Conversely, incompetence at creating pseudo-events can backfire.
Recall George W. Bush donning a flight suit, landing on an aircraft carrier, and having his picture taken in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner years before the end of the war in Iraq. Were contemporaneous observers to conclude that the mission in Iraq had been accomplished? That President Bush believed the mission was accomplished? That Bush knew the mission was not accomplished, but wanted the public to believe that the mission was accomplished? That Bush knew the public would not be convinced by a banner and a photo-op, but wanted the press to report on the event with a photograph of the words “Mission Accomplished” because it would provide a positive news cycle or crowd out bad news?
Did it matter that the crew of the ship rather than a White House staffer originally requested the banner, wanting to draw attention to a discrete deployment? In light of all the possibilities, and the impossibility of knowing what was on Bush’s mind or the minds of the dozens who participated in creating the event, what was the news?
Even now it is hard to say.
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In 2012, Donald Trump and his children created a video to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Trump International Hotel and Tower. Harkening back to what made the New York City property an ostensible success, Trump told this story about its address: “At the time it was called Columbus Circle. But really it was on Central Park West. I worked very hard and was able to secure Number One, Central Park West. And it’s turned out to be one of the best addresses in the world.”
By then, Trump, who began his career in real estate with aspirations to be a builder, had long since transitioned from trying to erect buildings as the centerpiece of his business to selling his image through licensing and branding deals. His name would appear on the tops of many buildings he neither built nor owned.
He starred in The Apprentice, a program on reality TV, the beating heart of the pseudo-events industry, where teams competed in pseudo-projects to avoid being pseudo-fired.
And Trump’s start in politics?
Boorstin wrote that Joseph McCarthy, a bygone master of the pseudo-event, had “a diabolical fascination and an almost hypnotic power over news-hungry reporters,” adding that “many hated him; all helped him … without the active help of all of them he could never have created the pseudo-events which brought him notoriety and power.”
He quotes a reporter who served in the press corps during the McCarthy era and later wrote:
He knew how to get into the news even on those rare occasions when invention failed him and he had no unfacts to give out. For example, he invented the morning press conference called for the purpose of announcing an afternoon press conference. The reporters would come in––they were beginning, in this period, to respond to his summonses like Pavlov’s dogs at the clang of a bell––and McCarthy would say that he just wanted to give them the word that he expected to be ready with a shattering announcement later in the day, for use in the papers the following morning.
This would gain him a headline in the afternoon papers: New McCarthy Revelations Awaited in Capital.” Afternoon would come, and if McCarthy had something, he would give it out, but often enough he had nothing, and this was a matter of slight concern. He would simply say that he wasn’t quite ready, that he was having difficulty in getting some of the “documents” that he needed or that a “witness” was proving elusive. Morning headlines: “Delay Seen in McCarthy Case––Mystery Witness Being Sought.”
Trump began the most consequential phase of his political career by declaring his doubts about President Obama’s birth certificate and sending or pretending to send a team of investigators to Hawaii to probe the matter. Roger Ailes would reward him with recurring interview segments on Fox News, each a pseudo-event in itself. On those segments, pseudo-events were discussed by Trump and pseudo-journalists. Among actual journalists, there was deep disagreement about whether Trump’s statements about running for president should be taken seriously.