A Guide to Pseudo Events
DANIEL J. BOORSTIN
From News Gathering to News Making:
A Flood of Pseudo‑Events
"My, that's a beautiful baby you have there!"
"Oh, that's nothing‑you should see his photograph?"
THE SIMPLEST of our extravagant expectations concerns the amount of novelty in the world. There was a time when the reader of an unexciting newspaper would remark, "How dull is the world today!" Nowadays he says, "What a dull newspaper!" When the first American newspaper, Benjamin Harris' Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, appeared in Boston on September 25, 1690, it promised to furnish news regularly once a month. But, the editor explained, it might appear oftener "if any Glut of Occurrences happen." The responsibility for making news was entirely God's‑or the Devil's. The newsman's task was only to give "an Account of such considerable things as have arrived unto our Notice."
Although the theology behind this way of looking at events soon dissolved, this view of the news lasted longer. "The skilled and faithful journalist," James Parton observed in 1866, "recording with exactness and power the thing that has come to pass, is Providence addressing men." The story is told of a Southern Baptist clergyman before the Civil War who used to say, when a newspaper was brought in the room, "Be kind enough to let me have it a few minutes, till I see how the Supreme Being is governing the world." Charles A. Dana, one of the great American editors of the nineteenth century, once defended his extensive reporting of crime in the New York Sun by saying, "I have always felt that whatever the Divine Providence permitted to occur I was not too proud to report."
Of course, this is now a very old‑fashioned way of thinking. Our current point of view is better expressed in the definition by Arthur MacEwen, whom William Randolph Hearst made his first editor of the San Francisco Examiner: "News is anything that makes a reader say, 'Gee whiz!"' Or, put more soberly, "News is whatever a good editor chooses to print."
We need not be theologians to see that we have shifted responsibility for making the world interesting from God to the newspaperman. We used to believe there were only so many "events" in the world. If there were not many intriguing or startling occurrences, it was no fault of the reporter. He could not be expected to report what did not exist.
Within the last hundred years, however, and especially in the twentieth century, all this has changed. We expect the papers to be full of news. If there is no news visible to the naked eye, or to the average citizen, we still expect it to be there for the enterprising newsman. The successful reporter is one who can find a story, even if there is no earthquake or assassination or civil war. If he cannot find a story, then he must make one‑by the questions he asks of public figures, by the surprising human interest be unfolds from some commonplace event, or by "the news behind the news." If all this fails, then he must give us a "think piece embroidering of well‑known facts, or a speculation about startling things to come.
This change in our attitude toward "news" is not merely a basic fact about the history of American newspapers. It is a symptom of a revolutionary change in our attitude toward what happens in the world, how much of it is new, and surprising, and important. Toward how life can be enlivened, toward our power and the power of those who inform and educate and guide us, to provide synthetic happenings to make up for the lack of spontaneous events. Demanding more than the world can give us, we require that something be fabricated to make up for the world's deficiency. This is only one example of our demand for illusions.
Many historical forces help explain how we have come to our present immoderate hopes. But there can be no doubt about what we now expect, nor that it is immoderate. Every American knows the anticipation with which he picks up his morning newspaper at breakfast or opens his evening paper before dinner, or listens to the newscasts every hour on the hour as he drives across country, or watches his favorite commentator on television interpret the events of the day. Many enterprising Americans are now at work to help us satisfy these expectations. Many might be put out of work if we should suddenly moderate our expectations. But it is we who keep them in business and demand that they fill our consciousness with novelties, that they play God for us.
The new kind of synthetic novelty which has flooded our experience I will call "pseudo‑events." The common prefix "pseudo" comes from the Greek word meaning false, or intended to deceive. Before I recall the historical forces which have made these pseudo‑events possible, have increased the supply of them and the demand for them, I will give a commonplace example.
The owners of a hotel, in an illustration offered by Edward L. Bernays in his pioneer Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), consult a public relations counsel. They ask how to increase their hotel's prestige and so improve their business. In less sophisticated times, the answer might have been to hire a new chef, to improve the plumbing, to paint the rooms, or to install a crystal chandelier in the lobby. The public relations counsel's technique is more indirect. He proposes that the management stage a celebration of the hotel's thirtieth anniversary. A committee is formed, including a prominent banker, a leading society matron, a well‑known lawyer, an influential preacher, and an "event" is planned (say a banquet) to call attention to the distinguished service the hotel has been rendering the community. The celebration is held, photographs are taken, the occasion is widely reported, and the object is accomplished. Now this occasion is a pseudo‑event, and will illustrate all the essential features of pseudo‑events.
This celebration, we can see at the outset, is somewhat — but not entirely —misleading. Presumably the public relations counsel would not have been able to form his committee of prominent citizens if the hotel had not actually been rendering service to the community. On the other hand, if the hotel's services had been all that important, instigation by public relations counsel might not have been necessary. Once the celebration has been held, the celebration itself becomes evidence that the hotel really is a distinguished institution. The occasion actually gives the hotel the prestige to which it is pretending.
It is obvious, too, that the value of such a celebration to the owners depends on its being photographed and reported in newspapers, magazines, newsreels, on radio, and over television. It is the report that gives the event its force in the minds of potential customers. The power to make a reportable event is thus the power to make experience. One is reminded of Napoleon's apocryphal reply to his general, who objected that circumstances were unfavorable to a proposed campaign: "Bah, I make circumstances!" The modern public relations counsel —‑and he is, of course, only one of many twentieth‑century creators of pseudo‑events — has come close to fulfilling Napoleon's idle boast. "The counsel on public relations," Mr. Bernays explains, "not only knows what news value is, but knowing it, he is in a position to make news happen. He is a creator of events."
The intriguing feature of the modem situation, however, comes precisely from the fact that the modem news makers are not God. The news they make happen, the events they create, are somehow not quite real. There remains a tantalizing difference between man‑made and God‑made events.
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.
IN THE last half century a larger and larger proportion of our experience, of what we read and see and hear, has come to consist of pseudo‑events. We expect more of them and we are given more of them. They flood our consciousness. Their multiplication has gone on in the United States at a faster rate than elsewhere. Even the rate of increase is increasing every day. This is true of the world of education, of consumption, and of personal relations. It is especially true of the world of public affairs which I describe in this chapter.
A full explanation of the origin and rise of pseudo‑events would be nothing less than a history of modem America. For our present purposes it is enough to recall a few of the more revolutionary recent developments.
The great modern increase in the supply and the demand for news began in the early nineteenth century. Until then newspapers tended to fill out their columns with lackadaisical secondhand accounts or stale reprints of items first published elsewhere at home and abroad. The laws of plagiarism and of copyright were undeveloped. Most newspapers were little more than excuses for espousing a political position, for listing the arrival and departure of ships, for familiar essays and useful advice, or for commercial or legal announcements.
