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The Preoccupations of the Times

5:20 PM, Sep 11, 2008 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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This New York Times front-page story, ostensibly about hockey, reveals so many of the press corps's persistent tics when covering the Palin family (and conservatives, in general) that I can hardly resist a detailed look. Here's the Times formula:

1. First, take a 'Gorillas in the Mist' approach when reporting on right-of-center specimens. "The Hockey Way of Life in Wasilla" is a guide for those who, afflicted with the inability to read context clues or talk to anyone beyond the Hudson River, may not have figured out that hockey is to Alaskan suburban family life what football, basketball and soccer are to many in the lower 48. Developing...

2. Let every story swerve into the trials and travails of the Palin children as quickly as possible. This one only takes three paragraphs to get there:

Track Palin, 19, is being deployed this week to Iraq with the Army, after separating his shoulder and abruptly giving up on a hockey career last year, and Mr. Johnston, 18, who is about to become a father, has dropped out of Wasilla High School and also quit hockey.

"He just lost his way," said Dan Johnston, who is a second cousin to Levi and a hockey parent himself.

3. Lose perspective faster than an Iron Dog runner-up left in Todd Palin's snow-machine dust. For anyone who follows the news, it's common knowledge that Track Palin, the Palins' eldest son, is deploying to Iraq today with his Army unit. The 18-year-old injured his shoulder playing hockey last year and, despite being offered a spot on the Anchorage amateur hockey team after his recovery, decided to join the service. We hear all of this, eventually, but only after we hear about his disturbing flares of temper as a high-school hockey player:

The temper was a longstanding problem. Hockey is a raw sport, but Track pushed the limits and often got kicked out of games in Wasilla and at least once in Michigan. The parents who had watched Track grow up on the ice said he was very popular with his teammates and generally a pretty good student. But on the ice, he was an animal.

4. Cast as vaguely creepy, and in need of explanation, things that strike most Americans as unexceptional. In this case the ubiquitous "athletic drive" of the Palin family:

To understand hockey in Alaska is to understand something about the Palin family dynamic: Athletic drive seems to be as much a family trait as church-going and salmon fishing.

Ms. Palin's father was a popular cross-country coach. She was a high school basketball star who married a high school jock who has remained an athlete as an adult.

The people reporting on the Palins are about the only ones who seem incapable of understanding them. The rest of America seems to be doing just fine.

p.s. Thanks, Dean Barnett, for that kind introduction. I hope I can live up to the nickname, but if I do disappoint, I'll shortly have an e-mail address to which readers can send mounds of Lou Grant-ian feedback.