Before GQ’s Writer Got Duck Dynasty’s Phil, He Got Me
Reading the patriarch of cable television’s most-watched reality program spouting forth in Drew Megara’s piece enraged some and enthused others. It gave me a sense of déjà vu. I had not only read the article before, I had been in it--back in October when I spoke at a breakout session of the Values Voter Summit conference on my book, The War on Football: Saving America’s Game.
Magary’s Deadspin piece on my Values Voter Summit speech begins, “The first thing I saw was the abortion truck.” “Let’s start with the crossbow, because the crossbow is huge,” reads the opening line of his GQ article on Phil Robertson. It’s not just the strange stylistic similarities--the informally abrupt announcements, “The first thing” and “Let’s start with”--that jump out. The substance of both opening lines amounts to the same cautionary note to the urban, metrosexual readership: the subject of this article is not like you. So, rather than understand or debate him, let’s point and laugh. Magary highlights a cultural lightning rod--abortion in one instance, weapons in the other--to proclaim his subject’s status as “the other.”
Drew Magary’s identikit articles, imposing the same template upon very different subjects, reflect a joyless, assembly-line writing that shapes subjects into precast molds instead of understanding them as unwieldy individuals prone to sending long-form journalism into unanticipated and interesting directions. Ideology has that cookie-cutter effect on writing.
In Magary’s Duck Dynasty piece, he highlights the fly nestled in Phil’s beard, his bunions, his taste for cooked squirrels, and, most unusual of all, his belief in fundamentalist Christianity. Can you believe that people in rural Louisiana oppose same-sex marriage? Magary employed this modus operandi in his article on my talk at the Values Voter Summit, highlighting “a photo of an aborted, dismembered fetus” on a van outside the hotel, pointing to the presence of a prayer room affixed with a “NO MEDIA” sign, and even noting the habits of conference-goers in the lavatory (surely vindicating that no-press-allowed decision on the makeshift chapel). “One dude in the hotel bathroom felt so comfortable that he put both his arms up on the partitions dividing the urinals and let out an audible moan while pissing,” the Deadspin writer reports.
The passive-aggressive style presents a sneer and sniff but never an argument. It’s not that Magary is a wuss for never having hunted wild game or cringing at the mud that splatters on his shirt, as he jokes in the Duck Dynasty piece. It’s the reluctance to show his cards, deference to political correctness, and drive-by jibes that makes him cowardly. The writer always remains above debate; his opponents, never above ridicule.
This genus of article has become such a journalistic cliché that upon meeting Magary thoughts immediately drifted to Stephen Glass, the New Republic’s infamous fabulist. Why else would this guy be at a Values Voters Summit if not to write the predictable article that he eventually wrote? Nearly twenty years earlier, I had met Glass in the same hotel during the Conservative Political Action Conference. Like Magary, he cut a jittery and slightly awkward figure. I bluntly asked whether he was going to focus on the weirdest people in attendance--sweaty fanatics whose filthy toes escape their sandals and unfashionable enthusiasts of sandwich-board fashion--to propel his article. He assured me that he would not. This may have been his only honest moment during the whole boring weekend, which, in his prose, became a wild bacchanal of cocaine, bathroom college hookups, and ritualistic sexual humiliations of overweight women. The New Republic dismissed proof brought by dumbfounded attendees of the conference that Glass’s portrayal reflected his imagination rather than the reality of the event until questions about the veracity of many other Glass accounts became too troubling to ignore.
The GQ writer jeopardizing a reality television powerhouse isn’t that New Republic celluloid zero brilliantly played by Hayden Christensen in Shattered Glass. Reading his Values Voter Summit piece, it struck me that he was occasionally sloppy but not dishonest or malicious. Not only have I experienced much rougher treatment from agenda-minded journalists, I experienced worse treatment that day from a Mother Jones scribe. When I supplied that writer with a sound bite that he wasn’t looking for, noting that football and its critics didn’t break down neatly into preexisting ideological camps, he simply reshaped what I had said into the very opposite, a strawman point that he wished I had made. For good measure, he butchered a delicate post-speech story that I had shared about my brain-damaged father. Magary, in contrast, handled my dad’s damage with kid gloves and accurately represented my point about football playing above politics. “Nothing about Flynn’s presentation was totally unreasonable on its face--good scientists have said many of the same things,” he noted. “And he didn’t let the NFL off the hook, either.”
