In his book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin defines a pseudo-event as a happening that posses the following characteristics:
- It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted or incited it.
- It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported.
- Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity.
- Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. [Example] The hotel’s thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.
Most of what we are fed by mainstream media are pseudo-events that are meant to entertain us (or in certain cases to influence or manipulate us). The media is not interested in educating or enlightening us – there isn’t any money to be made doing that. However, if they can sufficiently entertain us so we tune in each night, then they have done their job, in their mind.
In addition to mainstream media, marketing agencies and public relations entities are masters of the pseudo-event. They create pseudo-events for their clients to influence the public’s perception and to create an aura of importance. Whether it’s a corporate entity, celebrity, or politician, a good PR person can spin any story, whether good or bad, in their client’s favor. In fact, the more negative the story, the better the PR person is able to spin it.
To understand just how prevalent pseudo-events are, how they work, and how they twist the underlying meaning of a situation, let’s take a look at a few events from the political arena.
President Obama Visits Central California
Before getting into the details of this pseudo-event, I want to be clear that this is not a commentary on water rights in California, the reality of climate change, or President Obama’s policies. Both political parties exploit these types of situations for personal benefit and to manipulate public opinion. I’m highlighting this pseudo-event because it shows how the underlying situation/problem is over shadowed by the pseudo-event.
In February 2014, Persident Obama scheduled a visit to Central California to review the effects of the drought. A farmer in the region, Joe Del Bosque, caught wind of the planned visit and invited the President through a tweet to his farm to review “the effect of the drought on California and its people.”
To his surprise, the President took Del Bosque up on his offer and was visiting his farm one week later. Del Bosque thought the President’s visit would help to effect a change in policies, particular those surrounding water rights. Instead, the White House public relations staff used the opportunity to create a backdrop with a few bales of hay and one of Del Bosque’s tractors so President Obama could push forward his agenda on climate change, using the California drought as evidence.
A pseudo-event was created so the President could further his climate change agenda while the underlying subject of the visit was hoping for policy changes around water policy. Instead of receiving a halping hand from the President, Del Bosque was used as a prop so the White House could influence public perception around their message.
In August 2015, Holly Bailey wrote up an article that details this pseudo-event. It’s worth reading to understand how pseudo events are created and the collateral damage they can create.
CNBC Hosts the Republican Debates
On October 28, 2015, CNBC hosted a debate for the Republican Party Presidential Candidates. Debates are the epitome of a pseudo-event. They do little to inform us but are merely made for TV events that are meant to entertain us. I don’t know how the current debate format has any bearing on the quality of the President unless we think the measure of a President is his/her ability to come up with brilliant, off-the-cuff zingers on live TV.
To think we are selecting the President of our country based on the ability to come up with 30-second answers to complex policy questions is insane. Listening to pundits afterwards is even crazier. They determine who “won” or “lost” based on the quality of the sound bites. Is this really what our democratic process has (d)evolved into? We’re not interested in selecting a candidate who has a deep understanding of critical issues. We’re more interested in selecting a candidate who can entertain us with verbal jabs that put the opponent on the defensive.
No matter how relevant you thought CNBC’s questions were, their approach was a success. Not only were they the center of attention during the debate, but the quality of their questions, or lack thereof, kept them in the spotlight for the next week. They were the talk of media outlets everywhere for their handling of the debate. While it may have been a disappointment that the Republican Party decided to move away from NBC for future debates, it was no doubt a win to keep the network in the media spotlight for that long. I’m certain that CNBC and the debate moderators picked up viewership because of it. Here’s just one example of an article that was circulating days after the debate. It’s not often that the network hosting the debate is still in the news days after the fact. For CNBC, the debate was a solid “win”.
Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential Campaign
Donald Trump’s PR team has been a master of the pseudo-event since he entered the 2016 Presidential election as a candidate for the Republican Party nomination. Since his entry, his media team has kept him in the media spotlight on a near constant basis. There have been very few weeks, let alone days, where Trump hasn’t been mentioned in the news. Whether it’s his comments on immigration, national security, or his opponent’s appearance, he always manages to give the media something to talk about. He creates great photo-ops by doing things like visiting the border to discuss immigration. To think this is a spontaneous event is crazy. It’s planned and orchestrated by his media team at every level to maximize the amount of press coverage during the event and to keep it in the media for days and weeks afterward.
