Friday, June 9, 2017

Trump, McCarthy, and the Art of the Pseudo-Event

I've been thinking lately about Daniel Boorstin, and how well his discussion of pseudo-events, a term he coined, applies to the contemporary political scene. In a sense, the concept of the pseudo-event presages that of fake news, but it's not the news that is fake when it comes to pseudo-events, but rather the event that the news supposedly reports on.

Boorstin's argument is that the introduction of steam-powered printing, as opposed to printing presses powered by hand, made it possible to produce mass circulation papers that could be manufactured cheaply, hence the penny press, and could be distributed on a daily basis. So the technology was in place for the daily newspaper, but the problem was that there just wasn't enough news to fill the papers day after day after day.

For this reason, Boorstin argues, newspapers shifted from news gathering to news making, from relying solely on events that actually occurred in reality, that would have occurred regardless of whether they were reported on or not, to events that were manufactured solely for the purpose of providing content for the media, events that therefore were not real or true events, but pseudo-events.

  Pseudo-events include the interview, the publicity stunt, the press release, the press conference, the background briefing, trial balloon, and news leak. These provide content for the news media, but based on nothing that actually happened in the world. Boorstin notes that pseudo-events are designed to be dramatic, vivid, easy to disseminate and to digest (although also quite ambiguous as to their meaning, but that adds to their interest and intrigue), because they are specifically designed to be reported on or appear on the news media, whereas real events are not. He also notes that pseudo-events spawn other pseudo-events in geometric fashion, as an interview, for example, will lead to further discussion and interviews, etc.

This is a very quick and cursory summary, so let me take this opportunity to encourage you to read the book Boorstin wrote on this subject, The Image. The original version, published way back in 1961, was entitled The Image or What Happened to the American Dream, but a revised edition was published in 1978 with the new title, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America


This book is essential reading for anyone interested in media ecology, and apart from the topic of news, Boorstin also discusses the shift from heroes to celebrities (something I've written about), from travel to tourism, and other topics related to a loss of authenticity and coherence. Much of it is a conservative critique, but one that is more often than not right on target, and forms the basis of others that followed, including Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death.

So, there is no question that Trump, as a celebrity, is a human pseudo-event, but also someone highly skilled at publicity, which is to say, at manufacturing pseudo-events and manipulating the press. This has been the case for decades, but what seems especially relevant now is the way that he used Twitter as a candidate, and uses it now as president, as a kind of instantaneous press release. And every tweet has been treated by the news media as if it were a singular event requiring attention and analysis.

And in thinking about that, Boorstin's discussion of Senator Joseph McCarthy just recently jumped out at me. I think the parallels are quite clear, and altogether stunning (and if you don't know who McCarthy was or don't know much about him, no judgment, it has been a long time now, I've linked his name above to the Wikipedia entry on him, and please go take a look).

So let me turn now to Dr. Boorstin, and consider what he had to say:

... it is possible to build a political career almost entirely on pseudo-events. Such was that of the late Joseph R. McCarthy, Senator from Wisconsin from 1947-1957. His career might have been impossible without the elaborate, perpetually grinding machinery of "information" ... And he was a natural genius at creating reportable happenings that had an interestingly ambiguous relation to underlying reality. Richard Rovere, a reporter in Washington during McCarthy's heyday recalls:

He knew how to get into the news even on those rate occasions when invention failed him and he had no unfacts to give out. For example, he invented the morning press conference called for the purpose of announcing an afternoon press conference. The reporters would come in—they were beginning, in this period, to respond to his summonses like Pavlov's dogs at the clang of a bell—and McCarthy would say that he just wanted to give them the word that he expected to be ready with a shattering announcement later in the day, for use in the papers the following morning. This would gain him a headline in the afternoon papers: "New McCarthy Revelations Awaited in Capital." Afternoon would come, and if McCarthy had something, he would give it out, but often enough he had nothing, and this was a matter of slight concern. He would simply say that he wasn't quite ready, that he was having difficulty in getting some of the "documents" he needed or that a "witness" was proving elusive. Morning headlines: "Delay Seen in McCarthy Case—Mystery Witness Being Sought."

 I'm not sure I want to characterize Trump as a genius, but this seems so very similar to the ways in which Trump has masterminded the process of getting the attention of the news media, often in attempts to distract from other less favorable news items. The ambiguity characteristic of pseudo-events is very much a part of this process, as an inordinate amount of time and space is devoted to trying to figure out what his tweets mean, whether they're to be taken literally or figuratively, whether they represent policy, or simply what the hell covfefe means.

The really perverse part of all this is the ways in which journalists are manipulated to serve the politician's ends, despite their own best intentions. Let's read a little more of what Boorstin has to say about McCarthy:

 He had a diabolical fascination and an almost hypnotic power over news-hungry reporters. They were somehow reluctantly grateful to him for turning out their product. They stood astonished that he could make so much news from such meager raw material. Many hated him; all helped him. They were victims of what one of them called their "indiscriminate objectivity." In other words, McCarthy and the newsmen both thrived on the same synthetic commodity.

Senator McCarthy's political fortunes were promoted almost as much by newsmen who considered themselves his enemies as by those few who were his friends. Without the active help of all of them he could never have created the pseudo-events which brought him notoriety and power. Newspaper editors, who self-righteously attacked the Senator's "collaborators," themselves proved worse than powerless to cut him down to size. Even while they attacked him on the editorial page inside, they were building him up in front-page headlines. Newspapermen were his most potent allies, for they were his co-manufacturers of pseudo-events. They were caught in their own web. Honest newsmen and the unscrupulous Senator McCarthy were in separate branches of the same business.
And that business is entertainment, as Postman would point out. And this is where we really need to take our journalists to task as collaborators. They were seduced by the higher ratings they gained by reporting on Trump, when what they really needed to do during the election was to stop reporting on him so much of the time with no valid justification, stop giving him so much attention for no real reason, stop feeding the beast. The constant mentioning of his name, the continual focus on his candidacy, reinforced his image as an important figure, and therefore as someone who could legitimately become president. Journalists simply could not help themselves, but all that coverage, even when it was not positive, helped him much more than it hurt him.

So now, we have a human pseudo-event as president. I guess you could say that what we have now, I am sorry to say, is a pseudo-president. And, what else is there to say but that what we have now is the triumph of the image.

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