THE PHRASE “pseudo-event” officially entered the lexicon in 1962 and is defined as “an event, such as a press conference, that is designed primarily to attract attention”.
It was coined by historian Daniel J Boorstin, and is the leitmotif of The Image, his 1961 jeremiad on mass media and the rise of the faux celebrity.
Boorstin linked the two developments – the emergence of the instant celebrity and the proliferation of pseudo-events – to argue that news, which from the 15th century onwards has meant “a report of recent events” and “previously unknown information”, was being subsumed by manufactured events.
The proximate trigger for Boorstin’s book-length thoughts was the 1960 Presidential election, backlit by the drama of the first-ever televised presidential debate, September 26, 1960, between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon. (The events surrounding that debate, and the election campaign itself, was the theme of Theodore E White’s Pulitzer-winning book The Making of The President 1960; the debate is here in full).
There were four debates that year – four manufactured events that the media used to fill reams of newsprint. Each of them led to further manufactured events, such as polls and “expert analysis”, most of it centering on the sweaty-faced awkwardness of Nixon’s body language juxtaposed with the clean good looks, charm, and eloquence of Kennedy.
Boorstin made the point that the whole drama was specious and had little if any bearing on the real issue: to wit, which of the two candidates was better qualified for the presidency.
“Of course, a man’s ability, while standing under klieg lights, without notes, to answer in two and a half minutes a question kept secret until that moment, had only the most dubious relevance — if any at all — to his real qualifications to make deliberate presidential decisions on long-standing public questions after being instructed by a corps of experts. The greatest presidents in our history (with the possible exception of F.D.R.) would have done miserably; but our most notorious demagogues would have shone. Pseudo-events thus lead to emphasis on pseudo-qualification.”
Arguing from that premise, Boorstin discussed the new world we have made for ourselves — a world wherein, he says in his introduction to the book,
“we have used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress to create the thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life. …
America has provided the landscape and has given us the resources and the opportunity for this act of national self-hypnosis. But each of us individually provides the market and the demand for the illusions which flood our experience.”
This new ecosystem evolved because of our constant craving for new experiences, coupled with the fact that increasingly, we had neither the time nor the inclination to process ordinary life, which is nuanced, and imperfect, and difficult to understand, and often mundane. “In the morning, we pick up our newspapers in the expectation of finding momentous events that have occurred since the night before. We turn on the car radio as we drive to work and expect “news” to have occurred since the newspaper went to press.” We log in to our favorite websites and we rate their quality on how often they provide something new. “We expect new heroes every season, a literary masterpiece every month, a dramatic spectacular every week, a rare sensation every night.”
The media, under pressure to satisfy this craving for fresh information, for new sensations, began creating synthetic novelties, to which Boorstin applied the term “pseudo-event”. He listed the characteristics of fake events: 1. It is not a spontaneous occurrence but comes about because someone has planned, incited, or planted it; 2. It is an event that is self-fulfilling – it occurs to be reported on, and is therefore created for the convenience of the media; and, 3. It has little if any relation to ‘news’ in the conventional sense.
Boorstin argued that the first such pseudo-event was the standalone celebrity interview: an event staged in order to be reported.
THE FIRST recorded instance of the full-fledged celebrity interview dates back to July 1859, when New York Tribune founder/editor Horace Greeley interviewed “American Moses” Brigham Young at Salt Lake City for the New York Tribune. It occurred not because Young had made news of any kind in 1859 or in the years immediately preceding – Greeley interviewed Young because the latter was available to be interviewed.
It was thus a contrived event, and the format triggered imitators by the dozen to the point where, a decade later in 1869, The Nation complained in an editorial that “The ‘interview’, as at present managed, is generally the joint product of some humbug of a hack politician and another humbug of a reporter.”
(A related aside: Remember back when the media reported the news, and the readers, the consumers, commented on it? Go through your preferred print and digital media outlets on any day, and count the number of ‘stories’ that are written around the fact that someone said something on Twitter – an inversion of the natural positions of the reaction cart and the news horse that has become institutionalized to the point where media houses now have ‘specialized’ openings for ‘social media experts’.)
When 24/7 media arrived, Boorstin argued, there was no rest for the newsman.
With more space (and time) to fill, he had to fill it ever more quickly. In order to justify the numerous editions (and multiple broadcasts and more recently, the minute by minute updates on the internet), it was increasingly necessary that the news constantly change, or at least seem to change.
How to avoid deadly repetition, the appearance that nothing was happening, that news gatherers were asleep or at least that competitors were more alert? As the costs of printing and then broadcasting increased, it became financially necessary to keep the presses constantly at work and the TV screen always busy. Pressures towards the making of pseudo-events became ever stronger. News gathering turned into news making.