Less than a century and a half ago did newspapers begin to disseminate up‑to‑date reports of matters of public interest written by eyewitnesses or professional reporters near the scene. The telegraph was perfected and applied to news reporting in the 1830's and '40's. Two newspapermen, William M. Swain of the Philadelphia Public Ledger and Amos Kendall of Frankfort, Kentucky, were founders of the national telegraphic network. Polk's presidential message in 1846 was the first to be transmitted by wire. When the Associated Press was founded in 1848, news began to be a salable commodity. Then appeared the rotary press, which could print on a continuous sheet and on both sides of the paper at the same time. The New York Tribune's high‑speed press, installed in the 1870's, could turn out 18,000 papers per hour. The Civil War, and later the Spanish‑American War, offered raw materials and incentive for vivid up‑to‑the‑minute, on‑the‑spot reporting. The competitive daring of giants like James Gordon Bennett, Joseph Pulitzer, and William Randolph Hearst intensified the race for news and widened newspaper circulation.
These events were part of a great, but little‑noticed, revolution — what I would call the Graphic Revolution. Man's ability to make, preserve, transmit, and disseminate precise images‑images of print, of men and landscapes and events, of the voices of men and mobs‑now grew at a fantastic pace. The increased speed of printing was itself revolutionary. Still more revolutionary were the new techniques for making direct images of nature. Photography was destined soon to give printed matter itself a secondary role. By a giant leap Americans crossed the gulf from the daguerreotype to color television in less than a century. Dry‑plate photography came in 1873; Bell patented the telephone in 1876; the phonograph was invented in 1877; the roll film appeared in 1884; Eastman's Kodak No. 1 was produced in 1888; Edison's patent on the radio came in 1891; motion pictures came in and voice was first transmitted by radio around 1900; the first national political convention widely broadcast by radio was that of 1928; television became commercially important in 1941, and color television even more recently.
Verisimilitude took on a new meaning. Not only was it now possible to give the actual voice and gestures of Franklin Delano Roosevelt unprecedented reality and intimacy for a whole nation. Vivid image came to overshadow pale reality. Sound motion pictures in color led a whole generation of pioneering American movie‑goers to think of Benjamin Disraeli as an earlier imitation of George Arliss, just as television has led a later generation of television watchers to see the Western cowboy as an inferior replica of John Wayne. The Grand Canyon itself became a disappointing reproduction of the Kodachrome original.
The new power to report and portray what had happened was a new temptation leading newsmen to make probable images or to prepare reports in advance of what was expected to happen. As so often, men came to mistake their power for their necessities. Readers and viewers would soon prefer the vividness of the account, the "candidness" of the photograph, to the spontaneity of what was recounted.
Then came round‑the‑clock media. The news gap soon became so narrow that in order to have additional "news" for each new edition or each new broadcast it was necessary to plan in advance the stages by which any available news would be unveiled. After the weekly and the daily came the "extras" and the numerous regular editions. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin soon had seven editions a day. No rest for the newsman. With more space to fill, he had to fill it ever more quickly. In order to justify the numerous editions, it was increasingly necessary that the news constantly change or at least seem to change. With radio on the air continuously during waking hours, the reporters' problems became still more acute. News every hour on the hour, and sometimes on the half hour. Programs interrupted any time for special bulletins. How to avoid deadly repetition, the appearance that nothing was happening, that news gatherers were asleep, or that competitors were more alert? As the costs of printing and then of broadcasting increased, it became financially necessary to keep the presses always at work and the TV screen always busy. Pressures toward the making of pseudo‑events became ever stronger. News gathering turned into news making.
The "interview" was a novel way of making news which had come in with the Graphic Revolution. Later it became elaborated into lengthy radio and television panels and quizzes of public figures, and the three‑hour‑long, rambling conversation programs. Although the interview technique might seem an obvious one‑and in a primitive form was as old as Socrates‑the use of the word in its modem journalistic sense is a relatively recent Americanism. The Boston News‑Letter's account (March 2, 1719) of the death of Blackbeard the Pirate had apparently been based on a kind of interview with a ship captain. One of the earliest interviews of the modern type — some writers call it the first — was by James Gordon Bennett, the flamboyant editor of the New York Herald (April 16, 1836), in connection with the Robinson‑Jewett murder case. Ellen Jewett, inmate of a house of prostitution, had been found murdered by an ax. Richard P. Robinson, a young man about town, was accused of the crime. Bennett seized the occasion to pyramid sensational stories and so to build circulation for his Herald; before long he was having difficulty turning out enough copies daily to satisfy the demand. He exploited the story in every possible way, one of which was to plan and report an actual interview with Rosina Townsend, the madam who kept the house and whom he visited on her own premises.
Historians of journalism date the first full‑fledged modem interview with a well‑known public figure from July 13, 1859, when Horace Greeley interviewed Brigham Young in Salt Lake City, asking him questions on many matters of public interest, and then publishing the answers verbatim in his New York Tribune (August 20, 1859). The common use of the word "interview" in this modern American sense first came in about this time. Very early the institution acquired a reputation for being contrived. "The 'interview,"' The Nation complained (January 28, 1869), "as at present managed, is generally the joint product of some humbug of a hack politician and another humbug of a reporter." A few years later another magazine editor called the interview "the most perfect contrivance yet devised to make journalism an offence, a thing of ill savor in all decent nostrils." Many objected to the practice as an invasion of privacy. After the American example it was used in England and France, but in both those countries it made much slower headway.
Even before the invention of the interview, the news‑making profession in America had attained a new dignity as well as a menacing power. It was in 1828 that Macaulay called the gallery where reporters sat in Parliament a "fourth estate of the realm." But Macaulay could not have imagined the prestige of journalists in the twentieth‑century United States. They have long since made themselves the tribunes of the people. Their supposed detachment and lack of partisanship, their closeness to the sources of information, their articulateness, and their constant and direct access to the whole citizenry have made them also the counselors of the people. Foreign observers are now astonished by the almost constitutional — perhaps we should say supra‑constitutional — powers of our Washington press corps.
Since the rise of the modern Presidential press conference, about 1933, capital correspondents have had the power regularly to question the President face‑to‑face, to embarrass him, to needle him, to force him into positions or into public refusal to take a position. A President may find it inconvenient to meet a group of dissident Senators or Congressmen; he seldom dares refuse the press. That refusal itself becomes news. It is only very recently, and as a result of increasing pressures by newsmen, that the phrase "No comment" has become a way of saying something important. The reputation of newsmen‑‑who now of course include those working for radio, TV, and magazines‑depends on their ability to ask hard questions, to put politicians on the spot; their very livelihood depends on the willing collaboration of public figures. Even before 1950 Washington had about 1,500 correspondents and about 3,000 government information officials prepared to serve them.
Not only the regular formal press conferences, but a score of other national programs‑such as "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation"‑‑ show the power of newsmen. In 1960 David Susskind's late‑night conversation show, "Open End," commanded the presence of the Russian Premier for three hours. During the so‑called "Great Debates" that year between the candidates in the Presidential campaign, it was newsmen who called the tune.
The live television broadcasting of the President's regular news conferences, which President Kennedy began in 1961, immediately after taking office, has somewhat changed their character. Newsmen are no longer so important as intermediaries who relay the President's statements. But the new occasion acquires a new interest as a dramatic performance. Citizens who from homes or offices have seen the President at his news conference are then even more interested to hear competing interpretations by skilled commentators. News commentators can add a new appeal as dramatic critics to their traditional role as interpreters of current history. Even in the new format it is still the newsmen who put the questions. They are still tribunes of the people.
THE BRITISH CONSTITUTION, shaped as it is from materials accumulated since the middle ages, functions, we have often been told, only because the British people are willing to live with a great number of legal fictions. The monarchy is only the most prominent. We Americans have accommodated our eighteenth‑century constitution to twentieth‑century technology by multiplying pseudo‑events and by developing professions which both help make pseudo‑events and help us citizen needs to know and what he can know is ever greater. The disproportion between what an informed citizen needs to know and what he can know is ever greater. The disproportion grows with the increase of the officials’ powers of concealment and contrivance. The news gatherers'
need to select, invent, and plan correspondingly increases. Thus inevitably our whole system of public information produces always more "packaged" news, more pseudo‑events.
A trivial but prophetic example of the American penchant for pseudo‑events has long been found in our Congressional Record. The British and French counterparts, surprisingly enough, give a faithful report of what is said on the floor of their deliberative bodies. But ever since the establishment of the Congressional Record under its present title in 1873, our only ostensibly complete report of what goes on in Congress has had no more than the faintest resemblance to what is actually said there. Despite occasional feeble protests, our Record has remained a gargantuan miscellany in which actual proceedings are buried beneath undelivered speeches, and mountains of the unread and the unreadable. Only a national humorlessness or sense of humor can account four our willingness to tolerate this. Perhaps it also explains why, as a frustrated reformer of the Record argued on the floor of the Senate in 1884, “the American public have generally come to regard the proceedings of Congress as a sort of variety performance, where nothing is supposed to be real except the pay.”
The common “news releases” which every day issue by the ream from Congressmen’s office, from the President’s press secretary, from the press relations offices of business, charitable organizations, and universities are a kind of Congressional Record covering all American life. And they are only a slightly less inaccurate record of spontaneous happenings. To secure “news coverage” for an event (especially if it has little news interest) one must issue, in proper form, a “release.” The very expression “news release” (apparently an American invention; it was first recorded in 1907) did not come into common use until recently. There is an appropriate perversity in calling it a “release.” It might more accurately be described as a “news holdback” since its purpose is to offer something that is to be held back from publication until a specified future date. The newspaperman’s slightly derogatory slang term for the news release is “handout,”: from the phrase originally used for a bundle of stale food handed out from a house to a beggar. Through this meaning of the word is now in common use in the news gathering professions; it is so recent that it has not yet made its way into our dictionaries.
The release is news pre‑cooked, and supposed to keep till needed. In the well‑recognized format (usually mimeographed) it bears a date, say February 1, and also indicates “For release to PM's February 15." The account is written in the past tense but usually describes and event that has not yet happened when the release is given out. The use and interpretation of handouts have become an essential part of the newsman’s job. The National Press Club in its Washington clubrooms has a large rack which is filled daily with the latest releases, so the reporter does not even have to visit the offices which give them out. In 1947 there were about twice as many government press agents engaged in preparing news releases as there were newsmen gathering them in.
The general public has become so accustomed to these procedures that a public official can sometimes “make news” merely by departing from the advance text given out in his release. When President Kennedy spoke in Chicago on the night of April 28, 1951, early editions of the next morning’s newspapers (printed the night before for early morning home delivery) merely reported his speech as it was given to newsmen in the advance text. When the President abandoned the advance text, later editions of the Chicago Sun-Times headlined: “Kennedy Speaks Off Cuff . . .” The article beneath emphasized that he had departed from this advance text and gave about equal space to his off-the-cuff speech and to the speech he never gave. Apparently the most newsworthy fact was that the President had not stuck to his prepared text.
We begin to be puzzled about what is really the “original” of an event. The authentic news record of what happens or is said comes increasingly to seem to be what is given out in advance. More and more news events become dramatic performances in which “men in the news” simply act out more or less well their prepared script. The story prepared “for future release” acquires an authenticity that competes with that of the actual occurrence on the scheduled date. with that of the actual occurrences on the scheduled date.
In recent years our successful politicians have been those most adept at using the press and other means to create pseudo‑events. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom Heywood Broun called "the best newspaperman who has ever been President of the United States," was the first modern master. While newspaper owners opposed him in editorials which few read, F.D.R. himself, with the collaboration of a friendly corps of Washington correspondents, was using front‑page headlines to make news read by everybody. He was making "facts" — pseudo‑events — while editorial writers were simply expressing opinions. It is a familiar story how he employed the trial balloon, how he exploited the ethic of off‑the‑record remarks, how he transformed the Presidential press conference from a boring ritual into a major national institution which no later President dared disrespect, and how he developed the fireside chat. Knowing that newspapermen lived on news, he helped them manufacture it. And he knew enough about news‑making techniques to help shape their stories to his own purposes.
Take, for example, these comments which President Roosevelt made at a press conference during his visit to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Florida on February 18, 1939, when war tensions were mounting:
I want to get something across, only don't put it that way. In other words, it is a thing that I cannot put as direct stuff, but it is background. And the way — as you know I very often do it — if I were writing the story, the way I'd write it is this — you know the formula: When asked when he was returning [to Washington], the President intimated that it was impossible to give any date; because, while he hoped to be away until the third or fourth of March, information that continues to be received with respect to the international situation continues to be disturbing, therefore, it may be necessary for the President to return [to the capital] before the third or fourth of March. It is understood that this information relates to the possible renewal of demands by certain countries, these demands being pushed, not through normal diplomatic channels but, rather, through the more recent type of relations; in other words, the use of fear of aggression.
F.D.R. was a man of great warmth, natural spontaneity, and simple eloquence, and his public utterances reached the citizen with a new intimacy. Yet, paradoxically, it was under his administrations that statements by the President attained a new subtlety and a new calculatedness. On his production team, in addition to newspapermen, there were poets, playwrights, and a regular corps of speechwriters. Far from detracting from his effectiveness, this collaborative system for producing the impression of personal frankness and spontaneity provided an additional subject of newsworthy interest. Was it Robert Sherwood or Judge Samuel Rosenman who contributed this or that phrase? How much had the President revised the draft given him by his speech-writing team? Citizens became nearly as much interested in how a particular speech was put together as in what it said. And when the President spoke, almost everyone knew it was a long‑planned group production in which F.D.R. was only the star performer.
