The Great Pretenders

How the press helps public figures stage the news


Excerpted from News and the Culture of Lying by Paul H. Weaver, to be published by The Free Press in March. Copyright © 1994 by Paul H. Weaver. Excerpted by permission of The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan, Inc.

News isn't just any account of what happened yesterday. It's a story, with characters, action, plot, points of view, and dramatic closure. In particular, it's a story about crisis and emergency response—about the waxing and waning of urgent danger to the community and about the actions of responsible officials to cope. Thus, newsmakers in search of publicity and journalists in search of news don't converge on just any sort of news event. They enact, select, and narrate events in the image of the genre's overarching drama of urgent public danger. In other words, they translate themselves and their projects into the language and theater of crisis.

In some circumstances, this translation involves little or no change. When a real crisis is at hand and people are taking real steps to cope with it, the focus on crisis and emergency response simply means that the media faithfully reflect what is actually happening.

But the news genre insists that crises and emergency responses are taking place every day and everywhere. As newsmakers and journalists adapt the news story's preconception of ordinary events as crises and the front page's preconception of ordinary days as times of great excitement and historical consequence, the actions they undertake and the stories they tell become fabrications. The news stops representing the real world and begins to falsify the real world. The transaction between newsmaker and journalist degenerates into a joint exercise in manipulation and exploitation.

The newsmakers and journalists involved are more or less aware of the falseness of what they're up to. However, disclosing that falseness would undermine the benefits they're seeking from the news process. Newsmakers are looking for public approval and support. Telling the audience that they're playacting for the press wouldn't exactly serve their purpose. Journalists present themselves to the public as objective observers and reporters of the real world. Disclosing the fact that they're covering fabrications as news events would destroy their authority with readers.

The word lying is harsh, but it's the correct term for the behaviors we are talking about here. A lie is defined as a misrepresentation of one's state of mind or belief as to what is authentic and true. When people script and enact events and simulate sentiments for the media's consumption, they meet the simple dictionary test of misrepresentation. When journalists present these made-for-media impersonations as authentic news, they also meet that dictionary test. Journalists are almost always aware of what newsmakers and sources are really up to; it rarely happens that they are completely taken in by the fabrications.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I had better say immediately that I am not talking here about the corruptions of truth and history that take place when journalists and newsmakers break the rules and falsify facts. I am talking about what happens when people follow the rules, when the facts are right and the relevant people have been contacted and the story has been told straight. I am arguing that in such circumstances, officials and journalists are usually lying. They're pretending that the events they're enacting and narrating are bona-fide actions, whereas in fact most news events and stories are prepared performances.

The following story, in my opinion one of the best and most important news reports to appear in America in the second half of the 20th century, is a good example of the way in which the news genre invites and validates dishonest behavior and thereby turns public life into a farrago of manipulative fictions. It appeared on the front page of The New York Times on December 4, 1964.

This is, of course, a magnificent piece of reporting and newswriting about an event that was as electrifying as it was consequential. Three decades later, the story still brings back memories (for those of us of a certain age), and reading it with the advantage of hindsight, one is struck by the prescience with which the story identifies the whole complex pattern of the campus protest and student radicalism of the '60s in its first major eruption. Nevertheless, this story perfectly exemplifies the way in which the news business makes journalism an instrument of lying and manipulation.

On the surface, to be sure, the story is a monument to facticity. This is a piece of writing that at all times is trying very hard to persuade the reader that it is a truthful, reliable, accurate report of what happened at Berkeley that fateful December day. Virtually every statement in the text is a statement of unambiguous fact. With a handful of exceptions, every statement apparently derives from the reporter's personal visual observation. The rest come from official texts put out by individuals or organizations or from earlier newspaper accounts.

The facts presented in this story are not only true, they are obviously true. Observation can be careful or cursory; it can detect small or gross distinctions; it can be in fine or rough focus; it may discern minute or broad characteristics. This story reflects a method of cursory observation in rough focus that seeks only the gross characteristics of visible physical particulars. These are statements of fact about matters that it's particularly easy to be right about, and particularly hard to be mistaken about.

