Daniel Boorstin’s ‘The Image’ and the News Media

Daniel J. Boorstin's book 'The Image'

Several months ago, I picked up Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America. A 1960s classic of American cultural criticism, the book is a scathing indictment of what the author saw as the emerging tendency in the United States at the time to manufacture and worship virtual experiences over the real.

Boorstin exposed these changes (fuelled by rampant capitalism), in several different areas and professional fields: from the news media to the burgeoning global tourism industry, to advertising, the entertainment business, and the propagation of the “American Dream.”

Daniel J. Boorstin's book The ImageIn each field, the projection of an ideal image or product—what Boorstin famously coined a “pseudo-event”—had come to replace some real-life version preceding it.

He tells us, for instance, that whereas fame had in the past become attached to individuals who had in some way earned their notoriety through great acts of will or genius, modern “celebrities” by contrast had merely become “famous for being famous.”

For Boorstin, this marked the beginning of America’s decline: a descent into fantasy, illusion and lies whose trajectory would reach no good end. The mind-altering and culture-warping impacts of digital and screen-based technologies that came to us decades later, make The Image a kind of prophetic work.

As a writer and journalist, the one thing that stood out for me in Boorstin’s tome is his depiction of the news media’s behaviour. One instance he illustrates is particularly poignant.

Early in the book, the author writes about the relationship between political demagogue Senator Joe McCarthy and the American press corps, whom, Boorstin argues, empowered the rogue politician through the coverage they gave him in the 1950s. What amazed me is that nearly word-for-word Boorstin could have been writing about the relationship between today’s news media and former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Boorstin writes of McCarthy:

He had a diabolical fascination and an almost hypnotic power over news-hungry reporters. They were somehow reluctantly grateful to him for turning out their product. They stood astonished that he could make so much news from such meager raw material. Many hated him, all helped him. They were victims of what one of them called their “indiscriminate objectivity.” In other words, McCarthy and the newsmen both thrived on the same synthetic commodity.

He goes on to say:

Senator McCarthy’s political fortunes were promoted almost as much by newsmen who considered themselves his enemies as by those few who were his friends. Without the active help of all of them he would never have created the pseudo-events which brought him notoriety and power. Newspaper editors, who self-righteously attacked the Senator’s “collaborators,” themselves proved worse than powerless to cut him down to size. Even while they attacked him on the editorial page inside, they were building him up in front-page headlines. Newspapermen were his most potent allies, for they were his co-manufacturers of pseudo-events. They were caught in their own web. Honest newsmen and the unscrupulous Senator McCarthy were in separate branches of the same business.

Understanding News Distortion

Book cover - Veils of DistortionI’ve always been intrigued by the gap between perception and reality. Our preoccupation with fake news has made us forget that ‘real news’ can—even if in more subtle ways—skew our picture of reality. The endless offerings of news in the digital age, whether fake or otherwise, are fast replacing direct knowledge of, and personal experience with, the immediate world around us. This is perhaps why so many people have made the decision in recent years to ‘tune out.’

I’ve written a book about this—a respectful and what I hope is a thought-provoking critique of the hard news biz from the perspective of a newsroom journalist.

Veils of Distortion explores the unseen and subtle dynamics by which mind, medium, and professional practice amalgamate into this strange creature we call ‘the news.’ It also looks at what we can do—both as news workers and consumers—to begin to mitigate its warping effects.

Available from major online book sellers.

Risk-Takers and the Risk-Averse

A Toronto pub closed during a COVID-19 lockdown

The friction between business entrepreneurs and public servants during the Covid-19 pandemic, reflected here on this pub window during lockdown in Toronto, is reminiscent of the age-old tension between agrarians and pastoralists.

It also begs a recurring question: how much of what we believe-in and support is determined by our proclivities and mindset, including what is—or is not—at stake for us?

Vancouver’s North Shore Rescue

Search and rescue volunteers dangle from a helicopterI have an article appearing in the Winter 2019 issue of Montecristo magazine about the life and work of Mike Danks, the Team Leader of Vancouver’s North Shore Rescue. Danks and his volunteer colleagues sacrifice their free time and sometimes put their lives in harm’s way to rescue hikers, skiers, snowshoers and climbers who becomes lost or injured in the Coast Mountains north of the city.

You can read about their work here.

Sasquatch in the Media

Image of a Sasquatch postage stamp from CanadaSince the release of In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond in the USA in July (and in Canada in August, respectively), I’ve been up to my eyebrows in work plugging the book.

