Media Discourse and Analysis: Week 2

In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961), Daniel Boorstin introduced the concept of the ‘pseudo-event’ and noted its increasing proliferation in media representations of reality in American life. He noted how in earlier centuries reporters viewed their role as reporting on occurrences overseen by Divine Providence, but they later came to define and even create those occurrences themselves. Whereas Charles A. Dana, one of the great American newspaper editors of the nineteenth century defended his extensive reporting of crime in the New York Sun  by saying, ‘I have always felt that whatever the Divine Providence permitted to occur I was not too proud to report’, Arthur McEwan, whom William Randolph Hearst made his first editor of the San Francisco Examiner, later said that ‘News is whatever a good editor chooses to print’.

Boorstin believes that pseudo-events have come to overshadow God-made or spontaneous events in American culture and lists eight characteristics that characterise this overshadowing:

  1. Pseudo-events are more dramatic.
  2. Pseudo-events, being planned for dissemination, are easier to disseminate and make vivid.
  3. Pseudo-events can be repeated at will and their impression thus enforced.
  4. Pseudo-events cost money to create and are advertised in advance and rerun in order to get money’s worth.
  5. Pseudo-events, being planned for intelligibility, are more intelligible and hence more reassuring.
  6. Pseudo-events are more sociable, more conversable, and more convenient to witness.
  7. Knowledge of pseudo-events becomes a test of being ‘informed’.
  8. Pseudo-events spawn other pseudo-events.

Boorstin sees the emergence of staged media debates, press briefings and leaks to media as all part of this emergent culture of pseudo-events. He views the phenomenon as having a negative effect on American democracy.

If we are to choose an event and apply the above criteria to it its status or otherwise as a pseudo-event as defined by Boorstin might be elucidated. The emergence of claims that Iraq was in possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) prior to the Iraq War of 2003-2011 has since proved almost beyond doubt to be false. The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has effectively admitted that it was wrong in its analysis of the threat from WMDs in Iraq ( ). Indeed the now-admitted lies of an Iraqi defector, Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, were used to justify beginning a war that cost many thousands of lives, both combatant and non-combatant. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, says that ‘intelligence was being worked to fit around the policy’. ( ). Former British government minister John Prescott has also cast serious doubts over the quality of intelligence upon which the decision to go to war was based, describing what they ‘do in intelligence’ as ‘a bit of tittle-tattle here and a bit more information there’ ( ).

If we are to go through the various characteristics of pseudo-events that tend to make them overshadow spontaneous events as defined by Daniel Boorstin we can see that the whole WMD episode conforms to most.

Firstly, claims that a dictatorial regime are in possession of weapons of mass destruction is certainly dramatic and although the spectre of worldwide nuclear annihilation is not as great as it was the image of a glowing nuclear mushroom cloud is still a powerful one. The second of Boorstin’s criteria, easy dissemination, is also present and is related to the previous quality of being dramatic. Destruction on a massive scale is a story that will sell news content and in a way imputes drama to whoever is telling the story in question, whether they are professional journalists or ordinary citizens. The story allows news media and ourselves to rise above the hum-drum of everyday life. In this latter regard Boorstin’s seventh criterion is largely fulfilled as the issue of WMDs become a topic of everyday conversation and people can project an image of being ‘informed’. The easy repetition of a simple narrative of a bad guy in possession of means of a massively dangerous device or devices reinforces that narrative and makes the story more believable, largely fulfilling the third criterion above. This simple but appealing narrative also makes the WMD controversy more conversable, fulfilling the sixth of the conditions identified by Boorstin. And finally, adding to the status of WMDs in Iraq as a pseudo-event, other pseudo events emanate from the original pseudo-event. There are various enquiries, such as the Chilcot enquiry in Britain, that are worthy in themselves as efforts to find the truth but take on the form of further pseudo events as public figures such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair become the focus of analysis and speculation rather than the original question of whether Iraq has WMDs or not. Comments by former colleagues of those principally involved in the decision to go to war, such as Blair’s former cabinet colleague mentioned above, John Prescott, then add to the drama if they appear to throw further light on what has previously been said.

One could question whether the fifth criterion above is fulfilled by the WMD story in that although the easily understood narrative makes the issue more intelligible it is hardly reassuring to believe that a dictator has WMDs. But if we are looking for reassurance it is into the arms of those offering an intelligible response of swift military action that we will tend to run and it does appear that those advocating that action did at best exaggerate the threat and at worst lied about it. And the financial cost involved in disseminating the story was of little significance to those involved, perhaps making Daniel Boorstin’s fourth criterion irrelevant.

Tony Blair appears before the Iraq Inquiry:

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