Of course President Roosevelt made many great decisions and lived in times which he only helped make stirring. But 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 to 1957. His career might have been impossible without the elaborate, perpetually grinding machinery of "information" which I have already described. 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 rare occasions when invention failed him and he had no facts 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 silmplysay that he wasn’t quite ready, that he was having difficulty in getting some of the “documents” he needed ord that a “witness” was proving eluseive. Morning headlines: “Delay Seen in McCarthy Case — Mystery Witness Being Sought.”
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.
In the traditional vocabulary of newspapermen, there is a well-recognized distinction between “hard” and “soft” news. Hard news is supposed to be the solid report of significant matters: politics, economics, international relations, social welfare, science. Soft news reports popular interests, curiosities, and diversions: it includes sensational local reporting, scandalmongering, gossip columns, comic strips, the sexual lives of movie starts, and the latest murder. Journalist-critics attack American newspaper today for not being “serious” enough, for giving a larger and larger proportion of their space to soft rather than to hard news.
But the rising tide of pseudo-events washes away the distinction. Here is one example. On June 21, 1960, President Eisenhower was in Honolulu, en route to the Far East for a trip to meet the heads of government in Korea, the Philippines, and elsewhere. A seven-column headline in the Chicago Daily News brought readers the following information: “What Are Ike’s Feelings about Trip? Aides Mum” “Doesn’t Show Any Worry” “Members of Official Party Resent Queries by Newsmen.” And the two-column story led off:
HONOLULU: President Eisenhower’s reaction to his Far Eastern trip remains as closely guarded a secret as his golf score. While the President rests at Kaneohe Marine air station on the windward side of the Pali hills, hard by the blue Pacific and an 18-hole golf course, he might be toting up the plusses and minuses of his Asian sojourn. But there is no evidence of it. Members of his official party resent any inquiry into how the White House feels about the whole experience, especially the blowup of the Japanese visit which produced a critical storm. The story concludes: “But sooner or later the realities will intrude. The likelihood is that it will be sooner than later.”
Nowadays a successful reporter must be the midwife — or more often the conceiver — of his news. By the interview technique he incites a public figure to make statements which will sound like news. During the twentieth century this technique has grown into a devious apparatus which, in skillful hands, can shape national policy.
The pressure of time, and the need to produce a uniform news stream to fill the issuing media, induce Washington correspondents and others to use the interview and other techniques for making pseudo‑events in novel, ever more ingenious and aggressive ways. One of the main facts of life for the wire service reporter in Washington is that there are many more afternoon than morning papers in the United States. The early afternoon paper on the East Coast goes to press about 10 A.M., before the spontaneous news of the day has had an opportunity to develop. “It means,” one conscientious capital correspondent confides, in Douglass Cater’s admirable Fourth Branch of Government (1959), “the wire service reporter must engage in the basically phony operation of writing the ‘overnight’—a story composed the previous evening but giving the impression when it appears the next afternoon that it covers that day’s events.”
What this can mean in a particular case is illustrated by the tribulations of a certain hard‑working reporter who was trying to do his job and earn his keep at the time when the Austrian Treaty of 1955 came up for debate in the Senate. Although it was a matter of some national and international importance, the adoption of the Treaty was a foregone conclusion; there would be little news in it. So, in order to make a story, this reporter went to Senator Walter George, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and extracted a statement to the effect that under the Treaty Austria would receive no money or military aid, only long‑term credits. “That became my lead,” the reporter recalled. “I had fulfilled the necessary function of having a story that seemed to be part of the next day’s news.”
The next day, the Treaty came up for debate. The debate was dull, and it was hard to squeeze out a story. Luckily, however, Senator Jenner made a nasty crack about President Eisenhower, which the reporter (after considering what other wire service reporters covering the story might be doing) sent off as an “insert.” The Treaty was adopted by the Senate a little after 3:30 P.M. That automatically made a bulletin and required a new lead for the story on the debate. But by that time the hard‑pressed reporter was faced with writing a completely new story for the next day’s morning papers.
But my job had not finished. The Treaty adoption bulletin had gone out too late to get into most of the East Coast afternoon papers except the big city ones like the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, which has seven editions. I had to find a new angle for an overnight to be carried next day by those P.M.’s which failed to carry the Treaty story.
They don’t want to carry simply a day‑old account of the debate. They want a “top” to the news. So, to put it quite bluntly, I went and got Senator Thye to say that Jenner by his actions was weakening the President’s authority. Actually, the Thye charge was more lively news than the passage of the Austrian Treaty itself. It revealed conflict among the Senate Republicans. But the story had developed out of my need for a new peg for the news. It was not spontaneous on Thye’s part. I had called seven other Senators before I could get some one to make a statement on Jenner. There is a fair criticism, I recognize, to be made of this practice. These Senators didn’t call me. I called them. I, in a sense, generated the news. The reporter’s imagination brought the Senator’s thinking to bear on alternatives that he might not have thought of by himself.
This can be a very pervasive practice. One wire service reporter hounded Senator George daily on the foreign trade question until he finally got George to make the suggestion that Japan should trade with Red China as an alternative to dumping textiles on the American market. Then the reporter went straightway to Senator Knowland to get him to knock down the suggestion. It made a good story, and it also stimulated a minor policy debate that might not have got started otherwise. The “overnight” is the greatest single field for exploratory reporting for the wire services. It is what might be called “milking the news.”
The reporter shrewdly adds that the task of his profession today is seldom to compose accounts of the latest events at lightning speed. Rather, it is shaped by “the problem of packaging.” He says: “Our job is to report the news but it is also to keep a steady flow of news coming forward. Every Saturday morning, for example, we visit the Congressional leaders. We could write all the stories that we get out of these conferences for the Sunday A.M.’s but we don’t. We learn to schedule them in order to space them out over Sunday’s and Monday’s papers.”
An innocent observer might have expected that the rise of television and on‑the‑spot telecasting of the news would produce a pressure to report authentic spontaneous events exactly as they occur. But, ironically, these, like earlier improvements in the techniques of precise representation, have simply created more and better pseudo‑events.
When General Douglas MacArthur returned to the United States (after President Truman relieved him of command in the Far East, on April 11, 1951, during the Korean War) he made a “triumphal” journey around the country. He was invited to help Chicago celebrate “MacArthur Day” (April 26, 1951) which had been proclaimed by resolution of the City Council. Elaborate ceremonies were arranged, including a parade. The proceedings were being televised.
