The News: A User’s Manual
© 2014 Alain de Botton
The news more than any other modern institution has taken the role of shaping a nation’s collective consciousness, but what shape does that leave us in? Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual invites readers to think critically about the way consuming news through papers, the television, and online distorts our perception of ourselves and the nation in which we live, and ends with suggestions on how to make the news more meaningful. His intent is not to awaken anyone to media conspiracies, but to stir the reader’s soul, to spark an interest in human flourishing which has undergirded virtually everything else de Botton has written. This is more than anything a work of practical philosophy.
How can the news have a philosophy? Modern media outlets like to stress that they are unbiased reporting; they provide Facts, not idealism. Sure they do, and to what end? In a similar work, Neil Postman asked the reader, in view of their time spent watching and worrying about the news, what they intended to do about plague in Africa, wars in the middle east, and national inflation. The answer was, of course, absolutely nothing. There’s nothing we can do about such things, and to devote energy to considering them just turns us into distracted stress-heaps. The news-generating organizations claim to simply report what happens, but there is a bias in the selection of the facts: the ones they choose are those most liable to snag attention, either because they portend doom or because they’re utterly horrific. We might listen to the global news to feel connected to the human cosmopolis, but how effective in that goal is listening to the daily toll of scandal and disasters, really? We are numbed by the barrage of purposeless facts, distracted – in Postman’s words, amused to death.
No point is made in stories about politics or disaster to connect them to our lives, to craft a story that we will respond to. Even photographs are stupfyingly functional, included more as proof that the news article isn’t pure fiction. But the photograph of a Syrian man weeping as he holds his son, killed amid civil war, delivers far more emotional resonance than an article by even the most talented author. De Botton imagines redesigning newspapers along themes of human interest, . This is not some eccentric notion solely about the news that de Botton has; in Religion for Atheists he imagined redesigning museums to feature art about various themes of import (a Hall of Charity, for instance), and has written books like The Architecture of Happiness and The Art of Travel, ever with an eye for how to increase human flourishing. As with the suggestion about redesigning museums, it is difficult to imagine any media executive putting this advice to work. It requires thoughtful imagination to create an article about city council meetings that connects with greater discussion of the merits and limitations of democratic government, still more to use a report on some robbery-suicide as part of a conversation on how to further public morality in a secular age. In the marketplace of news consumption, where every paper and blog are hawking their wares as loudly and as brashly as they can, the odds are dim. It’s not impossible: consider Humane Pursuits, a blog that focuses its articles on fulfillment, hope, charity, and creativity, but HP reflects once a month at best.
Alain de Botton is a marvelous perceiver of things, deeply introspective and always unexpectedly funny. The value in reading The News, which is at is says a user’s manual, is that is opens eyes to the wearisome triviality burped up by the news. He never addresses the barrage of news and updates from television and our smartphones, and his ideals for some purposeful recrafting of the news would be even harder to apply to them. His essential criticism, however, that news in its present form is ‘bad’ for us, dispiriting if swallowed unthinkingly, applies across mediums.