He has also done an outstanding job of creating a catchy slogan – ‘Make America Great Again’. It’s short, it’s impactful, and it can be used as a rallying cry by his team, his supporters, and Trump himself. The marketing team has also effectively used social media as another outlet that keeps Trump top of mind.
Regardless of whether you love him or hate him, or feel he would be a good president or not, there are a number of lessons that can be learned from his campaign and how one can use the mainstream media to influence public perception. I have to commend his marketing team, they are doing a masterful job. This article by Entrepreneur summarized five lessons that can be taken from Trump’s campaign and applied to business.
I’ve been influenced a lot by books that I’ve read regarding modern media. In addition to Boorstin’s book on pseudo-events, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman and Trust Me I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday also point out how we are manipulated by mainstream media. These are three books that are worth reading if you want to be more educated and aware of how media works. Not only will it help you take a more critical view of mainstream media, but it will also help you understand how you can use mainstream media, whether it is in a business or personal setting, to influence public opinion.
Greg: I found your site by googling “pseudo-event”, “Donald Trump” and “Boorstin.” I have a question about your understanding of what constitutes a pseudo-event and whether the difference between a real and a pseudo-event depends on the position of the observer. Mainly, were the attacks of 9-11 events or pseudo-events?
They were certainly events for those who were in the WTC when the planes attacked, and were events for the first responders who tried to help the victims, likewise for the families of the dead and the first responders who continue to suffer health effects of the fumes and dust they inhaled at Ground Zero.
However, they also seem to fit Boorstin’s definition of a pseudo-event; they were planned and executed by Al Qaeda for the purpose of being reported. For the hundreds of millions whose only connection to the events was by way of television, everything was experienced through images, which were replayed and replayed hundreds of times over the following few days. It was brought to us courtesy of Bin Laden Productions, and was designed for the purpose of being noticed; it has to be one of the most successful productions of all time.
Do you think that Boorstin would have called it an event from one perspective, and a pseudo-event from another? I am trying to understand his usage of the term ” pseudo-event” and would be most interested in your thoughts.
Great comment – I had to put my thinking cap on for this one.
I would put forth that the 9-11 in and of itself was an event, and not a pseudo-event. It was similar to how we would consider a brush fire. It happened, and the news interest is in what happened and in the consequences. However, there were many pseudo-events afterwards around the interpretation of the event. For example, people were brought forth as experts and interviewed to talk about why this happened. Panel discussions were formed to interpret the results. These types of activities are pseudo-events meant to satiate the public’s appetite for “news.” They are planned and planted for the purpose of being reproduced, and their relationship to the underlying reality of the situation (in this case the actual events of 9-11) is ambiguous.
So, I guess I’d contend that Boorstin would call 9-11 as an event, but he would categorize much of the reporting and interpretations that happened afterwards as pseudo-events.
At least that’s my opinion. In any case, your comment makes for a very interesting discussion.
Thanks for your perspective. I do not think that Boorstin in 1962 had a reference experience for major terrorist attacks which were also planned as media events. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor primarily to disable the US Pacific Fleet, not to produce sensational footage for newsreels. The Soviet threat in the Cold War would have been a nuclear attack on US cities to annihilate them, not to make headlines and provoke a reaction from American policy makers, whom they intended to vaporize in the process of attacking and eliminating our military capabilities.
The planned pseudo-event acts of political disobedience he had in mind were the Freedom Riders of 1961 and the earlier suffragettes, who sought public attention but did not attempt to injure anyone. A planned terror attack to kill thousands of civilians would not destroy the military power of the US in any way, and would not even disable it; the Pentagon attack was also a “look at what we can do” PR stunt, not a move that would cripple the Army, Air Force, or Navy. So 9/11 probably falls outside his world of possibility of 1962.
He did live long enough to see 9-11 but I have no idea whether he made any comments on it. Perhaps he did.