This may be seen most clearly in the vocabulary employed in the story. Nearly all the words used are in widespread popular usage; they are relatively few and recur fairly often; and most of them denote tangible things or qualities. Moreover, these words are not highly specific. Thus, people who are enrolled to study at the University of California are invariably described only as students, never as graduate students or undergraduates, juniors or seniors, premed students or electrical engineering students. Similarly, people who teach at the university are always faculty members and not scholars, researchers, teaching assistants, epidemiologists, or anything else. The crudeness of the reporter's lexicon makes the story particularly easy to accept as true, since an observer is less likely to err in identifying a student than he is in identifying a graduate student or nontenured associate professor or research scholar.

The story also invites us to accept as true and precise its account of the events by narrating them in a highly impersonal voice. Although the text was in fact reported and written by a human being, he never speaks in the first person or expresses his own feelings. The prose does not evaluate or qualify. By withholding the subjective aspect of the writer-event encounter, the story is telling us that it was written by a person with an intense commitment to factual reporting and the self-discipline to bring it off. It is inviting us to trust this man. (It is also saying, somewhat inconsistently, that the events at Berkeley were so dramatic and unforgettable that they require no elaboration or rhetorical embroidery, no direct writer-to-reader communications, for the entire episode to be intelligible and compelling to the reader.)

A small indication of the impersonality of this authorial voice is to be found in the scarcity of adjectives in the story—only some 10 percent of the words are adjectives. And almost all of these adjectives in this text denote number, sequence, location, or some other objective characteristic of the noun they modify.

A further element of impersonality is provided by the story's insistently chaotic structure. As one reads the story through, the subject changes no fewer than 15 times; in only three instances are there five or more successive paragraphs treating the same general subject without interruption, and the average number of successive paragraphs on the same subject is approximately three. The impression created is that the story is a more or less random list of facts about actions, with little or no interpretation or other input from the journalist.

It isn't so, of course. The news story's rhetoric of objectivity is just that, a rhetoric, a set of stylistic devices for creating an impression that, in the case of this news report, is sharply at odds with the reality. This is no random bunch of facts. It's a story, an integrated narrative whole that possesses all the attributes classically identified by Aristotle in the Poetics as fundamentals of drama. There's action (for instance, the arrests), rhetoric (e.g., the deputies' acid comments about "sore rumps"), spectacle, character, plot reversals, and closure.

This was a story about a community in crisis. This feature of the story is perhaps most importantly and obviously conveyed by the fact that it appeared on the front page, was summarized by a banner headline spreading across four columns, and was allowed to run to over 2,000 words, very long by the standards of a daily newspaper. The urgent, danger-laden, consequence-fraught nature of these events is further evoked by the ironic sparseness and impersonality of the narrative voice—these events are so important they speak for themselves, the story suggests.

The sense of emergency is also conveyed by the way in which the events themselves are subordinated to some unnamed, superseding, larger concern. Thus, the second paragraph describes the arrests as a subordinate element of the larger, overarching enterprise of "removing demonstrators who took possession of the administration building on the campus last night."

By the same token, the actual offenses for which the demonstrators were put under arrest (trespass and unlawful assembly) are mentioned in passing as a kind of afterthought, halfway through the story. By contrast, the political issues raised by or over the arrests—the FSM's charge that law-enforcement officers had brutalized the demonstrators, the faculty's demand that police be removed from the campus, the governor's insistence that the demonstration had been an exercise in anarchy—are described explicitly and specifically in the opening paragraphs.

Notwithstanding all this, the story lies. It tells a lie; it is a lie.

The lie is the story's implication that the events are unself-conscious and authentic, and that the journalist is an uninvolved observer whose presence and interest doesn't affect the newsmakers' behavior. Both of these implications are untrue.

The presence of the journalist, with his crisis-and-emergency-response concept of news and his big audience, greatly affects the newsmakers. Each newsmaker is highly self-conscious, and his actions are carefully tailored to attract the media's attention and to advance his purposes in the public-policy arena. The journalist and the newsmaker both know all this. Yet both pretend not to know it. As a result, the journalist and newsmaker more or less knowingly misrepresent both the event and their roles in the event.

Take the FSM. As the story explains, it was dominated by liberal and leftist activist groups recently energized by the civil rights struggle in the South. Returning to Berkeley after their Mississippi summer, some of the people who were soon to become leaders of the FSM began applying to the university perspectives and tactics they'd learned in the crusade for black equality. As the story reports, they began to confront the university administration over its restrictions on their political activism.

