A few weeks ago, during breaks from cleaning up the mess left by burst pipes in my Houston home, I noticed the outrage that ricocheted through the media upon learning that Senator Ted Cruz was not in Texas during the winter storm. He was in Cancun. I was not surprised that CNN and other outlets were taking the opportunity to beat up on Cruz; they wouldn’t miss one. But I was puzzled. Immediate management of disasters doesn’t fall to U.S. Senators. That is primarily the responsibility of the state Governor, and Greg Abbott seemed to be making progress toward getting the power back on.
The media, as usual, was deliberately amplifying the resentment of their audience…
What could Ted Cruz have done for my family while we took turns filling buckets from the neighbors’ hose to use for flushing the toilets or seeking out a store that was open to purchase drinking water? Was Ted going to swing by with his plumbing supplies? Was he going to hold my spot in the three-hour line at the Home Depot so I could go grab some lunch? Notably, many of the people faulting Cruz for working remotely in Cancun are the same ones who (since the onset of COVID-19) have claimed that doing so is just as effective and efficient as being at the office (or more).
Apparently, a certain kind of person’s suffering is compounded when he knows that someone he dislikes is not suffering the same. The wall-to-wall coverage of Cruz’s trip to Cancun—this non-event—was a cynical attempt to stoke the ire of those prone to this kind of vicarious suffering, the people who suffer more when they know someone else is suffering less. The media, as usual, was deliberately amplifying the resentment of their audience, which in this case meant maximizing the frustrations of people negatively impacted by a weather emergency. That’s a rude ploy, but it represents a growing trend in American journalism: the obsession with “optics.”
It wasn’t really that Sen. Cruz had done something wrong. It wasn’t even that he hadn’t done something right. It was that he did something that looked bad. The “optics” were bad, and that could be leveraged to advance political objectives that were completely unrelated to the weather in Texas. This constant weaponization of optics, something all too common in news media, reveals some troubling realities about contemporary American society and democratic governance.
OPTICS AND OUR POLITICS OF APPEARANCES
The conventional meaning of “optics” is a field of knowledge that deals with light and vision. The Oxford English (OED) dictionary has a secondary entry with the newer meaning of the word when used as a noun: “The way in which a situation, event, or course of action is perceived by the public[,] Frequently in political contexts.” The earliest known example of this usage cited in the OED (behind a paywall) occurred in the Boston Globe in 1973. That timing is important: just as new visual forms of media (television, fax machines, rudimentary computing) were becoming the predominant channels for public communication, our culture and politics developed a new fixation on appearances.
[T]he real number of killings ultimately does not matter. What matters is how many such killings the public believes that there are.
Around this time, Marshall McLuhan (a media theorist and professor of English at the University of Toronto) became something of a sensation among the intelligentsia, as he was among the first thinkers to offer a rich description of how the changes in mass media were reinventing the social sphere. One of his most famous books (co-authored with Quentin Fiore) was The Medium is the Massage, which explained how the dynamics and operation of a given medium of representation (television, radio, etc.) are actually more powerful than the information that they transmit to the audience.
According to McLuhan, any medium of communication also entails an interpretation of social reality, and enables an “extension” of that reality. That is, the mediated representation of social events controls how audiences receive those events. In turn, this conditioning of the audience’s reception of information brings about some transformation of reality because it changes how people interact with the world. It doesn’t matter so much what reality is; people’s actions are determined by how reality appears to them.
An example of this dynamic is the outsized role that the police killings of unarmed black men play in our public discourse. As Rod Dreher (senior editor at The American Conservative) recently discussed, the number of unarmed black men who died at the hands of police in 2019 was about 13. But he cites data that shows most Americans believe that the annual number of such killings is at least 100, with some believing that it is more than 10,000.If the number was in the thousands (or even the hundreds), that might justify the paroxysms of rage that we saw in America’s streets last summer. The lesson here is that the real number of killings ultimately does not matter. What matters is how many such killings the public believes that there are. And mainstream media have worked very hard to frame the tragic deaths of blacks at the hands of police as if they represent only the latest instances of an unfolding genocide. Clearly, the media’s messaging (massaging?) is working, as is reflected in citizens’ reliable over-estimation of the number of such killings. The appearance of a genocide is enough to bring about a very real revolt against a reality that is substantively different from the imagined one that is represented in the news.