A team of thirty‑one University of Chicago sociologists, under the imaginative direction of Kurt Lang, took their posts at strategic points along the route of the MacArthur parade. The purpose was to note the reactions of the crowd and to compare what the spectators were seeing (or said they were seeing) with what they might have witnessed on television. This ingenious study confirmed my observation that we tend increasingly to fill our experience with contrived content. The newspapers had, of course, already prepared people for what the Chicago Tribune that morning predicted to be “a triumphant hero’s welcome‑biggest and warmest in the history of the middle west.” Many of the actual spectators jammed in the crowd at the scene complained it was hard to see what was going on; in some places they waited for hours and then were lucky to have a fleeting glimpse of the General.
But the television perspective was quite different. The video viewer had the advantage of numerous cameras which were widely dispersed. Television thus ordered the events in its own way, quite different from that of the on‑the‑spot confusion. The cameras were carefully focused on “significant” happenings‑that is, those which emphasized the drama of the occasion. For the television watcher, the General was the continuous center of attraction from his appearance during the parade at 2:21 P.M. until the sudden blackout at 3:00 P.M. Announcers continually reiterated (the scripts showed over fifteen explicit references) the unprecedented drama of the event, or that this was “the greatest ovation this city has ever turned out.” On the television screen one received the impression of wildly cheering and enthusiastic crowds before, during, and after the parade. Of course the cameras were specially selecting “action” shots, which showed a noisy, waving audience; yet in many cases the cheering, waving, and shouting were really a response not so much to the General as to the aiming of the camera. Actual spectators, with sore feet, suffered long periods of boredom. Many groups were apathetic. The video viewer, his eyes fixed alternately on the General and on an enthusiastic crowd, his ears filled with a breathless narrative emphasizing the interplay of crowd and celebrity could not fail to receive an impression of continuous dramatic pageantry.
The most important single conclusion of these sociologists was that the television presentation (as contrasted with the actual witnessing) of the events “remained true to form until the very end, interpreting the entire proceedings according to expectations . . . . The telecast was made to conform to what was interpreted as the pattern of viewers’ expectations.” Actual spectators at the scene were doubly disappointed, not only because they usually saw very little (and that only briefly) from where they happened to be standing, but also because they knew they were missing a much better performance (with far more of the drama they expected) on the television screen. “I bet my wife saw it much better over television!” and “We should have stayed home and watched it on TV” were the almost universal forms of dissatisfaction. While those at the scene were envying the viewers of the pseudo‑event back home, the television viewers were, of course, being told again and again by the network commentators how great was the excitement of being “actually present.”
Yet, as the Chicago sociologists noted, for many of those actually present one of the greatest thrills of the day was the opportunity to be on television. Just as everybody likes to see his name in the newspapers, so nearly everybody likes to think that he can be seen (or still better, with the aid of videotape, actually can see himself) on television. Similarly, reporters following candidates Kennedy and Nixon during their tours in the 1960 Presidential campaign noted how many of the “supporters” in the large crowds that were being televised had come out because they wanted to be seen on the television cameras.
Television reporting allows us all to be the actors we really are. Recently I wandered onto the campus of the University of Chicago and happened to witness a tug of war between teams of students. It was amusing to see the women’s team drench the men’s team by pulling them into Botany Pond.
Television cameras of the leading networks were there. The victory of the women’s team seemed suspiciously easy to me. I was puzzled until told that this was not the original contest at all; the real tug of war had occurred a day or two before when telecasting conditions were not so good. This was a re‑enactment for television.
On December 2, 1960, during the school integration disorders in New Orleans, Mayor de Lesseps S. Morrison wrote a letter to newsmen proposing a three‑day moratorium on news and television coverage of the controversy. He argued that the printed and televised reports were exaggerated and were damaging the city’s reputation and its tourist trade. People were given an impression of prevailing violence, when, he said, only one‑tenth of 1 per cent of the population had been involved in the demonstration. But he also pointed out that the mere presence of telecasting facilities was breeding disorder. “In many cases,” he observed, “these people go to the area to get themselves on television and hurry home for the afternoon and evening telecasts to see the show.” At least two television reporters had gone about the crowd interviewing demonstrators with inflammatory questions like “Why are you opposed to intermarriage?” Mayor Morrison said he himself had witnessed a television cameraman “setting up a scene,” and then, having persuaded a group of students to respond like a “cheering section,” had them yell and demonstrate on cue. The conscientious reporters indignantly rejected the Mayor’s proposed moratorium on news. They said that “Freedom of the Press” was at stake. That was once an institution preserved in the interest of the community. Now it is often a euphemism for the prerogative of reporters to produce their synthetic commodity.
IN MANY subtle ways, the rise of pseudo‑events has mixed up our roles as actors and as audience—or, the philosophers would say, as “object” and as “subject.” Now we can oscillate between the two roles. “The movies are the only business,” Will Rogers once remarked, “where you can go out front and applaud yourself.” Nowadays one need not be a professional actor to have this satisfaction. We can appear in the mob scene and then go home and see ourselves on the television screen. No wonder we become confused about what is spontaneous, about what is really going on out there!
New forms of pseudo‑events, especially in the world of politics, thus offer a new kind of bewilderment to both politician and newsman. The politician (like F.D.R. in our example, or any holder of a press conference) himself in a sense composes the story; the journalist (like the wire service reporter we have quoted, or any newsman who incites an inflammatory statement) himself generates the event. The citizen can hardly be expected to assess the reality when the participants themselves are so often unsure who is doing the deed and who is making the report of it. Who is the history, and who is the historian?
An admirable example of this new intertwinement of subject and object, of the history and the historian, of the actor and the reporter, is the so‑called news “leak.” By now the leak has become an important and well‑established institution in American politics. It is, in fact, one of the main vehicles for communicating important information from officials to the public.
A clue to the new unreality of the citizen’s world is the perverse new meaning now given to the word “leak.” To leak, according to the dictionary, is to “let a fluid substance out or in accidentally: as, the ship leaks.” But nowadays a news leak is one of the most elaborately planned ways of emitting information. It is, of course, a way in which a government official, with some clearly defined purpose (a leak, even more than a direct announcement, is apt to have some definite devious purpose behind it) makes an announcement, asks a question, or puts a suggestion. It might more accurately be called a “sub rosa announcement,” an “indirect statement,” or “cloaked news.”
The news leak is a pseudo‑event par excellence. In its origin and growth, the leak illustrates another axiom of the world of pseudo‑events: pseudo‑events produce more pseudo‑events. I will say more on this later.
