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TBasketballhe other day a friend shared this quote from Michael Choukas‘ Propaganda Comes of Age (Public Affairs Press, 1965):

This is not the propagandist’s aim. For him the validity of an image must be measured not by the degree of its fidelity, but by the response it may evoke. If it will induce the action he wishes, its fidelity is high; if not, low. … The standard that he uses in choosing the images to be disseminated — his “truths” — would be a scale based on the range of possible human responses to an image. His criterion thus is established on the basis of overt action.

At first this made me think about journalism, and how it might fit Choukas’ definition of propaganda. Then it made me think about how we might confine the study of propaganda to a harmless subset of human story-telling. That’s when sports jumped to mind.

Sports are almost entirely narrative. They also have, as social phenomena go, less importance outside themselves than such highly fraught concerns as politics, religion and business. To the cynic, sports are Kurt Vonnegut‘s foma: “harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls…Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”

Yes, sports are more than that, but my soul at its simplest is a fan of the Mets. (And, less simply, a fan of the Red Sox.) Likewise, some of my least productive time is spent listening to sports talk radio — unless I count as valuable the communing of my simplest self with the souls of others who share the same mostly-harmless affections. (Hi, @MichaelSHolley.)

But how much more productive is the time I spend listening to NPR, or reading The New York Times? Some, I would say. So, I am sure, would sports fans who favor getting their news from Fox and The Wall Street Journal.

To see where I’m going here, lets unpack “harmless untruths” into a 2×2:


Foma are in the lower right corner. Whether the subject is sports or something else, that seems like a good corner in which to study propaganda.

Sports journalism, like all breeds of the discipline, escapes the foma classification by being about Truth, or at least about facts. But that’s beside my point, which is that interests, talk and reporting about sports all moves toward effects, which happen to be harmless but interesting.

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people,” Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have said. But great minds discuss all three. So, even though events and people are the main subjects of sports (and of most) stories, many great sports journalists also traffic in ideas. Jim MurrayRoger Angell and Frank Deford some first to mind; but so do Howard Cosell and Heywood Hale Broun, whose personalities (or wordrobes, in Broun’s case) often upstaged the events and people they covered. Then I think about David Foster Wallace, Bill LittlefieldJohn McPhee, Andrea Kremer, Keith OlbermannMichael Lewis, Howard BryantTony Kornheiser, Charlie Pierce, John Updike, Norman MailerGeorge Plimpton, Gay Talese, David Halberstam and other greats who work at deeper levels than the the usual bait for eyeballs and clicks.

So, speaking of bait, consider the three words uttered constantly by assignment editors everywhere: What’s the story? 

Stories, I was taught, are the main format of human interest; and all of them have just three elements:

  1. A protagonist, or character. This might be a person, a team, a cause or some other entity the reader, listener or viewer cares about. This character need only be interesting. Likability is a secondary matter. (Example: I hate Christian Laettner, an ESPN film.)
  2. A problem or challenge, This needs to be a situation that keeps the reader interested: tuned in or turning pages. (Classic edtorial instruction: “No story starts with ‘happily ever after.'”) In fact, it helps if the situation gets worse, so long as we have…
  3. Movement toward a resolution. If the war is over, or the home team is up or down by forty points with three minutes left, the challenge vanishes. If you’re at the game, your problem is beating traffic out of the parking lot.

If you’re missing one of those elements, you don’t have a story.

Case in point: Cambodia’s killing fields. The first I heard about them was in a story read by Hughes Rudd on a CBS newscast in the mid-1970s. He said that perhaps half a million people were already dead. On hearing this, I was appalled, because it came, in an “Oh by the way” manner, after stories about the Super Bowl and Patty Hearst (whose developing story sucked huge amounts of oxygen out of nearly every newsroom at the time).

The slaughter happening in Cambodia mattered far more than either the Super Bowl or Patty Hearst; but it wasn’t a story, because it was missing all three of those elements. There was no protagonist, other than a population with a statistic. The problem, while immense, was not ours, and also not moving toward resolution. In fact years would pass before the killing stopped.

For us here in the U.S., the killing fields story didn’t get real until The New York Times ran “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” by Sydney Shanberg, in the Sunday Magazine. That gave us a character, and made Cambodia’s plight real and compelling. (The story also grew, naturally, into a movie.)

Sports is always focused on those three elements. Is that because sports is always about propaganda? Or is it the case that all stories are, by their narrative nature, propaganda of a sort?

Stories are at least tendentious in the sense that the author needs a point of view — even if that point is what Jay Rosen calls the view from nowhere. (That’s pretty much where CBS stood when it first reported on Cambodia’s many dead.)

Look at the photos that accompany a sports story. If a team wins, the star player is shown making a great kick, throw, shot or whatever. Or maybe just smiling. If the same team loses, the picture shows the same player messing up or frowning. Never mind that the game was close, or that the photo is of one moment among zillions of others. The entire meaning of the photo is narrative. Its entire purpose is effect, which is both to serve and drive the interests of the reader, the viewer, the listener. What’s that say about journalism as a whole?

Has anybody studied sports or journalism as propaganda? At least one inquiring mind wants to know.

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