A term coined by Daniel J Boorstin in his 1962 book The Image, a pseudo-event is a man-made event, created for the purpose of being reported in the news. Boorstin's purpose in inventing this term is to illustrate what he perceives as a fundamental shift in the content of news reports that coincided with the expansion (in both quantity and scope) of media outlets. Essentially, Boorstin argues that as newspapers increased their size, content, and frequency, and as televised broadcast journalism came into its own, news reporters ran out of real events to report. They could not wait for the next train wreck or earthquake to occur, as those were too few and far between to fill the pages of a daily newspaper. As real events no longer cut the mustard, reporters were simply going to have to start covering unreal ones: pseudo-events.

Boorstin uses a particular conception of the terms “real” and “unreal” in this context that can lead to misunderstanding his meaning. Boorstin is not suggesting that reporters began concocting or fabricating stories out of whole cloth and presenting them as fact (though the factors that engendered the pseudo-event may have also given rise of this practice). The “unrealness” of a pseudo-event has to do not with its content, but with its purpose. In some basic way, it is a deception, an illusion designed to obfuscate the underlying reality of why the event occurred and what it signifies.

Boorstin describes the four qualities of a pseudo-event, which may be the only way to adequately define this nuanced concept:

  1. It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.
  2. 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. Time relations in it are commonly fictitious or factitious; the announcement is given out in advance "for future release" and written as if the event had occurred in the past. The question, "Is it real?" is less important than, "Is it newsworthy?"
  3. Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, "What does it mean?" has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.
  4. Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel's thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one. (11-12)

Basic Examples

The quintessential example of a pseudo-event is the press conference, which functions as a sort of extended and lopsided interview. A press conference is obviously not a spontaneous event; it is planned (usually by politicians) with the express purpose of having reporters of various media attend and reproduce it. However, press conferences are also planned to give the impression that the reporters are getting a scoop, that they are discovering and gathering information, rather than simply acting as a mouthpiece for the press conference’s organizers. This relationship is symbiotic; reporters need content for their consumers and politicians need to get their message across.

Similar to the press conference and the interview is the televised debate. Compare the Lincoln-Douglas Debates to modern, televised ones. The former were hours-long and actually pitted the moral and logical arguments of the two debaters against one another. You would be hard pressed to call the latter debates at all; any serious introspection or reflection would translate into dead air, which is anathema to the medium such “debates” are designed for: television. Rather, televised debates are opportunities for soundbites, for face time, for crafting a superficial image of one’s opinions and beliefs. In other words, the antithesis of an actual debate. The first televised presidential debate, between Nixon and Kennedy, was perhaps the pseudo-event that most influenced Boorstin to write The Image. Though Nixon was considered the better radio personality and was leading in the polls prior to the first debate, Kennedy’s movie-star image so outshone Nixon’s sweaty, frumpy one that the election was essentially decided. No words but Boorstin’s can better describe this “clinical example of the pseudo event:”

In origin the Great Debates were confusedly collaborative between politicians and newsmakers. Public interests centered around the pseudo-event itself: the lighting, make-up, ground rules, whether notes would be allowed, etc. Far more interest was shown in the performance than in what was said...

The drama of the situation was mostly specious, or at least had an extremely ambiguous relevance to the main (but forgotten) issue: which participant was better qualified for the Presidency. Of course, a man's ability, while standing under klieg lights, without notes, to answer in two and a half minutes a question kept secret until that moment, had only the most dubious relevance - if any at all - to his real qualifications to make deliberative Presidential decisions on long-standing public questions after being instructed by a corps of advisers. The great Presidents in our history (with the possible exception of F.D.R.) would have done miserably; but our most notorious demagogues would have shone. (41-42)

Boorstin’s observations are so painfully prescient that they go almost unstated by anyone who looks at American media with a critical eye. Many of us are no longer shocked that politicians would use a press conference to manipulate the public perception of an event. Spin, the spawn of the pseudo-event, is simply a sad fact of modern news media. Anyone who has seen Bill O’Reilly debate a guest in the "No-Spin Zone" knows that the purpose of the event is not to elucidate truths through argument, but to serve as a megaphone for O’Reilly’s image and message. Thus, the pseudo-event’s relation to the underlying reality of the situation is no longer ambiguous, as many know (or at least suspect) that it is, frankly, bullshit.

America Jumps the Shark

Of course, while media critics may be wise to these illusionary practices, they are far outnumbered by people who accept news media at face value. While the average media literacy of the American populace may be increasing, there are obvious and problematic shortfalls, including the widespread misinformation on Saddam Hussein’s military capabilities prior to the more recent war in Iraq. (Whether or not this is evidence of the inevitability of the failure of democracy due to our highly imperfect media system is a topic for another node.)

The growing preponderance of pseudo-events in all media, and its use for a widening variety of purposes, is precisely what Boorstin was afraid of when he coined the term. Even the casual understanding and acceptance of the pseudo-event is dangerous. Their existence (and our continued exposure to them) damages the fabric of reality and our faith in the very concept of truth. When a male prostitute with no journalistic background gets daily access to the White House press corps under an assumed name so he can lob softballs at the President, you know America has jumped the shark as far as its ability to determine real events from unreal events.

I do not know what Boorstin’s reaction was to the election of George W. Bush, whose entire life has been a string of pseudo-events, nor do I know how he felt about the run-up to the War in Iraq, crafted by some of the all time masters of the pseudo-event. I suppose he might have felt a twinge of pride at his amazing powers of prediction. However, I suspect that his death in February of 2004 was met with a sigh of relief, as he was finally able to leave a planet so infested with people whose power was only matched by their utter mendacity.

Boorstin, Daniel J., The Image: a Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Vintage Books, New York, 1962