Entry from July 29, 2010

The day before the Afghanistan War Logs were made public by Wikileaks in The New York Times (along with The Guardian in Britain and Der Spiegel in Germany), the Times’s Sunday Magazine ran an essay by Walter Kirn in the series “The Way We Live Now” titled “The Art of the Deal as Entertainment.” In it, Mr Kirn notes that, in certain areas of public exhibition — entertainment, sports, politics — “it’s the business that’s the entertainment and the art of the deal that’s the art that draws most notice. We have become a society that is fixated on process and absorbed by the slippery, complex machinations of the middlemen, brokers and executives who conspire offstage to determine what takes place onstage.” He calls this “procedural voyeurism” and cites the saga of Lebron James earlier this month and last year’s contretemps at NBC between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien over hosting duties at “The Tonight Show” as examples, although the interest of ordinary people in a movie’s box office returns as much as the movie or the NFL draft as much as the Super Bowl strike him as comparable.

As if deliberately called forth to illustrate this proposition, a 1500 word story by Howard Kurtz appeared in the next morning’s Washington Post on how the saga of Meltdown Mel Gibson, interesting as it may or may not be in itself, also “forms the lurid backdrop of a blogosphere battle for gossip supremacy in Los Angeles. TMZ, the Web site that made its name by disclosing Gibson’s drunken, anti-Semitic rant to police in 2006, is suddenly being challenged by Radar, a twice-failed print magazine that was reincarnated as a Web site just over a year ago.” Gosh! I wonder who will win. Not, of course, that the public’s interest in this titanic struggle for the computer screens of the nation had quite displaced its interest in Mr Gibson’s violent and racialist fantasies, but insofar as these could be said to bear upon his future earning power in Hollywood they were themselves examples of the kind of meta-narrative Mr Kirn had been writing about.

I myself had seen something similar the night before in the season premiere of Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men” on AMC portrayed its hero, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), as learning that, in order to be a successful advertising man in the new media world of the 1960s, in order to sell his products, he has first to sell himself. And in order to sell himself he has to present himself as the hitherto unsung hero of his new agency, the moody, psychologically “interesting” creative power behind the scenes who is responsible for its success. The episode was bracketed by a pair of interviews, the first of which, with Advertising Age, was seen as a failure because Don adopted the self-effacing, “Midwestern” attitude that had been the desideratum of the previous decade and was typical of his character in Seasons 1-3. The second interview, with The Wall Street Journal, takes place at the end of the episode and is meant to point us forward by its sly self-promotion, its hints of conflict and anger beneath the surface that attract attention to him at the expense of his agency colleagues.

The running story of the Wikileaks that has followed in the days since then has similarly concentrated on matters of procedural voyeurism — that is, not what the 92,000 documents reveal about the war in Afghanistan, which appears to be of very little interest to anybody, so much as who revealed them and whether the publication of such hitherto secret documents was a good or bad thing and, what effect they may have on the politics of the war and what they may tell us about American intelligence-gathering methods and procedures. The “debate” over the war itself is unlikely to be affected, I think, though ability of our forces to conduct it may well be compromised and some of those who are named in the documents as American or allied informants are likely to be killed. But what does the low-life entrepreneur who published the documents, Julian Assange, care about these people?

The lesson of “Mad Men” and Mr Kirn’s “procedural voyeurism” should have been taken to heart. The contemporary media culture is founded on the need to give people the impression that they are being given privileged information, that they are being taken behind the scenes to find out what really happened — which is therefore assumed to be something other than what it appears to be. The meta-narrative always trumps the narrative, even when the former adds little or nothing to the latter. Even when it distorts it, as secret information dragged into the light of day before its time and out of its context usually does. All that the leaks really tell us is that Mr Assange understood the media’s insatiable need to flatter their consumers with the illusion of being privy to hidden knowledge — not because they need to know but just because it is hidden. Don Draper would doubtless approve.

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