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News cameramen snap photographs as Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey kisses an image of his wife on the television screen. Source: Life magazine.

Pseudo-Events in the Television Age

Medium Cool criticizes the camera's role in an age increasingly mediated by television. In the late 1960s, America had entered a new phase in the televised era, when networks progressively offered more news and extensive live coverage, a process that can be explained through the development of what Daniel Boorstin terms the “pseudo-event" (described below). The television medium altered America’s perception of itself, and its relationship to the world. To make sense of the events at the 1968 Chicago convention, and to appreciate the extent of television's role in inscribing the moment's historical significance, it is necessary to examine first the function and responsibility of twentieth century media in American culture. Media here refers both to the media of journalism, and to the means of information transmission: medium, plural—media. Both terms exert an impossible claim to communicate some form of objective and complete representation of truth—impossible because the journalism media cannot provide total, unbiased coverage; neither can any media (electronic, print, etc.) conduct reality, only its shadowed representation. It can be argued that, by the late 1960s, American society rarely discerned this discrepancy between the limited and the asserted ability of media—in all its forms—to convey "reality." The purveyors and controllers of communication, the media, had come to define the nature of "power" and "truth" through the proliferation of the pseudo-event.

The Pseudo-Event

In The Image, or What Happened to the American Dream, Boorstin argues that the modern American experience is dominated by pseudo-events—synthetic representations of reality that society readily substitutes for the "real thing." Increasingly, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he argues, Americans demanded new and exciting things to be reported at an unprecedented rate, much faster than such spontaneous events really occur (9). The press, to answer this insatiable desire, creates news when none is available, by asking questions of public figures, or by writing human-interest stories and speculative "think" pieces that shed light on recent or future events (10). Often the newsperson's reports will incite active responses; thus by reporting a pseudo-event the journalist creates experience. Like the reporter, the public relations officer has been an active participant in shaping pseudo-events; he or she imagines and then publicizes a future occurrence, inscribing meaning through the act of creating the event.

Boorstin describes four attributes of the pseudo-event:

1) It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it....
2) It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported. Time relations in it are commonly fictitious or factitious; the announcement is given out in advance 'for future release' and written as if the event had occurred in the past. The question, 'Is it real?' is less important than, 'Is it newsworthy?'"
3) Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity....
4) Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophesy (11–12).

Political Pseudo-Events in the Television Age

Pseudo-events are evident everywhere, according to Boorstin, and the consequences of this permeation into all aspects of society can be seen significantly in the present political apparatus of the democratic system. Coupled with the onslaught of mass media available—the ability now to transmit images and sound with split-second immediacy—the political pseudo-event is driven by its self-fulfilling impulse to be reported and disseminated. "An innocent observer might have expected that the rise of television and on-the-spot telecasting of the news would produce a pressure to report authentic spontaneous events exactly as they occur," Boorstin writes, "But, ironically, these, like earlier improvements in the techniques of precise representation, have simply created more and better pseudo-events" (26). Moreover, the television camera orders events by selecting the moment and location of drama; the camera's very presence and nature emphasize the pre-determined significance of a pseudo-event.

A wide-angle fisheye lens photograph captures the political pageantry of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Source: Life magazine.
The permeation of pseudo-events in politics can be seen in the phenomenon of the modern candidate: a slickly packaged parrot trained to speak in thirty-second sound bites. The politician, molded by advertisers and styled by publicity spokesmen, becomes merely the shadow of his own image. "Pseudo-events thus lead to emphasis on pseudo-qualifications," says Boorstin, "If we test Presidential candidates by their talents on TV quiz performances, we will, of course, choose presidents for precisely these qualifications. In a democracy, reality tends to conform to the pseudo-event. Nature imitates art"(44). And so, when Richard Nixon told America in the 1968 election, "I am myself. And I'm going to continue playing that role" (1968: A Look for New Meanings), the candidate was confirming that the perceived representation of his public image had rendered irrelevant the existence of any separate "real" identity; the statement affirmed his status as a modern candidate in the age of the political pseudo-event.

Though the pseudo-event has a long history in American politics (think of FDR's fireside chats), the television medium elevated the role of the pseudo-event to an entirely new level in American politics. An oft-cited example, mentioned also in Boorstin's book, is the 1960 televised presidential debates, in which the camera's gaze on Nixon's stubbled chin eclipsed the significance of the words coming from his mouth. Nixon, it is said, lost the debate, and then the election, because he was ill equipped to compete in a television-era campaign. He would not be caught in the same predicament twice, as the events of the 1968 campaign attest. In fact, in The Selling of the President, reporter Joe McGinniss, who was "embedded"—to use the current phrase—with Nixon's advertising team in the autumn of 1968, demonstrates that Nixon's mastery and manipulation of the television medium was critical in securing the victory.

