by Daniel J. Boorstin
What’s it about?
Boorstin wrote this in the early 1960s, but it’s still incredibly relevant. Anyone who has ever wondered about the nature of celebrities (people “famous for being famous”), public relations, advertising, or political campaigning will find value in this book. If you’ve ever smelled a whiff of insincerity or fabrication in media, and wondered about the cultural tendencies that give rise to these deceptions, you need to read it.
The author proposes the notion of a “pseudo-event”– an event that exists solely to be reported. Press conferences, presidential debates, and interviews of every kind fall into this category, and are all to some degree illusory as a result. He goes deep into his theory of how these illusions are created and perpetuated, and why we as a society are so drawn to them in the first place.
Why I read it:
It was cited a a major inspiration for Ryan Holiday’s excellent book “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.”
Lots of the problems I have with the current new and media system are discussed in some detail in this book. Boorstin could not have foreseen the advent of the internet and the blog culture, but his principles still apply. He writes about the ever-quickening pace at which our media is produced and consumed, which he observed even in the early 60s. He traces this quickening to the fact that as publication cycles became shorter, newspapers and magazines became more numerous and so they had to find more and more content to fill their pages. Naturally, with the 24/7 operation of the internet news apparatus, this effect can still be observed.
So the news industry needs more and more content to drive newspaper sales, subscriptions, and page views. How to create news where there is none? Enter the “pseudo-event.” Because spontaneous events are not nearly frequent or convenient enough to make quick and easy news, reporters (and bloggers) have taken to manufacturing events. These “pseudo-events” give them an opportunity to publish some piece of content on an event that they themselves created. Does that make you feel a little sick? That’s the effect it has on me. The logic is almost beautiful in its circuitousness.
It’s not just the reporters who can do this– anyone can. You can see this every day if you look closely: the sensational behind-the-scenes documentary, the sex tape, the candid interview. These events are not news in the same way a war or an accident or a miracle are news; they are not spontaneous. These events, by contract, were created only so that they could become news.
Sensationalism becomes the natural order of business, because it is the only way to capture enough attention to sell newspapers or drive clicks. This sensationalism gives us impossibly high standards of how exciting and spectacular we expect the world to be. High expectations breed high hopes and wishful thinking, which give rise to all kinds of messy side effects, like the creation of the celebrity. Everything becomes coated in a layer of superficiality so as to appear more sensational and satisfy our hunger for flash and style.
Increasingly, Boorstin says (and I can confirm), we live in a world in which we do not search for new experiences; we merely seek to confirm the beliefs we already hold. Our minds become inundated with the highly stimulating images and pseudo-events to which we are exposed, and we lose our tolerance for nuance and depth. When we go to Germany, we might say we want to experience an authentic representation of the culture, but it’s just lip-service. How awful it would be if our experience of Germany didn’t match the image in our heads! What a waste of money that would be! We just want to drink a giant beer with a mustachioed man wearing lederhosen. Why do to the Louvre to see a new exhibit? Everyone just wants to see the Mona Lisa to confirm the work that they’ve already seen a million times. In everything we do, we try only to see if the real thing matches up to the image which we’ve been fed.
I really loved the way he draws a distinction between “heroes” and celebrities. It used to be that heroes were the ones in the public consciousness– this is Boorstin’s name for famous scientists, inventors, politicians, rulers, and warriors. They were famous because of some accomplishment. One of the reasons this doesn’t happen today is because now it’s not enough to be merely accomplished; you need to be charismatic and flamboyant too. You need a media-friendly personality. Celebrities end up fitting the bill better than actual heroes even though they don’t have any solid credentials to back it up. (The other reason for the shift may be that science and technology is more collaborative than it once was. If it’s hard to turn a quiet nerd into a household name, it’s even harder to work magic on a whole research team. It’s also less intelligible to the average citizen.)
There is so much to unpack in this book that I am really struggling to outline it in this post. I’ll end with one other thought: The increase of pseudo-information in the media can also explain the popularity of sports. Why? Because sporting events are one of the last bastions of truly unpredictable events left in the world. That is, until the post-game interview…
- How can you distinguish a pseudo-event that is actually beneficial? Where do you draw the line, say, between an interview that is gratuitous and unnecessary and one that provides interesting insight into a subject? Is it possible to structure a press conference or debate that actually promotes meaningful discourse?
- Boorstin echoes many criticisms of culture that we hear today, and it’s interesting to see that some of these same ideas have been around since the 1960s. But what are the differences? If he could read HuffPo and BuzzFeed and other media outlets of today, would he revise any of his theories or would they stand rock-solid?
- Is there a way to reverse the process or are we all doomed to a world made of pseudo-events?
The successful reporter is one who can find a story, even if there is no earthquake or assassination or civl 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 he unfolds from some commonplace event, or by “the news behind the news.”
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 celebrity] is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event. He has been fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness.
The fantastic growth of advertising and public relations together with everybody’s increasing reliance on dealers in pseudo-events and images cannot–contrary to highbrow cliches–accurately be described as a growing superficiality. Rather these things express a world where the image, more interesting than its original, has itself become the original. The shadow has become the substance.