I’m grateful that the response has been unanimously positive (so far) from literary reviewers and the media.

In addition to Amazon featuring the work as one of its 10 Best Books of July 2019, the work has garnered a medley of print, online, radio, podcast and TV plugs in North America and the U.K. A list of the more notable mentions with links, including from The Washington Post, can be found on the Press page of my website.

For the more hardcore Sasquatch buffs out there: you might be interested in reading an essay I wrote in July for Lit Hub in which I wax philosophically some more about Bigfoot and reveal details about a strange incident that occurred to me on Vancouver Island just before the book was published.

I’d like to offer a heartfelt thanks for everyone’s interest and support.

The Year of the Sasquatch

The Six Million Dollar Man SasquatchTomorrow, my first book, a work of narrative non-fiction, entitled In The Valleys of the Noble Beyond: In Search of the Sasquatch is being published in by Grove Atlantic in the U.S. In the run-up, I’ve posted a couple of Bigfoot related interviews on my other web blog, The Planisphere, that will be of interest to wildman aficionados.

The first is with Daniel Taylor, an American conservationist who spent over 60 years searching for the Yeti of Nepal. I question him on his findings and conclusion that the Yeti is in fact nothing more than a species of Asian bear. Taylor recently published a book about his more than half-century journey in search for an answer. In the interview, he explains how and why he came to that conclusion.

I also speak with Canadian adventurer, “Survivorman” Les Stroud. Sasquatch enthusiasts will know Stroud from his popular Survivorman Bigfoot TV series that ran a few years ago. He shares his thoughts about working on the documentary program and what he’s learned from his years navigating Sasquatch subculture.

The Psychology of Survival

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and WhyI’ve taken an interest in stories of survival in extreme, life-threatening, situations. I got hooked after reading the better known mountaineering classics like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void – jolting, fast-paced reads about the unrelenting power of the natural world and our frailty when faced with it.

Since finishing those titles I’ve devoured virtually everything found on the topic from Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, about the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex in 1820, to Erik Bjarnason’s Surviving Logan about an ill-fated climbing expedition on Canada’s highest mountain in 2005.

As a travel and adventure writer, I was bound to become entangled in this subject sooner or later. Not only have I met lots of people who’ve had close brushes with death, but as an avid hiker I’ve found myself increasingly cognizant of the dangers of travel in the backcountry. Those of us who are active outdoors are more acutely aware of stories about wilderness mishaps and people becoming lost, or simply vanishing without a trace. These incidents are far from rare. I’ve been disoriented in the mountains myself, and have had a few close calls with bears, so I know how quickly and unexpectedly one’s fortunes may turn for the worse.

I’ve just read a superb book that conveys the essence of why people tend to get into trouble in the outdoors – and how they either pull through, or succumb to, their difficulties. Laurence Gonzales’s Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why is a book about the psychology of survival. His work examines case studies of tragedy – and near tragedy – in the outdoors to explain how those situations came to pass. Gonzales weaves in cognitive psychology, philosophical perspectives on human behaviour and his own do’s and dont’s in dangerous scenarios to create a sort of tao of survival.  The book argues that our mental attitudes, habits, perceptions and the state of our awareness play a huge role in our ability to avoid, and survive, life-threatening situations.

For Gonzales, self-awareness is the fundamental ingredient. “To survive, you must find yourself,” he writes. “Then it won’t matter where you are.”

Deep Survival is not just applicable to extreme sports and the outdoors. It is a guide to surviving life. Below are just a few of the many ideas running through this rich and thought-provoking book.

1. The ability to manage high emotion arousal is an important survival skill.

The reason we are constantly adjured not to panic in an emergency is because we become mentally handicapped as result. We flee or freeze and become obtuse, unable to see and find potential solutions to our dilemma. High stress, excessive emotion, and panic narrows our perception. Gonzales writes, “Cortisol and other hormones released under stress interfere with the working of the prefrontal cortex. That is where perceptions are processed and decisions are made. You see less, hear less, miss more cues from the environment, and make mistakes. Under extreme stress, the visual field actually narrows.”

2. Mental flexibility increases our survivability by allowing us to adapt to changing circumstances.

Humans have a notoriously hard time changing their minds about something, even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Too many people get into trouble in the outdoors because they are attached to their plans, even when the conditions or circumstances on which the successful execution of those plans are based, change.

“Survival is adaptation, and adaptation is change,” writes Gonzales, “but change is based on a true reading of the environment.”

