How to Cover a Pseudo-Event
In 1968 I sat close to my television set, watching the drama of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This was a real event, not the scripted coronation of the eventual candidate, Hubert H. Humphrey, America's "Happy Warrior."
But there was nothing happy about anti-war marchers in the streets or the violence against protesters by the Chicago police. There was no smile on the gargoyle face of Mayor Richard Daley, twisted in anger in response to accusations from the podium that his street cops had resorted to Gestapo tactics. Talk about unscripted.
Several years before that event, historian and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, wrote a book titled "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America." That term, "pseudo-event," has become a part of our political and journalistic culture. The sense that political conventions are no longer real events, but contrived, scripted performances, designed to create a marketable image of a candidate, is stronger now than ever, and has led networks and journalists to wonder cynically whether such events deserve coverage at all.
Most journalists, and some citizens, probably hope that during the Democratic National Convention this week in Boston, a little actual news will break out. That hope does not countenance street violence or terrorism, just the expectation that the political principles of uncertainty will surface a surprise or two; or, perhaps, that some old fashioned shoe leather will find folks who are not being heard and want to rebel against the game plan.
A few doses of Daniel Boorstin should be enough to strengthen journalists' collective resistance against the infectious charms of the pseudo-event. Here, according to Boorstin, are reasons the pseudo-event is attractive:
- It is scripted and dramatic.
- It includes a cast of interesting characters.
- It produces iconic images: impassioned crowds, hugging families, rainstorms of patriotic balloons.
- It is designed to be re-assuring: "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!"
It creates the illusion that we who watch it are "informed."
- It leads to an endless number of other pseudo-events.
Boorstin's dispiriting conclusion is that news of pseudo-events drives out news of real issues and real events. But must this be the case? What if journalists framed coverage of this event by asking these questions:
- Where can my Nikes take me? What would happen to my reporting if I wore out some shoe leather in the convention hallways or out on the streets?
- If the who, what, where, and when are mostly predictable, is it possible to focus my coverage on the how and the why?
- How can we connect the rhetorical planks of the party's platform with the real issues facing our readers back home?
- If what I am covering is actually a kind of five-act political drama, scripted, cast, and costumed -- with lighting, musical scores, and adoring claques -- what would happen if I covered this event with the skills and strategies of a theater critic?
- Can I use more strategies of the sportswriter? If this is part of a horserace, can I inject into my work some of the fun and flavor common on the sports pages?
Remember when the 1989 World Series between Oakland and San Francisco turned into the California earthquake? Without missing a beat, a small army of sports writers became a team of disaster reporters. Will the political writers in Boston show the same versatility if and when the anticipated pseudo-event turns into something real? I hope they get the chance.
CORRECTION: Daniel Boorstin's "The Image" was first published in 1961, not 1978 as originally implied.