SF Giants outfielder Alex Dickerson received a false positive COVID-19 test last week. Bob Nightengale’s damaging reporting only made a bad situation worse. It was just the latest example of the USA Today columnist’s disregard for the truth.
Last Friday, everyone around baseball was put on high alert when the SF Giants series against the San Diego Padres was postponed following a positive COVID-19 test. Later Thursday evening, Adam Housley reported that Giants outfielder Alex Dickerson had tested positive.
As Giants employees and fans collectively held their breath, everyone hoped for the best and prepared for the worst. If Dickerson was positive, many other players and team employees were obviously at risk of exposure as well. The future of their season was uncertain but secondary to the substantial health risks.
Thankfully for all involved, Dickerson and the rest of the Giants organization tested negative for COVID-19 in subsequent rounds of testing. A committee of experts assembled by MLB ruled Dickerson’s first result a false-positive. Both teams resumed their series on Sunday.
That should be where the story ends. Unfortunately, bad reporting made a difficult situation far worse.
"The San Francisco Giants-San Diego Padres games on Friday and Saturday were postponed when a Giants player tested positive for COVID-19. The player, who remains unidentified, told several members of the Giants’ traveling party that he believed he was possibly infected by a family member or friend in San Diego."
While Nightengale omitted Alex Dickerson’s name from his report, it was a moot point. His name had been reported the night before. Nightengale implied that he had broken protocol and put himself, his family, and colleagues at risk.
Since returning, Dickerson has been candid about the negative impact of the report. In an interview with SF Giants beat writers, he noted “that false reporting did happen in my situation,” referencing Nightengale’s report, “Those kinds of statements lead to a steamrolling effect that caused my wife, who is 39 weeks pregnant, to deal with a lot of stuff she did not deserve to deal with. It was not easy.”
The media landscape, especially in sports, is one filled with subtweeting and backhanded critiques of other reporters. Like most industries, people are more hesitant to criticize people in jobs like their own. Many Giants beat writers have omitted Nightengale’s name entirely from the story, instead solely attributing the report to USA Today.
As someone aspiring to find full-time employment as a reporter, it’s easy to understand why. Prominent reporters have power in an ever-shrinking industry. Corporate consolidation and downsizing have left fewer opportunities throughout sports media. It’s good to have friends, but perhaps even more necessary to avoid enemies.
There has been more explicit criticism as American culture has shifted towards a greater emphasis on “accountability.” What accountability looks like and how it’s defined remain up for debate, but it’s undeniably a focal point of more general discourse than it was a decade ago. Yet, ultimately, Nightengale has never been held accountable for his, at best, incorrect reporting.
Journalists can only be as good as the information they receive. It’s clear that Nightengale failed to properly vet his source(s). Good reporters have made that mistake plenty of times, but it fits a long-term pattern of reporting misinformation with Nightengale.
The USA Today columnist, who frequently appears on MLB Network, was at the center of reporting on MLB and MLBPA negotiations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in June, Nightengale Tweeted players with high-risk family members could opt out of the season and still receive full-service time and pay. In reality, only players who themselves were classified as high risk could opt out and receive those benefits.
Nightengale was also a questionable narrator of the Wilpon family’s sale of the New York Mets. While Steve Cohen, the longtime front-runner, agreed to purchase the team on Monday, Nightengale Tweeted back in August that Alex Rodriguez’s prospective ownership group “is now the clear-cut favorite to purchase the #Mets.”
There are plenty of other innocuous examples of Nightengale contradicting his own reporting, falsely reporting a transaction, or analyzing a move that did not happen. It’s easy to laugh at Nightengale reporting the Oakland Athletics were “cautiously optimistic” Kyler Murray would be at Spring Training minutes after he publically chose football.
The problem is sports reporting is more than just trade talks and transactions. As with Dickerson’s positive test, there can be real human costs to flippantly reporting whatever you hear without challenging people to go on the record. Perhaps even more problematically, Nightengale’s most substantial incorrect reports always reinforce pro-ownership and pro-league narratives.
By reporting players with high-risk family members could opt-out, Nightengale was undermining players in negotiations. By reporting A-Rod’s group was making a push to purchase the Mets, the Wilpons gained leverage in their negotiations with Cohen. By reporting Dickerson had broken protocol, Nightengale preemptively absolved the league of potential culpability if he was indeed positive.
The rampant distrust of media in sports and beyond is at least somewhat attributable to this lack of accountability. Reporters and journalists are not luxuries, but necessary parts of any facet of a fair society. Even in sports. Yet, some of the biggest media companies continue to platform people who undermine their industry’s credibility.
Journalists and reporters like Bob Nightengale aren’t good at the jobs they are paid to perform. Instead, they act as public relations officials for leagues, ownership groups, front-offices, or whoever has the access and incentive to spread misinformation. One side can help their own PR while the journalist can break a scoop, drive page views to their content, and never be forced to reconcile if their report is wrong.
The consequences are small when it’s a trade rumor, but whenever a story gains gravity, they fail to shift their approach, mislead, and do real harm. SF Giants outfielder Alex Dickerson was the latest victim of Bob Nightengale’s journalistic failings. It’s time we stopped accepting that, especially from one of the most prominent reporters in baseball.