Ergo, the interview. Which created “news” of one sort or the other. If the interviewee said something, it could be analyzed and spun and further amplified by asking others to comment on that statement, each of those reactions, in turn, feeding the news cycle. And if the interviewee refused to comment, that became news too. The media could then speculate on the reasons for and significance of that refusal. (‘Tharoor refuses to answer Republic’s questions. What is he hiding? The Nation Wants To Know’)
All this led organically to the panel discussions and talk-shows that now dominate telecast time. None of the panelists appearing on these shows is worth a full-fledged interview, nor are they known to have done something quantifiable, but by putting a set of four or six people in a studio, you could package it as a debate and run out the prime-time clock with a lot of sound and fury of little or no significance.
This created a new job category: the talking-head, ready to spin the wheels about any topic under the sun at an instant’s notice. The constant media exposure, in its turn, converted these ‘experts’ into celebrities. Now the media could report on their doings and their appearances at this event or that function because they are ‘somebody’ and people are interested in the doings of ‘somebodies’. (‘Chetan Bhagat to Judge Nach Baliye’; ‘Suhel Seth Posts Selfie from Wimbledon’.)
In this fashion, the various strands of synthetic news came together. Space demanded the creation of events to occupy it and ‘experts’ to comment about it. Boorstin explored the trend through multiple examples, two of which are remarkably illuminative of our present.
In March 1955, The New York Times front-paged a long story under the headline ‘US Expects Chinese Reds To Attack Isles in April; Weighs All-Out Defense’. Three days later, also front-paged, was this headline: ‘Eisenhower Sees No War Over Chinese Isles.’
Here’s how that came about: the then Chief of Naval Operations, a known military hawk, hosted a few reporters for a dinner and, “off the record”, spoke of his personal apprehensions regarding Chinese intentions. Since it was a non-official briefing that could not be attributed to a named source, reporters of the NYT and other papers spun speculative stories out of one man’s private musing.
The reports alarmed the White House and led to the WH spokesman calling his own off-record briefing to defuse the war talk. Again the reporters, unable to attribute their story to an identifiable source, did their thing. The result, two front page “stories” about an issue of national and potentially global significance, each contradicting the other and both lacking any substance; elsewhere on the inside pages, analysis and editorials spinning off from the front-paged fictions. Sound familiar?
THE SECOND example worth recounting from Boorstin’s catalog is the case of American aviator Charles Lindbergh and his vertiginous descent from hero to celebrity to villain to oblivion.
- On May 21, 1927, Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris in his monoplane ‘The Spirit of St Louis’. It was the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, and it made him a hero in the classic sense – it was one man against the elements, defying odds to perform the seemingly impossible.
- The New York Times devoted its first five pages entirely to the deed; other papers gave him as much or more space. It was estimated that the American press used up 25,000 tons of newsprint just on the one story in just the first week
- Lindbergh returned to New York on June 13, 1927 – and the NYT devoted its first sixteen pages to his story. Keep in mind that the actual news – his flight – had already been exhaustively covered; this fresh coverage was mostly a rehash, hung on the flimsy peg of events such as a ticker tape parade, a memorial dinner and the laudatory statements of various politicians and celebrities
- Presidents and Kings received him; each such meeting triggering a fresh avalanche of “stories”. Awards were showered on him, each an excuse for more media recaps. Time magazine instituted its annual ‘Man of the Year’ and named Lindbergh for the inaugural honor in its January 2, 1928 issue. And then there were more stories about how Lindbergh reacted to all this avalanche of news about himself, and how he was coping with the attention and the stress. By now, the flight itself was overshadowed by the surround sound; the hero had been reduced to a celebrity
- Two years later he married Anne Morrow, daughter of the then US Ambassador to Mexico. The news cycle – ‘The Lone Eagle Meets His Mate’ – kicked back in. The Lindberghs tried to avoid reporters. The media wrote whole pages about the avoidance and experts analyzed it threadbare, some even speculating that Lindbergh was avoiding the press in a calculated attempt to increase his news-worthiness
- On March 1, 1932, the Lindberghs’ infant son was kidnapped from their New Jersey home. The feeding frenzy began anew. William Randolph Hearst assigned the whole staff of his INS photo service to the coverage. These photographers chartered ambulances that shuttled, sirens screaming, between NJ and NYC with the latest images, often showing nothing more dramatic than the tight-shut gates of the Lindbergh estate. In just two days, the event HL Menken dubbed “the biggest story since the Resurrection” resulted in a cascade of over 100,000 words flowing through the INS wires; rivals Associated Press and United Press services produced as much again
- Days passed. Nothing much of actual news occurred. Unnamed police sources stepped into the void and filled the news hole with hints about new clues having been unearthed, and about the police being “close to a breakthrough”
- Minor mob figures such as NYC speakeasy owners ‘Salvy’ Spitale and Irving Bitz dominated the news cycle for a couple of days by attempting to contact the kidnappers. Then they gave up, triggering more stories about why their attempts had proved futile
- Mobster Al Capone, then on the verge of going to prison for tax evasion, gave an interview to the Hearst news service, offering $10,000 for the return of the child and also offering to mediate with the kidnappers, should they get in touch. Various politicians got their share of the spotlight by touting the suggestion that if Capone succeeded, he should be given amnesty for his crimes. Cue prime time debates: Should Capone Get Amnesty?
