August 14, 2010 12:57 am

Defining Moment: Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the US becomes the first ‘pseudo-event’, September 1959

Nikita Khrushchev holding a turkey

Nikita Khrushchev’s two-week sojourn in the US in September 1959 was equal parts farce and circus. This image of the Soviet premier clutching a big white turkey during an inspection of the Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland was very much par for the course: a strange and barely dignified moment that nevertheless pioneered the modern phenomenon of the self-perpetuating rolling news story.

In his book K Blows Top (2009), which chronicles Khrushchev’s visit to the US, Peter Carlson cites the tour as an early example of the “pseudo-event” – a term coined by Daniel J. Boorstin for the subtitle of his 1961 book The Image. The “pseudo-event” was – and is – an occurrence contrived purely to accrue publicity, something which would not happen were cameras not pointed at it. It has become a weapon beloved of politicians, corporations and entertainers, who understand that if you create the story, you’ve more chance of controlling it.

The US’s press and polity had conditioned themselves to conceive of all Soviet leaders – indeed, probably all Soviet citizens – as stolid zombies existing on a diet of Das Kapital and cabbage. So they were baffled, and gradually enthralled, by the volatile, gregarious Khrushchev – whip-smart yet oddly childlike. (K Blows Top is a reference to a report of Khrushchev’s reaction to being denied a visit to Disneyland, on the grounds of security concerns.) Once it was grasped that the press would cover anything Khrushchev did, more was created for him to do. He met actors, chomped hot dogs and hung out with an Iowan corn farmer. Throughout, the press captured everything, lending the most trivial moments a veneer of national importance.

Today, much of our news is, essentially, a series of pseudo-events: government initiatives, unscientific surveys by attention-seeking commercial enterprises, staged photo opportunities by celebrities. They are all gratefully reported, reinforcing time and again the sorry truth that (most) news organisations are rarely happier than when someone is sparing them the trouble and expense of finding stories themselves.

definingmoment@ft.com

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