Monday, December 7, 2009

Pseudo-Events

An article in the Business pages of the New York Times yesterday (“In Animated Videos, News and Guesswork Mix”) exercised Brigitte enough so that she dispatched a stinging letter to the editors. It may or may not appear in print but may appear online. The article speaks of “Maybe Journalism.” It deals with computer-generated news reports, so-called, in which what might have happened is shown in video format. An example is the recent way-way-over-wrought uproar over Tiger Woods. Brigitte’s message to the Times was: Maybe Journalism also appears in the mainstream media—endless speculative stories about what people plan, intend, seek, project, surmise, etc.—with little actual news content beyond the opinions of politicians and celebrities and the posturings of institutions.

This article came soon after another one on the decline of the Media in which the author mentioned the birth of purely ad-driven journalism. I did a post on that for LaMarotte a few days ago (here). The matter was therefore on our mind.

Talking about it reminded me of the definitive book on the subject. It is Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image, subtitled A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. The book appeared in 1961. The cover shown here is that of the Vintage Books edition of 1992 that I happen to own. The intriguing premise of the book is that Journalism, barely born, rapidly discovered an awful truth: real news are rare but dailies must be filled with something. Adapting to this situation, journalism quickly discovered the solution as well. When nothing happens, why not fill the news hole with reports on things that sound like news: pseudo-events.

In support of Brigitte’s letter, I dug through a brown bag of old papers and extracted phrases from headlines as follows: “A Candidate Plans,” “U.S. Judge Opposes,” “Report Examines,” “Obama Team Defends,” “New Plan Rattles,” “Talks Continue,” “Europe Stews,” “President Vows,” and “Marcos Seeks.”

For good measure, to show headline snippets from one paper only (this morning’s Times), here are more: “Experts Sure,” “Officials Stress,” “Candidates Claim Victory,” “Rules Raise Questions,” “Justices to Decide,” “Push Intensifies,” “White House Urged,” “Criticism Rises,” “Fears Recalled,” “Deal Puts in Doubt,” “Programmers Try to Serve,” “Shows Stir Publicity,” “Univision to Make,” “Japan May Limit,” “Letdown is Predictable,” “Executives May Proceed,” and “NFL May End.”

To be certain that we’re reading unquestionable news, the Obituary Page is highly recommended. It reports genuine events. I’ve yet to encounter there news of the fact that So-and-So may, plans, seeks, or expects to shuffle off this mortal coil.

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