The Scandal and the Press


Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony yesterday ends, one hopes, the orgy of soothsaying over what the president would say and how he would say it. But there is more media guesswork and second-hand strategizing ahead as the matter moves toward Congress.

To what end? Approximately none. The real events in the Lewinsky scandal are historical and probably unknowable. The consequences—whether the president departs or is so damaged that his party loses seats in Congress in 1998 and the White House in 2000—are concrete but off in the future. In between, the newspapers and the airwaves are dominated by pseudo-events.

That is the term coined by historian Daniel Boorstin in his remarkably prescient 1961 book, "The Image," to describe press conferences, surveys, press releases, interviews, leaks—the "synthetic novelty which has flooded our experience."

When "The Image" was published, politicians and business leaders were just learning to use pseudo-events to confuse the public and boost their own standing. Now such events, and the endless commentary and "analysis" they inspire, saturate the news and flood the cable networks.

Boorstin, who served as Librarian of Congress and won a Pulitzer Prize for his trilogy, "The Americans," defines a pseudo-event as a fabricated occurrence, as opposed to a real event such as a hurricane, an election or a decision to send troops to Bosnia.

It is "planned, planted or incited, [and] its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous." We're not sure what it means or whether quite to believe it. Picture a presidential TV address or a press conference by Newt Gingrich on the budget.

Pseudo-events, while hollow, keep the public entertained and pundits and press agents employed. But pseudo-events are also dangerous. "The disproportion between what an informed citizen needs to know and what he can know is ever greater," wrote Boorstin. "The disproportion grows with the increase of the officials' powers of concealment and contrivance."

The danger is that the pseudo drives out the real. The press conferences, leaks, spinning, polling and all-around blather surrounding the Lewinsky affair have shoved more important issues from the stage of public debate.

What are those issues today which, in Boorstin's words, "an informed citizen needs to know"? Here's my own list of eight, each of which, I would argue, is more important than the real, not to mention the pseudo-, events in the current scandals:

(1) How serious is the economic crisis in Asia? What are its causes? How is it affecting the United States? What are the reasons for Japan's decline?

(2) How vulnerable is the United States to attack? What has been the effect of a 30 percent reduction in real defense spending? Who today are our enemies?

(3) How broad is the current prosperity? Who is being left out and why? As trade increases, what kind of jobs are being created and lost?

(4) Why are crime rates falling all over the country? Is it because criminals are being locked up longer? Demographics are changing? Police methods are improving? If we knew, we could be safer.

(5) Why do some schools fail their students and some succeed? What lessons can we draw for broader education policy?

(6) Why is the federal government suddenly running a budget surplus? If the answer, as I suspect, is the torrent of tax revenues of the past six years, then why? Because Reagan cut tax rates in the 1980s, or because Clinton and Bush raised them in the 1990s? Or other reasons entirely?

(7) How good and how widespread is health care? Are Americans healthier or sicker than they used to be? What role do personal behavior and the environment play?

(8) How is welfare reform—the only truly important policy change in the Clinton years—working?

These are need-to-know questions because they affect us all and point us toward the best public policy decisions. In many cases—the Japanese economy, crime, the budget—they involve setting the record straight on issues on which masters of pseudo-events, with the complicity of the press, terribly misled us.

They are questions that can be answered by competent news organizations if they choose to divert resources from pseudo-events. And no answer requires speculation about the future—the bane of pseudo-journalism. Reporters and editors should be content with describing the past and present—tough enough—and answering "why," "how" and "what" questions, rather than "what if" and "what next."

Boorstin wrote in 1961, "From the beginning, the great promise of America was to open doors, so that men could try to work out their problems for themselves—not necessarily alone, but in communities of their choosing, and toward often-uncertain ends which appealed to them."

He's right, but, even with doors opened, we can't work out our problems if we are constantly distracted by pseudo-events. Of course, such deception is precisely the aim of politicians, CEOs and bureaucrats. But why does the press have to play their game?