The Reality of Pseudo-Events

The Reality of Pseudo-Events

Introduction

Daniel J. Boorstin, American historian and twelfth Librarian of the Congress of the United States, authored a book in 1961 entitled The Image: Or, What Happened to the American Dream. I read the book in 1992 when the 25th year anniversary edition came out, with the addition of an Afterword by George F. Will, the conservative columnist for the Washington Post. That version carried a new sub-title, continued in the 50th year edition and editions thereafter. The official title is now The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.

The change of sub-title suggests two things: 1.) that the pseudo-event concept had proven so powerful as to deserve highlighting, and, 2.) that Boorstin might have been ever so slightly confused about the thrust and import of his book. The implications of the work are bedazzling, with consequences beyond those he or any reader could have foreseen. There is almost too much light, and too much truth. By its end a conflicted reader isn’t quite sure whether “The American Dream” has been saved or lost, or whether the country or the citizen should change. It’s quite a charm, and this from a book whose examples are drawn from the Eisenhower years and earlier. The book has never been more prescient and useful than now. I urge readers to get a copy, and also to gift the book to their kin. You’ll be giving them a good set of eyeglasses, a language translator, mapping tools, a travel guide, and a valuable history lesson. George Will’s enthusiasm suggests that liberals, conservatives, and freethinkers all will benefit. Boorstin, who gave us The Landmark History of the American People, The Discoverers, and The Creators has obvious sympathy and deep concern for his fellow Americans, shown by his frequent invocation of “we” and other collective pronouns.

Here is how Boorstin introduces the book:

In this book I describe the world of our making, how we have used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress, to create the thicket of unreality that stands between us and the facts of life. I recount historical forces which have given us this unprecedented opportunity to deceive ourselves and to befog our experience. (3.)

He follows up with:

We want and we believe these illusions because we suffer from extravagant expectations. We expect too much of the world. (3.)

That’s his thesis in a nutshell. We’re victimized by our own excessive expectations, powered by our wealth, technology, and dynamism, and thereby inclined to convert daily living into ‘pseudo-events,’ replacing nature and ordinary life with befogging illusions.

l offer two entries on the book. The second, to be published in three weeks, takes up the issue of personal identity, and whether pseudo-events are changing the way we think of ourselves. The aim of this one is to explicate Boorstin’s notion of the pseudo event as a tool in tracking the news, particularly in following the scintillating events of the presidential election. The book is primarily, but not exclusively, a story about news making, how news became, step by step, the amazing phenomena we know today. He takes us back before the invention of the telegraph when a sleepy consensus existed that “nothing much happens around here,” and that the unexpected, were it to happen, would likely be an “act of God.” Living in rural America was ordinary, natural, and slow, boring to the many who would want more excitement. That would be most Americans. News would happen, of course, but not so often as to build a life or a day around it.

It is important to understand that the word ‘pseudo’ in pseudo-event means ‘contrived’ in contrast to ‘natural,’ not ‘false’ in contrast to ‘real.’ Pseudo-events are real enough; they actually happen, literally all the time. But they are contrivances. Such events have several properties:

  1. They are contrived (or planned or arranged or designed or drawn up or schemed) for some personal or group purpose.
  2.  They are timed (or placed or planted or staged) so as to
    become news, i.e. to be observed, recorded, written about,
    shot, filmed, videotaped, reported, and shown to the public.
  3.  Their meaning is ambiguous rather than clear. Meaning is open
    to interpretation, analysis, interest, and ongoing comment; the story will likely lead to more news.
  4. They tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies, bringing forth in reality the purpose and result they presumed, hid, sought, and forecast.
  5. In today’s photographic world, pseudo-events, when reported as news—embellished with photographs and videos—tend to acquire or cohere into an iconic visual image, a take-away picture of how the event is to be envisioned, recalled, and remembered.