With the elaboration of news‑gathering facilities in Washington — of regular, planned press conferences, of prepared statements for future release, and of countless other practices — the news protocol has hardened. Both government officials and reporters have felt the need for more flexible and more ambiguous modes of communication between them. The Presidential press conference itself actually began as a kind of leak. President Theodore Roosevelt for some time allowed Lincoln Steffens to interview him as he was being shaved. Other Presidents gave favored correspondents an interview from time to time or dropped hints to friendly journalists. Similarly, the present institution of the news leak began in the irregular practice of a government official’s helping a particular correspondent by confidentially giving him information not yet generally released. But today the leak is almost as well organized and as rigidly ruled by protocol as a formal press conference. Being fuller of ambiguity, with a welcome atmosphere of confidence and intrigue, it is more appealing to all concerned. The institutionalized leak puts a greater burden of contrivance and pretense on both government officials and reporters.
In Washington these days, and elsewhere on a smaller scale, the custom has grown up among important members of the government of arranging to dine with select representatives of the news corps. Such dinners are usually preceded by drinks, and beforehand there is a certain amount of restrained conviviality. Everyone knows the rules: the occasion is private, and any information given out afterwards must be communicated according to rule and in the technically proper vocabulary. After dinner the undersecretary, the general, or the admiral allows himself to be questioned. He may recount “facts” behind past news, state plans, or declare policy. The reporters have confidence, if not in the ingenuousness of the official, at least in their colleagues’ respect of the protocol. Everybody understands the degree of attribution permissible for every statement made: what, if anything, can be directly quoted, what is “background,” what is “deep background,” what must be ascribed to “a spokesman,” to “an informed source,” to speculation, to rumor, or to remote possibility.
Such occasions and the reports flowing from them are loaded with ambiguity. The reporter himself often is not clear whether he is being told a simple fact, a newly settled policy, an administrative hope, or whether perhaps untruths are being deliberately diffused to allay public fears that the true facts are really true. The government official himself (who is sometimes no more than a spokesman) may not be clear. The reporter’s task is to find a way of weaving these threads of unreality into a fabric that the reader will not recognize as entirely unreal. Some people have criticized the institutionalized leak as a form of domestic counter‑intelligence inappropriate in a republic. It has become more and more important and is the source today of many of the most influential reports of current politics.
One example will be enough. On March 26, 1955, The New York Times carried a three‑column headline on the front page: “U.S. Expects Chinese Reds to Attack Isles in April; Weighs All‑Out Defense.” Three days later a contradictory headline in the same place read: “Eisenhower Sees No War Now Over Chinese Isles.” Under each of these headlines appeared a lengthy story. Neither story named any person as a source of the ostensible facts. The then‑undisclosed story (months later recorded by Douglass Cater) was this. In the first instance, Admiral Robert B. Carney, Chief of Naval Operations, had an off‑the‑record “background” dinner for a few reporters. There the Admiral gave reporters what they (and their readers) took to be facts. Since the story was “not for attribution,” reporters were not free to mention some very relevant facts‑such as that this was the opinion only of Admiral Carney, that this was the same Admiral Carney who had long been saying that war in Asia was inevitable, and that many in Washington (even in the Joint Chiefs of Staff) did not agree with him. Under the ground rules the first story could appear in the papers only by being given an impersonal authority, an atmosphere of official unanimity which it did not merit. The second, and contradictory, statement was in fact made not by the President himself, but by the President’s press secretary, James Hagerty, who, having been alarmed by what he saw in the papers, quickly called a second “background” meeting to deny the stories that had sprouted from the first. What, if anything, did it all mean? Was there any real news here at all‑except that there was disagreement between Admiral Carney and James Hagerty? Yet this was the fact newsmen were not free to print.
Pseudo‑events spawn other pseudo‑events in geometric progression. This is partly because every kind of pseudo-event (being planned) tends to become ritualized, with a protocol and a rigidity all its own. As each type of pseudo-event acquires this rigidity, pressures arise to produce other, derivative, forms of pseudo‑event which are more fluid, more tantalizing, and more interestingly ambiguous. Thus, as the press conference (itself a pseudo‑event) became formalized, there grew up the institutionalized leak. As the leak becomes formalized still other devices will appear. Of course the shrewd politician or the enterprising newsman knows this and knows how to take advantage of it. Seldom for outright deception; more often simply to make more “news,” to provide more “information,” or to “improve communication.”
For example, a background off‑the‑record press conference, if it is actually a mere trial balloon or a diplomatic device (as it sometimes was for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles), becomes the basis of official “denials” and “disavowals,” of speculation and interpretation by columnists and commentators, and of special interviews on and off television with Senators, Representatives, and other public officials. Any statement or non‑statement by anyone in the public eye can become the basis of counter‑statements or refusals to comment by others. All these compound the ambiguity of the occasion which first brought them into being.
Nowadays the test of a Washington reporter is seldom his skill at precise dramatic reporting, but more often his adeptness at dark intimation. If he wishes to keep his news channels open he must accumulate a vocabulary and develop a style to conceal his sources and obscure the relation of a supposed event or statement to the underlying facts of life, at the same time seeming to offer hard facts. Much of his stock in trade is his own and other people’s speculation about the reality of what he reports. He lives in a penumbra between fact and fantasy. He helps create that very obscurity without which the supposed illumination of his reports would be unnecessary. A deft administrator these days must have similar skills. He must master “the technique of denying the truth without actually lying.”
These pseudo‑events which flood our consciousness must be distinguished from propaganda. The two do have some characteristics in common. But our peculiar problems come from the fact that pseudo‑events are in some respects the opposite of the propaganda which rules totalitarian countries. Propaganda — as prescribed, say, by Hitler in Mein Kampf — is information intentionally biased. Its effect depends primarily on its emotional appeal. While a pseudo‑event is an ambiguous truth, propaganda is an appealing falsehood. Pseudo‑events thrive on our honest desire to be informed, to have “all the facts,” and even to have more facts than there really are. But propaganda feeds on our willingness to be inflamed. Pseudo‑events appeal to our duty to be educated, propaganda appeals to our desire to be aroused. While propaganda substitutes opinion for facts, pseudo‑events are synthetic facts which move people indirectly, by providing the “factual” basis on which they are supposed to make up their minds. Propaganda moves them directly by explicitly making judgments for them.
In a totalitarian society, where people are flooded by purposeful lies, the real facts are of course misrepresented, but the representation itself is not ambiguous. The propaganda lie is asserted as if it were true. Its object is to lead people to believe that the truth is simpler, more intelligible, than it really is. “Now the purpose of propaganda,” Hitler explained, “is not continually to produce interesting changes for a few blas6 little masters, but to convince; that means, to convince the masses. The masses, however, with their inertia, always need a certain time before they are ready even to notice a thing, and they will lend their memories only to the thousandfold repetition of the most simple ideas.” But in our society, pseudo‑events make simple facts seem more subtle, more ambiguous, and more speculative than they really are. Propaganda oversimplifies experience, pseudo-events overcomplicate it.
