Moving from a time and a society in which the news was hoarded by a select few at the top of the social ladder, to the seemingly-sudden abundance of mMoving from a time and a society in which the news was hoarded by a select few at the top of the social ladder, to the seemingly-sudden abundance of mass-produced newspapers in the mid-19th century, to today's situation in which we are saturated with readily-accessible, constantly updated news 24/7, cannot fail to have its repercussions. And not only because of the constant access, but because of what constitutes 'the news'.
Alain de Botton, populist modern philosopher, here scrutinises six different sections of the news - Politics, World News, Economics, Celebrity, Disaster and Consumption - delving into its impact on our lives and also offering up a utopian ideal of what the news could look like, if it was developed into a healthier version of itself. He asks the question, why does the news matter, and how can it be made to matter more, in a better way?
Journalism has been too modest and too mean in defining its purpose merely as the monitoring of certain kinds of power; a definition that has harmfully restricted its conception of itself and its role in society. It is not just a de facto branch of the police or the tax office; it is, or should be, a government in exile that works through all issues of national life with a view to suggesting ways to build a better country. (p.65)
This is an interesting idea, and, it seems to me, one that completely changes how we think of the news today. One thing that de Botton doesn't touch upon, but which my cynical mind can't help but throw up, is trust: while the news and journalists occupy a position of authority and reliability because of what it and they are meant to stand for, the reality is that we just don't trust them, not anymore. Granted, we believe what we read and hear in the news - we're not just well-trained, we're also well-positioned by the techniques journalists and editors use - but they have a long road to walk if they ever wanted to achieve the kind of position in society that de Botton hopes for, without them being accused of propaganda etc. - this because, as de Botton points out, the news and journalists believe in objectivity, which isn't really possible.
The self-help element aside (which doesn't sit well with me; I can't help but cringe at anything that slips into that category, as this book did), de Botton raises some pertinent and important points, and makes some interesting connections - and explains a few things. His note, in the preface, that analysing the news should be a core part of children's education stood out to me, a teacher, precisely because - in my state at least - we do teach this, albeit not as a compulsory subject. His observation of why the news is so boring was especially interesting to me:
What we colloquially call 'feeling bored' is just the mind, acting out of a self-preserving reflex, ejecting information it has despaired of knowing where to place. We might, for example, struggle to know what to do with information that a group of Chinese officials was paying a visit to Afghanistan to discuss boarder security in the province of Badakhshan or that a left-wing think tank was agitating to reduce levels of tax in the pharmaceutical industry. [...] It is for news organisations to take on some of this librarian's work. It is for them to give us a sense of the larger headings under which minor incidents belong. An item on a case of petty vandalism one Saturday night in a provincial town ('Bus Shelter Graffitied by Young Vandals in Bedford') might come to life if it was viewed as a minuscule moment within a lengthier drama titled 'The Difficulties Faced by Liberal Secular Societies Trying to Instil Moral Behaviour without the Help of Religion'. (p.27)
This leads de Botton into an interesting discussion on bias and how important it is, especially acknowledged bias. It reminded me of an article I read last year about bias in news media and how important it is, and how The Australian refuses to acknowledge its own bias (it's clearly right-leaning and conservative, but they deny having any bias at all). At times de Botton engages in proper analysis, but this was scarcer than I would have liked: it's analysis that my brain thrives on, not the waffle about being a better society 'if only' the news could do this or that. We won't make better journalists or news stations until we better understand what we're doing now, and that's where analysis comes in.
I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from The News: A User's Manual, because this is my first de Botton book and I didn't know what a philosopher's take on the news media might look like. In some ways, it was engrossing, informative, interesting, enlightening. In other ways, it was maddeningly frustrating because it kept veering off into what the news could be, when I really wanted to focus on what it is now. (That said, without this futuristic, utopian ideal, it could have been too shallow and pointless a book.) It was at its best when it delved into the role of tragedy and why we are riveted by news stories of horrible things (just the other day I sat down and read a heap of articles about the 33 year old father in South Australia who drove his car off a wharf with his two young sons, ages 4 and 10 months, in a murder-suicide. I sat there and cried and cried and cried. But I keep coming back to those articles each day. What's the deal? De Botton explains, and it makes sense); or explaining the behind-the-scenes action (or lack thereof) of a news outlet; or why we don't care about what happens in foreign lands; or the effect consumer goods 'news' has on our psychology. There was much more here to love and appreciate than to whinge about, but the some sections were definitely more powerful than others. In particular, I found the chapter on Economics disappointing - I got much more out of a lead essay in The Monthly last year ("Of Clowns and Treasurers" by Richard Denniss, July 2015).
He has some interesting things to say about celebrity news, and why individuals are driven to want to be famous. Contrary to what I would have expected, de Botton doesn't denounce celebrity news, which he views as "a pity", partly because he would prefer "serious people" to anoint celebrities rather than organisations "entirely untroubled by the prospect of appealing to the lowest appetites." (p.159) My instant thought, though, was: but they already do - there are a lot of mass-market-produced 'stars' out there. De Botton's call for intelligent, interesting people who can contribute to our lives in helpful, meaningful and insightful ways is one of the rare times when he sounds naive as well as dismissive, because there are already a wide range of "worthy" individuals. This is one of the times, also, where he slips into self-help mode: "What underlies both the Christian and the Athenian approaches to celebrity is a commitment to the idea of self-improvement, as well as the belief that it is via immersion in the lives of great exemplars that we stand the richest chance of learning how to become better versions of ourselves." (p.163) It's certainly true - it'd be a rare individual who was made 'better' by someone like Kim Kardashian, say - and I love learning about facets to ancient cultures and diverse religions. But he goes on:
We should cease to treat the better celebrities like magical apparitions fit only for passive wonder or sneaky curiosity. They are ordinary humans who have achieved extraordinary feats through hard work and strategic thinking. We should treat them as case studies to be pored over and rigorously dissected with a basic question in mind: 'What can I absorb from this person?' The interest that currently latches on to details of celebrities' clothes or diet should be channelled towards a project of growth. In the ideal news service of the future, every celebrity story would at heart be a piece of education: an invitation to learn from an admirable person about how to become a slightly better version of oneself. (p.165)
I don't disagree, yet I cringe at the idea of 'dissecting' someone in order to become a better person - maybe it's his language, but I can't help but picture scavengers picking all the meat off the bones of a once-elegant, 'worthy' beast. But then, I've never been interested in celebrity 'news' (comparisons to vultures have already been made) and it's one element of the human psyche I struggle to understand, that obsessive adoration of another. (There's definitely a similarity there between celebrities and religion, which de Botton skirts around with his own comparison.) But I definitely love to learn from others, and there are plenty of 'worthies' in the arts. I don't disagree with de Botton's encouragement to ask, in our own heads, 'what can I learn from this person?' It certainly leads to greater self-reflection and self-awareness, which wouldn't be a bad thing in general. I suppose I am well-taught in the school of scepticism, unfortunately, that I don't see his ideas taking root in modern, mainstream society. It was exactly this 'self-help' element that had me baulking at times, and makes it hard for me to write a coherent review.
A mixed bag of a book, but definitely worth reading....more