These confrontations were both real and symbolic. They were meant to induce the university to relax or eliminate its prohibitions against on-campus activism. Alternatively, they were meant to elicit official resistance to make the point that, like Northern society as a whole, the U.C. system, contrary to appearances, was an illiberal, conservative, and repressive regime.

Thus, even if the confrontations didn't force the university to back down on the rules issue, they would, in the catch phrase of the day, raise the consciousness of the community, winning new converts to their cause and shifting the center of gravity of public opinion in their direction. For either of these outcomes to materialize, all the FSM needed to do was stage confrontations and get publicity. From such a combination, they felt sure they would emerge big winners.

So when the FSM staged the sit-in in Sproul Hall or, after the bust, called for a student strike to shut down the university in protest over the arrests, they were engaged in a highly self-conscious strategy of political action and political manipulation. It was a strategy, in effect, of conceiving, staging, and arranging to derive political benefit from news stories. For it to work, all that was really needed was for the media to cover these actions on their own terms and thereby define them as real events. With the validation and outreach such coverage would provide, the FSM's program would move forward.

The FSM's strategies and tactics would fail, however, if they were ignored, or if the news stories covering them decoded and deconstructed the actions as I've done in the paragraphs just above. Stories reporting that the FSM was staging events designed to manipulate others in various ways were likely to harm the FSM's cause. Such stories would invalidate the ploys, draw attention to the manipulative intentions and approaches inspiring them, and discourage people from engaging in the reflexive responses the FSM was hoping its actions would stimulate them to engage in.

The Times dispatch from Berkeley covered the demonstration and student strike on the FSM's terms. Except for the statements by Mario Savio and Arthur Goldberg exulting in the authorities' repressive actions—which, as given, are bewildering and cry out in vain for further explanation along the lines of the analysis above—the story reports events in a way that strongly implies that they were unself-conscious, unmanipulative, authentic. It thereby validates the FSM's made-for-media lie.

And since the reporter clearly knew a lot about this manipulative aspect of the day's events, the Times is involved in a lie of its own, or, more precisely, two such lies. The first lie consisted of all the statements that presented the ostensible, public version of the FSM's actions without indicating the existence of the other dimension. The second lie was the Times's implied assertion that it was being neutral and dispassionate in giving an objective report of the day's events, when in fact the reporter was well aware that the FSM was engaging in a made-for-media propaganda action that would achieve its effect by being covered by the news media as an unself-conscious, authentic public event.

The same analysis applies to the other major actors at Berkeley. The Times was lying about their actions, too, in precisely the same way.

Pat Brown, the governor who ordered the law-enforcement action to arrest and remove the demonstrators, was also engaging in actions that were meant to define a kind of dramatic propaganda against the activists of the FSM and in favor of centrists and establishmentarians whom the FSM was trying to discredit. A center-leaning liberal, Brown at the time was looking anxiously over his shoulder at a conservative movie star and actors'-union leader named Ronald Reagan, who was then emerging as a right-wing challenger for the governor's office and who naturally took a very hard line against the FSM.

In ordering the police action against the sit-in, then, Brown was not only enforcing the law and seeking to reestablish order at the university, he was also trying to discredit the FSM and to forestall the potential criticism and challenge of Ronald Reagan. In other words, he was taking actions designed to manipulate public perceptions and actions in his favor merely by virtue of being covered as authentic actions. He was trying to demystify the left-wing adversaries of university-life-as-usual who were pushing the FSM to confront and discredit the university as a symbol of the larger society. He was trying to raise conservative consciousness by his actions. By failing to cover this aspect of the governor's action, which of course was well known to the reporter, the Times knowingly misrepresented it, thereby validating the governor's manipulative pseudo-actions as much as it was validating the FSM's actions.

The analysis could be carried over to other actors—the university administrators, the faculty, the police departments, and so on. The news story gave each a stage on which to enact a propaganda play designed to manipulate appearances and the public, secure in the knowledge that the story wouldn't decode, deconstruct, or otherwise undermine the performance. The news story thereby gave each an opportunity to turn public attention to private advantage by activating constitutional government's emergency powers in his own interest.

