Will Pseudo-Scandals Decide the Election?

By Wilentz, Sean | The American Prospect, September 25, 2000 | Go to article overview

Will Pseudo-Scandals Decide the Election?


Wilentz, Sean, The American Prospect


THE CONTROVERSY OVER AL GORE'S BUDDHIST TEMPLE "FUNDRAISER" IS THE LATEST IN A LONG LINE OF ARTIFICIAL SCANDALS. BUT EVEN FAKE SCANDALS TAKE A POLITICAL TOLL.

In a pathbreaking study of the mass media and modern culture, The Image, first published in 1961, the historian Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term "pseudo-event." A pseudo-event, Boorstin wrote, is "not spontaneous ... but planned, planted, or incited"--an event whose "occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media," and whose "relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous."

The latest metamorphosis of Boorstin's pseudo-event is the pseudo-scandal, an ambiguous or outright false scandal that acquires the appearance of the real thing in the media through the dogged repetition of charges and investigations. Genuine scandals, such as the Iran-Contra affair and the pilfering by former Democratic Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, have touched members of both major parties in recent years. But likewise, both parties, aided by the media, have helped to perpetuate pseudo-scandals related to campaign finance or other matters of alleged behind-the-scenes financial favoritism. The 1991-1992 pseudo-scandal over the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro and President George Bush's alleged illicit dealings with Saddam Hussein (promoted by, among others, New York Times columnist William Satire and vice presidential candidate Al Gore); the 1992 uproar over the House Bank overdrafts (promoted by, among others, Newt Gingrich); the false Whitewater, Travelgate, and Filegate scandals (promoted by observers and operatives all across the political spectrum, from Jerry Falwell to Christopher Hitchens)--each has exemplified the exploitation, for ideological or partisan purposes, of justified public concerns about the modern nexus of money and political influence.

Of course, negative propaganda stories have been a staple of American politics from the early years of the republic, when Federalist editors denounced the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson as a Jacobin atheist and traitor. Today's pseudo-scandal retains traits of classic mudslinging; above all, it involves distortion of an opponent's record and public statements. As in the past, many of today's partisan peddlers of pseudo-scandals spread them around through friendly journalists and pundits--modern equivalents of press lords like William Randolph Hearst and vicious colunmists like Westbrook Pegler.

But there are also crucial differences. Recent pseudo-scandals have relied on the manipulation of the courts, congressional committees, and the now-defunct Independent Counsel Act in order to harass elected and appointed officials with flimsy accusations. And the pseudo-scandal masters have managed to gain the subtle and often unwitting but crucial complicity of the independent mainstream news media. Without the credibility provided by law and journalism, the new style of pseudo-scandal might simply be dismissed as partisan maneuvering. Coated with a gloss of objectivity, however, pseudo-scandals gain a respectful hearing, vastly reinforcing the blatant tub-thumpers, fake inside-dopesters, and latter-day Peglers who appear on the cable networks and talk-radio shows as well as in the newspapers.

Although the focus of today's pseudo-scandals primarily political money, the direct historical antecedent is the media-friendly demagoguery pioneered by Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy, Boorstin wrote, showed "it is possible to build a political career almost entirely out of pseudo-events." It is nearly forgotten today that McCarthy worked gleefully and sometimes woozily, during and after hours, cultivating "the boys" of the press over drinks and gossip. News-hungry reporters, in turn, developed a fascination for McCarthy: Love him or hate him, he was great copy. "Newspapermen were his most potent allies, for they were the co-manufacturers of pseudo-events," Boorstin observed. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Will Pseudo-Scandals Decide the Election?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.