AP Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/Page 1A San Jose Mercury News
An image of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger welcoming children on his drive to place limits on tenure for public school teachers appeared on May 8, in the San Jose Mercury News. It's one of those "dog and pony show" shin plaster assignments photojournalists frequently get assigned to cover without little discussion about the impact or consequences of using children as propaganda. Politicians, Governor Schwarzenegger included, try to let the public see only what they want us to see. Even when no words are used, politicians act out prepared scripts for anyone who will watch and listen. What concerns me about this image, is whether or not the children really understand how they are being used by the Governor as extras in his little made-for-the-media drama called the nightly news?
A little transparency in the process of doing journalism is called for here.
Why is it that the mainstream media so rarely criticizes or questions how journalists are stage managed and manipulated by the image-makers and media-minders who work for public figures?
In this case, our local paper determines for us what is and what is not news. To be fair, however, I have to say that they do a pretty good job for the most part of keeping me informed. I really couldn't imagine a morning without the Mercury News at the doorstep.
At the same time, giving the Governor's so-called "pet" proposal a 5 column above the fold photograph on the front page gives me pause to consider the priorities of the media and the ritual of doing journalism. The positioning of the image and the placement of the headline indicate that the story is considered by editors to be the most important issue of the day.
Maybe the issue is important, but nobody seems to question the complicity of the media in the agenda-setting process or how journalists are increasingly manipulated and managed by those in power.
The public is led to believe that these children were there all dressed up in bright red shirts without any prompting from parents or the Governor's press agents. That somehow, the children just willingly appeared on a school day to participate in the Governor's event. If you look closely at the image, it is clear that only a few of the children seem to be aware of what is going on around them.
Someone had to have pre-visualized this event with the children being used like extras in a movie. I think it is imperative for the public and the press to question such practices.
Children have been exploited by politicians to peddle agendas for a long time and the press never ceases to pander to the powerful.
Looking at this image I have to asked a few pointed questions. For example, who are these children? Why do politicians use kids to peddle agendas in the media? Why do
journalists buy into such staged managed events that can obviously
impact or even bias public opinion? Are the children being paid for their performance with the Governor? How many children are there and where did they come from? Who paid for the shirts and signs? Who owns the little red wagon and made the well-designed ballot boxes?
We have laws protecting children from wrongful labor practices, but when it comes to using minors in photo ops like this one nobody seems to bat an eyelash. The verisimilitude of such an event seems rarely to come to the forefront of our consciousness. There is so much high stage craft involved in creating, what Daniel Boorstin calls, the "pseudo-event." In his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Boorstin argues that in our modern age news makers create events that are "somehow not quite real." A pseudo-event, according to Boorstin, has the following characteristics:
1. Pseudo-events are never spontaneous. Pseudo-events are planted, planned or incited.
2. Pseudo-events are planted "for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced."
3. The relationship a pseudo-event has to reality is nearly always ambiguous.
4. Pseudo-events are created to be self-fulling prophesies.
Images overshadow pale, less interesting, realities. Pseudo-events are staged for the camera to portend or forecast a desired outcome.
I am now beginning to understand better why the public seems to have so little faith in the press as an institution these days. Why should people trust the press when they seem to pander to an endless stream of pseudo-events.
Journalists are trained to provide balanced and accurate accounts to events in the world, but little attention is given to how these events are increasingly manipulated by special interests of all kinds.
I do not want to come across here as anti-media, but I would very much like to challenge how journalists cover politicially-driven pseudo-events, especially those exploiting children. I think that in order for journalism to survive against an onslaught of public relations stage craft and pseudo-events, transparency in how the process works would go a long, long way with news consumers.