This subtle and complicated mendacity is a product, ultimately, of the ironic voice in which the news story is narrated. I use the word irony here in its classical sense of disguise and inversion, by which the narrator pretends to a point of view on the material under discussion different from the one he actually holds and by which he counts on the reader to make the correction and arrive at the correct understanding of his real meaning. A central purpose of irony is to create emphasis, and through the reader's active involvement in construing meaning, intensify the communion achieved by an act of communication. Irony is what is in play when one turns to a friend who has just come in drenched and miserable from an intolerably stormy day and asks, Nice weather, huh? The understatement and misdirection, in the context of the obvious fact that the weather isn't nice, are ways of conveying sympathy for his experience and distaste for the weather without being overblown.

The news story tells its yarn in a voice that pretends not to be telling a yarn, merely reciting a list of facts. In fact, of course, what it tells is a story; the pose of objectivity is just a means of encouraging the reader to attend to and accept the story. The voice intensifies meaning, reinforces the particular story's construction of events, screens out discrepant material that might undercut the story, and invites the reader to get involved with and to believe in the text.

That pose, however, has consequences that go far beyond those intended. In real life, when we speak with others about events we have witnessed or experiences we have been through, we do not confine ourselves to facts or to objectively verifiable statements. We make whatever statements it seems to us are necessary to convey our experience as best we understand it. Some of those statements may be objective and factual in nature. Others may not be. Often the facts are unclear or their significance is ambiguous, and in such cases we switch voices, drop any pretense to objectivity, and start talking about the uncertainties and ambiguities or broader meanings we're aware of. In other words, we take responsibility for our meaning and (if any) our irony. If we come to a situation in which we can't be sure the reader will have the information he needs to decode and construe our ironies, we provide those cues. Stepping out of the ironic pose, we do what it takes to communicate experience and meaning successfully.

The news story can't or won't do this. It stays in its objective voice even when that becomes counterproductive from the point of view of successfully conveying information and understanding to the reader. There are several ways of thinking about why it does so, all of them arguably just different ways of saying the same thing. One could say that the news form is so rigid, and the news organization using and defining it so bureaucratized, that working journalists are denied the expository flexibility they need to ensure that the meaning of the news story doesn't get out of synch with what they observed of and understood about the event. One could say that the working journalist is so desensitized to his or her intellectual responsibility to the reader, or so sensitized to the intellectual demands made by the newsmaker, that he or she willingly tolerates a substantial discrepancy between what the story means and what actually took place as he or she understood it.

Newsmakers know that the news story can almost always be counted on to stay in its ironically objective voice, and they aggressively take advantage of this fact. The news genre's refusal to shift voices implies that if a newsmaker pretends to an action and the media cover it, they'll cover the action more or less on the newsmaker's terms. They won't drop their accustomed posture of objectivity, accept responsibility for the meaning their words are conveying, and start telling a story that diverges substantially from the newsmaker's performance. Thus, the genre's objective voice turns news into a stage on which the newsmaker may strut his stuff, secure in the knowledge that backstage realities will stay backstage.

I remember, during my Washington days, an evening I spent with a small party hosted by a senior White House staff member and his wife. We began with drinks at the private bar in the president's box at the Kennedy Center, stayed to watch the play, then finished up with supper at a comfortable French restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. Around the table, the conversation was dominated by the aide, who was full of amusing talk about this or that aspect of White House operations and the actual roles of various senior people. This was early in the Reagan administration, and Washingtonians were still doping out who was who and how the place worked. The aide was a member of the centrist Baker-Deaver axis on the White House staff, and naturally his stories were favorable to the personalities and perspectives of his fellow nonconservatives.

Practically every observation he made and every vignette he told, it seemed, moved the White House correspondent of The New York Times, who was among our small number, to remark, in an enthusiastic, confidential tone, "That's a story." He must have said that half a dozen times, and he wasn't just being polite, it turned out. During the ensuing several weeks, I was fascinated to note that several of the matters the White House staff guy had talked about appeared as stories in the Times under our dinner companion's byline.

None of the stories made even the most veiled reference to the White House aide who had been their true originator. None described the aide's personal and political position in the White House staff at the time. None located themselves in the context of either the White House staff's overall communications goals or of the nonconservative wing's political situation. None took any note of the actual way in which the ideas came to the author.