The Pseudo-Event in Chicago

Using Boorstin's criteria we can trace the proliferation of pseudo-events that propelled Chicago in 1968 into the national limelight.

First, the convention itself—one of the last in which the result was not pre-determined—was nonetheless a staged political pageant, a premeditated spectacle, designed to avoid the messy reality of spontaneous interruption by ensuring that no real events should occur un-planned. Incidentally, Chicago's International Amphitheater had hosted the first televised convention sixteen years before, in 1952. To organizers at that convention "it was soon apparent that long-accepted convention procedures needed streamlining.... Many techniques aimed at exciting everybody in the audience at conventions in the early years became uninteresting—and often boring—to the voters who watched from their living rooms" (Reinsch 64). By 1968, they had perfected the science of packaging the convention as a televised media event: nomination speeches had been shortened, television crews were positioned centrally for clear shots and close camera angles, and facilities were prepared to accommodate film development and broadcasts. Thus, in the weeks preceding the 1968 Chicago convention, in full-page advertisements in newspapers around the country, television stations promised extensive primetime coverage. Instead of the entire lengthy show, ABC even offered viewers a ninety-minute summation of convention highlights:

You'll see all the exciting and important events of the day on our 90-minute special. You'll get the expert commentary of Howard K. Smith, William H. Lawrence and Frank Reynolds. You'll hear the provocative opinions of William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. And throughout the day and evening, whenever events warrant it, we'll break in for live coverage. That's what's unconventional about it. ABC News' attempt to make the convention as interesting as possible for you and, just possibly, more meaningful, too (Chicago Tribune 26 Aug. 1968).

Another station's advertisement in the same paper claimed: "The next best thing to watching it with NBC News is to be there." This assertion, that watching coverage of the event was better than experiencing the real thing, reveals the extent to which the image had imperceptibly replaced the thing represented; seeing an event on television could be perceived as the same or better than actually experiencing it. Like the Jorge Luis Borges story, in which an empire-sized map is made so large that citizens confuse it with the real thing until the map's edges begin to tatter (Baudrillard 1), the televised camera's eye covered the nation so extensively that it begged viewers to confuse the screen's image with reality.

Consequently, in August, even as events outside the International Amphitheater occurred with alarming spontaneity, the television coverage of the pseudo-event inside the convention appeared so predictable that one reviewer complained:

Television proved again last night that gavel-to-gavel coverage of a national political convention can be, at least in the convention's early hours, something considerably less than breath-taking for the home audience. Both the National Broadcasting Company and the Columbia Broadcasting system started their marathon reporting of Chicago's Democratic conclave at 6:30 p.m., when, from the looks of the Amphitheater, there was practically nobody in the place but the Andy Frain ushers. And both networks seemed to encounter difficulty, for some time, in finding enough varied, lively, significant material to put before the cameras (Gowran, Chicago Tribune).

The reviewer demonstrates the tendency of pseudo-events to replicate indefinitely; his "news" merely reports the coverage of the convention, and thus he generates news about (the lack of) news. Moreover, his attitude reflects that of viewers who, demanding a constant flow of "varied, lively, significant material," perpetuate the invention of pseudo-events for their own stimulation. The last line—material must be gathered to "put before the cameras"—signals to the alert reader another aspect of the pseudo-event; the camera's presence and its stationary position indicate the pre-determined nature of the event, any "news" of significance will be placed within its gaze.

Life magazine cartoon.
The pseudo-event: a self-fulfilling prophesy. This illustration of the Chicago demonstrations was published in Life magazine the week before the convention. Click image to enlarge.

It should be noted that television networks in Chicago were unable to broadcast live from anywhere in the city other than the International Amphitheater during most of the convention week. So, even when word of "newsworthy" events poured in from the streets outside, many television networks kept their own cameras glued on the main pseudo-event. The problem stemmed from a telephone strike that prevented the city from providing adequate lines from hotels to reporters in the street. Additionally, Mayor Daley's police ordered that remote taping or film vans not park near the Conrad Hilton and Blackstone hotels, the heart of activity for delegates and demonstrations that week (Reinsch 222). As a result of these problems, television networks had to film street demonstrations with movie cameras and then process and edit the film; the lag time was usually more than an hour. Because of this situation, delegates inside the convention—many who were watching the televised coverage along with the rest of the nation—remained unaware of the brutal clashes outside on Michigan Avenue until they saw the "live" reports of what had occurred a few hours before. On Wednesday night, as inside the Amphitheater delegates answered the roll call that would nominate Hubert Humphrey, networks for the first time cut away from the live broadcast to reveal scenes of the earlier mayhem in the streets outside.