Boorstin cites as an example a case reported by Edward Bernays, a founder of the new field of ‘Public Relations,’ in his 1923 classic Crystallizing Public Opinion. In this case, which I have embellished for effect, a public relations advisor is hired by a hotel to advise management on how to increase hotel stays, sales, and profit. They had been losing money. After study, the consultant advises them to stage a celebration of the hotel’s 30th anniversary in business. A committee is formed, dates are chosen, events are held, with the blessings of city officials and with dignitaries in attendance, all gloriously covered by the press before, during, and after the occasion. The hotel thrives as a result. Reservations and sales skyrocket. The hotel achieves a new image. The ‘celebration,’ as you can see, is contrived, newsworthy, ambiguous (no reference to money and future sales), and self-fulfilling. Today we would say that the pseudo-event successfully marketed the Hotel’s ‘brand,’ and new ‘image.’

With this background, examples can be given of inventions of pseudo-events that transformed news-making into the dynamic endeavor we know today. These are just a start;  the historical list of inventions on which news depends would be interminably long.

  • Ways of fashioning news: ’news flash,’ ‘news release,’ ‘news blurb,’ ’news briefing,’ ‘news digest,’ ‘news conference,’ ‘news blog,’ ‘news recap,’ ‘news retraction,’ etc.
  • Ways of organizing news: ‘news organization,’ ’newspaper,’ ‘news magazine,’ ‘news journal,’ ‘television news,’ ‘The Newshour,’ ‘cable news network,’ etc.
  •  Roles and professions for gathering and distributing news: ‘paperboy,’ ‘copy-editor,’ ‘pressman,’ ’newsman,’ ‘reporter,’ ‘journalist,’ ‘embedded reporter,’ ’photographer,’ ‘publisher,’ ’commentator,’ ‘news anchor,’ ‘communications advisor,’ public relations consultant,’ ‘graphic designer,’ ‘press secretary,’ ’travel editor,’ etc.
  • Practices and techniques for gaining news: ‘the tip,’ ‘the informer,’ ‘the hunch,’ ’the interview,’ ‘the credible source,’ ‘the expert comment,’ ‘the opinion poll,’ ‘the investigation,’ ‘the research project,’ ’the photo shoot,’ ‘the photo-op,’ ‘the assignment,’ ‘the field trip,’ ‘the special edition,’ ’the debate,’ etc.

Practice Exercise

You might ask what isn’t a pseudo-event? Good question. They are everywhere and they multiply exponentially. We’re swimming in them! As a quickie practice exercise, spin out the pseudo-events associated with the event known as winning a national football championship. If the assignment is restricted to the professional level, we have, just to get you started, the ‘AFC,’ the ‘NFC,’ the ‘NFL,’ the ‘division championships,’ the ‘conference championships,’ the NFL championship as ‘Super Bowl,’ ‘Super Sunday,’ ‘trophy presentation ceremony,’ ‘MVP presentation,’’Super Bowl wrap-up,’ etc. The football fan (a pseudo-event persona) could go from here to list pages of spin-off pseudo events connected to this single topic. The same can be done for business, employment, travel, entertainment, shopping, education, and politics.

2016 Pseudo Events in Campaign

Now that you’ve got the idea, and realize that you’re an expert on this subject already, here are a few notes on pseudo-events in the current campaign season.

The behemoth that has evolved as the ‘modern’ news industry is an electric network of interconnected newspapers, journals, publishing houses, television studios, radio stations, wire services, internet websites, blogs, filmmakers, and photo-libraries, all topped and dominated by the 24 hour cable networks, and combined into a few monopolistic, international conglomerates. News is very much a manufactured product. “Stay tuned, breaking news,” along with “this just in” are recently invented pseudo-event framings with staying power. The spinning wheel dumps out the news of tomorrow very efficiently. The one in the news rarely makes the news by oneself. More often the electric behemoth makes the newsmaker and the newsmaker’s news. The demand exists for gross quantities of pre-packaged news, and the supply delivered is beyond abundant.
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Boorstin tells us—you won’t be surprised—that the ‘celebrity,’ a person “known for being known,” is a pseudo-event type persona invented to replace the ‘hero,’ the guiding light of principled citizens in earlier times. When the hero is still recognized, albeit with declining frequency, he or she will have the solace of promotion to ongoing ‘celebrity’ status shortly thereafter. Think of it this way. ‘Celebrity’ is the pseudo-event persona that the ‘consumer,’ another pseudo-event persona, requires as a honeybee to pollinate products with an image attractive enough to groove traffic their way for purchase and consumption.