The point here isn't that there was anything wrong with the way the Times ran these stories. To the contrary, this was a normal, up-to-standard exercise in Washington journalism. The genre's exclusion of reflexive and self-referential information about the origins of a story is a crucial element of the way the news story attracts attention and conveys meaning.

How different the reader's impression would have been had any of the stories I saw pitched over dinner included, at the end, a little note reading as follows: "The subject of this story was suggested by a senior White House aide whom the Times has agreed not to identify as a condition of his assistance. The story idea was tendered during a theater-and-dinner party hosted by the aide and his wife; the aide is a non-Reagan loyalist and moderate who is aligned with the Baker-Deaver wing of the staff and who appeared to have been seeking to attract favorable publicity to allies of his on the president's ideologically divided staff."

No such note is written because it would be inconsistent with the ironically objective voice of the news genre. As long as that narrative style prevails, the news story will be a standing invitation for newsmakers to invent events and fabricate postures. It will be an incitement to lie.

Contributing Editor Paul H. Weaver is a writer in Palo Alto, California.

796 Students Arrested as Police Break Up Sit-In at U. of California

by Wallace Turner

Copyright © 1964 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission.

BERKELEY, Calif., Dec. 3—The police arrested 796 University of California students in 12 hours today, dragging many on their backs down flights of stairs to end a sit-in demonstration.

The mass arrests were made in removing demonstrators who took possession of the administration building on the campus last night.

The Free Speech Movement, the protesting student group, retaliated by calling a student strike. Faculty members, at a special meeting, gave evidence of some support for the students. The dispute over students' political and protest activities has shaken the university for almost three months.

The strike was called after Gov. Edmund G. Brown ordered early this morning that sit-in demonstrators be removed by force from the corridors of Sproul Hall, the administration building. Mr. Brown said that the students' action constituted "anarchy."

Charges of police brutality were made as a result of the removals and arrests today.

In this 27,500-student university, the effectiveness of the strike was difficult to measure. In the morning pickets wheeled in front of the doors of all the classroom buildings and, although students continued to pass through the lines, there were reports that many classrooms were empty.

Clark Kerr, president of the university, issued a statement tonight declaring that the Free Speech Movement represented an "understandable concern" last September but that it "has now become an instrument of anarchy and of personal aggrandizement."

Representatives of about 75 of the 82 academic departments at the university, in a meeting this afternoon, found that about 20 departments were functioning normally in the face of the strike. Prof. Charles Hulten, chairman of the Journalism Department, said that individual faculty members would decide tomorrow whether to hold classes.

A meeting of 500 of the 1,200 members of the faculty voted a resolution this afternoon stating that the university faced a "desperate situation."

The faculty members favor new and liberalized campus rules for political activity and setting up a committee to which students could appeal administration decisions on penalties for violating university rules on political action.

Plan Telegram to Brown

The resolution also asked "that all pending campus action against students for acts occurring before the present date be dropped."

At the meeting, faculty members drafted a telegram to be sent to Governor Brown. It condemned the use of the California Highway Patrol on the campus and the exclusion of faculty members from Sproul Hall.

Last night about 1,000 sit-in demonstrators filled the corridors of Sproul Hall before the doors were locked at 7:00 P.M. They sat there, sleeping, singing, studying and talking until about 3:10 A.M., when Edward W. Strong, the chancellor for this campus of the multi-campus university, went to Sproul Hall.

Mr. Strong read a statement asking the students to leave. A few did, but most stayed. They had put up barricades at the stairways and were concentrated on the second, third, and fourth floors.

The police took an elevator to the fourth floor and began removing students there.

Capt. Larry Waldt of the Alameda County sheriff's office made the estimate of the number of students arrested.

By midday, the routine was standard, as illustrated by the arrest of Jean Golson.

When she found herself at the head of the line of demonstrators, Sgt. Don Smithson of the Berkeley police force told her, "You are under arrest for trespass and unlawful assembly."

Another Berkeley policeman held a microphone to record her answers and the sergeant's statements. A third made notes in a booking form.

"If you walk out, you will not be charged with resisting arrest, but if we are forced to carry you out, you will be charged with resisting arrest," the sergeant said.

