Lesiure Time, Pseudo Events and Politics

The emergence of leisure time decreased public interest and involvement at the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th, but leisure time may also have much to do with the current state of politics and journalism in the U.S.

It should come as no surprise that leisure time was a relatively new phenomena at the turn of the century. Just mention America’s old time work ethic and it is likely to conjure up images of farmers who worked in the hot sun from dawn to dusk and laborers who relied on their physical strength and endurance to put bread on the table. These are not the type of folks expected to have a lot of spare time. But as the nature of the nation’s economy changed and inventions lessened the work burden, Americans found themselves with more time on their hands and began to enjoy sports, the arts, and Sunday drives in those new horseless carriages.

In his book, The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928, historian Michael McGerr (1986) explains how political participation declined as Americans relaxed their work ethic and took advantage of new options for leisure and recreation such as vaudeville, sports, movies and radio. “Political theater could not compete with these new diversions as a source of leisure,” he writes (p. 149). “Neither could politics monopolize the attention of men and women lured by the pleasures of consumption.” Indeed, voter turnout peaked just prior to 1900 and then declined steadily in the new century.

Placed in context of the entire book, however, McGerr’s argument is not so simple. Yes, Americans did have more leisure time — and more choices for how to use it — in the 20th Century. In fact, it was just prior to the turn of the century that sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen authored his classic book The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he suggested that the working-class Americans aspired to become part of a new “leisure” class.

But McGerr makes it clear that the hard-working farmers and laborers in the 19th Century also had some free time (p. 29). They just chose to use much of that time at rallies, parades and other political events. In part, this was because they did not have the same variety of options available to Americans in the 20th Century. But in large part, it was due to changes taking place in the worlds of journalism and politics before and after the turn of the century.

According to McGerr, newspapers moved further away from the blatant partisanship they practiced in the 19th Century. Improvements in the technology used to print and distribute newspapers made turning a profit less reliant on political allegiances. With advertising revenue increasing rapidly, publications flourished. No longer a tool for politicians, journalism became a business and a profession in its own right (p. 108). Newspapers also broadened their content to attract more readers. They added stories on sports for men, fashion and cooking for women, and sex and crime to capture people’s attention. The impact on political participation was largely negative. “Once the centerpiece of party journalism, politics became engulfed in a sea of sports, gossip, murder, and scandal,” McGerr explains. “The sense that elections held a special place in public life ebbed away” (p. 126).

In politics, McGreer contends that the strategy for winning elections and amassing power changed too. In the latter part of the 19th Century, political participation was a “spectacle” process that involved rallies, parades and strict party loyalty. But as newspapers became less partisan, voters began to act more independently, forcing political leaders to seek new methods of garnering support (p. 70). These methods, developed and implemented over a period of several election cycles, were the forerunners of many present-day election techniques, among them strong national organizations, voter polls, direct mail appeals and targeted campaign literature. Whereas political participation once had been a process in which voters actively engaged, it became a more passive activity with the advent of what McGerr labels “educational politics.”

These changes in politics and journalism — in conjunction with a variety of factors such as new opportunities and choices for leisure — helped to shape today’s news and political systems and the manner in which they interact.

For example, with politicians no longer in control of newspapers and their content, the field of public relations emerged as a means to obtain news coverage. As sociologist Michael Schudson relates in Discovering the News, A Social History of American Newspapers (1978), although journalists found public relations practitioners distasteful and intrusive, they began to rely on their news releases, events and assistance to produce the content that filled their publications. Schudson cites several estimates which claim that 50 percent or more of the content in The New York Times and other major publications originated from the work of public relations professionals (p. 144)

Government made great use of public relations. As presidents, Theodore Roosevelt set up a press room in the White House and Woodrow Wilson conducted regular press conferences (p. 139). The net effect was mixed and continues to have similar consequences for both the media and government today. “Reporters thus gained a more secure relationship to White House news, but one more formal than it had been, and more easily organized and manipulated by the president or his secretaries,” Schudson writes (pp. 139-140).

Public relations also led to a proliferation of manufactured events that to this day help fill news holes when there is an insufficient volume of hard news. In The Image, A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961), historian Daniel Boorstin explains how these “pseudo-events” are planned and conducted primarily to obtain news coverage. He traces their origins to changes that took place in 19th Century journalism, including the decline in partisan political material, which left newspapers in need of more copy.

Nearly 50 years after Boorstin coined the term, pseudo-events have become commonplace occurrences that take place in the form of news conferences and other planned activities. To cite a recent example, during the 2008 Democratic primary, there was considerable speculation over whether Hillary Clinton’s teary comments prior to the New Hampshire primary were genuine or just a pre-planned and scripted activity designed to obtain sympathetic news coverage.

Boorstin warns that the proliferation of pseudo-events can have a damaging effect on democracy, illustrating his point with an example made all the more relevant by this year’s presidential campaign and the long primary season that preceded it: “Pseudo-events thus lead to emphasis on pseudo-qualifications. Again the self-fulfilling prophecy. If we test Presidential candidates by their talents on TV quiz performances, we will, of course, choose presidents for precisely these qualifications. In a democracy, reality tends to conform to the pseudo-event. Nature imitates art” (pp. 43-44).

Pseudo-events and public relations are but two of the elements that evolved from the changes in journalism and politics around the end of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th — changes that were sparked in part by the end of “All work and no play” as a work ethic and the availability of more time for leisure and recreation.

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This entry was posted in Daniel Boorstin, Hillary Clinton, Michael McGerr, Michael Schudson, Thorstein Veblen. Bookmark the permalink.

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