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The Target of Their Desire

July 10, 1988|LEO BRAUDY | Leo Braudy, author of "The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History," is Leo S. Bing professor of English at USC.

IN THE entertainment business, public relations has always been an honorific term, when it hasn't referred to the kind of behavior that used to be scandalously reported in Confidential magazine in the 1950s and by everyone else in prime-time some 20 years later. At first, publicists were hired by the studios, but with the end of the studio system, more and more of them, like the agents they emulated, set up on their own.

Intermediaries are the name of the game in Hollywood now. Like the guys who offer to get you taxis, hotels or whatever when you land in Tangier, they sell access at both ends: No star or studio will hire them if they don't know the media; no media outlet will take their calls if they don't have the clients.

That the most powerful publicists try to dictate the terms of press coverage is hardly a surprise. Today it's not unheard of for some writers to split a fee with a star in exchange for exclusive access. In the late 1960s, with such hit-parade articles as the "10 hottest chili parlors" and "the 10 best-dressed slumlords," such magazines as New York and such tabloids as the Village Voice pioneered a new role for American journalists--not as interpreters or analysts so much as intermediaries, winnowers and gleaners. Since then, the number of celebrity-oriented magazines has grown, while the "serious" news outlets favoring the fad and face of the moment (have you seen Newsweek recently?) struggle to catch up.

The term public relations originated in the wake of the World War I mobilization of media propaganda for the American Way of Life against the Hun. Then it tended to refer exclusively to the methods by which banks and corporations--reeling from muckraking reporters and trust-busting Presidents--could piously evolve from the public-be-damned attitude of the Robber Barons into at least the semblance of social responsibility.

In great part, it was a way of fighting the press with the press's own weapons. An early classic, H. S. McCauley's book "Getting Your Name in Print" (1922), was not, as we might assume today, filled with genteel advice on self-promotion, but addressed itself to what White House press secretaries have since called "damage control" in reaction to iconoclastic, "bohemian" reporters out to become the local Ida M. Tarbell or Lincoln Steffens.

But for those who cherish the ironies of cultural history, it seems appropriate that the man who coined the term public relations was Edward L. Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays and those who sought to establish public relations as a profession with a code of ethics and other dignified trappings particularly wanted to distinguish their work from sordid "press relations" and "publicity." But for the general public, the model of public relations wasn't the high-minded justification for oil drilling in the city park but the breathless revelation that "Theda Bara" was an anagram for "Arab Death." Whatever the nuances, it was all PR.

Back in those palmy days of PR, when the magic was fresh, the appearances of names in the news seemed like a natural phenomenon--an eruption of brains and talent, beauty and heroism that couldn't be resisted. Of course, there were always the obvious publicity-grabbers--the flagpole sitters and the goldfish eaters of each generation. Few people knew that Charles Lindbergh and J. Edgar Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt had press agents. Or that some of the great entertainment and literary feuds of the '30s and '40s were cooked up or at least heated by a someone who received 10% from all parties involved. But with the new media self-consciousness, the apparatus of publicity has become part of the story.

So the final trick up the publicity sleeve is what might be called the "Salinger syndrome" or the "Pynchon paradigm," to invoke the names of the writers who have most famously practiced this form of assertive withdrawal. In the movie world, this kind of selective disappearing act may salve the performing client's moral hesitancy about hiring a publicist. But it seems unsuited to tapping the enigmatic appeal of successful film acting. When a celebrity publicist claims to do publicity only for the career, not for the person, what does that distinction mean in a "business" where the body and the self are the instruments of professional craft? Was that thump Lee Strasberg rolling over in his prompt box?

Finally, one might reasonably ask, does a Time cover or a spot on "Good Morning America" really sway the public that used to be the nominal focus of public relations? Probably as much as do TV ads for dog food, at least for the first week of the film's run.

But it's also reasonable to wonder if the "public" is the real target after all. With the exorbitant price of single issues, magazine newsstand sales have dropped even further in relation to subscriptions--and who with a subscription really cares about this week's cover? A more plausible audience is the producer who wants to know that her film is getting a lot of PR, the star who wants to be sure his craft is being respected and his private life ignored, and the journalist who wants to convince his editor of his unparalleled access. Call it a dance, call it a vicious circle, call it public relations--they need each other. All we can do is watch.

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