3. Humility can save your life. Arrogance and boldness can forfeit it.

This is related to the point above. There is no dishonor in turning back or forfeiting an outing or expedition if the conditions or circumstances appear untenable beyond reason. Desire and ambition result in a rigid ego that drive blind, willful execution of goals. For that kind of mindset, nothing but the objective, matters. Sometimes not even survival. And that has often lead to tragedy.

4. The right information will increase your chances of survival.

This not only applies to knowing what to do in various emergency scenarios, but in how to avoid trouble in the first place. For instance, novice hikers tend to get into accidents because they don’t do sufficient research on their hike. Specifically they sometimes don’t ask themselves whether they are fit enough for the hike, or how long they require to complete it. The result can be injury and/or getting stranded on a mountain after dark.

5. Patience is often a pillar of survival.

We don’t realize that our goals always take longer to accomplish than we estimate and want. Because faster is considered better and more efficient in our “time is money” culture, we tend to push to do things quicker than we should. This heightens the risk of accidents.

6. When people become lost in the woods, or mountains, they often try to make their surroundings fit their mental map of it (a behaviour known as ‘bending the map’). They constantly seek out the landmarks they know, but instead tend to become more lost and expend precious time and energy in the process, increasing their chances of death.

People who are lost in the wilderness should aim to recreate their mental map to reflect the new surroundings, which makes you at home in a place, relaxes you somewhat, assists you in seeing and thinking better, and helps you survive long enough for someone to possibly come to your aid.

7. By helping others In a survival situation, we also help ourselves.

Helping another person survive – whether it means attending to an injured friend, or trying staying alive for the benefit of a loved one back home – offers an increased chance of living because it gives you the deeper purpose and drive that runs contrary to the mentality to simply give up. “When Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was lost in the Lybian Desert, it was the thought of his wife’s suffering that kept him going,” Gonzales writes.

Unalaska Island Photo Essay

Unalaska Island in the Aleutian archipelago of Alaska, United States. BBC Travel is running my photos from a trip to Unalaska Island in the Aleutian archipelago of Alaska. It’s a corner of the US once occupied by Russia and whose residents were interned after the Japanese invaded the region during World War Two. Click here to see more.

On the Experience of Time

Clocks and watches and clockworks
Photo by Mobilos via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been noticing something very peculiar about time of late. When I’m deep in my more regular routine, working a day-job and seeing the same friends and family under the usual circumstances, it feels like time is passing very quickly. Life feels shorter, contracted, and devoid of a certain pithiness. Time ticks-by evermore briskly. During these periods, it even seems to vanish or disappear when gazed at in retrospect. “Where did all that time go?” I sometimes ask myself. It is something we all experience.

On the other hand when I travel to new places, or when I see and do new things, time feels expanded, stretched, and lengthened in a very positive way. There is a sense that more time is available, and elapsing, than is usual. It unfurls like the volume of surface territory in a mountain range if one were able to flatten and stretch it out. No matter what kind of journey I’m on, whether it’s a long-weekend away, a trip of a few weeks, or a period of months, the time that elapses always seems to feel double or triple that indicated by the calendar.

I was recently in the U.K. for two and a half months living in a new city I had never before visited. Almost everything was novel about the experience. By the end of my stay, I felt as though half a year had elapsed. It’s a pleasant and uncanny experience to feel like you’ve been handed a slight extension to life.

We know from scientific research in a field known as quantum gravity that time is neither uniform nor experienced in the same way by everyone everywhere. Contrary to our learning and conditioning there are many versions of time. The way we experience it depends on numerous factors and circumstances.

Author Carlo Rovelli writes in his recent book The Order of Time that time goes by faster the higher you are; it moves slower the faster you are moving; that it has no fixed forward directionality; there is no “present” apart from nanoseconds between past and future; and the further you travel from another person, the more time separates notions of a shared “now.”

“In the 2014 film Interstellar,” writes Rovelli in the Financial Times, “the hero travels to the vicinity of a black hole. On his return to Earth, he finds his daughter older than himself: she is an elderly lady, he is still middle-aged.

“This is not Hollywood fantasy, it is how the world truly works. The film’s scientific consultant Kip Thorne has since received the Nobel Prize in physics for his role in detecting the gravitational waves emitted by merging black holes. He knows his topic. If we do not experience similar time distortions in our daily life, it is only because here on Earth they are too small for us to notice.”

