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Martha Burk's Pseudo Event

Martha Burk's Pseudo Event

6 Mins
August 26, 2010

June 2003 -- Surely, if Martha Burk of the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO) has learned anything from her attempt to force the Augusta National Golf Club (ANGC) to admit women as members, it is that she has no future as an events planner. Her own protest was a flop. A host of bizarre exhibitionists turned the demonstration site into a circus. And the Masters Tournament went off without a hitch.

But to evaluate Burk by the standards of reality is to miss the point.


On Saturday April 12, under a perfect sky, the big day began when a chartered bus from Atlanta pulled up and Burk's legion of supporters rolled into action—all seventeen of them. Then, joining ranks with members of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the mother of all protests swelled to forty, outnumbered by the police two-to-one and by the press five-to-one. The whole thing was over in about an hour.

Ten months earlier, Burk had sent her fateful letter to ANGC chairman William "Hootie" Johnson, urging the club to open membership to women before this year's Masters Tournament. Since then, the New York Times alone had run ninety-five stories in support of Burk's demand. Miles of videotape had chronicled Burk's every appearance, accusation, and whine. Yet Burk and her henchpersons could not fill a single school bus. Nothing daunted, Burk found the pluck to declare, "I don't think we're hurt by [the paltry turnout] at all" ( www.msnbc.com , April 17, 2003).

More damaging, one might suppose, was Burk's failure to keep the protest on an elevated moral plane. After the obligatory playing of Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman," Burk's supporters inflated a giant pink pig bedecked with a banner labeled "Augusta National Corporate Pig's Club" and plastered with the logos of companies whose executives are members of ANGC. Having descended to that level of crassness, Burk was in no position to complain when the free-for-all began.  

It included Todd Manzi, an out-of-work Florida ad man and self-appointed Burk nemesis, who has established two anti-Burk Web sites. J.J. Harper of Cordele, Georgia, set up a tent and three tables and referred to himself as a "one-man Ku Klux Klan group." ("It's not really a black-white thing," he said. "My favorite golfer is Tiger Woods" [New York Times, April 13, 2003].) Adding to the commotion was Atlanta resident Dave Walker, a staunch supporter of Operation Iraqi Freedom, who wore a baseball hat that read "Give War a Chance." The Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson came from Los Angeles with five members of his virulent anti-Jesse Jackson group. A lone man in a tuxedo carried a sign that read "Formal Protest," and a group called People Against Ridiculous Protests practiced what they preached by planting a hand-lettered placard that read "Look at all the ridiculous people." Lastly, what better way to round out Burk's debacle than with an Elvis impersonator? Mac Gaddy of Charlotte, North Carolina, tackily resplendent in a white sequined jumpsuit, oversized sunglasses, and a black wig, reasoned, "This is such a zoo, I figured it needed an Elvis sighting" (New York Times, April 13, 2003). In a fitting coda to the sideshow, he struck a karate pose and started crooning "It's Now or Never."


The organizer of an ordinary protest might be appalled if his event descended into such an absurd environment. But to understand why Burk's protest did not fail, one must grasp that it was a pseudo-event, in a sense defined by Daniel Boorstin more than forty years ago. (See The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America . New York: Harper & Row, 1961.)

According to Boorstin, a pseudo-event has four characteristics. (1) It is planned rather than spontaneous. (2) It is planned primarily for the immediate purpose of being reported. (3) Its relation to the underlying situation is ambiguous. (4) It is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, if the president of a financially sound bank holds a press conference in order to get out the word that his bank is sound, the announcement is planned and held for the sake of being reported, but it is not a pseudo-event. The statement's relation to underlying reality is one of truth. But if the bank is fundamentally unsound and the bank president is trying to prevent a justifiable run, then the news conference would be a pseudo-event, in Boorstin's sense.

Playing the media is a technique Burk learned back in Wichita, Kansas, where as chapter president of the National Organization of Women (NOW) she adopted a strategy of getting NOW mentioned in the media at least once a month. With the ANGC Burk got more creative. Not content to "make news" legitimately, she planned and advertised a pseudo-event that would give her protest the credibility it did not have. So long as the demonstration was extensively reported and photographed, the occasion would become evidence of her cause's justice. Thus, the three-ring circus that swirled around her did not detract from her own protest's power; it supplemented it.


