‘Kayfabe” is a word that you probably won’t recognize unless you’re familiar with the professional-wrestling business. It’s a term used by insiders and passionate fans to refer to the portrayal of wrestling personas, storylines, and choreographed action as “real” to spectators. When wrestlers are “in character,” they are maintaining kayfabe. When they’re not performing, and are just being themselves in the public eye, they are breaking kayfabe.
These days, professional wrestlers are widely recognized as actors who are simply playing a role (albeit an athletic and physically grueling one), but decades ago, kayfabe was fiercely protected within the wrestling industry, deemed to be a key element in drawing fans to arenas and television sets. Revealing the truth would have been professional suicide for a wrestler, like a magician giving away how his tricks were pulled off.
Even outside of the ring, wrestlers didn’t dare stray out of character in public, sometimes going to great lengths to preserve the illusion. John Stossel painfully discovered this in 1984, when he told WWF wrestler David Schultz that he thought wrestling was fake:
Iconic wrestling manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan told a lighter story about the industry’s commitment to kayfabe in his 2002 autobiography, describing a moment from the 1980s when a group of people unexpectedly walked into the hallway of a hotel where several wrestlers were staying and found the “good guys” cordially conversing with the “bad guys”:
They saw us all together. Our first thought was that they would think we all hang out together and we needed to protect the business. For some reason, we all started fighting each other. There we were, 30 guys in the hall hitting each other with working punches. . . . We turned around and there was no one there. They were on the elevator and could not have cared less. I had a big knot on my head from a cribbage board. Another guy hurt his knee. We thought we were keeping them from being smart. I think it was the other way around.
As time went on, however, WWE’s Vince McMahon succumbed to public scrutiny and began promoting professional wrestling not as a sport but as “sports entertainment.” The phrase subtly acknowledged that the product was more in line with performance art. This led to less media scrutiny and some lifting of the kayfabe pressures. Later, with the rise of the Internet, came an increased interest from fans in peeking behind the curtain and gaining access to the inner workings of the business. Pro wrestling evolved over time to accommodate that interest, discovering new revenue streams in doing so.
One has to wonder if sectors of our media will ever come under public pressure to draw a similar distinction between “news” and “news entertainment.” After all, we appear to have entered an era where even legitimate news organizations are now quite comfortable allowing their commentators to present tabloid-style stories and conspiratorial narratives that just don’t line up with the facts. We’re not talking about “fake news,” an increasingly meaningless term that people tend to apply to any story they don’t like. We’re also not talking about honestly held commentary that happens to venture into outlandishness. We’re talking about willfully dishonest or misleading narration put forth simply to draw in viewers or readers.
News-media kayfabe is not a new phenomenon, but its increased acceptance within respected news organizations is a clear break from the past.
Some left-leaning news networks and publications have certainly waded into this arena with their constant drumbeat of claims that President Trump colluded with the Russian government during the election. At this point, there’s still no evidence supporting that conclusion, but you might not get that message from a lot of the commentary coming out of those quarters. Also, similarly to how CNN obsessively covered Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, previously reported information on the Russia story is routinely repackaged as breaking news. Outlets do this to maintain an audience that desperately wants the allegations to be true.
On the right, Sean Hannity’s shameless exploitation of the Seth Rich murder has placed him squarely in the conspiratorial company of Alex Jones. Determined to feed his Fox News audience a juicy “liberals are evil” story, Hannity has been advancing the debunked charge that the DNC staffer was killed for leaking damaging information on the Democratic party to WikiLeaks. And Hannity has been doing this despite repeated pleas from Rich’s family for him to stop.
These are examples of news-media kayfabe, where the product is entertainment presented as genuine news. While news and entertainment have long gone hand in hand — executives and producers are continually thinking of ways to make news coverage and analysis more entertaining — news-media kayfabe is different in that its practitioners are under no obligation to inform or enlighten. In fact, it’s more of a distraction device than anything. News-media kayfabe is not a new phenomenon, but its increased acceptance within respected news organizations is a clear break from the past.
News-media kayfabe is about intrigue and capturing the audience’s imagination. Just as a lot of pro-wrestling fans were once convinced that what they were watching was a sport, many media consumers believe that what they’re getting from these people is actual news. A key difference is that the pro-wrestling industry, under public pressure, eventually figured out that the charade was unsustainable. Though the business shared many elements of a legitimate sport, it wasn’t one. Thus arose the concept of “sports entertainment.” When it comes to the news-media, however, it’s difficult to see this evolution ever taking place.
Suddenly acknowledging certain segments of the media as “news entertainment” wouldn’t fly, especially given how infused these same outlets are with legitimate news offerings. Too much capital has been invested. Too many reputations are on the line. Big ratings and other financial successes have been achieved. And perhaps most important, the public simply isn’t ready for it.
The reality is that many people need “news entertainment” to be actual news. They need it to confirm their biases. They need it to defend the political arguments they have on the Internet and with their friends. For many, it’s more important to feel right than it is to actually be right.
And for that reason — perhaps more than any — the illusion will live on.
— John Daly is an author of thriller novels and a political and media columnist for BernardGoldberg.com.