As I write today, March 15, 2016, I am aware that a new national political pseudo-event has been invented just this week for this very day. Today’s scheduled voting in the five states of Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio, is now known as “Super Tuesday 3.” Only a week ago, “Super Tuesday 2,” was invented because it followed so smoothly upon the pseudo-event invented years ago for the preceding Tuesday, known as “Super Tuesday.” Super Tuesday will henceforth be Super Tuesday 1. Are we Americans inventive or what?

Another week has past and I see that Super Tuesday 4. has not been invented, even though the states of Arizona, Idaho, and Utah are to vote today. Do we have design sense, or what? ST4 would be a bit too much!

I surmise that the cable news networks, who now dominate the field of pseudo event production—showing themselves to be the master magicians and circus ringleaders of our electric pseudo age—achieved a new milestone a few weeks ago with the invention of the ‘candidate town hall interview.’ They recognized early in 2015 that they could host as many ‘debates’ as they wanted, and started to offer them weekly when the interest held up. The television audiences proved to be huge and so, no doubt, were the profits. But three or four months ago, despite all past experience, the networks were mostly just going to and covering town halls in towns around New Hampshire, while staying in Manchester and showing us images of downtown streets and the Merrimack River. But then, in 2016, we find Chuck Todd, voila, conducting a one-on-one interview with Marco Rubio at a ‘town hall’ in Miami, Chris Matthews doing the same with Hillary Clinton, and another with Senator Sanders. The networks in 2016 have been bringing the election events right into their nightly programs when possible, and using their anchors as town hall interviewers.

Illusion is what we seek in pseudo-events, and illusion is what we get, with attendant numbness, titillation, ambiguity, and befogging. We’re deciding how our elections are going to be run by the way the cable news networks find it most economic to cover them. Political pseudo-events tend to collapse and flatten space and time. In Todd’s ‘Rubio town meeting,’ Miami serves as every place, all the places we viewers sit; it’s a ‘town’ and a ‘hall’ only for the night, it can return to being a city tomorrow. The town comes replete with a crafted audience, simulating citizens who just walked in off the street. The candidate is to be interviewed by the host of Meet the Press, not a local party leader, and the candidate will be asked questions that opinion research shows will attract viewer interest. And yes, the ‘viewer’ is a pseudo-event persona in this scenario, along with the ‘interviewer’ and ‘candidate!’

Conclusion

This introduces a disturbing personal realization. ‘Celebrity,’ ‘consumer’, and ‘viewer’ are linked pseudo-event personas undergirding economic growth. I’ve contorted myself into a regular ’viewer’ and ‘consumer’ of daily political pseudo-events in which a ‘celebrity’  known for hammering reality into the heads of management apprentices in entertaining pseudo-events is the leading Republican candidate for President of the United States. In an irony Boorstin would have appreciated, Trump, a ubiquitous fabricator, is considered totally credible by his acolytes. Boorstin shows in the book how believability came to threaten truth and gain preference over truth for Americans.

But how has celebrity become so real to me? How did I get to make regurgitated news such a big part of my day and life? Boredom, I suppose. Super pseudo-events conquer boredom. Who anymore sits on the porch and enjoys the transit of the sun? Excessive expectations, Boorstin would say; that’s our problem. We want more than we have; reality is never good enough for us.

