Lately, I’ve been writing frequently about how the media generates what Daniel Boorstin, back in the sixties, called the “pseudo-event.” What is a pseudo-event? As I wrote in a recent blog, a pseudo-event is something that acquires its reality not because it is accurate, but because the media has reported it, repeated it, exaggerated it, re-played it, made an indelible mantra of it. In the process, like a piece of trashy gossip that has made the rounds of the high school cafeteria, the pseudo-event becomes stamped in viewers’ or readers’ mind as true.
Lots of things operate in this way: family anecdotes, celebrity reputations, historical myths. I recently wrote a book about Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s doomed second wife. Nearly every audience at my talks, when I question them about what they know about Anne, shout out “She had six fingers!” Well, no, actually she didn’t. But the myth has been repeated and recirculated for so long that it has achieved the status of “fact.” If you took a poll about it, most people would simply spit back the mythology. It’s really hard to dislodge or discredit a pseudo-event once people have become convinced of it.
Enter Hillary Clinton’s “trust problem,” which to my mind, definitely falls in this category. The GOP may have originated it through their endless attacks, investigations, and hearings (just as Anne Boleyn’s political enemies originated the myths about her) but it took the media’s continual harping on Hillary’s “trust issues” to turn them into the (pseudo) realities that they are today. It’s been so easy: present every charge of the GOP as “breaking news,” report every new email find as a potential treasure trove of hidden secrets, remind viewers that “people don’t trust her” every chance you get, and of course by the time a pollster calls and asks, the “trust problem” shows up as a documented “fact.”
Consider: Some ordinary Joe or Jane is eating her Jimmy Dean breakfast muffin, and the telephone rings. “How would you rate Hillary Clinton on trustworthiness?”a bland voice asks (after numbing the recipient with dozens of other questions.) Joe or Jane probably hasn’t independently researched the issues involved, but has heard the words repeated, over and over, on the morning and evening news: “Hillary’s trust issue.” And then, too, there are all those scandals, and investigations, and emails….and, hmmm…come to think of it, why would the question even be asked if there wasn’t something to it? “I guess I don’t think she’s very trustworthy, no.”
Is Hillary actually untrustworthy? The fact-finders say, unequivocally, no –indeed, she’s the most truthful of all the candidates. But who care about facts when you’ve got those polls, looking straight into the heart of “the American People”? What the poll results don’t show is that the media has worked its way into those hearts, infecting them with rot.
It’s done without much outright lying, but something more akin to brainwashing. No, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy; I think the reporters are doing what they think is their “job.” But their notion of what their “job” is has changed. For instance, have you noticed that for the first time (in my memory of elections, at any rate), reporters are trading almost exclusively in “perception” and “optics” rather than fact? Is this something new that they are learning in journalism school? Or are they just lazily grabbing at whatever they can to create or support their favorite “narratives”? Have they gone so postmodern that they no longer care about truth? Or don’t they have time to do any decent research? Whatever the reason, and with a few notable exceptions, they rarely press people or issues to “get to the bottom of things.” Appearances are the stuff they traffic in.
So, with Donald Trump returning yesterday from a frantic, unplanned trip to Mexico–clearly, an attempt to “appear Presidential”–cable commentators spoke of whether the “stage craft” was successful and asked if Trump’s standing side-by-side with the Mexican president Pena Nieto “moved the needle” of people’s perceptions. Of far less interest to them was whether Trump had spoken the truth, either about what went on during his discussion with Pena Nieto (which it seems he did not: Trump said they had not discussed payment of his “signature” wall, while Nieto said he had “made it clear” that Mexico would not pay) or in his greatly exaggerated claims about immigrant crime Iater at his Arizona rally.
The problem with this emphasis on appearance and perception is not just that it sidesteps questions of fact but that when repeated enough (as with Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger) it creates illusions of fact that stick, even when disputed. Case in point: the August 30 New York Times editorial, recommending that the Clinton Foundation be shut down immediately. It’s a prime example of how the pseudo-issue of Clinton’s “trust problem” is perpetuated through the authority of “optics” rather than facts. And it happens entirely in the first two paragraphs:
“Does the new batch of previously undisclosed State Department emails prove that big-money donors to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation got special favors from Mrs. Clinton while she was secretary of state?
Not so far, but that the question arises yet again points to a need for major changes at the foundation now, before the November election.”
Let me point out a few things. First, the use of the term “batch.” The number of “undisclosed” emails (“related to” Benghazi–in what way who knows?) was actually 30. Out of 33,000, not exactly an overflowing cornucopia of evidence. And as of now, it is not known how many are actually duplicates. Drip, drip, drip. Isn’t it clear by now that this is a fishing-expedition in which the trout just aren’t biting?
More significant, the answer to the question as to whether this “batch” “proves” that “Big-money donors…got special favors from Mrs. Clinton” is–note carefully–“Not so far.” A simple “No” would have proved sufficient, and would be completely factual. But the Times couldn’t resist adding that loaded, suggestive “so far,” implying that perhaps–indeed, perhaps likely–something suspect will show up later. There’s no reason to suspect this, as nothing has yet shown up of significance. It’s pure insinuation.
Having established (again, through insinuation) that “special favors” may yet be discovered, the Times can then go on to speak as though their own speculation has the weight of proven fact. “That the question arises yet again points to a need…..” The grammar of this makes it sound as though the question of special favors arose by itself, crystallizing out of thin air, when in fact, it’s the Times itself that is raising the question! It’s the Times, not the “question” that is doing the “pointing” here.
This is just one example–and of only two paragraphs. The fact is that the media coverage of this election is a massive heap of “optics”, insinuations, “perceptions” taken as fact, pseudo-events and pseudo-candidates. And it’s unlikely that any of this will ever be exposed by the mass media, because the exposé would be about them. I pin my last hope on Joy Reid, who so far has rejected the world of the pseudo in favor of good, old-fashioned, critical, questioning, don’t-let-them-let-away-with-bull journalism. Unfortunately, Reid is the exception rather than the norm.