‘Pseudo-events’ Won’t Tell Us Who Should Be Governor

Late last month, the Star-Ledger ran a story indicating that Governor Corzine had yet to formally announce his plans to seek re-election.

While it is true that the Governor has not held a large major campaign kick-off event, it is clear that — as the story noted — he is in fact seeking re-election. He has submitted the required papers to the Division of Elections to be on the ballot in November; he has a campaign web site, staff and headquarters, and he has been keeping a public schedule that suggests he is in campaign mode.

And a few days after the Ledger story appeared, Corzine told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell – on live national television – that he plans to be in the race. “I am going to be running,” he said. “I think that’s the first time I’ve said that on television, so you’re breaking news. Although, everybody knows that we filed our papers in front of the primary deadline. We’re actively pursuing building our organization and preparing to run.”

The truth is the large scale public announcements that candidates make rarely are announcements at all. By the time the formal announcements take place, we already know they are running.  Regardless of political party or the office being sought, these announcements are what historian Daniel Boorstin labeled “pseudo-events” that are staged to garner media coverage and shape public opinion. Boorstin, in his 1962 book The Image: Or What Happened to the American Dream, offered this description of a pseudo-event:

“It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it… 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.”

This description easily could apply to many of the stories that make their way into newspapers, radio and television stations and the internet news sites today. Although today’s journalists continue to produce powerful investigative and enterprise pieces, there is a danger that cutbacks in the industry are making it increasingly easier for pseudo-events to bypass the gatekeepers and show up as real news.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I have been behind a pseudo-event or two over the course of my career. During the 10 years I worked for Jim McGreevey when he was Mayor of Woodbridge Township, we tried to conduct a press conference or issue a news release every day.  I did the math once and it came out to more than 2,500 items. Many of them were legitimate, important news announcements, but we also had our share of pseudo-events, such as the time we brought a councilwoman’s dog to a Town Hall press conference to announce the start of a pet census.

But the danger of pseudo-events is not that cats and dogs will get more headlines than they deserve.  It is, as Boorstin warned, that “Pseudo-events thus lead to emphasis on pseudo-qualifications.”

Think about that as New Jersey’s 2009 gubernatorial election approaches. The campaign is still in its early stages, but already we have seen:

  • A popular talk-radio station hire a former girlfriend of the Governor as an on-air personality;
  • Joe the Plumber come to New Jersey for a campaign event; and
  • New Jersey comedian Uncle Floyd launch a write-in campaign for Governor.

Like most states in the nation, New Jersey is confronting a series of major issues, with the historic downtown in the economy at the top of the list.

Pseudo-events are fun and entertaining.  We enjoy reading about them and watching them. But at the end of the day, they won’t tell us what we need to know most – and that who is best qualified to serve as Governor of the Garden State for the next four years.

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