At first it may seem strange that the rise of pseudo‑events has coincided with the growth of the professional ethic which obliges newsmen to omit editorializing and personal judgments from their news accounts. But now it is in the making of pseudo‑events that newsmen find ample scope for their individuality and creative imagination.
In a democratic society like ours‑and more especially in a highly literate, wealthy, competitive, and technologically advanced society‑the people can be flooded by pseudoevents. For us, freedom of speech and of the press and of broadcasting includes freedom to create pseudo‑events. Competing politicians, competing newsmen, and competing news media contest in this creation. They vie with one another in offering attractive, “informative” accounts and images of the world. They are free to speculate on the facts, to bring new facts into being, to demand answers to their own contrived questions. Our “free market place of ideas” is a place where people are confronted by competing pseudoevents and are allowed to judge among them. When we speak of “informing’ the people this is what we really mean.
UNTIL RECENTLY we have been justified in believing Abraham Lincoln’s familiar maxim: “You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.” This has been the foundation‑belief of American democracy. Lincoln’s appealing slogan rests on two elementary assumptions. First, that there is a clear and visible distinction between sham and reality, between the lies a demagogue would have us believe and the truths which are there all the time. Second, that the people tend to prefer reality to sham, that if offered a choice between a simple truth and a contrived image, they will prefer the truth.
Neither of these any longer fits the facts. Not because people are less intelligent or more dishonest. Rather because great unforeseen changes — the great forward strides of American civilization — have blurred the edges of reality. The pseudo‑events which flood our consciousness are neither true nor false in the old familiar senses. The very same advances which have made them possible have also made the images — ‑however planned, contrived, or distorted — more vivid, more attractive, more, impressive, and more persuasive than reality itself.
We cannot say that we are being fooled. It is not entirely inaccurate to say that we are being “informed.” This world of ambiguity is created by those who believe they are instructing us, by our best public servants, and with our own collaboration. Our problem is the harder to solve because it is created by people working honestly and industriously at respectable jobs. It is not created by demagogues or crooks, by conspiracy or evil purpose. The efficient mass production of pseudo‑events — in all kinds of packages, in black‑and white, in technicolor, in words, and in a thousand other forms — is the work of the whole machinery of our society. It is the daily product of men of good will. The media must be fed! The people must be informed! Most pleas for “more information” are therefore misguided. So long as we define information as a knowledge of pseudo‑events, “more information” will simply multiply the symptoms without curing the disease.
The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.
Pseudo-events from their very nature tend to be the more interesting and more attractive than spontaneous events. Therefore in American public life today pseudo-events tend to drive all other kinds events out of our consciousness or at least to overshadow them. Earnest, well‑informed citizens seldom notice that their experience of spontaneous events is buried by pseudo‑events. Yet nowadays, the more industriously they work at “informing” themselves the more this tends to be true.
In his now‑classic work, Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann in 1922 began by distinguishing between “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.” He defined a “stereotype” as an oversimplified pattern that helps us find meaning in the world. As examples he gave the crude “stereotypes we carry about in our heads,” of large and varied classes of people like “Germans,” “South Europeans,” “Negroes,” “Harvard men,” “agitators,” etc. The stereotype, Lippmann explained, satisfies our needs and helps us defend our prejudices by seeming to give definiteness and consistency to our turbulent and disorderly daily experience. In one sense, of course, stereotypes — the excessively simple, but easily grasped images of racial, national, or religious groups — are only another example of pseudo‑events. But, generally speaking, they are closer to propaganda. For they simplify rather than complicate. Stereotypes narrow and limit experience in an emotionally satisfying way; but pseudo‑events embroider and dramatize experience in an interesting way. This itself makes pseudo‑events far more seductive; intellectually they are more defensible, more intricate, and more intriguing. To discover how the stereotype is made to unmask the sources of propaganda‑is to make the stereotype less believable. Information about the staging of a pseudo‑event simply adds to its fascination.
Lippmann’s description of stereotypes was helpful in its day. But he wrote before pseudo‑events had come in full flood. Photographic journalism was then still in its infancy. Wide World Photos had just been organized by The New York Times in 1919. The first wirephoto to attract wide attention was in 1924, when the American Telephone and Telegraph Company sent to The New York Times pictures of the Republican Convention in Cleveland which nominated Calvin Coolidge. Associated Press Picture Service was established in 1928. Life, the first wide‑circulating weekly picture news magazine, appeared in 1936; within a year it had a circulation of 1,000,000,’ and within two years, 2,000,000. Look followed, in 1937. The newsreel, originated in France by Path6, had been introduced to the United States only in 1910. When Lippmann wrote his book in 1922, radio was not yet reporting news to the consumer; television was of course unknown.
Recent improvements in vividness and speed, the enlargement and multiplying of news‑reporting media, and the public’s increasing news hunger now make Lippmann’s brilliant analysis of the stereotype the legacy of a simpler age. For stereotypes made experience handy to grasp. But pseudo‑events would make experience newly and satisfyingly elusive. In 1911 Will Irwin, writing in Collier’s, described the new era’s growing public demand for news as “a crying primal want of the mind, like hunger of the body.” The mania for news was a symptom of expectations enlarged far beyond the capacity of the natural world to satisfy. It required a synthetic product. It stirred an irrational and undiscriminating hunger for fancier, more varied items. Stereotypes there had been and always would be; but they only dulled the palate for information. They were an opiate. Pseudo‑events whetted the appetite; they aroused news hunger in the very act of satisfying it.
In the age of pseudo‑events it is less the artificial simplification than the artificial complication of experience that confuses us. Whenever in the public mind a pseudo‑event competes for attention with a spontaneous event in the same field, the pseudo‑event will tend to dominate. What happens on television will overshadow what happens off television. Of course I am concerned here not with our private worlds but with our world of public affairs.
Here are some characteristics of pseudo‑events which make them overshadow spontaneous events:
(1) Pseudo‑events are more dramatic. A television debate between candidates can be planned to be more suspenseful (for example, by reserving questions which are then popped suddenly) than a casual encounter or consecutive formal speeches planned by each separately.
(2) Pseudo‑events, being planned for dissemination, are easier to disseminate and to make vivid. Participants are selected for their newsworthy and dramatic interest.
(4) Pseudo‑events cost money to create; hence somebody has an interest in disseminating, magnifying, advertising, and extolling them as events worth watching or worth believing. They are therefore advertised in advance, and rerun in order to get money’s worth.
(5) Pseudo‑events, being planned for intelligibility, are more intelligible and hence more reassuring. Even if we cannot discuss intelligently the qualifications of the candidates or the complicated issues, we can at least judge the effectiveness of a television performance. How comforting to have some political matter we can grasp!
