Mises Wire

Before “Fake News,” America Invented “Pseudo Events”

In the wake of the Charlottesville riot, it’s been interesting how quickly the focus has shifted away from the actual events in Charlottesville and toward the public pundits and intellectuals are expressing opinions about the events. 

Already, the media has lost interest in analyzing the details of the event itself, and are instead primarily reporting on what Donald Trump, his allies, and his enemies have to say about it. 

This is an important distinction in coverage. Rather than attempt to supply a detailed look at who was at the event, what was done, and what the participants — from both sides — have to say about it, we are instead exposed primarily to what people in Washington, DC, and the political class in general, think about the events in which they were not directly involved. 

This focus illustrates what has long been a bias among the reporters and pundits in the national media: a bias toward focus on the national intellectual class rather than on events that take place outside the halls of official power. 

Note, however, that those quoted rarely have any special knowledge about the events themselves. Their opinions are covered not because they are knowledgeable, but because their quotations fit easily into a narrative that the media wishes to perpetuate. 

In a March 2017 column, Peter Klein noted this bias and what economist F.A. Hayek had to say about it: 

The intellectual, according to Hayek, is not an expert or deep thinker; “he need not possess special knowledge of anything in particular, nor need he even be particularly intelligent, to perform his role as intermediary in the spreading of ideas. What qualifies him for his job is the wide range of subjects on which he can readily talk and write ... Such people wield enormous influence because most us learn about world events and ideas through them. “It is the intellectuals in this sense who decide what views and opinions are to reach us, which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented” (pp. 372–73). 

Klein then quotes Hayek at length: 

It is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the intellectual that he judges new ideas not by their specific merits but by the readiness with which they fit into his general conceptions, into the picture of the world which he regards as modern or advanced. . . . As he knows little about the particular issues, his criterion must be consistency with his other views and suitability for combining into a coherent picture of the world. Yet this selection from the multitude of new ideas presenting themselves at every moment creates the characteristic climate of opinion, the dominant Weltanschauung of a period, which will be favorable to the reception of some opinions and unfavorable to others and which will make the intellectual readily accept one conclusion and reject another without a real understanding of the issues. 

Consequently, the media’s focus is not on relating the specifics of a particular event, and then allowing the reader to come to his own conclusions. Instead, the focus is on appealing to the opinions of those in position of power, and filtering all events through this lens, as to let the consumers of media know how they should think. 

Bias is not the only factor at work here, though. The excessive reliance on reliable and predictable “expert” sources stems from a need to constantly invent new news stories for broadcast and publication — and from a general laziness among publishers, editors, and journalists themselves. Traditional journalism requires true investigation and compilation of a variety of messy and disorganized facts. It’s much easier, however, to simply call up a politician or an expert and create the facts by eliciting a “newsworthy” opinion from an important person. This approach becomes especially lucrative in a world of the 24-hour news cycle where considerations of time and money entice news organizations to create their own news rather than report on the events created by others. 

The World of Pseudo Events 

This sort of cut-rate journalism has reached especially objectionable levels in recent years, but this approach isn’t nearly as novel as many people imagine. 

Indeed, thanks to the work of historian Daniel Boorstin, we can trace this habit among the media class going back decades. 

In his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America — first published in 1962 — Boorstin examines how reporting on the news had become less and less about researching and reporting on spontaneous events, and instead had shifted toward reporting on what important people have to say about events. 

Looking at Boorstin’s analysis from our vantage point in 2017, it may look like Boorstin is splitting hairs, but this is only because we’ve been so inundated with reporting on pseudo events that we’ve come to regard such reporting as normal — and we now confuse pseudo events with the real thing. 

A real event, Boorstin writes, is reported when “newspapers ... disseminate up-to-date reports of matters of public interest written by eyewitnesses or professional reporters near the scene.” 

In this type of reporting, Boorstin notes, there is a sense that the reporters are at the mercy of the events themselves. 

Eventually, however, the need to sell newspapers and create more copy for printing helped reporters and their editors realize that they could create news themselves, and then report on those events as if they were spontaneous. Thus, reporters began to rely more and more on press releases, interviews, press conferences and other types of pre-packaged pseudo events that could give media outlets something new to report on. And then, of course, the politicians themselves — and the public relations people who work for them — are more than happy to supply the media with “pre-cooked” news, press conferences, prepared statements, and opinions designed to shape opinions about an event. 

One of the first politicians to master these methods was Franklin Roosevelt. Boorstin writes: 

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 calls ”the best newspaperman who has even been President of the United States,” was the first modern master. While newspaper owners opposed him in the editorials 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 the 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. 

Indeed, by the 1950s, it had become “possible to build a political career almost entirely on pseudo-events” as in the case of Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy, Boorstin notes “was a natural genius at creating reportable happenings that had an interestingly ambiguous relation to underlying reality.” 

Boorstin quotes Richard Rovere, who frequently covered McCarthy as a reporter, who notes that McCarthy “invented the morning press conference called for the purpose of announcing an afternoon press conference.” Reporters, Rovere admitted “were beginning, in this period, to respond to his summonses like Pavlov’s dogs at the clang of a bell.” 

Eventually, this obsession with the utterances of politicians blurred the line between facts and feelings.

This distinction was once represented by the difference between hard news and soft news. Boorstin writes:

The 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 stars, and the latest murder....but the rising tide of pseudo-events washes away the distinction.” 

Boorstin illustrates this assertion with examples from a trip made by President Eisenhower to Hawaii. When the events of the trip itself proved to offer few interesting details, the reporters instead invented events and provided “factual” statements such as “Eisenhower’s reaction to his Far Eastern trip remains as closely guarded a secret as his golf score,” and “sooner or later the realities will intrude.” These “facts” were not mere speculations on the side. They formed the heart of the article which was purported to be a news story. 

In other words, the reporter is offering nothing other than speculation about nothing in particular because he has nothing else to write. But, when put into a news story, the end result is that the reporter is changing public perceptions of the president. Boorstin concludes: 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 skilled hands, can shape national policy.” 

It’s not difficult to see how these techniques have been greatly expanded in our own time.

With the actual events of Charlottesville long over, the “news” continues as reporters and their sources among the intellectual class continue to opine on what Trump did or didn’t say, and which of the interviewee’s political enemies are to be blamed. Increasingly, the reporter need no longer even attend a press conference or leave his office. He need only monitor Twitter.  If the reporter agrees with a statement, he need merely report that it happened. If he disagrees, then he need do little more than call one of his trusted sources for a rebuttal. 

Moreover, when reporting these opinions, many reporters won’t even provide the basic facts of who the speaker is. Thus, a reliance on anonymous sources has become almost mundane. And, as a perfect illustration of Hayek’s point, CNN’s recent debacles involving anonymous sources illustrates how these sources don’t even necessarily demonstrate any level of expertise with the topic being discussed. 

One can make the case that the majority of what passes for “news coverage” nowadays really falls within the parameters of Boorstin’s pseudo events. When new facts would require hard work and serious journalism, it’s much easier instead to rely on a few trusted sources — which have already been quoted countless times before — and get the usual predictable opinions to fill out an article. This is then reported as “news” of a new “event,” but is really just an opinion piece in which the opinions of an interviewee are portrayed as “facts.” This has been going on so long, few journalists even see a problem with this approach anymore. 

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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