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Reintroducing “Pseudo-Events”

- December 21, 2007

At “The Monkey Cage,” we generally highlight new findings, issues, and trends, but on occasion it seems useful to go back to reintroduce some unduly neglected ideas from the past.

In a previous post, I included Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America on my short list of “must-read” treatments of media coverage of American politics. Boorstin’s central concept, the “pseudo-event,” seems to have passed largely unnoticed by the current generation of political scientists, which is too bad, because even though The Image isn’t “about” politics per se, there’s plenty about politics in it. You can find the term “pseudo-events” in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, but how often do you encounter it in a political science journal? (To answer my own question, at least insofar as one of the three major “mainstream” political science journals is concerned: Its last appearance was in1984.)

Let’s jump in the DeLorean, then, and do a little time traveling, back to 1961, when Boorstin introduced the concept. A pseudo-event, as he defined it, is a happening with the following characteristics:

* Rather than being spontaneous, it occurs because somebody “planned, planted, or incited it.”

* It is planned, planted, or incited primarily for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced.

* It has an ambiguous relation to the underlying reality of the situation.

* It usually is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Boorstin’s example: “The hotel’s thirtieth anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.”)

Boorstin’s core argument is straightforward: “In the last half century a larger and larger proportion of our experience, of what we read and see and hear, has come to consist of pseudo-events,” which, in a “Gresham’s law of American public life, …tend to drive spontaneous happenings out of circulation.”

As you watch TV coverage or read newspaper accounts of politics and public affairs in coming weeks, keep asking yourself whether what you’re seeing consists largely of pseudo-events, and, if it does, how that matters.