(6) Pseudo‑events are more sociable, more conversable, and more convenient to witness. Their occurrence is planned for our convenience. The Sunday newspaper appears when we have a lazy morning for it. Television programs appear when we are ready with our glass of beer. In the office the next morning, Jack Paar’s (or any other star performer’s) regular late‑night show at the usual hour will overshadow in conversation a casual event that suddenly came up and had to find its way into the news.
(7) Knowledge of pseudo‑events—of what has been reported, or what has been staged, and how‑becomes the test of being “informed.” News magazines provide us regularly with quiz questions concerning not what has happened but concerning “names in the news”—what has been reported in the news magazines. Pseudo‑events begin to provide that “common discourse” which some of my old‑fashioned friends have hoped to find in the Great Books.
(8) Finally, pseudo‑events spawn other pseudo‑events in geometric progression. They dominate our consciousness simply because there are more of them, and ever more.
By this new Gresham’s law of American public life, counterfeit happenings tend to drive spontaneous happenings out of circulation. The rise in the power and prestige of the Presidency is due not only to the broadening powers of the office and the need for quick decisions, but also to the rise of centralized news gathering and broadcasting, and the increase of the Washington press corps. The President has an ever more ready, more frequent, and more centralized access to the world of pseudo‑events. A similar explanation helps account for the rising prominence in recent years of the Congressional investigating committees. In many cases these committees have virtually no legislative impulse, and political sometimes no intelligible legislative assignment. But they do have an almost unprecedented power, possessed now by no one else in the Federal government except the President, to make news. Newsmen support the committees because the committees feed the newsmen: they live together in happy symbiosis. The battle for power among Washington agencies becomes a contest to dominate the citizen’s information of the government. This can most easily be done by fabricating pseudo‑events.
A perfect example of how pseudo‑events can dominate is the recent popularity of the quiz show format. Its original appeal came less from the fact that such shows were tests of intelligence (or of dissimulation) than from the fact that the situations were elaborately contrived‑with isolation booths, armed bank guards, and all the rest‑and they purported to inform the public. The application of the quiz show format to the so‑called “Great Debates” between Presidential candidates in the election of 1960 is only another example. These four campaign programs, pompously and self‑righteously advertised by the broadcasting networks, were remarkably successful in reducing great national issues to trivial dimensions. With appropriate vulgarity, they might have been called the $400,000 Question (Prize: a $100,000‑a‑year job for four years). They were a clinical example of the pseudo‑event, of how it is made, why it appeals, and of its consequences for democracy in America.
In origin the Great Debates were confusedly collaborative between politicians and news makers. Public interest centered around the pseudo‑event itself: the lighting, make‑up, ground rules, whether notes would be allowed, etc. Far more interest was shown in the performance than in what was said. The pseudo‑events spawned in turn by the Great Debates were numberless. People who had seen the shows read about them the more‑ avidly, and listened eagerly for interpretations by news commentators. Representatives of both parties made “statements” on the probable effects of the debates. Numerous interviews and discussion programs were broadcast exploring their meaning. Opinion polls kept us informed on the nuances of our own and other people’s reactions. Topics of speculation multiplied. Even the question whether there should be a fifth debate became for a while a lively “issue.”
The drama of the situation was mostly specious, or at least had an extremely ambiguous relevance to, the main (but forgotten) issue: which participant 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 advisers. The great Presidents in our history (with the possible exception of F.D.R.) would have done miserably; but our most notorious demagogues would have shone. A number of exciting pseudo‑events were created‑for example, the Quemoy‑Matsu issue. But that, too, was a good example of a pseudo‑event: it was created to be reported, it concerned a then‑quiescent problem, and it put into the most factitious and trivial terms the great and real issue of our relation to Communist China.
The television medium shapes this new kind of political quiz-show spectacular in many crucial ways. Theodore H. White has proven this with copious detail in his The Making of the President 1960 (1961). All the circumstances of this particular competition for votes were far more novel than the old word “debate” and the comparisons with the Lincoln Douglas Debates suggested. Kennedy’s great strength in the critical first debate, according to White, was that he was in fact not “debating” at all, but was seizing the opportunity to address the whole nation; while Nixon stuck close to the issues raised by his opponent, rebutting them one by one. Nixon, moreover, suffered a handicap that was serious only on television: he has a light, naturally transparent skin. On an ordinary camera that takes pictures by optical projection, this skin photographs well. But a television camera projects electronically, by an “image‑orthicon tube” which has an x‑ray effect. This camera penetrates Nixon’s transparent skin and brings out (even just after a shave) the tiniest hair growing in the follicles beneath the surface. For the decisive first program Nixon wore a make‑up called “Lazy Shave” which was ineffective under these conditions. He therefore looked haggard and heavy‑bearded by contrast to Kennedy, who looked pert and clean‑cut.
This greatest opportunity in American history to educate the voters by debating the large issues of the campaign failed. The main reason, as White points out, was the compulsions of the medium. “The nature of both TV and radio is that they abhor silence and ‘dead time.’ All TV and radio discussion programs are compelled to snap question and answer back and forth as if the contestants were adversaries in an intellectual tennis match. Although every experienced newspaperman and inquirer knows that the most thoughtful and responsive answers to any difficult question come after long pause, and that the longer the pause the more illuminating the thought that follows it, nonetheless the electronic media cannot bear to suffer a pause of more than five seconds; a pause of thirty seconds of dead time on air seems interminable. Thus, snapping their two‑and‑a‑half‑minute answers back and forth, both candidates could only react for the cameras and the people, they could not think.” Whenever either candidate found himself touching a thought too large for two‑minute exploration, he quickly retreated. Finally the television‑watching voter was left to judge, not on issues explored by thoughtful men, but on the relative capacity of the two candidates to perform under television stress.
Pseudo‑events thus lead to emphasis on pseudo‑qualifications. Again the self‑fulfilling prophecy. If we test Presidential candidates by their talents on TV quiz performances, we will, of course, choose presidents for precisely these qualifications. In a democracy, reality tends to conform to the pseudo-event. Nature imitates art.
We are frustrated by our very efforts publicly to unmask the pseudo‑event. Whenever we describe the lighting, the make‑up, the studio setting, the rehearsals, etc., we simply arouse more interest. One newsman’s interpretation makes us more eager to hear another’s. One commentator’s speculation that the debates may have little significance makes us curious to hear whether another commentator disagrees.
Pseudo‑events do, of course, increase our illusion of grasp on the world, what some have called the American illusion of omnipotence. Perhaps, we come to think, the world’s problems can really be settled by “statements,” by “Summit” meetings, by a competition of “prestige,” by overshadowing images, and by political quiz shows.
Once we have tasted the charm of pseudo‑events, we are tempted to believe they are the only important events. Our progress poisons the sources of our experience. And the poison tastes so sweet that it spoils our appetite for plain fact. Our seeming ability to satisfy our exaggerated expectations makes us forget that they are exaggerated.