At the latest Golden Globes Awards ceremony, Oprah Winfrey, the biggest celebrity among TV hosts, gave a speech so touching that it moved the event’s attendees. Beyond the content or deep meaning of her words, the emotional tone of the message sparked a political debate. In these dark times for American democracy, Oprah’s acceptance speech became a promise of leadership for some progressive voters. It’s not a far-fetched idea: Oprah for President. It is even likely. Reagan was president and he came from the entertainment world. Trump, too. Let’s not forget that his talent as a communicator originates from the years he worked in television.
I do not intend to analyze the meaning of Oprah’s words. I am more interested in the phenomenon that is the White House spectacle. How did it become a territory invaded by celebrity and scandal? Nowadays, it’s closer to being a reality show than to being a democratic institution of the most powerful country in the world. Washington, D.C., is not the only place where the culture of fanfare has conquered the public sphere. Umberto Eco already chronicled the Berlusconi era. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy lived inside his own novel. The entertainment world is the only attraction for those who have lost all confidence in their leaders.
As ideologies are defeated, an era says goodbye while new gadgets that grab the public’s attention fit perfectly with the entertainment industry. With the fall of the great utopias, credibility turned into the main political virtue. Thus began a new political game with new rules and tools for offense and defense. Neither rational arguments nor innovative proposals are of any use. What is important is how to undermine your opponent’s credibility. How do you attack public trust in order to strike the adversary’s vital nerve? In this new scenario, the culture of scandal raises five key elements:
1. New technologies. The ubiquity of information and the speed to broadcast it in real time. There are no geographic distances nor time zones;
2. We are all reporters. Anyone with access to a phone that has a digital camera can capture a partial image of reality that could become scandalous news;
3. After the fall of the wall, the disappearance of another border became clearer each day: the line separating public from private.* All the arguments get tangled up on that thin line, letting the spectacle of entertainment creep in;
4. The absence of a culture of law and swift justice gives rise to the court of public opinion based on information from the media, where culpability is handed out left and right and sentences are irrevocable. When someone is accused in a scandal, there are no consequences if the accusation is false. What was once called moral damage is done. One’s reputation is useless;
5. But most importantly, scandal, more than anything, is a narrative; a form of storytelling. It has a structure. The melodrama turns reality into a choice between good and evil. Without nuance. A Manichean vision. However, it also includes a narrative that introduces elements of mystery and suspense found in detective plots. It must never be forgotten that it is the nature of scandal to grow and grow. It seeks out accomplices in suspects or witnesses. There will always be one sequel or more. This is inspired by literary series from 19th-century novels, the heirs of Alexandre Dumas.
What brought about this commentary on the culture of scandal following Oprah’s speech? It came about because I think if Oprah has the opportunity to be a presidential candidate, it is due to the same reasons that made Trump’s victory possible. There is still much to learn about this phenomenon in political communication. Where is Mexico’s Trump or Oprah? Millennials do not even know who Raúl Velasco was.**
*Editor’s note: Although this sentence is translated accurately, the author’s meaning with regard to “the wall” is unspecified and ambiguous.
**Raúl Velasco was the Mexican host and producer of the TV show “Siempre en Domingo” (Always on Sunday), one Mexico’s most popular television programs. He died in 2006.
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