Though too slight to perceive, the time distortions Rovelli mentions nonetheless demonstrate that time is relative and malleable. Where its relativity matters most at present is within the context of our own experiences and consciousness. This is proven by our observations and comments regarding time. We often describe time as “dragging,” or “flying by” or “standing still.” In adulthood, with its incessant busyness and tyranny of routines, it is common for time to feel like it is escaping us entirely – taking much of our lives with it.

I’ve been wondering what it is about travel, or about seeing and doing new things, that makes time feel more like it is giving – rather than taking.

Photo: John Zada

While I was in the U.K. I went on a 3-day hike with my partner through the rolling countryside of Yorkshire Dales National Park in the north of England. As usual, by the end of the trip it felt like at least a week had elapsed. When I asked myself what happened during the trip that was different from my regular routine at home, a few things stood out. My partner and I were constantly problem solving, trying to determine the correct route through the park (the trail we were following would sometimes fade or vanish). Our visual background was constantly changing as we moved through many landscapes. Farmland and pastures would quickly give way to forested ravines that soon changed to hilly, windswept moors which then gave way to roads and village squares. It was as if theatre sets were being constantly rolled in and out in succession. We saw lots of animals, insects, trees, plants and flowers. Many people crossed our path, some of whom we met and conversed with. And there was loads of conversation between the two us – and silent thoughts to occupy us when we weren’t speaking. In other words: we were fully engaged with life, taking in lots of new stimulus and learning at almost every turn.

It occurred to me that if time is partly a register of the amount of change we experience from one moment to the next – as Aristotle defined it – then the more visual and mental stimuli one takes in, the more time seems to unfold – thereby lengthening it. Put another way: we may unconsciously quantify time based on how much, or little, we learn. When we are seeing new things and having novel experiences, time feels expanded relative to our normal lives, which are by comparison filled with the familiar.

When we travel it feels like we’ve lived two or three times our normal lifespans because we, in a sense, are actually doing more living. We are using our brains differently, processing new patterns or thinking differently to address new situations. Our experiences are denser and richer than when we are re-experiencing the same patterns again and again as part of our regular routines, which are essentially journeys along neuronal ruts akin to well-worn highways. This is when the feeling comes that time, and our lives together with it, are slipping away.

This has potentially big implications. If we try our utmost to fill our time with real learning and new experiences, whether at home or while travelling, then perhaps life won’t feel quite as short as the famous refrain suggests it is.

Emotionalism & the News Media

The television studio of Al Jazeera English in Doha, Qatar

The rumours had been circulating for weeks: the announcement of a royal engagement was in the offing. Preparations went into high gear at the television news station to cover the announcement. We were all in a state of red-alert.

And then, with little more warning, the big day came.

At the morning editorial meeting it was one story to rule them all. Coverage would run all-day and include interviews with royal watchers, pundits, commentators, members of the excited public – anyone willing to speak.

Meanwhile, a massive fuel barge loaded with three million litres of diesel had become disabled in a bad storm off the Pacific coast of British Columbia, threatening an environmental disaster. That and other important stories had received scant mention, or had fallen under the radar in the early morning hours, because of the news of the upcoming nuptials.

“Would we run any other stories?” I asked a colleague.

“Not a chance. We’re going with wall-to-wall coverage. It’s a royal engagement!”

Hours into the show, the broadcast went live to reveal the happy couple stepping outdoors to face the paparazzi. The would-be bride nonchalantly raised her hand and flashed her diamond ring as the cameras simultaneously zoomed-in. A collection of high-pitched shrieks and sighs rose from several women in the newsroom. The lengthy on-air analysis which followed that moment was accompanied by a breaking news banner in red at the bottom of the screen that read:

“The One-of-a-Kind Royal Ring”

It was all very surreal – but also part of a larger and now familiar trend. When I considered our news coverage from the weeks, months and even years prior – whole daylong cycles of national news devoted to local murder trials, celebrity deaths, and the various scandals de jour – it was clear that the trend over time was to run with stories that were ever more sensational and emotionally loaded. The more I thought about it, the more I could see that society as a whole seemed to be in the grip of the same condition: a preoccupation with high emotion.

Our popular movies have become faster, more violent and peppered with terse dialogue spoken rapid-fire. Extreme division and polarization has hobbled our politics and negated the art of compromise. The tabloidization of even our most respected media organisations continues unabated: political and celebrity scandals have become de rigueur, eliciting disproportionally emotional responses from an entranced public. Social media has amplified our willingness and ability to share our opinions and oppose others – raising the emotional pitch even further.

