This article also appeared on The Huffington Post.
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.