Professor Irving Rein is a scholar of hype.
Two years ago, he trooped his Northwestern University class backstage at Drury Lane to observe Pia Zadora. Now, his feelers are in seventh heaven over Ollie. That sheaf of fan mail he brings to the Iran-contra hearings! Rein isn’t fooled. He’s prepped Richie Daley, Adlai Stevenson, and Harold Washington before debates. He’s lectured astronauts on becoming better public figures.
The machinations behind public images are exposed in Rein’s new book, High Visibility, written with Northwestern colleagues Philip Kotler and Martin Stoller. Here are some chapters: “The Pygmalion Principle,” “The Quest for Celebrity,” “Audiences,” “The Techniques of Transformation,” and “Sustaining Celebrity.” The book says consumers aren’t supposed to know what goes on behind the scenes–because when they find out, they’re crushed by fakery. The authors even believe that charisma can be taught.
People magazine refused to do a story on the book. “They weren’t going to do anything that took the mystery out of celebrities,” said Rein. “One senior editor saw it as debunking. They could have looked at it as ennobling. That would be a great headline for this piece: ‘Banned at People.'”
Hype has oozed through Hollywood and politics into all sectors of professional life. High Visibility tells us that in 1952 an ad man named Rosser Reeves marshaled jingles and surveys to “package” an “unflashy general” and presidential candidate named Dwight Eisenhower the same way he’d packaged Anacin. Before long, most everybody was chanting “I like Ike!”
Now, businessmen, lawyers, athletes, doctors, and religious figures are increasingly transforming themselves into celebrities. “The beginning motivation is to do something well,” said Rein. “Then money starts to intrude. It’s only natural. But I think it can corrupt people and relationships.”
The book explains how Geraldine Ferraro became the first vice presidential candidate to sell soda pop. Why the Fridge has a removable tooth (so he can appear either serious or comical). Why Gary Keillor became Garrison (to make his name worthy of the New Yorker). It examines Father Andrew Greeley moving into writing raunchy novels and heart-transplant surgeon Dr. Christiaan Barnard endorsing a $75 wrinkle cream called Glycel.
The book refers to all these people as “aspirants” for fame. “I never met anybody who would turn their back on fame–or notoriety,” said Rein. “To be unseen is to be unsold.”
The professor has done some hype himself for the book, traveling to nine cities so far for interviews. “I’ve kept extensive notes on everything that happens,” said Rein. We took a wild guess that the media folks have sought a bit of personal advice for themselves. “All the time,” said Rein. “Radio and television personalities take me aside all the time and say ‘I’m very interested in high visibility.'”
What about Rein himself, who could be a billionaire in ten years with a global chain of Irv Rein’s Image Institutes? “No, I’m really not tempted. I think about it. But I like this. I like to think and I like to write. It’s a marvelous thing to sit in an office with all these books and be able to contemplate these kinds of issues.”
Naturally, he’s been pondering Ollie, whom he’ll probably use in the classroom next fall. “North had two interesting strategies. When pressed, he would go into a monologue about America–‘I’ve got to deal with bad people because I have to protect America’–and second, when he got in a tough situation he’d turn to his lawyer and break the momentum. This technique broke the line of questioning . . .
“What happened to Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne? Well, they’re Ollie North. We have real people now. We don’t need those actors anymore. We have the real McCoy. These accidental celebrities are becoming our fiction. No movie will be able to match that. And Ted Koppel is the messenger of the new, nonfiction celebrity culture.”
As for North, “Americans will have an opportunity to consume him. He’ll be on the circuit, mark my words. He and Donna Rice will bump into each other.
“In a way, this high visibility is all about us,” said Rein. “It’s not about Ollie North. It’s about us and our values and where we are in this country. It’s almost like a Rorschach.”
Dick Beidel has made himself keeper of the flame for what he calls “American journalism” at NBC. A Chicago-based news writer, Beidel speaks with a striker’s passion about the conquest of the news business by conglomerates. “They want to gut and kill American news as we know it,” he told us.
The bean counters have no business in his house, he says.
Last year General Electric took over RCA, which owned NBC. “You cannot turn a national arms manufacturer into a supervisor of the public trust,” said Beidel. He says General Electric could “subtly” turn NBC into a propaganda arm for itself. “Subliminal or real pressure could be placed upon us and our subjective news judgments to honor the mobility of GE,” said Beidel.
“If any hanky-panky is going on, we will blow the whistle. And I’ll be the first one to do it if it happens on my shift.”
Beidel has written news for NBC for 21 years. He is a network negotiator for the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, which consists of writers, camera operators, and sound, light, and color technicians, and which went on strike June 29. Now, on Channel Five news, we see crude graphics, borrowed sports tapes, and funny colors. Secretaries are operating technical machinery and ad salespeople are working the cameras.
The highlights of Beidel’s career include three Emmy awards and two victories over management regarding the airing of controversial tapes. You may remember footage of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in Vietnam–or footage of a Saigon police chief putting a gun to the head of an enemy prisoner and pulling the trigger. Not the sort of stuff people want with breakfast, said management. But Beidel, who was midwest coordinator for the Today show, ran it anyway.
The issue of “daily hires” is at the heart of the strike. Beidel says management wants to replace fired, retired, and expired workers with free-lancers. Beidel says this would erode union jobs; and he says daily hires would do whatever management ordered–they wouldn’t have the job security to fight for, say, controversial footage from Vietnam.
This year, General Electric ranks sixth in the Fortune 500. It had sales of $36.7 billion in 1986, and profits of $2.49 billion. Besides light bulbs and refrigerators, GE makes jet engines, military satellites, and reentry devices for missiles.
A Channel Five staffer told us, “I questioned from the very beginning GE buying us, because it’s such a big defense contractor owning an electronic newspaper of the airwaves. There’s a danger of conflict of interest. Defense contracting is riddled with payoffs and such and political favoritism.”
But the strike isn’t over defense contracting, and we’re told it isn’t being waged with half the fervor Beidel feels. The 2,800 striking workers hadn’t even seen the network’s “final” offer when they were ordered to stop work. And in Chicago, at least, most of the 300 NABET members went out reluctantly. “They had no say in it and they didn’t want to strike,” said the WMAQ staffer. “That’s a fact.”
“We did not bring it to membership formally,” acknowledged Beidel. He said NBC’s last offer contained new and unacceptable language concerning daily hires that he suspects GE imposed on the NBC negotiators. NABET charged NBC with negotiating in bad faith. The National Labor Relations Board sided with NBC. NABET is appealing that ruling. “We feel the NLRB is dominated by the antiunion Reagan administration,” said Beidel.
Both sides will meet with federal mediators on July 20. And even after a contract is agreed on, questions about conglomerates and their electronic newspapers, and about the role of unions today, will remain unsettled and unsettling.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.