This trend toward pseudo-events is overwhelming. The analysis could go on and on. It’s comparable to the task of trying to track a bacteria or a virus. Pseudo-events will likely submerge us well before we catch up with them. We’re each on our own out there dancing with the electric beast.

But then, in the end, when all is said and done, nature dictates necessity. Nature determines what is real. Reality is not illusion. Melting glaciers, submerged coastlines, disappearing species, and global warming are real; they are not pseudo-events. The decline in sustainability of life on the planet is, therefore, a direct, cruel, and natural measure of what our pseudo-event culture and illusionary lives are costing us. We won’t be able to pseudo-event ourselves out of that realization forever.

Afterword

Here is a summary of The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America written by George F. Will in his Afterword to the book in 1992.

There are books, and this is one, that change the way we think because they change the way we see and listen. Today we see that we are living in a society that increasingly resembles an echo chamber lined with mirrors. Amid the sensory blitzkrieg contemporary life, much that is spoken is merely auditory wallpaper. It is there but not noticed. We do not even listen, really listen, to what we ourselves are saying. If we did we would find that our intelligence is being bewitched by alarming clues to what we are, willy-nilly, becoming. (317.)

Will Callender, Jr. ©

March 24, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Great Questions For Trump

Great Questions For Trump

When Abraham Lincoln ran for President as the nominee of the Republican Party in 1860, he remained home in Springfield while surrogates canvassed the country on behalf of his candidacy. That was the custom then, for all candidates, not just Lincoln. Humility was a public virtue. Candidates for President, at least in theory, were to be discovered, promoted, and acclaimed by their fellow citizens. Willingness to run for office and ample self regard were not enough.

That time of nascent civil war was worse than ours. It wouldn’t be among the times of greatness from which our nation, in Donald Trump’s estimation, has fallen to such depths as to require his superhero intervention to “make America great again.” But then, how far would his candidacy have gotten if he remained demurely in the Trump Tower while surrogates did the mouth and photo-op work? No matter. That issue is mute now, of no consequence. Besides, I get queasy when issues of ‘greatness’ arise. Aggrandizement is a longstanding habit of ours. We expect too much and as a result exaggerate prodigiously, belying a level of self esteem below our hard earned worth and our due as human beings. So Donald Trump, his claims, and his legion of supporters mostly discombobulate me. They represent a big step backwards from American greatness, however one defines the word.

Yet, an idea comes to mind. Why don’t we who love words ask media interlocutors to ask Mr. Trump and his supporters about the meaning of his words? Why don’t we ask for details? Why don’t we do the same for other candidates? Might not understanding be enhanced that way?

I have a theory of modern life, which I suspect was true in Lincoln’s time too. Events have overrun and overwhelmed us. We’re buried in rapid happenings and rabid history. We’re trying desperately to breathe, dig out, catch up, and gain control. Our brains are virtual garbage dumps of maddening bits of electrified information, with more “this just in” news piling on top hourly. That’s the theory. We suffer from media mash and political claustrophobia, with its associated panic, terror, depression, and despair.

Look at the sophisticated way we use words in politics. We usually mean something other by what we say than what the words actually mean. That’s the key fact. It’s not just the habit of Donald Trump and his minions. It’s ours too. Some of this difference is intentional lying, yes, that’s true. Some of it is simple discretion and tact, surely it is. Some is clever disguise, I agree. But most of it is shortcut and substitute for hidden, complicated, rarely told personal stories. For example, if I say “President Obama is our worst President,” or you say “the national debt is an unforgivable burden to pile on the backs of our children,” or another says “we must return to the constitution and recover our freedoms,” or still another says “politicians are all liars,” all of us are making shorthand allusions that stand in for deep, hidden analyses and personal perspectives we’d like to tell and have understood. Our quick, one-line zinger summations substitute for buried stories, our stories. These iconic shout-outs pile up and contort into a moving image of citizenry who have lost the capacity for civic engagement and transfigured into a parade of grotesques, forming an ongoing memorial to its own buried national history.

