The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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MAR 2014 Issue

“News” Under the Sun

Alain de Botton
The News: A User’s Manual
(Pantheon, 2014)

Sometimes it seems that the only media consumers left are fellow journalists. How else to explain the miles of newsprint devoted to the next longform feature magazine, or the proliferating “media” staff reporter positions at respected publications, or the podcasts and blogs whose sole subject is The Media and its major players? It must be that as journalism flounders, we journalists are ever hungrier to learn that we’re still relevant, still kicking.

And yet, as London-based essayist Alain de Botton argues in his latest effort, The News: A User’s Manual, for all this reflexive coverage, the news—as opposed to the broader media—fails to question the assumptions upon which it’s built. “For all its determined pursuit of the anomalous, the one thing the news skillfully avoids training its eye on is itself, and the predominant position it has achieved in our lives,” he writes.

The scope of de Botton’s inquiry is, thankfully, not the pressures facing the industry, but the fact of the news itself. The News—silent on journalism’s future business model, the effect of Internet deadlines, or Twitter—is “an exercise in trying to make this ubiquitous and familiar habit seem a lot weirder and more hazardous than it does at present.”

While he’s mostly successful, providing a delightfully written, surprisingly funny and thought-provoking argument, the book suffers from relying on this old-fashioned definition of the news, coming off as academic, rather than pragmatic.

Along with making the news seem “weirder,” de Botton wants to improve it. He advocates that reporters and editors learn a thing or two from art—to focus on context and character, rather than stringing together disjointed facts and “randomly dipping readers” into long, complicated narratives.

How can we improve crime reporting? By depicting criminals as flawed human beings, rather than monsters, much like the heroes of Greek tragedy. Why do we find international news so boring? Because the article on the corruption scandal in Uganda says nothing about what it’s like to walk down a Kampala street. “We need a kind of foreign news,” he writes, “that lets the poets, the travel writers, and the novelists impart aspects of their crafts to journalists.”

After all, the stakes are high: the news introduces us to the rest of the world and creates a story about our own corner of the globe, it distracts us from the existential dread of our lives, and gives us a sense of relief “at our restraint in never yet having poisoned a colleague or entombed a relation under the patio,” de Botton writes.

However, even if we agree that the news needs art to get better—and de Botton is persuasive—The News looks at such a small slice of the media landscape, namely the front pages of the world’s mainstream newspapers and an occasional broadcaster, that it feels divorced from reality.

For all the havoc the Internet has wreaked on the news, it has created some of the things de Botton seems to want: niche publications that dive deep into certain areas of coverage, opinion blogs that make news figures into characters, interactive graphics that tell a story in a different way, and so on.

More troublesome: though de Botton’s stated goal is to make news better, his solutions are all geared toward a monolithic News entity, rather than a roiling business that’s reinvented every day. For example, in a section on celebrity news (which itself feels like a tangent on the nature of fame), de Botton argues that we should anoint celebrities who are examples of the best kind of human, much like the Catholic church’s reverence for saints or ancient Greece’s admiration of athletes. We should “pick out for ourselves a set of people of genuine worth” and “treat them as case studies” to learn to live better. Really? How exactly would this work?

That said, de Botton makes great use of sample headlines to underscore the absurdity of the news (“Suri Cruise, 7, to launch her own fashion range”), and the book is laced with humor. An example: “We don’t know whether anyone has ever had a normal day in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for no such thing has ever been recorded by a Western news organization.”

The author’s prose is also imaginative and considered, a seeming rebuke to the formulaic and clichéd writing that comes out of the daily news grind. He notes that “headlines don’t constitute an ultimate account of reality so much as … hunches plucked out of a pool of several billion potential events that daily befall our species.”

And later, he nails the pressures of the newsroom on the head, illuminating both the brutality and necessity of reporters’ indifference: “the news hub has the institutional amnesia of a hospital’s accident and emergency department: nightly the bloodstains are wiped away and the memories of the dead erased.”

De Botton does a good job of drawing our eye to those bloodstains, but nothing in The News suggests those stains won’t be wiped away just the same tomorrow night.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues