The News: A User’s Manual, by Alain de Botton (Penguin, 2014)
This pretty gold and white hardback – as small and sparkly as an old Bible – presents itself as a gentle, slightly brainy consumer guide to understanding the news. It is the twelfth book in almost as many years from the influential British philosopher Alain de Botton, whose topics have included religion and atheism, modern life lessons from ancient philosophy, happiness and love, the joys of Proust and what it is like to spend a week in arrivals and departures at London’s Heathrow Airport.
De Botton asserts that religion is exhausted and “the news” – a ubiquitous, demanding, unrelenting, distracting, bamboozling, idiotic or boring stream of undefined stuff – has risen to take its place.
The book’s assertions swiftly pile up, like newspapers in stack: religion once dispensed hope, now news does; religion taught us good from bad, now news does; religion showed us the meaning of life but this function had been outsourced to the news too.
The news is significant yet opaque. The mechanics of news production are hidden and therefore hard to question. People are taught to understand and appreciate poetry and art, literature and history and yet we are helpless when it comes deconstructing celebrity snaps on the Daily Mail website. De Botton is here to help. His manual analyses a couple of dozen news stories about economics, disaster, celebrity and so on, filling what he sees as a void.
“We are never systemically inducted into the extraordinary capacity of news outlets to influence our sense of reality,” he writes.
At this point (three pages in), I grabbed a pencil and began to scribble outraged comments in the margins. “Hello! Media studies!” is the first one. “Not true!” is the next. The ‘Politics’ chapter prompted: “This argument is actually bizarre”.
De Botton may not have encountered the disciplines of cultural studies, media studies, journalism studies or even sociology and politics but I can assure him that tens of thousands of others have and that we are all well equipped to think critically about how journalists, editors and producers construct the news.
Media studies theory informs primary school curriculums, internet memes and the longstanding sub-genre of TV and radio shows that either spoof or critique the news, everything from the BBC’s Not The Nine O’Clock News (1979-1982) to the “fake news” of American comedian Jon Stewart’s Daily Show to Australian comedian Shaun Micallef’s news satire MAD AS HELL and Radio New Zealand’s weekly Mediawatch program and ABC Radio National’s Media Report.
Perhaps all this popular culture production has passed de Botton by but there is no excuse for his apparent blindness to more than half a century of brilliant scholarly thinking about news and the media. Roland Barthes Mythologies (1957), Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer (1990) and Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) are three essential manuals for any users who want to understand the news and media. De Botton’s work, while beautifully written and designed, is not.
Indeed, much of The News is actually directed at news producers. De Botton ignores the catastrophic cuts in newsrooms in the past decade and what the job losses mean for the skeleton crews of remaining news workers. Instead, he imagines a fantasyland where foreign correspondents work at a scholarly pace, drawing on the techniques of “great art” and literature in their work and where celebrity journalism gives readers “psychologically rich, pedagogic portraits” of stars. Get real! I wrote next to that line.