Monday, June 09, 2008

Pseudo-events

The embarrassing coverage of Hillary Clinton's exit from the presidential race made me recall the notion of pseudo-events, first coined by the historian Daniel Boorstin in the 1960's. Boorstin used the phrase "pseudo-event" to describe what he saw as a disturbing trend in journalism — not "fake news" such as the Colbert Report or the Daily Show, but the manufacturing of stories whose only point of reference is not found in the real world but in the media itself.

In his book The Image he says: "A pseudo-event, then, is a happening that possesses the following characteristics:

  1. It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.
  2. It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported. Time relations in it are commonly fictitious or factitious; the announcement is given out in advance "for future release" and written as if the event had occurred in the past. The question, "Is it real?" is less important than, "Is it newsworthy?"
  3. Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, "What does it mean?" has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.
  4. Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel's thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one."

Network media spent more time covering Clinton's decision to remain in the race and her subsequent exit from the race than they did covering the war, the mortgage crisis, and the price of oil combined. 

Why was this? According to Boorstin — and I think he's right — the media invested so much time making predictions (when will she leave and what will the consequences be?) that the news became a discussion of why the prophecies were or were not fulfilled. All this at the expense of a public that faces some of the most dire economic and moral challenges seen in our lifetimes.

3 comments:

Maseeh M said...

Again, really insightful and interesting stuff. I cannot disagree with anything thats written. I also see this trend alot in sports, a field a follow closely.

Blog On,

Maseeh

Brandon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brandon said...

My junior theme touched on this area, and I think it is very interesting why the media focuses on these "pseudo-events". As the survival of a news program depends on their viewers, these programs need to attract their viewer's attention. The media can manipulate the election with this 'horserace' journalism to make it seem like a sports game, and, as Andrew Zajac from the Tribune explains, that these "prophecies" are much more visually appealing than the "dire economic and moral challenges" that the presidential candidates are fighting to deal with:

“How do you visually present health care? Jeremiah Wright is such a slam dunk. There’s a whole video of John McCain as a prisoner of war… with Hillary Clinton there’s pictures of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky…There’s a temptation to feed people want, things they can linger over rather than a debate on health care or the “sub-prime” mortgage crisis”.

Even the Daily Show can contain more actual information by criticizing or mocking certain positions (McCain's staying in Iraq for 100 years position, or Hillary's NAFTA flip-flopping.. etc). I actually would be looking forward to the upcoming debates, which hopefully will have more substance.

Have a great summer -

Brandon