- A boat builder, John Hughes Curtis, made news for a couple of cycles by pretending to have contacted the kidnappers
- A German immigrant, Richard Hauptmann, was arrested in September 1934 and tried for kidnapping, murder, and extortion. Cue a fresh media circus, that continued through the trial, the conviction, and the execution a year later.
For nine years, the media had invested heavily in Lindbergh, in terms of newsprint, airtime, and human resources, constructing an outsize edifice on one singular achievement. It was in the media’s interest to extract maximum return on that investment. Though Lindbergh and family, fed up with the constant spotlight, led first to England and then to France, he was dragged back as war loomed.
The US military asked him to travel to Germany to evaluate the state of that country’s aviation. At one event, Hermann Goring presented Lindbergh with one of Germany’s most distinguished aviation awards – an incident that made a splash at the time and was later to become one of the central tropes of the American’s descent into infamy.
On his return, he was enshrined as an ‘informed voice’ on world affairs – a role he was ill-suited for. He was repeatedly sought out for comment and he obliged, each successive comment more egregious than the one before.
He argued that America should not, “guided by uninformed and impractical idealism”, enter the war on the side of the Allies, and testified before Congress on the need to sign a neutrality pact with Hitler.
He condemned the Jewish domination of the media, the entertainment industry and even the government – and was attacked for being an anti-Semite. In a 1939 article, he appeared to echo Nazi views on white supremacy, and warned that it was necessary to guard America “against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.”
President FDR called him out as a Nazi sympathizer, and Lindbergh’s slide into infamy was complete. But – and this was key – he still helped the media fill its front pages. One last act remained in the story of his vertiginous descent into the hell reserved for celebrities whose time is past – when Pearl Harbour was attacked, Lindbergh asked to be recommissioned into the US Air Force. The White House turned down the request; the media portrayed him as a pariah.
Lindbergh did make his way back into active combat through the back door when United Aircraft designated him as its technical representative in the Pacific. But by then the war was in full swing, and the media had no dearth of grist for its ceaseless mill. They no longer needed a Lindbergh to fill their pages — and he was painfully aware of the fact. “He knew the American public no longer cared a hoot for his opinions,” wrote his Pulitzer-winning biographer Scott Berg.
The Lindbergh story is a morality play on the modus operandi of the media. It first celebrated Lindbergh for real achievement. It then invaded his personal space, first milking his marriage for ‘romance’ and ‘human interest’, then exploiting a personal tragedy for sensation. Unwilling to discard its investment even after the passage of some years, it elevated him to a spokesman’s role he was ill-fitted to occupy; it fed on his serial missteps and ill-judged utterances, and when the audience finally indicated that it had moved on, the media spat him out.
Boorstin points out that by 1951, there was not a single media mention of Lindbergh in the mainstream press. In 1957, a movie on his pioneering flight – the James Stewart-starrer The Spirit of St Louis – sank at the box office. A poll of the preview audiences discovered that almost no one under the age of forty had even heard of him.
In an ironical coda to the story of the making and unmaking of a celebrity, the “Lindbergh Beacon”, erected on top of a Chicago skyscraper to guide flights to Midway Airport, was renamed the “Palmolive Beacon.”
(Previously in Media Matters: Instalments 1 — on Rajeev Chandrasekhar, The Republic, and related matters; 2 — on the gradual slide into a post-news world; and 3, on the rise of the excel jockey and the decline of news.
In the next installment of Media Matters, I’ll connect these various elements up to explain, to the extent possible, why we now live in two distinct worlds: the real one, with real problems and real preoccupations, and the media bubble, dominated by pseudo-events and faux celebrities. As always, do leave questions/comments in the box below and I’ll respond in time.)
8 thoughts on “Media Matters #4: The rise of the pseudo-event”
Thanks for the detail on Lindbergh. I, for one, always thought that he retired after the kidnapping.
And, yes, thanks for enlightening me that this media thing happened way back then also. I always thought that things were better in those days.
