When Walter Cronkite was on for 20 minutes a night, focusing on unsubstantiated rumor was a luxury news television couldn’t afford. Now, the need to fill up space and keep audiences tuned in and ratings high has elevated speculation and spicy headlines to the status of “news” and television creates as much of it as it reports.
Daniel Boorstin, way back in the sixties, predicted this turn. Mass media, he warned, generates “pseudo-events.” A pseudo-event is something that acquires its reality not because it is accurate, but simply because the media has reported it, repeated it, exaggerated it, re-played it, made a mantra of it. A classic early example is Richard Jewell, who was wrongly accused of being the pipe bomber at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. All we heard about for weeks was the duct tape found under his bed. No real evidence against him existed and he was ultimately exonerated, but that duct tape was made into such a compelling detail that many people today still think he was the bomber.
Today, the pseudo-event rules the air-waves, especially on the rolling news channels where leaks, poll results, gaffes, “optics” and concocted “scandals” are immediately turned into high-voltage headlines and endlessly repeated, organizing people’s perceptions into yet-to-be-analyzed “narratives” of dubious factual status. The 2016 election, in particular, has turned the pseudo-event into a norm of reporting. Here are some of the worst abuses:
1. “Bad Optics” As a Crime. As in: “We have no evidence of any ‘pay for play’ Between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department, but the optics are troubling.” Is this a wardrobe malfunction at New York Fashion Week, a suspicious eye exam, or a presidential election? When did the possible appearance of wrongdoing become an indictable offense?
2. False Equivalences Passing as “Objectivity” As in: “Clinton and Trump Trade Charges of Racism as the Discourse Becomes Uglier and Uglier” or “Yes, Trump is a raving lunatic, but what about Clinton’s emails?” “Objectivity” used to mean assessing evidence without bias; now it seems to mean making sure you never criticize one candidate without “balancing” it out with a criticism about the other.
What’s never asked: Are these criticisms truly equivalent, or are we just generating the appearance—and consequently, excitement--of a horse race? The fact is that describing Clinton’s careful presentation of evidence (of Trump’s appeal to the “Alt Right”) as equivalent to Trump’s absurd charge of “bigotry” is the opposite of “balanced” reporting.
3. (Selective) Hermeneutics of Constant Suspicion As in: “One thing we need to recognize about Clinton’s speech on race is how it turned the conversation away from questions about the Clinton Foundation.” Yes, Kasie Hunt really tried to make this the main topic of a panel about Clinton’s Las Vegas speech; luckily, Al Sharpton was there to cut her off at the pass, and return us to a discussion of the troubling racial dynamics of Trump’s campaign. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there later in the day when other reporters tried the same tactic as Kasie. Apparently, even if Clinton delivered this generation’s Gettysburg Address it would be reported as an attempt at “diversion” from the email “scandal.”
4. “Perception” Made into Reality. As in “Clinton’s Continuing Problem with Trust.” She’s committed no crimes and Politifact rates her the most honest of all the candidates, yet she has this “trust problem” with “the American People.”
But surely, you say, this isn’t the pundits’ fault. They didn’t make it up; just look at the polls!
Hmmm…. wonder where the “American People” got the idea that Clinton can’t be trusted? Could it be that the media’s continual reporting of Clinton’s “honesty problem,” the constant attention to her so-called “trust issues” (first generated by her political enemies) has had some influence over how people answer those poll questions? Isn’t it just a bit suspicious that Clinton had no such problem while she was in the Senate or serving as Secretary of State?
Maybe the “optics” of “trust” are like the duct tape under Richard Jewell’s bed, or the “massive looting” that took place during Hurricane Katrina. The “American People” viewed them as facts, too. And when they were disproved, the retractions didn’t make the headlines. Wonder why not?
5. “Narrative” Replaces Truth.
Way back during the primary season, Chris Christie said he didn’t run for president in 2012 because he looked in the mirror and decided he “wasn’t ready.”Sam Stein’s commentary: “That was a remarkably candid comment. Whether it’s true or not I don’t know.” Arguably, it’s this kind of attitude toward “truth” that got Trump as far as he’s gotten.For months during the primary, all we heard was what a “straight-shooter” Trump is, how “authentic,” how (unlike the circumspect, cautious Clinton) he “told it like it is.” This became the favored Trump “narrative” for so long that no-one bothered to worry whether anything he said was true or not. Well, we’ve seen where that infatuation with Trump’s seeming “candor” has gotten us.
When did media journalism go so postmodern on us? Ah, but facts are so boring; “optics” and “narratives” are so much cooler. At least in literature class, we learned to analyze and deconstruct the text. Journalists have adopted the sexy language without the critical tools—or inclination--to separate the fictional from the factual. But that's a "narrative", like the corrective to the Richard Jewell story, that we are unlikely to see announced in the headlines.