A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

not merely superfluous, but ridiculous

The News: A User’s Manual – Review

Parts of this article are taken from my Goodreads review.

Complaints about how “everything is negative on the news” are a cliché at this point, but still an interesting one, if only because the implications of the cliché are so rarely examined. Is our quality of life actually negatively affected by knowing so much about the world? Would we live better lives if we knew less about the daily tragedies of life, the thousand disasters and missteps that occur in the world each day? Or are the feelings of negativity and despair the news so often creates more a function of how it is presented rather than what it presents? In The News: A User’s Manual, Swiss author Alain de Botton considers the latter theory, and tries to come up with some suggestions for how the news, as an institution, could be better handled.

The first thing to mention about the title of this book is that it’s essentially misleading. It appears practical, matter-of-fact, a guide to using the news in a way that will be more efficient or give you a more accurate understanding of the world. And although the book does occasionally get around to doing that, its primary objective is far more utopian than the title suggests. De Botton doesn’t think we’ve been reading the news wrong—he thinks news organizations have been delivering it in the wrong fashion, and goes about explaining how he would like it corrected. It’s not a user’s manual so much as it is an internal missive to the technical writing department about how he would like the user’s manual arranged.

The book begins by paraphrasing Hegel, who suggested that “Societies become modern…when news replaces religion as our central source of guidance and our touchstone of authority.” This idea becomes the premise of the book. From there, de Botton’s investigation is fairly schematic. He follows the same process for each section of the news:

  1. Identify what each part of the news purports to do
  2. Explain some way in which the section falls short of its stated objective
  3. Examine how ancient civilizations used to deal with similar issues, with a particular focus on the things they addressed which the news does not
  4. Use this older social structure as a blueprint to reform this section of the news.

A helpful example exists in de Botton’s investigation of sensational and disastrous stories that appear in the news: horrific car crashes, a teacher’s statutory rape of a student, a murder-suicide occurring in the suburbs. De Botton comes to the reasonable conclusion that these stories are newsworthy, in part, because they touch on the fascination that humans have with death and catastrophe: in these stories, we are invited to view some extreme of incident or human behavior that we have successfully avoided. This reminds de Botton of the tragedies of ancient Greece, which were often dramatic retellings of historical catastrophes—if something like the plot of Oedipus Rex happened today, you can be sure it would lead in the ten o’ clock news. The difference is that the works of Sophocles and Aeschuylus were written with a strict moral purpose in mind: tragedy, in their hands, became “crucial resources for the emotional and moral education of a whole society.” Today’s news, by contrast, focuses on prurient details rather than plumbing the deeper moral questions with which Athenian drama tended to engage, and de Botton makes some utopian-but-interesting suggestions for how the news could be overhauled to provide moral and emotional construction alongside its usual cataloging of sensational facts.

What emerges from this process is essentially a guide to how the humanities could help create a version of the news that enriches people’s understanding of the world by moving the news beyond a hastily-assembled collection of facts, and trying to use it to present a coherent picture of the world. De Botton’s argument seems to be that, because the news shapes so much of our understanding of the world, we shouldn’t leave it to chance and editorial fiat to decide how it shapes that understanding—instead, we should seek to create a news service that consciously reinforces the values of our society. As interesting as this idea seems in theory, it could also be dangerous in the wrong hands: one could see similar arguments being used to defend state propaganda, or news that attempts to push a particular political or religious ideology.

Fortunately, while the book doesn’t seek to do much regarding the way we view our news, it does end up giving some good advice on that front. By being conscious of the way our news influences our outlook, we can have more autonomy in the way we understand the world, and do more to remedy our own blindspots. By reading travel writing, longform nonfiction, and fictional retellings of historical events, we can gain a more rounded and nuanced understanding of the people and events around us. Anyone who feels as though the humanities have nothing practical to offer people would do well to read de Botton’s work.

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This entry was posted on 10 October 2016 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , .
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