Pseudo Non-Events

Here in the Filter we happily spend most of our hours wading through the
endless tide of pay-per-view extravaganzas, expert panels, Hard Copy
exposes, viewer polls, E-Channel puff pieces, and Barbara Walters exclusives
— in short, all the choreographed spectacles that pass for world-history
these days. Most of the time we’re so anesthetized to the synthetic drone
of the mediasphere that we bristle when our friends in the cultural elite
start talking about pseudo-events and simulation theory. After all, Daniel
Boorstin may have had a point in 1961 when he portrayed an American society
threatened by the “menace of unreality,” but of course he hadn’t had the
pleasure and privilege of watching an episode of Cops back then. As any
media junkie will tell you, today’s menace is the new regime of “reality
programming” — which once meant a jostling hand-held camera in the back of
a squad car, but now means a helicopter shot of a white van, driving either
to the Mexico border or to Brentwood, it doesn’t really matter which.

In the OJ Age, Boorstin’s pseudo-events are beginning to look like the Real
Thing, relics of an earlier, more reality-bound era, back when media
spectacles had at least some tenuous connection to — scarequotes please —
“actual life.” It’s now clear that the OJ trial has raised (or is it
lowered?) the stakes tremendously with the saga’s apt denouement: last
week’s canceled interview with Dateline NBC.

News of the non-interview spread like wildfire through the infosphere,
consuming the already hypnotic story of Bryant Gumbel’s sulk-at-home temper
tantrum. The canceled interview should probably stand as the apex of
end-of-millennium media navel-gazing — only this time around, there wasn’t
a navel in sight. Think about it: on that auspicious night, CBS and CNN
actually led their nightly broadcasts with the gripping news of a
programming change at another channel. Two of the three networks considered
the canceling of a TV interview to be the single most important event in
the world that day. (ABC, remarkably enough, opted for the Medicare battle
in its opening slot.) Sure, we’re accustomed to the hall-of-mirrors vertigo
of post-modern media coverage, but the Dateline fiasco managed to eliminate
the self from self-referential, leaving some of us with the unsettling
suspicion that Jean-Luc Godard had at last commandeered the media
apparatus. In the aftermath of this travesty, Boorstin’s canonical study
may need some retrofitting: who needs pseudo-events when you can now thrall
to the many-splendored pleasures of the non-event?

Of course, when there’s a non-event unfolding in our midst, you can be sure
Larry King will be there to cover it. Thursday’s show was a real treat —
partially due to the presence of Tom Shales, who seemed gleefully aware of
the absurdist drama he’d paneled himself into. As you might expect, a few
not-so-surprise callers fought their way through the phone banks on this
night to remember, most notably Andrew Lack, President of NBC News. Lack
managed to use the word “straightforward” ten times in five minutes —
usually a dead giveaway that the speaker is not being altogether
straightforward in his account of things.

With only minutes to go, New York Times reporter Bill Carter called in to
recount the impromptu phone interview he had conducted with The Juice just
hours before, an interview largely devoted to OJ’s reasons for bailing out
of the Dateline conversation. At this point, every self-respecting citizen
of the mediasphere rose to their feet and screamed “the ever-widening
gyre!” while tossing their television sets out the window. Interviews about
interviews about interviews that never happened — that’s entertainment,
nineties-style. A gaggle of pundits analyzing a no-show on another network.
So much for the society of the spectacle. All we can say is that it’s a
good thing Guy Debord killed himself when he did. If he’d stuck around for
OJ, he might have never stopped throwing up.

— S.J. (October, 1995)

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