The National Democratic Convention was not the only pseudo-event staged in Chicago that week in August. In protest of the political establishment's alleged failure to end the war in Vietnam and to create social justice in the domestic arena, various radicals and political dissenters planned a spectacle of their own. While the demonstrators also criticized the media's alleged collaborative partnership with the "system" and its role in spawning meaningless pseudo-events, they nonetheless relied on that system's media structure to recruit protesters and to engage the public's attention. Yippie activists, in January, began disseminating press releases advertising their own packaged theater to coincide with convention events. One said:

The leaders of the National Democratic Party are planning to meet in Chicago in August; there to enact, for the television audience, all the drama and excitement of an American Political Convention, culminating, it is understood, in the nomination of L. Johnson for President of the United States, and Leader of the Free World. In the face of this act of sado-masochistic folly the free youth of America will simultaneously hold an enormous International Youth Festival in Chicago; there will be music playing and people swaying, dancing in the streets. Johnson and his delegates, locked in their slaughterhouse conventionhall theatre, will make ugly speeches and play ugly campaign music, while we, the living breathing youth of the world, will make the city a theatre, and every restaurant Alice's (view flyer).

The demonstrators' theatrical event, meant to invert the norm and expose the other pseudo-event as political charade, in fact was promoted employing many devices of the very system it criticized. The organizers used a press release to acknowledge the staged nature of the spectacle and to announce their intent to divert media attention toward their causes; moreover, they advertised the protests with at least the same zeal of a public relations representative. The organized demonstrations also met Boorstin's third criteria of the pseudo-event, that of the situation's ambiguous reality—the nature of the resulting violence was very much in the eye of the beholder, as the television-viewing public’s reaction would attest. Finally, the demonstrations—and the institutional response to them—were a self-fulfilling prophesy. Both sides listened and acted on the advance public statements of the other, and became paranoid and confrontational, further escalating the situation.

Click television image to play "National Guard"

Medium Cool and the Pseudo-Event

These two scenes from Medium Cool demonstrate the self-fulfilling, staged nature of the convention-week events in Chicago. In the first clip, taped months before the August convention, John Cassellis covers a riot dress rehearsal in which National Guardsmen assume the role of hippie demonstrators, shouting insults at their peers and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Note how, in the opening shots, the camera and rifle are visually linked, the parallel association reinforced by a comment about “shooting”—again reminding viewers of the film's argument that the camera is a weapon. The event (which really happened, and was not staged for Wexler’s film) ends when the guardsmen explode powder-filled balloons that billow like teargas on the “demonstrators.” In the ensuing chaos, the “actors” rush at the frame yelling “Get the guys with the cameras!,” a moment eerily prophetic of what would occur in August, when police and National Guardsmen were accused of purposefully striking blows at journalists and cameras.

Click television image to play "It's real!"
The second clip, filmed at the actual street demonstrations, re-asserts the relationship between the rehearsal and the real event—the riot trucks and singing protesters and teargas evoke the earlier scene, imbuing it with new significance.In this clip, the viewer sees Eileen's private drama shrink in relative scope as she wanders through the larger historic moment occurring around her; her bright yellow dress—the visual link to her fictional story—becomes an insignificant fraction of the large crowd weaving together in the streets. Similarly, the film's role, diminishes in its unique magnitude as the real events around it unfold; many cameras are present to shape the moment's historical significance. The protesters acknowledge this when then they shout to a passing camera-truck "The whole world is watching!" and then "Don't leave us, NBC!" as if they believe the media's presence is truth's witness, and will protect them from the full fury of the police and validate their cause. Here, Wexler's film implies that the cameras replace the errant law enforcers as the ultimate authority; their testimony verifies reality. This is reinforced by an unidentified voice who shouts, "Get those cameras out of here!" and, at another moment, when a cameraman surrenders his "weapon" to the police. At the clip’s end, a bystander shouts, "Watch out, Haskell. It's real!" as a teargas canister explodes close to the camera. Although—as Wexler admits in the film’s DVD commentary—this line was added to the soundtrack in post-production, it serves as a meaningful reminder that the film is a liminal document straddling the boundaries of the fiction-nonfiction binary.

The fact of the dress rehearsal, and Wexler's presence there, indicate the extent to which the later events in August were predictable and self-fulfilling. These clips, side by side, unmask how the self-fulfilling pseudo-event shaped the course of the convention week in Chicago, and they reveal the media’s complicated role in the development and narration of those events.