Press Box Propaganda? the Cold War and Sports Illustrated, 1956

By Massaro, John | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2003 | Go to article overview

Press Box Propaganda? the Cold War and Sports Illustrated, 1956


Massaro, John, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Sports Illustrated, one of the premier sports journals and widely noted for its professional objectivity, did not escape the influence of the Cold War. As the evidence presented in this article will indicate, Sports Illustrated's reporting in 1956 conveyed typical Cold War bias, markedly and unobjectively favoring the values of the United States and Capitalism and disfavoring those of the USSR and Communism. The goal of this article is to document and take the dimensions of that bias and to offer an explanation as to why this Cold War phenomenon linking politics, sports, and journalism occurred.

An editor for the FBI during the Cold War won great praise from his colleagues for publishing the following account:

The FBI is seldom surprised by the "factual" reporting of Moscow's "free" press. However, one journalistic episode even had FBI agents shaking their heads.

In a recent two-man contest between an athlete from the United States and an athlete from the U.S. S. R., the American athlete won a decided victory. Although the Soviet newsmen were momentarily taken back by the defeat in the sports arena, they were not to be surpassed in the propaganda field. They proudly reported, for the consumption of the home folk, that the Russian contestant won second place in an important sporting event while the American representative had come in next to last. (FBI Notes)

At the time, the editor had no direct knowledge that such a report had actually appeared in the Soviet press. Still, he published the account in large part because, one can suppose, it resonated with the prevailing Cold War view of the duplicitous and manipulative nature of the Soviet Union extant at that time among most members of the FBI, if not most Americans. In retrospect, the reporting of the account might reveal as much about the effects of the Cold War on political discourse in the United States as it does about the Cold War's impact on sports reporting in the Soviet Union at that time. More certainly, the reporting of the account has contributed to raising the central questions examined in this article: Did the Cold War influence the reporting of sports in the United States? And, if so, how and why did this occur?

The desire to address these questions stems from the conclusions reached by several scholars of the Cold War. In Still Seeing Red: How the Cold War Shaped the New American Politics, John Kenneth White notes that within the United States, the Cold War-inspired "anticommunist crusade . . . touched nearly every department of life. Virtually nothing was beyond its reach" (13). In a forward to Stephen J. Whitfield's The Culture of the Cold War, Stanley I. Kutler has observed that the "national fetish with anti-Communism pervaded American society, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the popular culture of the era. Few could escape or miss the message" (vii). Whitfield notes that the "Cold War . . . narrowed and altered American culture" (14). And he adds that during the Cold War, "American culture was politicized" to such an extent that "the values and perceptions, the forms of expression, the symbolic patterns, the beliefs and myths that enabled Americans to make sense of their reality . . . were contaminated by an unseemly political interest ..." (10). Whitfield notes further that during the Cold War, "the most ardent variety of anticommunism became in the phrase of political scientist Michael Paul Rogin, a 'political demonology' in which the threat was exaggerated, intensified, and finally dehumanized" (15).

If the Cold War's influence on United States culture was as pervasive and extensive as White, Whitfield, and others have suggested, traces of that influence should be found in even the supposed apolitical world of sports reporting. A reading of sports reporting in the United States during the Cold War should generate at least some illustrations and examples of the demonizing and dehumanizing of Communists and the other Cold War phenomena suggested by these Cold War scholars.

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