Pavlov and the Press Corps

Unity Day, the press, and Obama's unstoppable campaign narrative

What’s one thing that most journalists love? Besides a battered fedora with a cardboard press pass stuck in the brim.

Do I hear “cheap symbolism”?

Happy “Unity Day,” everyone!

Campaign strategists, in general, view reporters like Ivan Pavlov viewed his dogs: Easily conditioned to salivate at the slightest signal.

Democratic strategists want to construct Obama’s campaign narrative around easy, empty terms like “hope”, and “change”, and “unity.” So, of course, they schedule the Obama-Clinton rapprochement press conference in a town called Unity, New Hampshire. How better to induce the press to feature narrative-building buzzwords like “unity” in the headlines of their stories? How better to use the press to build Obama’s image as Captain Change, Hope-Bringer?

How cynical. How calculated. Surely the media wouldn’t fall for such an obvious ploy, right?

-The Washington Post: “Obama, Clinton Join Together in Show of Unity

-CNN: “Obama, Clinton to promote unity in Unity

Obama: Unity Day

-The NYT’s “The Caucus” blog: “The View From Unity
and “All Aboard the Trip to Unity

-The Boston Globe’s “Political Intelligence” blog: “Unity, but questions linger” and “Thousands gather in Unity for rally

A Laurel to the AP for refusing to board the unity train — its headline read “Obama, Clinton to campaign together today in N.H.” Darts aplenty for everyone else.

Today’s press conference is what historian Daniel Boorstin, in his book The Image, called a “pseudo-event” — a shabby and manufactured facsimile of an actual event. Here’s Boorstin:

(1) [A pseudo-event] is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.

(2) It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported. Time relations in it are commonly fictitious or factitious; the announcement is given out in advance “for future release” and written as if the event had occurred in the past. The question, “Is it real?” is less important than, “Is it newsworthy?”

(3) Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, “What does it mean?” has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.

(4) Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel’s thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.

In a perfect world, the media wouldn’t rush to cover events like UNITY-Fest at all. But the pseudo-event reflex isn’t going away any time soon… it’s been too deeply conditioned. At the very least, then, the media should strive to avoid framing these events in a candidate-approved context, strive to find the “event” that’s buried deep inside the “pseudo.” It’s easy to obey that little bell that says “Start salivating, because we’re going to toss you some scraps in a minute.” I think it’s better to choose not to listen.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.