The News: Alain De Botton

De Botton plays a similar game in his book, reprinting headlines – real ones – and inviting the reader to consider why, for example, “Sydney man charged with cannibalism and incest” is a more attractive story than “Tenants’ rent arrears soar in pilot benefit scheme”. The author wonders if our dash to read the first and not the second, to prefer distant sensation to local information, shows that at heart we are “truly shallow and irresponsible” citizens, or if the blame lies with journalistic convention and its “habit of randomly dipping readers into a brief moment in a lengthy narrative … while failing to provide any explanation of the wider context”, rather as if Anna Karenina (the example is De Botton’s) could be expected to hold an audience if it were serialised in 100-word chunks. It is De Botton’s contention that, “properly signposted” (whatever that may mean), the rent arrears report would stand revealed as “part of a hundred-year debate about whether welfare lends its recipients dignity … a single episode in a multi-chaptered narrative that might be called ‘How Subsidy Affects Character’ [or] ‘The Psychology of Aid'”. And, therefore, nearly as rewarding a read as Tolstoy.


Whatever news is, he thinks, along with Hegel, that it has replaced religion as a modern society’s source of guidance and authority to become its “prime creator of political and social reality”. He also thinks there is too much of it and that we have become addicted – news junkies – and need to recognise its ill-effects, including the “envy and the terror” it promotes; hence what he calls his “little manual”, which he hopes will “complicate a habit that, at present, has come to seem a little too normal and harmless for our own good”.


As he rightly says, reporting gives us an unbalanced view of abroad, especially of countries beyond Europe and North America, because it concentrates on political crises and natural disasters, and unless we have some sense of “what passes for normality in a given location, we may find it very hard to calibrate or care about the abnormal”.

“For example, I thought I knew about child marriages, but until I saw a photograph taken by Stephanie Sinclair, I had never realized that the young brides involved aren’t really children.”

“For all the talk of education, modern societies neglect to examine by far the most influential means by which their populations are educated. Whatever happens in our classrooms, the more potent and ongoing kind of education takes place on the airwaves and on our screens. Cocooned in classrooms for only our first eighteen years or so, we effectively spend the rest of our lives under the tutelage of news entities which wield infinitely greater influence over us than any academic institution can. Once our formal education has finished, the news is the teacher. It is the single most significant force setting the tone of public life and shaping our impressions of the community beyond our own walls. It is the prime creator of political and social reality. As revolutionaries well know, if you want to change the mentality of a country, you don’t head to the art gallery, the department of education or the homes of famous novelists; you drive the tanks straight to the nerve center of the body politic, the news HQ.”

“In the past, Flaubert implied, idiots had had no clue as to what the carbon structure of diamonds was. Their shallowness had been entirely and reliably evident. But now the press had made it very possible for a person to be at once unimaginative, uncreative, mean-minded and extremely well informed. The modern idiot could routinely know what only geniuses had known in the past, and yet he still was an idiot- a depressing combination of traits that previous ages had never had to worry about. The news had, for Flaubert, armed stupidity and given authority to fools.”

“In the field of education, it seems ‘normal’ to run stories about class sizes, teachers’ pay, the country’s performance in international league tables and the right balance between the roles of the private and state sectors. But we would risk seeming distinctly odd, even demented, if we asked whether the curriculum actually made sense; whether it really equipped students with the emotional and psychological resources that are central to the pursuit of good lives. When it comes to housing, the news urges us to worry about how to get construction companies working, how to make purchasing a home easier for first-time buyers and how to balance the claims of nature against those of jobs and businesses. But it doesn’t tend to find time to ask primordial, eccentric-sounding questions like: ‘Why are our cities so ugly?’ In discussions of economics, our energy is channelled towards pondering what the right level of taxation should be and how best to combat inflation. But we are discouraged by mainstream news from posing the more peculiar, outlying questions about the ends of labour, the nature of justice and the proper role of markets. News stories tend to frame issues in such a way as to reduce our will or even capacity to imagine them in profoundly other ways. Through its intimidating power, news numbs. Without anyone particularly rooting for this outcome, more tentative but potentially important private thoughts get crushed.”

“A contemporary dictator wishing to establish power would not need to do anything so obviously sinister as banning the news: he or she would only have to see to it that news organizations broadcast a flow of random-sounding bulletins in great numbers but with little explanation of context, within an agenda that kept changing, without giving any sense of the ongoing relevance of an issue that had seemed pressing only a short while before, the whole interspersed with constant updates about the colorful antics of murderers and film stars. This would be quite enough to undermine most people’s capacity to grasp political reality — as well as any resolve they might otherwise have summoned to alter it. The status quo could confidently remain forever undisturbed by a flood of, rather than a ban on, news.” – 


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