In the 1960s, when television was the revolutionary technology reshaping American life, the historian Daniel Boorstin published The Image, his seminal criticism of the media in the age of the screen. In it, Boorstin coined the term pseudo-event to describe the spectacle that exists merely to be documented: the press conference, the news release, the campaign rally. The coinage informs today’s idea of the media event: the thing that occurs primarily so that journalists can tell their audiences about the occurrence. In the media event—a postmodern spectacle, manufactured and compelling—news will be made. Air will be filled. But nothing, meaningfully, will happen.
Boorstin predicted CNN and the 24-hour news cycle it helped create. He predicted the compounding demands that would be made when journalists’ mandates shifted away from “reporting real events” to “filling endless space.” And he foresaw the morally vacuous approach to news that turns Trump, the crisis incarnate, into Trump, the evasive spectacle. Boorstin anticipated the strain of cynicism CNN was employing last night as it gave its air over to a demagogue and then filled even more of its air with pundits professing indignation at all the demagoguery. This is vertical integration of the worst kind. The network “makes news” and then talks about the news that has been made, and then agrees that the news that has been made is dangerous to the republic.
Trump is, in his own way, a media event. Given a platform, he will always do something spectacular. (A good salesperson will always find new pitches for the outdated stuff he’s trying to sell.) And CNN is not alone in navigating the tension that fact presents: Trump is an emergency. He is also good TV.
Trump, because of that, is reliable in his ability to attract audiences. He is a draw for his fans. He is a draw for his detractors. There is a reason autocrats and demagogues tend to double as successful media personalities. But convening an audience, like making news, cannot be an end in itself. Nor can Trump’s popularity be a stand-alone reason for CNN and other networks to aim their cameras in his direction. Trump merits news coverage. He is a probable GOP nominee for the presidency. He has the potential, in the months and years ahead, to bring even more of the destruction he has already brought—to American democracy and individual people’s lives. But this is also why he cannot be considered a news-maker in the traditional sense. Live television is the wrong setting for him. His claims need to be fact-checked. His statements—the ones that might have bearing on politics and policy, and thus deserve an airing—need to be contextualized. That is the job CNN, and other journalists, need to do when it comes to him. [Continue reading…]