If he was unfair to conference goers, he at least extended fairness here and there to me. But he makes numerous mistakes. This definitely isn’t the worst fault in the world. It’s the most universal one, not exclusive to any political outlook. Here’s why this matters in this instance. If you’ve got your narrative figured out before you’ve begun the investigation, the words spoken don’t really mean all that much. Who cares if you get the small stuff wrong when the big picture is so right? Right?
Magary confuses 1963 for 1968 when retelling a point I had made that football collision deaths declined from 36 in 1968 to just 2 during the 2012 season and mishears my reference to “selection bias” in chronic traumatic encephalopathy studies as “selective bias.” In the context of Magary’s lame attempt to correct my point that 10 percent of the litigants in the settled suit against the NFL never actually played a down in the league--it’s 9.4 percent by his count--the piddly errors here suddenly don’t seem piddly. Elsewhere, he took statements from two separate parts of the speech and mashed them together betwixt quotation marks. Did ellipses go on strike? When I segue from Barack Obama’s much-publicized concerns about football to the president’s wayward pot-smoking teenage years in the Choom Gang to suggest that worse dangers to kids’ brains exist than football, Magary labels the point “crazy”--stripping the marijuana references from the context to make the invocation of Obama seem like a bizarre non sequitur, i.e., “crazy.”
Could he have similarly twisted Phil’s words the way he misconstrued mine? It’s possible, although the similarities between the duck-call manufacturer’s sentiments in the GQ piece with his sermons elsewhere suggest probably not. The salient point about Magary’s cavalier approach to the facts regards how unimportant they are to his shtick. It didn’t matter what Phil said. It didn’t matter what I said. Magary had the story written before he walked into the room.
It’s not journalism so much as it is anthropology, Margaret Mead among the Samoans stuff. One can go back to his GQ piece earlier this year on Kid Rock and his uncouth fans to witness Magary recycling, albeit in a kinder, gentler manner, the condescending tone that appears in his cottage industry of articles on rednecks, conservatives, conservative rednecks, and redneck conservatives. Magary, of course, isn’t trekking across the globe to examine the folkways of primitive peoples. He conducts his fieldwork among—in Magary’s words--the “Mericans,” perhaps the most exotic humans on the planet to any self-described “uppity liberal.”
And this is the strangest part of what Magary finds strange. Surely a sports writer should grasp that football and hunting remain utterly mainstream passions, no?
Football transcends political, geographical, ethnic, and class differences. It remains the most popular participatory sport at the high school level. And the ratings juggernaut that is Sunday Night Football--the number one show on broadcast television as Duck Dynasty is the number one program on cable television--speaks to its popularity as a spectator sport. The gun culture that Phil Robertson embodies transcends our differences, too, even if Phil and sons are, well, a bit different. About a third of American households, despite large swaths of the country imposing restrictions on firearms, contain a gun. This is slightly less than the number of households that contain a child and slightly more than the number of households that contain a dog.
Americans like guns and football. Get over it.
Certainly one can’t blame Magary for the fallout from his article. He reported. GLAAD decided. But one can’t help notice the glaring common denominator between the writer and the hordes of permanently offended people citing his article as cause to depose King Ratings through removal of a popular television program from the airwaves. They both express shock at the pedestrian. Support for gun rights, a belief in Biblical Christianity, and opposition to gay marriage aren’t exactly fringe in the United States of America. Magary and his outraged readers don’t want to debate these beliefs. They want to ostracize the believers. It’s not intellectual but social persuasion. They struggle to tell us why these views are wrong. In a million ways, they show us how they’re not cool.
Phil Robertson undoubtedly betrays a few cultural tics; Drew Magary, a few more.