“The Image” 50 Years Later

By , February 9, 2020 6:45 pm

My step-son asked me for advice on what a relatively political novice should read for unbiased insights on politics and controversial issues–aren’t they all? I’m not sure “unbiased” exists. No, that’s incorrect. There’s no such thing as unbiased. There are fair-minded people, however, so I thought I’d steer him in that direction. And then I remembered The Image; A Guide to Pseudo Events in America, a short book by Daniel Boorstin published in 1962, a book I read sometime between 1970 and 1973, a book that helped me grow up fast and develop a critical eye almost as quickly, a book I thought would help my stepson develop the critical thinking skills to approach any political “insights” with his thinking cap on.

Briefly, a pseudo-event is an event that is manufactured news. The killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is news, a real event. President Trump reporting that “The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him” is not real news; it’s a pseudo-event, an event manufactured by the White House to give President Trump face time before the American public as he stands in the Diplomatic Reception Room. Think about it: the news of al-Baghdadi’s death could have been delivered on chyron running beneath the talking heads on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC. Instead, we get a presidential statement, we get more of President Trump.

Because my stepson listens to rather than reads books–kids nowadays–I downloaded the book to my Audible account and shared it with him. Having done that, I figured it worth my time to listen again to the book after nearly 50 years of experience. It’s been an interesting experience so far, largely because all the references are so dated. In a discussion of the emphasis on the celebrity rather than the hero, for example, Boorstin uses astronauts Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd as proxies for heroes. I smiled when I realized that’s probably all he had to refer to. Gagarin was the first man in space on April 12, 1961, Shepherd the second, less than a month later on May 5, 1961. Boorstin’s book was published less than a year later, barely time to add other astronauts to his example.

Nevertheless, the “re-read” has been worthwhile. Boorstin’s discussion of pseudo-events rings even truer in a time when Tweets–the pseudoest of pseudo-events–make headlines on almost a daily basis. I’m only a chapter or two in, so I won’t report more. I will recommend you read the book. The best defense against the 24-hour news cycle is to know that very little of it is news. I’m not the only one saying this.

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