Of course, the people who control the media have their own political agenda, and they are more and more than willing to calibrate their use of those media to create realities that are conducive to their objectives. Arguably, managing appearances in this way is the primary aim of our corporate media today; the treatment of any given news story is decidedly secondary to what events are allowed to become stories. The mere fact that media entities are discussing a particular event is enough to make it an object of public concern, regardless of its proximity to the people who make up the public, and regardless of its relevance (or lack thereof) to their daily lives. Consider: how long did the media spend blasting the “news” that President Trump had disparaged veterans? Of course, this “news” was not only unverified (by the standards the media uses when they don’t like the story); some Trump critics said that it was objectively false. But what if Trump had smeared the military behind closed doors? What is the import of this for everyday Americans? I submit there is precious little. Still, the “story” was leveraged by the media to undermine Trump’s chances at reelection as November 2020 approached.
McLuhan and Fiore’s title is a nod to this management of perceptions: the medium is “the massage,” because any platform for the sharing of public information will “massage” the collective experience of that reality. They explain: “All media work us over completely. They are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”
Thus, media technology creates a doubling of reality where the world of real events is modified by a world of perceptions: there is the pre-existing, external reality to which the media refers and attempts to represent, and there is the manufactured reality that comes into being as an effect of representing that external reality. Because of the ubiquity of mediated ways of interacting with the world (where news outlets serve as middlemen that prescribe the public interpretation of events), these two realities are increasingly indistinguishable. The media takes real events (which are often of marginal concern for society and its governance) and reinvents them as public objects of concern which can then advance all manner of ideological itineraries.
This process of reinvention generates what Daniel Boorstin (American historian and former librarian of Congress) has called “pseudo-events” in his appropriately titled book The Image.
STAGING THE PSEUDO-EVENT: PERCEPTION AS REALITY
Boorstin’s definition of the pseudo-event is highly technical, but it can be clarified with an extended example. Imagine that a dog runs away. The owner places signs around the neighborhood: the dog’s photo, an announcement that the dog is lost, a phone number, and a promise of reward money if someone can find and return the dog. In this case, the flyer is the medium, disseminating knowledge of the event (the dog’s departure) to a broader audience who would otherwise be unaware of it. Broadcasting the dog’s departure increases the likelihood of its return since more people will be on the lookout. In short, bringing the event to the attention of the public was done in order to modify conditions immediately related to the event itself.
Today, the creation of pseudo-events is the primary function of all media communication directed at the American public.
Like an event, a pseudo-event also works to broaden the audience of any particular happening, bringing it to the attention of people who would otherwise be unaware. With pseudo-events, however, there is a key difference: the pseudo-event refers to and represents a real event, but its reference to and representation of that event are designed to create and modify realities that are not immediately related to the event.
Referring back to our example, if you were to post “Lost Dog” signs not in order to find your dog, but rather, to elicit pity from a potential romantic partner in the neighborhood, then we’d approach the realm of a pseudo-event. If that was the primary motivation behind the “Lost Dog” signs, you could very well imagine a scenario in which there was no missing dog—no dog at all. Just a guy trying to get attention. Of course, there may well be a lost dog: the event to which the pseudo-event refers is not necessarily a fiction. What’s important here is that the purpose of reclaiming the dog is decidedly secondary. Disseminating the news of the lost dog aims to achieve an external outcome (e.g., getting a date) that had nothing to do with the dog or its departure.
Today, the creation of pseudo-events is the primary function of all media communication directed at the American public. Cruz’s trip to Cancun is a perfect example. Clearly, the dissemination of this event to a public who would have never known of his vacation (and who were too busy to care) had nothing to do with his job performance. Rather, the event of Cruz’s trip to Cancun, disseminated as an instance of “bad optics,” could produce a pseudo-event aimed at souring public opinion of the Republican Senator among his Texan constituents. From the perspective of the leftists in control of major media outlets, this public opinion could be critical in unseating Cruz in the next election. Or, at the very least, it could undermine Cruz’s ethos to an extent that his political power might be mitigated to some degree.
Consider also the media representation of events at the Capitol on January 6th. Certainly, there was an event. But as media entities described it as an “armed insurrection” or an “attempted coup,” and, as the demagogue Ocasio-Cortez (who was not in the building that was stormed) shed tears and insisted that she had survived an attempted murder, it became clear that what had actually occurred in this event was far less important than the realities that could be brought into being through its dissemination as pseudo-event. This pseudo-event (January 6th as an “armed insurrection”) is the gift that keeps giving for the left: it has fueled the idea that anyone who opposes the Biden administration is a domestic extremist, an “insurgent” in need of “deprogramming.”
