The News: A User’s Manual
Alain de Botton
Paperback, 272 pages
If the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life” were sung today, instead of singing “I read the news today, oh boy,” John Lennon might just sing “I saw the news today, oh boy!”
“Oh, boy!” Indeed.
On its Web site, CNN’s breaking news around 10 p.m. CDT July 9, 2018, is a photo of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court Justice nominee, at a podium presumably at the White House or on Capitol Hill or somewhere in D.C., the president smiling smugly in the background, Kavanaugh’s family off to one side, wife smiling lovingly.
This is important news, right? At least for the U.S.? Then why do I almost automatically disengage from it? Why don’t I click the photo to read or listen to the story that follows?
Below the photo is a headline: “Trump’s Supreme Court pick is a DC insider who worked for special counsel Ken Starr during the Bill Clinton investigation in the 1990s.” That headline is among many about Kavanaugh.
Twelve hours later, Kavanaugh’s nomination is no longer the lead story. The lead is about the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. Scrolling down, however, I can pick from five different headlines analyzing Kavanaugh. Still, I find myself uninterested enough not to click any of the links.
It’s not that I’m politically apathetic. I vote, I sometimes follow political news and even comment here and there, usually on Facebook.
The problem: There’s already so much analysis about Kavanaugh, just from this one source, it’s numbing. My problem, as with many of us who follow the news regularly, or not so regularly for that matter, is that it’s the same story different name as the last nominee. I could begrudgingly switch to the Fox News Web site, and though they’re likely to praise the nomination, the analysis, in general, will be similar. I’m disengaged because I’m bored with the analysis, no matter who’s presenting it; it will continue in the days, weeks and months leading up to the justice’s confirmation — and then continue afterward until his first decision, which, in turn, will get analyzed … well you get the picture.
This sort of disengagement is addressed in Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual, an analysis of how news, as it’s presented now, affects us, and how the news could be better and serve us better as consumers of it — and as providers of it, better present it.
“We regularly come across headlines of apparent importance that, in private, leave us disengaged,” De Botton writes. “Boredom and confusion may be two of the most common, but also two of the most shameful and therefore concealed, emotions provoked by so-called ‘serious’ political stories presented by the news organizations of modern democracies.”
De Botton is an essayist, philosopher and public intellectual known for such books as Essays on Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. He also runs the School of Life, a school, as its Web site notes, dedicated “to developing emotional intelligence,” a sort of self-help school that promotes philosophy, art and literature over pop psychology as practical sources for changing lives and making one’s way in the world a bit more tolerable.
On the surface, in De Botton’s estimate, the news, no matter what’s covered — politics, crime, celebrities — doesn’t make our lives more tolerable. Even just a casual perusal of the news is likely to cause us fear or anger, despair or apathy or lust or envy, depending on the stories we follow, or where we happen to catch the 24-hour news cycle. Some news might elicit all these emotions at once.
The medium in which the news is presented doesn’t seem to matter. De Botton draws examples from print, TV and presumably online — given that most print media (or what once was print) is now followed online. (The book was published on the cusp of social media’s dominance as an outlet for news, even individually created “news,” and smart phone technology, but with minor adjustments, De Botton’s critique easily applies to those media as well.)
For instance, here are some headlines De Botton cites early on from the BBC that could have come across our newsfeed on Twitter or Facebook or on TV at any time and pretty much from any source, local, national or international:
- “COUNCIL SPENDING ‘LACKING CLARITY’”
- “ANTI-TAX GROUP LEADS CONSERVATIVE CHARGE”
- “SYDNEY MAN CHARGED WITH CANNIBALISM AND INCEST”
Only the third headline might command our attention, but probably just insofar as to cause us anger or outrage at such hideous acts. The story itself would in print probably run three-to-four-hundred words in length or gain a minute or two of broadcast time, and then it would become a mere piffle in our minds. Just a few of us, including the journalist reporting it, would follow the story from arrest to prosecution to sentencing — unless the Sydney man happened to hold celebrity status or the story itself, especially in trial, were to reveal gory, gruesome and macabre details. Otherwise, it’s water-cooler talk.
Which, is the issue, De Botton says. What’s the point?
De Botton offers possibilities to improve news and its presentation, primarily suggesting news dig deeper into the “whys” of events or people it reports on are important. Why should we care about a war in Africa when we’re drinking our coffee in our kitchens in the U.S.? What if we see the every day lives of those caught in the war, to see the universals in their lives, then maybe we might just care some? Or we might see a crime as more than just an event in which in which we can express our self-righteous outrage at the perpetrator.
“The tragedies of others should remind us of how close we ourselves often are to behaving in amoral, blinkered or violent ways,” De Botton writes. “Seeing the consequences of such impulses harrowingly played out in the lives of strangers should leave us feeling at once scared and sympathetic rather than hubristic and self-righteous.”
While on one hand De Botton’s suggestions for how news should be gathered and presented is highly idealistic — especially to the reporter, the journalist who is frantically trying to daily fill column space or airtime with something to keep his job — on the other hand, his ideas are intriguing and his critique of the news is spot on in the way it influences those who consume it.
As reporters, we often just go about writing the city council story, knowing the city’s budget will usually fall short or that the next Supreme Court justice will influence the workings of the nation one way or another. We will too often go just to the people in power to get some quotes and then go onto the next story and talk to more talking heads. We ask the same questions and get the same narrative. We don’t always go out with our notebooks to understand the whys of a story, to dig out what a story means, if anything at all.
The kind of journalism De Botton seems to advocate does exist in longform magazine writing, it existed at its best in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, et al, emerged. But then, that style peaked by the ’90s. Still, those journalists ferreted out meaningful stories by training literary lenses on their subjects.
Is this the kind of journalism consumers of news now want? Do they have the attention span to read such stories, to watch a lengthy documentary film? Perhaps after reading De Botton’s book, they will want more of that kind of journalism, rather than what they are getting?
I want to think that’s what news consumers want — news with meaning and richness of texture, news that looks at the world in its ordinariness as an artist does. It’s why I am encouraged when I read a great narrative piece in a magazine, online, or even in a newspaper. It’s why I was encouraged that until a few weeks ago CNN had a great show that showed us the world through its people, its food and its culture in the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”
I would like to see De Botton’s idealistic approach put to the test. It might be more encouraging and less “Oh, boy!” than you think.