Traditional Eastern psychology has long warned of the negative consequences of emotional overindulgence – and its distracting and blunting effects. The Sufi writer Idries Shah often wrote that people seek excitement, stimulation and emotion over truth – regardless of what they might otherwise claim. The idea that excessive emotion can interfere in our ability to observe subtleties, make nuanced discriminations and appreciate a wider reality was a major theme of his work.

“Emotion is a powerful consideration in human life,” he writes in Knowing How to Know. “It must be understood.”

It is not hard to appreciate the seductive power of emotionalism. Emotions serve the purpose of drawing and fixing our attention to important circumstances in the environment. They can be visceral and deeply stimulating – evidence that something important is happening – often eliciting a clear-cut reaction rooted in self-certainty. But high emotion, tied as it often is to various forms of self-preservation, causes us to think in the shortcut of absolutes. This black-and-white thinking turns our minds into obtuse instruments incapable of registering subtler shades of the truth.

Nothing seems to summon this very human proclivity to feel and react (as opposed to the more sober and measured effort to understand) as much as the news media. Though news serves an important function in keeping us informed and abreast of developments in the world, as well as being a check on political power, it can often come at a heavy price. It’s a common refrain that the majority of the stories covered in the news are negative. Bad news stories capture audiences because our minds evolved to perceive dramatic and threatening events in our environment. However, this incessant drumbeat of negative and pessimistic stories and images ripples out across society, setting a bleak emotional tempo for our lives.

As a freelance writer and journalist I periodically work at a national television news station where I am able to see how programming and story decisions are made. After the arrival of the Internet, the competition among more and more media for less and less advertising revenue has made news organisations desperate to attract the largest audiences possible. Though they have always sought to grab, hold and monetize our attention, most news companies have crossed a new threshold that have them going for the emotional jugular whenever possible.

The standard approach is to excite, anger, titillate, sadden and entertain audiences using the easiest and cheapest-to-produce stories. More virtuous, investigative, slower, truth-telling journalism – always hard to come by in the best of times – has become that much rarer.

Polemical debates and celebrity stories dominate the news cycle. If the two can be combined, all the better. Crime stories, mostly pertinent to local audiences, are now lifted from their narrower contexts and given national or international coverage. Because our brains are story-processing machines, news is often shaped and framed in a way most easy for us to consume: into archetypal tales in which a good person, suffering at the hands of a villain or exploiter, struggles to find justice. In addition to goading audiences to take sides in a conflict, this tactic also simplifies issues into easy to understand binary positions.

Though excellent and laudable work continues to be produced by some news organisations, they still tend to warp reality through exaggeration, simplification, and excessive repetition – often giving the impression that their stories define all of life and the world at any given moment. But of course the map is not the territory. Our world, in its great complexity and immensity, bears little resemblance to its news-born caricatures. And like the fish that has no idea it is in water because it is surrounded by it, whole newsrooms have become largely unconscious of what they are doing: sewing large scale anxiety throughout society.

We need to recognize these dynamics and their influence on our individual and collective emotional states.

So, how do we avoid having our emotions manipulated without tuning-out of media completely – or cutting ourselves off from the world?

A two-pronged approach might be taken. The first is to be parse and nimble in our consumption of information, an approach which could include:

1. Choosing news sources that are more likely to look at the bigger picture, and less likely to harp on the petty and trivial.

2. Periodically attaching and detaching our attention from the news instead of incessantly monitoring or binging on it.

3. Trying to see any story from as many different perspectives as possible, as opposed to just the one or two sides that tend to actually be represented.

4. Questioning the accuracy, relevance and importance of any given story – even those from the most reputable news organisations.

5. Combining, contextualizing and hedging any news with our own personal observations and experiences – and those of informed contacts. Sometimes our experiences, and those of people we know, will provide exceptions to, or will contradict, what the news is telling us.

6. Discovering other “news” in the world that we’re not hearing about in the mainstream – including, and especially, developments that are positive.

The second approach is to find ever-more satisfaction in our own lives – in our work, hobbies and projects. When we are healthily engaged in undertakings that are genuinely satisfying and stretching, we are less prone to pettiness and seeking stimulus from elsewhere – including from sensational news stories that are fundamentally not relevant to our lives.

Polemical, fear-inducing and/or sensational news media stories are the “bread and games” of our age. The more we can free our thoughts and emotions from the loops of neuroses they might induce, the more capacity we might have for seeing and appreciating the less thrilling, yet more holistic, weaves of nuance about our world that might more accurately depict it.