, a big rumor reported by someone surrounded the Cubs sending both their best pitcher and hitter to another team is earth-shattering news. If true, it has the ability to gain thousands of clicks.


After the Cardinals hacked the Astros email, we learned that teams are talking deals all the time. That doesn't mean "where there is smoke, there is fire." It just means that teams are constantly chatting in case there's a situation to take advantage of. Very rarely are these noteworthy talks, and that's why beat reporters don't typically report on them until they turn serious.


Regarding Bryant and Hendricks, here's how it originated. A fan asked a Blue Jays radio personality if there was truth to rumors. Rumors that hadn't been mentioned anywhere else up until that point.

The word yes set off a frenzy. Once that happened, all the Cubs blogs jumped all over it with posts:

  • Cubs Insider: Reporting on just that tweet

  • Bleacher Nation: Reporting on just that tweet

  • Cubs HQ: Reporting on this rumor "according to a report," in which said report was uncited.

  • Bleacher Nation again: This time, saying the Blue Jays could use upgrades at 3B and SP as being a fit for the Cubs.

  • CubbiesCrib: Posted an article without a source

  • Fansided: Posted an article based on just the tweet.

And with each post came multiple shares on social media. The result? A borderline frenzy of Cubs fans preconditioned to think the Cubs were tanking, taking this as the big move that mints the rebuilding plan scenario. Even though this one wasn't touched by any of the beat writers, it still made waves as a serious possibility. Sometimes news doesn't come from the sources closest to the actual action. Many blogs just report on whatever someone said on Twitter.


That's not to say that this trade won't happen or could never happen. But when it's discussed multiple times in many places, a lot of casual fans will start thinking that there have been serious discussions. This is a propaganda-like effect, where a person can start to believe something not true because they are surrounded by it.


Lesson:

Be wary of articles that do not quote their sources, or quote just a singular tweet as a source. These are often the most inaccurate articles.


Ricketts Increasing Budget:

After a few established names left the Cubs, Jed Hoyer began signing replacements. Some of the non-prestige names include Trevor Williams, Joc Pederson, Shelby Miller and Austin Romine.

The Cubs media crowd is beginning to try and take credit for this. To them, the Cubs original plan was to just fill the holes with minor league depth as they punted on 2021, not trying to compete. Now that the Cubs are actually signing players, the rebuild is off, and competition is back. It's all due to their Woodward/Bernstein like involvement in exposing Ricketts and his Scrooge McDuck-isms in all of their horror:


This is just ridiculous, and it led to the breaking point for me in writing this article. If the front office was making decisions based off non-expert's online opinions, they should all be fired. Period. Baseball is a business, and the front office has access to financials and information we don't. We speculate. They don't have to. Honestly, I don't believe for a minute that Tom Ricketts keeps opening and closing his change purse on a dime. The front office has talked about making major changes in response to lackluster results for years now. The end of the 2016 competitive era was going to come no matter what. The Cubs need to reload so they don't fall off a cliff like the Phillies, Tigers, or Royals have done in recent years.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has wrecked havoc on baseball operations and profitability. More than ever, the Cubs need to field a watchable product. And they are trying.

Here's an excerpt from an email to current Cubs season ticket holders that indicates that season ticket renewal rates are down for 2021:

Normally it's half down at the beginning of the year, the other half by opening day. Now they are greatly shifting things to incentivize more returning fans. As there's chatter of Wrigley opening to half capacity, it's the Cubs best interest that they fill those stands as much as possible. Meanwhile, they also need to have a presentable product on Marquee Sports Network.


After the pandemic, a lot of MLB teams are hurting. The Cubs estimate that they lost $150 million in 2020. After Tom Ricketts pumped hundreds of millions into renovating and modernizing Wrigley Field the last few years, it's clear that his financial spreadsheets aren't all roses. I'm not going to pretend to know the exact financial picture. What I do know is that in 2011, Frank McCourt was forced to sell the Dodgers after incurring serious debt. Between being in the luxury tax back to back seasons, the Wrigley work, and no income from ticket sales in 2020, it's not any stretch of the imagination that Tom Ricketts might just be in a bit of a problem financially. I doubt he can afford poor Marquee Sports Network ratings if the Cubs do a full rebuild in 2021. But things could not proceed on as they were. After adding a bunch of expensive pieces since 2018 and having 0 playoff wins to show for it, it was time to trim some fat and revamp things for the future.


But yes, Tom Ricketts read a few tweets of some ego-centric bloggers and decided to open up his coin purse.


Lesson:

Be very wary of journalists proclaiming their opinions as fact. Seeing nonsense like what I presented should lead to skepticism on everything else they say.



Where do we go from here?

My recommendation: follow a wide variety of news sources. Both good and bad. Eventually, both good and bad will report the right news stories. Take everything with a grain of salt. Be extra critical of stories that break quickly. Apply logic to news. Often times, if it doesn't make a shred of sense, it's not true. Everybody has flaws. This includes members of the media. That isn't to say to disregard everything, but rather not put your stock into just one source. Constantly evaluate and judge for yourself.


A few good resources we recommend following:

  • Russ Dorsey -Chicago Sun Times

  • Sahadev Sharma -The Athletic

  • Jordan Bastian -MLB.com reporter





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