'Female on Way'

Miss Golson said she would not walk out. A number was held to her chest and her photograph was taken. The Berkeley police pulled her by the arms for a few feet and then turned her over to two sheriff's deputies from Alameda County. They dragged her quickly down the corridor on her back, shouting "Female on the way."

At a booking desk, she was pulled erect and was fingerprinted. Then she was pulled into an office for searching by two matrons from the sheriff's office.

Then she was dragged back into the elevator, where other girls were being held. When the elevator was full, the girls were taken to the basement and were loaded into a van for transportation to the county jail.

The bail schedule was $75 each on the trespass and unlawful assembly charges and $100 for resisting arrest.

Total Bail is $150,000

Booking officers at the Alameda County sheriff's office said that about 25 of the demonstrators posted bail soon after being booked. Meantime, lawyers, parents and others were meeting with a municipal judge attempting to obtain an order freeing the demonstrators on their own recognizance. The total bail involved will be more than $150,000.

For men, the handling was significantly different once they were turned over to the sheriff's deputies after arrest. Those men who would walk were dragged down four flights of steps to the basement. Those who remained limp were dragged by the arms down the steps, departing to the cries of "Good luck" from their friends.

There were about a score of sheriff's deputies whose job was to drag the men down the steps. As the day passed, their humor became more acid. Some bumped the buttocks of their male prisoners as they dragged them down the stairs.

"There'll be some sore rumps in jail tonight," one deputy said.

After the corridors of Sproul Hall were closed, a floor at a time, the litter of the sit-ins remained. There were empty fruit cartons, crushed soft-drink cans, a guitar, stacks of textbooks, sleeping bags and blankets and scores of notebooks with lecture notes in them.

Shouts 'This Is Wonderful'

When Mario Savio, a protest leader, was taken away by the police, he shouted, "This is wonderful-wonderful. We'll bring the university to our terms."

Another leader, Arthur Goldberg, said as he was led away, "Good. The kids have learned more about democracy here than they could in 40 years of classes. This is a perfect example of how the State of California plays the game."

Mr. Savio is a New Yorker who is the president of the Berkeley Chapter of Friends of S.N.C.C., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was involved last spring in recruiting demonstrators who slept in at the Sheraton Palace Hotel. He was arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace. He also worked in the S.N.C.C. program in Mississippi last summer.

Another leader of the Free Speech Movement is Bettina Aptheker. She is a member of the W.E.B. DuBois Club which has been described by Department of Justice sources as a front among college students for the Communist party.

The dispute that led to the arrests began last September when the university administration announced that it would no longer permit the use of a strip of campus property for soliciting political funds and recruiting protest demonstrators.

The students objected, and a series of demonstrations resulted. Eight students were suspended and the demonstrations were stepped up.

Last month, the university regents ordered that the students be permitted to recruit demonstrators and collect political contributions on campus. But the regents said the students must be held accountable for off-campus violations of the law in projects begun on campus.

They also said that discipline must be tightened.

Earlier this week, four students received letters from the administration indicating that they were to be disciplined, and perhaps expelled. Yesterday the newest demonstration began in protest.

Conservatives Quit Group

The Free Speech Movement was organized with an executive committee of about 60 members, each representing some campus organization. Initially, conservative groups belonged, including the Young Republicans, but these recently disassociated themselves.

The leadership is concentrated in an 11-member steering committee that appears to be dominated by representatives of campus chapters of the Congress for Racial Equality, the Young Socialist League, the Young Socialist Alliance, Slate (a student political organization) and the W.E.B. DuBois Club.

At a noon rally of about 5,000 students, Steven Weisman, a leader of the Free Speech Movement, called for an investigation of what he termed police brutality. He also demanded the removal of Mr. Kerr as president of the university.

In his statement tonight, Mr. Kerr denied that freedom of speech had ever been an issue and said, "The protest has been over organizing political action on campus."

Mr. Kerr accused the Free Speech Movement of violating the law, of intolerance, distortion of the truth, irrationality, indecency, and ill will.

In Sacramento, Governor Brown said, "We're not going to have anarchy in the state of California while I'm Governor, and that's anarchy. I did plan to go to Berkeley, but I have other things to do."

Opposition to the Free Speech Movement was in evidence here today. Some students standing at the noon rally held signs reading "Throw the Bums Out" and "Law Not Anarchy—The Majority of Students Do Not Support This Demonstration."