Of course, telling such stories would take time, and time is short; there is too little, never enough. On that people agree. We’re on the run, so get on with it, say it quick or not at all, we’re late and have to go, this in an age where listening and reading time are in steep decline, and an electronic “like” and “share” culture is ascendent. There is no chance to fully understand each other. Besides, strangers, not ‘liked’ friends, are who really count in politics, and we all are strangers and passers-by now. We can’t know each other. The chances for inter-personal understanding are minimal. So we exchange grunts and soundbites with each other. We can spot probable friends and likely enemies on the cheap that way.

Our political statements, to summarize, are truncated, battle tested, provocative sound bites. They pinch hit for personal stories conveying circumstances, journeys, careers, beliefs, values, and commitments. Since everyone is in the same boat—under the sway of news claustrophobia,—these ways of talking tend to divide into two cultural piles in our two party political system. That is perhaps one of the reasons we are so ‘polarized.’ Americans usually get along just fine as long as they keep their mouths shut about politics.

But then along comes the political candidate or elected government official. That politician, with the clever help of advisors, consultants, think tankers, pollsters, editorialists, campaign managers, public relations firms, and the like, grinds out a similarly truncated piece of hocus-pocus that calibrates with his half of the electorate. The result is a mishmash of political babble. If lucky, you find that your particular zinger feature statement has been preempted and regurgitated into an even more clever slogan by your favorite candidate. Opponents, to be sure, will soon conjure ingenious, fiendishly cute responses in return. The parade of the grotesque marches on.

So here is a proposal to interviewers of Donald Trump and his followers, as well as to other candidates and their followers. Return the candidates’ words back to them for extraction of meaning, and ask them questions that promise to reveal the hidden, substituted story of our nation, whatever horrible nightmare or shiny dream may be hidden at its core.

In the Trump case, for examples, we have his soundbite, “I will make America great again,” and a media consensus that his supporters are “angry.” Questions are endlessly revealing, and the number that could be asked of a person on any subject is infinite. I find that encouraging! Here are a few I am curious about for the respondents, Trump and his prototype follower.

A few for Trump:

  • Has America been great from the get go, and great until now?
  • Or, has it been up and down, great/not great, over the years?
  • What is “great”? What’s not? What’s its opposite?
  • How does that differ from “good”/“bad,”or “better“/“worse?”
  • Are good and great the same thing?
  • If not, is “great” better than “good,” or vice-versa?
  • When did American greatness peak?
  • When did America greatness hit bottom?
  • Did any other President make America as great as did Polk? Who?
  • Be truthful, President Truman is said to have “lost China.” Is it President Obama who lost America’s greatness?
  • Did you say yes? I thought so? How on earth did he do it?
  • After your Presidency, what marks of greatness will be obvious?
  • Admit it, America is still great, isn’t it?
  • Are you prone to exaggeration? Tell the truth now.

A few for the angry Trump voter:

  • Are you bothered, concerned, irritable, pissed off, or angry?
  • If angry, have you always been angry, or is it new for you?
  • Is it hard to be angry? I mean, can you do it all the time?
  • How does it feel? Do you take any medicine for it?
  • Have you ever been happy? When? What happened?
  • What’s your economic situation? Is that what you’re angry about?
  • Are you angry with yourself or at someone else?
  • If your political enemy wins, will you get angrier?
  • If your favorite candidate wins, will happiness return?
  • Do you expect to be angry the rest of your life?
  • Have you asked what your country can do for you to make you happy?

Well, that’s the general idea. Feel free to add your own questions before sending the pile on for use by a favorite journalist or interviewer. Donald Trump has taken us beyond words to utter speechlessness. Words are nothing to him but sound bombs and dirty weapons. Still, there is ample time to recover our breath, dig out, and try mightily to force the candidate to speak like a thoughtful man, whether he’s been in the habit or not. Words have meanings and consequences. He should be held accountable for his.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

March 4, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good