Oh no, literally nothing new under the sun. In 1829 when Andrew Jackson became President, he elevated to the position of Governor of Florida a guy who was editor of a scandal sheet and who ran a story that Jackson’s opponent, John Quincy Adams, had slept with a woman before he married her — a big deal back then. And another “editor”, who through his sheet alleged that Adams was pimping for the czar of Russia, was made a Senator and member of Jackson’s inner circle of advisors.
There really is nothing new under the sun.
In the book “Amusing ourselves to death…” Neil Postman makes very similar points about how news media is about entertainment.
Very true, Kiran — Postman’s book is one of several that look deep into this phenomenon. (David Greenberg, for instance, in Republic of Spin looks at how Public Relations has impacted on the media business, which is another angle).
I pegged this piece on Boorstin’s book largely because I wanted to make the points that (a) This isn’t new, we have been moving towards it for a long time and (b) to get people thinking about how the history of media informs the present. Because? It *may* get someone thinking about how our present is going to influence the future — if media is in this shape today, spend a moment thinking about what *this* is going to lead to tomorrow.
Well, at least the kidnapping laws changed after that one event. Still, a sad modern tale of the rise and fall of a hero/villain.
But might there be another parallel to be drawn from that story? For example, the way we make heroes out of people (and perhaps out of context)?
“Narayana Murthy for President” comes to mind. Probably analogous to the brand-recall exercise in marketing. Just because you know a name, you toss it up – whether it is appropriate or not. But then that is something you yourself referred to once, a long time ago, about opinion polls (‘Yes Minister’ episode, if I recollect).
Somehow appearances/perceptions do matter. Urban Drawing-room India would nod heads vigorously if someone suggested Shashi Tharoor’s name for shadow-PM. Similarly, Yogi would probably go down well with the cow-belt masses, despite the adverse coverage and events.
Manufactured images… might as well mention the “second struggle for independence” and a forlorn modern-bapu now lost to the public eye. The Media God Maketh, and the Media God Breaketh…
(What next? After “Nehru who?” – might it be the roly-poly right-hand man to replace the modern “Nehru”? )
Thanks for the article. Appreciate the series.
“But might there be another parallel to be drawn from that story? For example, the way we make heroes out of people (and perhaps out of context)?”
Actually, that IS the point, and the reason for picking the Lindbergh example. An achievement stands on its own, as does its achiever, but it has to stop there. For instance, someone might be an extraordinary sportsman in some discipline, but to then elevate him to a man for all reasons, to ask him to comment on things he is totally unfitted for, is ridiculous. That is the media needing a “peg”, and thinking the peg is the name, not the content.
It speaks to a growing intellectual laziness in newsrooms. If for instance I want to be informed, and then inform you, of the right to privacy debate, I need to speak to lawyers and former judges to understand the contours of the case, dig deep into examples where the absence of such a right has impacted adversely on the lives of people, make sure that the examples I pick are not a case of confirmation bias in action, then distill all those learnings into a piece that people can understand and benefit from. But that is a lot of work — so maybe I’ll just call up Chetan Bhagat and ask him what he thinks, and then go “Chetan Bhagat Says…”
There is a segment in the West Wing that relates to public debates. Briefly, a presidential debate is about to take place. The sitting president is a Nobel winner, a geek, given to nuanced responses. His staff tells him that he should have quick, 10 word responses ready because that is all TV has time for. He tells the staff to come up with quote-worthy ten word answers on the important topics that will be covered. And then this happens:
Wow, no, I had not watched West Wing at all. Now I wish I could. (And as an aside.. the line I pick out of that shows up my ADHD, “…the punch that Ali never gave when Foreman was going down”)…
Well, another thing to be happy about. Unanimous judgement, although what might unfold in future is still to be seen. And yes, as of now, still one of the niradhaar people in this country, as you too I suppose. Something to crow about for a brief while. I am so chuffed. Watched with trepidation as Prasanna_s sent his first tweets from the SC today, with a sinking heart… and then bang! All my cherished headlines (Justice died many deaths today in the CJI’s court.. or, The day Justice wept in India.. ADM Jabalpur was the tip of the iceberg.. Habeas Corpus Exhumed.. etc etc etc.. but no.. wonderful feeling right now)…
For now, a little relief, before the next onslaught or some other twist in the tale.. but hey, cheers.. for tomorrow we are a thousand years dead.. 🙂 CLINK…. *(When I am sober and the full judgement is out in the afternoon, I might have other things to worry about. Challenges ahead etc.. but for now.. a small celebration).
It is not “challenges” so much as process. It now remains for the limits of these rights, if any, to be established through actual cases that come up before the court. What the SC has done is laid down a fundamental principle. It is trial law that then helps shape and define the principle — so long and convoluted road ahead, but this is where it needed to start, so hey, good!
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