Jim McCarthy, the Washington, D.C., crisis-management consultant hired by Augusta National evidently did not grasp this dynamic of pseudo-events when he said: "It seems obvious to me that her credibility has been shattered. Her whole campaign was premised on widespread support, and she delivered an embarrassingly small number" ( www.instapundit.com , April 16, 2003). That is to misunderstand Burk's strategy and the way that pseudo-events become self-fulfilling.

Burk has revealed the course she intends to pursue. Her next phase will be a "corporate accountability campaign" to "follow the money"—by pressuring the PGA Tour and its thirty-seven corporate sponsors to lean on ANGC to open its doors to women. The NCWO will write letters to all the tour's sponsors and warn them: "Here's our new campaign, you're part of it, deal with it" ( www.USATODAY.com , April 17, 2003).

This strategy has already begun to work. At this year's event, Citigroup had none of its customary junkets for hundreds of its top insurance agents, and the golfers themselves had to make do with rented cars rather than new Cadillacs normally provided by General Motors. Earlier, Burk had warned General Motors that if they supplied cars this year, her protesters would be carrying signs: "Cadillac. The official car of discrimination." Similarly, corporations such as J.P. Morgan Chase and the Southern Company decided not to entertain their business partners there this year, while others were reluctant to use Masters Tournament tickets to reward clients and employees as they had in the past. Even a number of sports-marketing consultants stayed away or reduced their numbers.

Not all companies altered their involvement. CBS went forward with its customary telecast, and IBM provided the tournament's Web site again this year. Others with no ties to ANGC or the Masters—Georgia-Pacific, Sprint, and Lucent Technologies—did entertain customers. But in the end, corporate attendance was down an estimated 30 to 40 percent.

Hootie, of course, remains Hootie. Interviewed three days after the tournament, he confidently told the Atlanta Journal Constitution, "There never will be a female member, six months after the Masters, a year, 10 years, or ever" ( www.msnbc.com , April 18, 2003).

Nevertheless, Burk's strategy is smart. There is an old saying: Capital is a coward. Whenever there is trouble, uncertainty, or anxiety—however unfounded in reality—money and moneymen tend to head for the border or to buy off their tormentors. For them, profits outweigh principles—witness the success of Jesse Jackson's shakedowns. Already, as noted, several businesses were intimidated by Burk's commotion into staying away from the Masters. More may well follow if Burk continues her crusade of pseudo-events.

So, who will stand up for the elite Augusta National Golf Club if corporate titans will not? One group of supporters will be the ordinary citizens of Augusta who think of values beyond money, like kindness and tradition. "We hold tradition in very high regard here. It is the core of our community," said Elaine Clark Smith, secretary/treasurer of the Georgia Medical Center Authority. "A major part of that core is Augusta National. It gives so much back to this community" (New York Daily News, April 13, 2003). Sandra Johnson, the regional executive director of Safe Homes, a domestic-violence intervention center, took offense that Burk and the big-city press had painted her beloved hometown as some kind of redneck Mayberry: "We have a wonderful ballet, a wonderful opera and a great art museum. Augusta is a big part of why this is a special community. We raised $1 million for the victims of Sept. 11, and then we get bashed by the New York Times" (New York Daily News). And alluding to Augusta National's having donated $7.25 million to charities since 1997, Lee Smith, president of the CSRA (Central Savannah River Area) Community Foundation, said, "You just can't find a better corporate citizen than Augusta National" (New York Daily News).

Nor are the ordinary citizens of Atlanta the ANGC's only potential allies. After four decades of being told that their associations and organizations—from schools to Scouts—do not conform to the ideals of the politically correct, many average Americans are fed up. And they are angry with politicians like Representative Carolyn Maloney (Democrat of New York) who threaten to use the far-reaching financial tentacles of government to strangle all dissenters. (Maloney wants to forbid people from deducting as business expenses dues paid to private clubs that practice exclusionary policies.) Perhaps the ANGC can win this battle if it makes common cause with such ordinary citizens and not only defends the ANGC's right of association but helps to restore a right of association for all Americans.

This article was originally published in the June 2003 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

Russell La Valle
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Russell La Valle
Civil Liberty