So it's farewell to August, and good riddance. The 1987 version has been a genuine stinker: brutally hot weather, a terrible air crash, nonsense from all political quarters, dangerous games in the Persian Gulf -- and a couple of the worst media circuses in memory. Take your pick as to which made the month most memorable and/or distasteful; but it will take some doing to top the media circuses.
They involved Elvis Presley, his late and sainted majesty, and Paul Molitor, a baseball player for the Milwaukee Brewers, and they were three-ring affairs of the gaudiest variety, replete with barkers and ringmasters and dog-and-pony shows and animal acts and high-wire spectaculars and, heaven knows, clowns. Behind them trailed a one-ring affair having to do with Marilyn Monroe, she also late and sainted, but by comparison with the big top this one was strictly small town.
The occasions that inspired these circuses were something less than momentous: the 10th and 25th anniversaries of the deaths of Presley and Monroe, respectively, and the attempt by Molitor to break Joe DiMaggio's record of hitting successfully in 56 consecutive baseball games. But from the insane hoopla with which the media greeted these events one would have thought that the Second Coming had at last transpired and that He turned out to be Sylvester Stallone.
Was there a newspaper, a magazine, a radio or television station -- a wire service, a network, a cable system -- that failed to send its crack reportorial team to Memphis for the Presley obsequies? If there was, it has not come to my attention. As for the Molitor show, it seems to have drawn as many sportswriters as the World Series and Super Bowl combined; one television sports fellow -- for some reason he was in Baltimore rather than Milwaukee, along with everyone else -- proclaimed with awe and pleasure that the streak was being covered by representatives of all three commercial networks "and even PBS."
Chalk it up to a slow news month if you will, except that this August was anything but, what with Iran-Iraq and Iran-contra and Bork-Biden and the Seven Dwarfs and all the other business that messed up the front pages. The truth is that the media had more than enough to keep themselves busy this August without manufacturing news, but they simply couldn't withstand the temptation. A central if disagreeable fact of life in the new American age is that the media create circuses as reflexively and prolifically as rabbits create rabbits; it's a biological urge, and apparently an irresistible one.
But it is the circus, not the event itself, that really matters. In their pell-mell rush for the latest hot story, the latest sensation, the media are utterly uninterested in the actual people or the social and cultural realities that have created it. What counts is the "story," which at times seems wholly unconnected to the event taking place and almost always manages to trivialize or misinterpret it; whatever attracted attention in the first place invariably gets lost in the flash and dazzle with which the media smother it.
Certainly the Molitor sensation is a case in point. The Milwaukee player seems a level-headed and likable young man, and a gifted player who probably has been prevented from achieving his full potential by a succession of injuries. This summer he came off one of those injuries and went on a roll: the perfect mesh of skill and luck with which players in any sport only rarely are blessed. By the middle of August he'd run his hitting streak to 25 games and then ... bingo! Showtime!
Showtime means lights, cameras, screaming reporters, postgame press conferences, two-second spots on the national news, Johnny Carson, Bryant Gumbel, David Letterman -- add it all up and you have your basic media circus. But what gets lost in all this, and what sooner or later gets spoiled by it, is the true nature of what is being done. To hit successfully in 39 consecutive games -- which is what Molitor's streak reached before it ended, mercifully, last week -- is a rare and wonderful thing, but the rarity and the wonder disappeared in all the mindless chatter about whether Molitor would break the record; and surely all that chatter did nothing to help Molitor concentrate on the task at hand.
That, though, is of no moment to the media circus. It sweeps along from story to story and town to town, bleeding every ounce of sensation and "human interest" out of each and then marching on to the next. That Molitor achieved something quite precious is entirely beside the point: He didn't break the record, the story is over, sayonara. Paul who?
As for the Presley binge, that was one for the books, a record-setter for consecutive days of wretched excess. Poor Elvis lurched into his grave years before his time, but the media seem determined to resurrect him at each anniversary. They did so this time around in stories and broadcasts that threatened to suffocate the nation, that gave us more Elvis than even his most devoted acolytes possibly could have stomached.
What was most important about the Elvis media circus, though, was not its celebration of Elvis and his followers but its condescension to and exploitation of them. To discuss the subject is to exhume one of America's dirtier little secrets, but the truth is that the Elvis cult is a working-class phenomenon and the press is a middle-class institution. Though the media clearly felt they had no choice but to stage a circus for the Elvis anniversary, one did not have to sit in the tent for long to see the contempt with which the business was done.
Newspapers, magazines and broadcasters contributed their full share, but the paradigmatic case in point is a book called "Elvis World," written by Jane and Michael Stern and published by Knopf. Though represented as a loving compilation of artifacts and arcana from the Elvis cult, it is in fact a piece of slumming by authors and publisher alike -- a $35 coffeetable book that manages the not inconsiderable feat of exploiting the market for Presley memorabilia on the one hand while sneering at the memorabilia as kitsch on the other. Like the Sterns' previous books on ordinary American food, "Elvis World" wants us to know nothing so much as that it is superior to the subject it capitalizes upon.
There is nothing unique about that, though. Whatever people or events it focuses upon, the media circus is an inherently exploitive and contemptuous phenomenon. The media may have seemed to be applauding Paul Molitor, but they were merely using him; they may have seemed to be honoring the memory of Elvis Presley, but they were merely condescending to his admirers. In the media circus, the story is everything and the people who create it are nothing.