The News by Alain de Botton – book review

by Edith Cody-Rice

The News by Alain de Botton 001Alain de Botton is a Swiss-born philosopher, writer and television presenter who currently lives in the United Kingdom. His numerous books relate philosophy to our everyday contemporary life. In his new publication, The News, he examines the role and place of the news in contemporary society. As he notes, the news is ubiquitous in modern society and has an significant influence on the public. Thus, it is worth incorporating into a philosophical discussion.

deBotton calls the book A User’s Manual because, he states,

The news occupies the same dominant position in modern society as religion once did,  – but we don’t begin to understand its impact on us.

De Botton divides his book into chapters on politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster, consumption and a conclusion. Within that framework he take 25 true news stories – from an air crash to a murder, a celebrity interview to a political scandal – and submits them to analysis. He investigates the news story and its effect on the public, then posits what, in his view, the news should be and do.

Botton is not the first to investigate the news’ social influence but, to me, he comes a cropper with his suggestions on its role in society and how to fix what is wrong with it. He does not seem to be certain just what constitutes news, but his discussions seem to focus on radio and TV newscasts and daily newspapers.

Mr. Botton laments the cryptic nature of these news instruments. They tell just the headline story to him. He proposes a number of solutions. News, he states, should tell stories in such a way as to help a nation flourish, to give hope to the community. To be sure, there should not be an exclusive focus on evil and disaster, but although in theory, his assessment sounds reasonable, it is open to political manipulation. It brings to mind the CBC whose mandate, until 1990, included the responsibility to promote national unity. Well CBC included in its programming people who objected to the Charlottetown Accord and was roundly criticized by the government for not fulfilling this part of its mandate. In other words, in the government’s view was that, what it wanted was good for the country and should not be questioned. As a result, the 1990 Broadcasting Act therefore changed this portion of CBC’s mandate giving it the responsibility to reflect each official language community to make it clear that it is independent of government and what the government says is not necessarily in the best interests of the country.

One can only say that de Botton’s heart is in the right place, but he doesn’t realize the consequences of his suggestions. And in fact, there are many positive news stories, but not always in every news broadcast or daily paper. He complains that journalists should write more like novelists, giving context. He lives in Britain so has never read Stephanie Nolen’s wonderful articles  for the Globe and Mail from her post in Brazil , and her earlier post in India, or Patrick Martin on his trips through  Iraq. There are many journalists who do in fact, give detailed context, but they might always be read by the early morning commuter who just wants the major outlines on his trip to work. In magazines like the New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Economist, in features in major newspapers,  in radio and TV documentaries which also qualify as news, there is every context, detail, explanation,  that one could possibly handle, although  it is true that the choice of topic is the choice of the editors and journalists. The UK has equivalents of all these although its yellow press is among the most vicious in the world.

For cultural journalism, De Botton suggests that a journalist should act

as a kind of chemist, picking out from among the myriad of available works those most likely to be able to help their audiences with their inner travails

Cultural journalism should, in de Botton’s view

Direct our lonely , confused, scare and stricken souls to those works of culture most likely to help us to survive and thrive.

That theory sound has echoes of the totalitarian ideals for art. The state will declare which art will be good for the homeland and suppress the rest.  On this thesis, Max Ernst and Dadaism would never have been reviewed or gained prominence, and Picasso’s Guernica would have died an obscure death. They showed what was happening in life, not what would elevate the soul.

This is an interesting book, nonetheless, as not many philosophers have taken up this subject, but it would better to investigate what news is, evaluate it, perhaps but not try to prescribe for it. Prescription could be said to infringe freedom of expression and there is every level and subject available in the news which includes radio, TV, social media, books, magazines and many other forms of expression.