Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Daniel Boorstin, Tim Russert, and Electoral Pseudo-Events

It was in 1961 that American historian Daniel Boorstin introduced the idea of “pseudo-events” in his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Arguing that the rise of mass media in modern culture had left us with an insatiable demand for constant news and information, Boorstin defined the pseudo-event as a “planned” event “for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced” (11). Instead of waiting for newsworthy events to naturally occur, the demands of a twenty-four hour media industry led to staged techniques that would make news: interviews, press conferences, news releases and leaks, and so forth.

In the first chapter of The Image, Boorstin applies this analysis to media coverage of American politics, and finds that the Presidency is particularly tied to pseudo-events. Writing just after the 1960 election season—where the landmark televised “Great Debates” were critical to John F. Kennedy’s eventual victory over Richard Nixon—he sharply criticized how a series of pseudo-events reduced “great national issues to trivial dimensions” due to the debate format (41). As he writes near the end of the chapter:

“If we test Presidential candidates by their talents on TV quiz performances, we will, of course, choose presidents for precisely those qualifications. In a democracy, reality tends to conform to the pseudo-event. Nature imitates art” (43-44).

Boorstin’s insight was ahead of its time because he realized the centrality of not only how Presidential candidates answered their debate questions, but also what sort of questions they faced during the debates (as well as elsewhere): “News commentators can add a new appeal as dramatic critics to their traditional roles as interpreters of current history” (17). Though his death in February 2004 occurred just as the Internet began to play an increased role in election-year politics, he was able to witness just how crucial news analysts have become to making or breaking the fortunes of a particular candidate. This is why I thought of Boorstin while recently reading liberal Atlantic writer Matthew Yglesias’ essay “The Unbearable Inanity of Tim Russert,” even though Boorstin was politically conservative. Russert, host of NBC’s Meet the Press and a frequent moderator for Presidential debates, has a reputation for being a tough, unpredictable questioner in both roles. Yglesias contends that this reputation is misleading:

“Russert has created a strike zone of his own where toughness meets irrelevance. John McCain entered the zone last May, when he went on the show and repeatedly asserted that the Bush tax cuts had increased the federal government's revenue. Hearing this, a tough but conscientious journalist might have pointed out that this is demonstrably false. Russert, however, reached for a trusty hardball and sent it sailing. McCain, he pointed out, was now supporting extending the very same Bush tax cuts that he had once opposed.

“Well, yes, but this was a bit like asking someone who says the world is flat why he used to say the earth was round. The contradiction Russert pointed out was real—but hardly central. In fact, if tax cuts actually had increased revenues, then McCain's change of heart would have been perfectly logical. The real problem was that McCain's theory of the relationship between tax rates and revenue wasn't true. In Russertland, though, as long as you acknowledge the contradiction, the questioner is satisfied” (all emphasis in original).

Just as Boorstin derides quiz-show style questioning as a determiner of Presidential worthiness, the above passage demonstrates how McCain lacked the opportunity to provide a substantive policy answer. Indeed, Yglesias echoes Boorstin in noting that “[v]iewers watch a candidate getting grilled by Russert not to assess the candidate's views but to assess his or her ability to withstand the grilling,” which encourages substandard questions. Correspondingly, this format also leads to less informative responses from candidates—they are rewarded for sounding and looking the most Presidential.

Of course, Boorstin’s primary concern in The Image is the debate-as-pseudo-event itself, which he feels is an inadequate means of informing the American public. This is true. Still, I think Yglesias makes a reasonable case that debate questions can be more beneficial than what Russert is posing. Yet the problem is that Russert’s strategy remains highly self-beneficial:

“…Russert's goal isn't to inform his audience. He's there to ‘make news’—to get his guest to say something embarrassing that lands in the next day's papers or on the NBC Nightly News. The politicians, in turn, go on the show determined not to make news. And why do they bother? Because…it's a rite of passage, and any politician too chicken to play Russert's inane games would never garner the respect of the political class.”

Russert has made his career as one of the “dramatic critics” of political pseudo-events, much like Boorstin foresaw nearly five decades ago. Unfortunately, we—the audience and voting electorate—are the worse off for it.

No comments: