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The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America

The fact that Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, a critique of the media and deconstruction of how it drives our desires, was written in 1961 only underscores how little the big picture of media consumption has changed despite the advent of VCRs, 24 hour news, and (oh yeah!) a little thing called the internet in the time since its writing. The book focuses on the idea of a “pseudo-event,” simply defined as an event that has been designed solely to be reported on. Pseudo-events include press releases, interviews and debates: some of the core elements of what compromises news today. Boorstin writes that “pseudo-events thrive on our honest desire to be informed, to have ‘all the facts,’ and even to have more facts than there really are.”

Spawned from ever-shortened news cycles (even before 24 hour TV news there were, newspapers that would release as many as eight editions every day), pseudo-events are tied to our misguided conception that “more information” means more knowledge. Boorstin goes on to argue that this creates a cycle: we define more pseudo-events, and more pseudo-events get created. He also goes in to ideas such as the relationship between fame and greatness, the dumbing-down of complex works to appeal to a wider audience and the “image:” the associations that drive us to brand products, ideas and people.

The book is as relevant now as I assume it was when it was released. Today, it’s easy to see how the spread of information is driven not so much by anything we have done, but rather the story we tell about what was done. The presidential debate, a pseudo-event created to give newspapers something to report on in an otherwise boring election cycle, gives the candidates more than anything else a chance to firm up their images and tell their “stories.” In the way that Coors Light brands itself as cold and Volvo brands itself as safe, people can similarly be labeled.

Ultimately, I think it is our responsibility as consumers of media to know when we are being advertised to, not necessarily by commercial brands, but by presidential candidates, news networks, friends and family, or by any form of purported “information.”

3 comments to The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America

  • Rafael "Gross Brown"

    I agree with you, especially on the importance of consumer awareness of the amount of pseudo-events and the pervasive pseudo-information they produce. It could be argued that the big picture of media consumption has changed — for the worst. With so many media inputs and outputs, the democratization of media production has redefined what a pseudo-event is. Tweets, social media posts, blogs, and other new media outlets trigger and promote pseudo-events by the second. Misinformation is an epidemic, fed by the voices of new media that want to standout and remain relevant in a noisy virtual cosmos. And this is fed by our limited attention span that leads us to consume headlines and blurbs almost mindlessly, ravaging through pseudo-events carelessly, not minding the fact that we are not pausing to digest information that is meaningful, but rather cramming noise into our lives. THERE’S TOO MUCH B.S. GOING ON MAN!

  • Nancy

    I wonder how our obsession with celebrities will be seen in 50 years or so. And why even if you don’t explicitly read about them or have interest you know about them.

  • Jonathan Sparks

    One of the biggest shames about the media concentrating so much on pseudo events is there is actually real stuff, important stuff, going on out there that is being passed over. We have been at war for more than a decade, and with the exception of the occasional spurt of news coverage in response to an extraordinary development, I feel like it fades into the background and allows those of us who aren’t effected personally to not have to think about it and to go on with our daily lives.

    Of course this isn’t a novel idea, but this system seems to have come about because of ratings. People get bummed out when they hear too much about an intractable war, so they switch the channel and feel better about themselves when they hear about the latest celebrity’s meltdown and judge them. Networks know this and program accordingly.

    Similarly, people unsurprisingly seek out news that reinforce their already held beliefs, so networks, websites and newspapers, pick a side and go hard playing up those viewpoints. Some do it way more flagrantly than others, I don’t want to make a false equivalency, but I feel that basic idea is still there for most national outlets.

    I don’t know how this is going to change since they are all (with the few exceptions) for-profit organizations that need ratings/clicks to get the advertisers in the door. And with the digitization of newsrooms and shrinking funds for real investigative reporting both on a national level, and on the local level where real news stories would bubble up, I fear it is only going to get worse.

    Not to overstate their importance, but I feel like this one reason why The Daily Show and the Onion are so popular. You get your frustration at all this madness articulated by professional comics. It isn’t doing much to actually fix the problem, but at least you are laughing and not crying.