When something is “bad optics” for media interests (that is, when an event might undermine the ideological preferences of the left), outlets will also refuse to inform the public…
Consider the pseudo-event of Officer Sicknick’s body lying in state, after the media falsely reported that he had been bludgeoned to death by protesters with a fire extinguisher. In reality, the only death directly resulting from the Capitol entry was the case of a protester who was killed by the gun of a police officer. Indeed, there were other deaths that appear to have been indirectly related to the breach of the Capitol, but those were due to peripheral causes like a heart attack, suicide, or a stroke. In the public imagination, though, the full death toll of January 6th was directly attributable to Donald Trump and his murderous supporters.
The media manipulation of reality is broader than simply waiting for an event that “looks bad” and using it to create a pseudo-reality to further a partisan agenda. While media outlets will speak openly about “bad optics,” “good optics” also play a role, albeit a quieter one.
When something “looks good” for an ideological opponent of the media (that is, when the representation and dissemination of an event might advance a domestic opponent’s objectives), the event will not be represented. Thus, when video is posted to Twitter of security officials allowing protesters into the Capitol, it will quickly be discredited. Don’t believe your lying eyes. After all, it serves as an obstacle to creating the pseudo-event of the “armed insurrection.” Conversely, when something “looks good” for allies of the media (that is, when it might advance their shared partisan agenda), it will be broadcast extensively to expand the audience and visibility of the event. (Consider the wide dissemination of Ocasio-Cortez’s tearful visit to the southern border to visit the migrant “kids in cages” during the Trump administration.)
This also works the other way. When something is “bad optics” for media interests (that is, when an event might undermine the ideological preferences of the left), outlets will also refuse to inform the public about that event, thereby limiting its visibility, narrowing its audience, and erasing it from the record. Thus, when it is learned that the Biden administration is using the same sort of detention facilities for unaccompanied minors at the border as the Trump administration did, this is not a major story for the mainstream media.
A child migrant facility in South Texas is at 729% capacity and kids are only able to shower every 7 days.
If this were happening under Trump, it would be breaking news & endless coverage.
Why does the media ignore it when it happens under Joe Biden?
— Charlie Kirk (@charliekirk11) March 13, 2021
To the extent that they are forced to cover the story to counter representations in alternative outlets, the coverage is calibrated to create a new pseudo-event that neutralizes the negative effects of the undesirable reality. Thus, “concentration camps” become “overflow facilities,” “election interference” becomes “fortifying democracy,” and problematic stories like the corruption revealed by Hunter Biden’s laptop become “baseless conspiracy theories.”
OPTICS, THE PSEUDO-EVENT, AND OUR PSEUDO-DEMOCRACY
In a troubling passage from The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan and Fiore describe new media technologies as the greatest modern power in shaping culture, society and international affairs: “Real, total war has become information war. It is being fought by subtle electric information media—under cold conditions, and constantly. [This] cold war is the real war front […] involving everybody—all the time—everywhere.” Whereas the traditional democratic function of media is to equip the public for effective deliberation by informing them about realities pertinent to the national interest, the media now serves as a partisan weapon to undermine domestic opponents of elite ideology.
The media is no longer in the business of re-presentation…
In sum, whereas our “media” had been technologies by which the public was informed about the independently-existing, external reality of society, those technologies now generate the very realities that they purport to represent. The media is no longer in the business of re-presentation, they dedicate themselves to presentation: they create new realities that do not correlate with the actual state of affairs in our world. Making these pseudo-events visible brings allows a modification of the external realities of the society we inhabit.
What this means for our public discourse is that form has conquered content, style has triumphed over substance, and appearances (or “optics”) have subordinated truth. Democracy depends on effective public deliberation, and media technology is supposed to be the space in which that deliberation unfolds. But when those technologies are co-opted for the purpose of creating illusions, pseudo-events, and appearances, our political discourse is no longer about how to respond to the difficult realities of the nation. Rather, it devolves into a debate about what those realities are. Thus, the forms of communication that are meant to facilitate good governance are reduced to a battle over simulacra, a contest to decide whose realities will be recognized as such. In short, our entire politics is reduced to a playing in the shadows, an emanation from the real, but one that is distanced from it, obscured and deformed. As long as our media celebrates optics and mere appearances, we will have to settle for the appearance of democracy.
Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston–Downtown, where he studies rhetoric, writing, and public discourse. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, is available now. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @DoctorEllwanger, or @TheHereticalTruth on Parler.