“The military wants to fight this war. Democrats don’t.” That was New York Post columnist John Podhoretz’s take on the recent Military Times poll indicating that 63 percent of active-duty military personnel approve of President Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq and 60 percent think the U.S. was right to invade.
After the bombing of a U.S. mess tent in Mosul and amid continuing attacks on shaky Iraqi security forces, the poll numbers were a late Christmas gift to pro-war pundits. Besides approving of the war, an overwhelming majority of troops told the Military Times that they’re happy with their jobs and think the U.S. will succeed in Iraq.
“After a G.I. interrogated Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, the whiners spread the word that morale among U.S. troops in Iraq was poor,” Robert Novak told viewers of CNN’s Crossfire. “Not so,” Novak proclaimed, trumpeting the poll results. Fox News Channel mentioned the survey twice, with military analyst Bill Cowan even blaming the press for the mere 21 percent of the respondents who said they don’t back the war. “We’ve got a media, a mainstream media that’s really working hard and some politicians working hard to continuously portray a bad side of what is going on over there,” Cowan told FNC’s The Big Story.
When some elements of that mainstream media picked up the poll story, the stories mentioned results that might give the hawks pause, like the 49 percent of troops who think the U.S. will be in Iraq for five to 10 years. But the fact is, all the results need to be taken with a grain of salt.
Since it is hard to get a list of active-duty military members for polling, the Military Times group (independent from the Pentagon, it publishes the Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times, and Marine Corps Times) uses a mail survey of subscribers for its annual poll. Robert Hodierne, senior managing editor of the group’s parent company, says this method was suggested by the Gallup Organization, and said this year’s 33 percent response rate was “pretty good.”
But since the poll’s target audience consists of subscribers to military newspapers, the respondents tend to be “older and more career-oriented than the military as a whole,” Hodierne tells the Voice. “There’s value in that. But it should not be confused with a poll that consists of the entire military.” The 21-year-old private, he says, is unlikely to subscribe. Most of those killed in Iraq so far have been younger than 25 and held ranks of corporal or lower.
“Talk about a player who is in a zone,” ABC Monday Night Football host John Madden said last week. “Peyton Manning is in that zone, whatever that may be.” Speaking one week after Jets quarterback Chad Pennington lashed out at the press and amid the lionizing of defensive great Reggie White, Madden—by saying nothing—was onto something.
Pennington infamously lectured Jets writers, indicating he was peeved about the story line that emerged after his bad game against the Steelers: that he can’t beat elite teams. The angry Chad asked reporters rhetorically, “Is it something that you’ve made up and want to write about it and take that angle and won’t say it, and just create it as a perception?”
Touchdown—of course it is! Daily News sportswriter Rich Cimini, whom Pennington scolded by name, notes that football teams only play once a week. “So for six days a week we’re manufacturing stories,” he tells the Voice. “There are a few days where you’re staring at the wall,” wondering what to write about, he says.
So, what sports reporters often write about are, in Chad’s word, angles. “If one is ‘Wow, he’s not able to beat the good teams,’ that’s an angle,” WNBC sports anchor Otis Livingston tells the Voice.”Then you have to back that up with fact. In my estimation, you have to break the game down into different angles, into different bits that the public can chew on.”
Jocks offer their chroniclers little help. Unlike Chad’s briefing, athletes’ press conferences are often mere cliché recitals. In the month of December alone, America’s sports pages recorded more than 300 cases of athletes using the beleaguered construction “just go out there.” Livingston suspects that sports lingo is feeding on itself. “A lot of times the athletes themselves fall into that trap of that’s what they see on television, that’s what they hear, that what they grow up hearing on television is the clichés,” like Madden’s reference to a “zone” that he cannot define.
So the athletes need “angles” as much as their chroniclers: Without story lines, there’d be little reason to think about the Chad Penningtons of the world between Sundays. Except, of course, when real news like White’s death occurs. Reggie’s life story encompassed stellar play, eloquent evangelism, and gay-bashing. Local print outlets (the Daily News, Newsday and the Times) did their job, mentioning Reggie’s controversial 1998 speech in which he dissed homosexuals. But the NFL shows on CBS, Fox, and ABC punted.
Their omissions were odd because, as Livingston points out, there was no need to manufacture the angle on White. “That’s nothing that you’re making up,” he says. “That’s fact. That was there. That happened.”
Of course, “real” news (i.e., not sports) also exhibits blind spots—even on news programs, CBS didn’t mention White’s remarks on gays—relies on inarticulate spokesmen (Dubya), and resorts to clichés like “moral values,” “flip-flop,” and “war on terrorism.” All that’s different on the sports page are the spandex pants.
“Let’s be honest. It’s sports, so it’s not as important as City Hall or the White House or covering cops, but I try to approach it seriously,” Cimini says. “I just happen to be covering guys who like to beat their brains in every Sunday.”
Rolling Stone‘s year-end issue hypes “interviews” with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, there are no actual interviews of the men inside. Fear not, however; according to the Barack Obama Q&A that does appear as advertised, “The media can only drag you down if you take it seriously.”