The News: A User’s Manual

  • Alain de Botton
  • 268 Pages
  • Pantheon

A thought-provoking look at how today’s news stokes our fears and exploits our weak hold on a sense of perspective.

My journalist father spoke at my elementary school career day and wowed ‘em. Following a long line of stiff lawyers and well-meaning if somewhat tedious bureaucrats (remember, this was in Montgomery County, Maryland), he told exciting, self-effacing and funny stories about events he’d covered and people he’d met. He made a lunch with Hubert Humphrey seem entertaining to a group of squirming nine-year-olds.

During the Q&A, a boy asked him why newspapers and TV were so full of bad news.

My father could have fallen back on the old journalism adage “if it bleeds, it leads.” Instead, he showed rather than told. “Imagine you’re on the blacktop during recess later today. A kid comes over to you and says ‘two guys are having a nice game of checkers over there. Red is winning.’ Another kid comes over and says ‘two guys are knocking the tar out of each other over there. Blood’s all over the place.’  Which one are you going to run over and watch?”

I think the kid and the rest of the class got it.

Now, decades later, our valuable international beacon of perspective and insight Alain de Botton has returned to ask us to think, even just a little bit, before we reflexively swallow and digest the avalanche of bad and incomplete news following us everywhere.

“In its stoking of our fears, the news cruelly exploits our weak hold on a sense of perspective,” de Botton writes. “With perspective in mind, we soon realize that — contrary to what the news suggests — hardly anything is totally novel, few things are truly amazing and very little is absolutely terrible.”  He cleverly holds up dozens of examples, print, online, TV, from all over the globe to illustrate his points.

It’s not in the book, but even a quick glance at the coverage of the missing (at the time of this writing) Malaysian airliner should give us all pause. CNN’s frenzied coverage of what big graphic letters across the screen call THE SEARCH FOR FLIGHT 370 was at times an almost manic rant. Most media followed in hot pursuit.

Yes, the fate of the several hundred on board, and the worry of their families, deserves respect. But why did it receive days upon days of feverish coverage from virtually every media outlet in the United States and elsewhere?

De Botton posits we are drawn to these stories, my father’s explanation to one side, because “we are all, somewhere within us, uncomfortably sad and disappointed. We harbor, quietly, a lot of darkness.” We live in a society where the images in TV programs and commercials generally portray beautiful people living lavish and fulfilled lives. In real life, a wide swath of us don’t or, at least as defined by western civilization, don’t think we do.  So, wallowing in a disaster far away can “relativize our own failures.”

The News: A User’s Manual is consistently illuminating and thought-provoking, if a bit utopian. One of de Botton’s strengths is to play it pretty straight in terms of partisanship and politics. Personally, I’d have enjoyed some good Roger Ailes bashing, but de Botton is too good a writer to pander to either side.  He’s after bigger game.

De Botton begs media to provide more context. After all, the “news” isn’t a physical thing you can point to like a rock or a table. Events don’t usually happen in a vacuum.

But there’s a problem. Providing context takes time. Providing context isn’t sexy. Providing context is hard.

Take my father’s example of the checkers match versus the bloody brawl. In de Botton’s world, that fight story would have included other contextual aspects: Was one of the kids having trouble at home? Was the other one dyslexic and frustrated in class? Was the playground monitor unable to defuse the situation because budget cuts left him or her tasked with covering too much territory and too many kids? So many other factors could have contributed to what, on its surface, looked like a simple playground fight.

In today’s media world, we aren’t likely to learn about any of those layers. A reporter sent to file a 150-word news brief about a “simple” fight would be laughed at and/or fired for stubbornly trying to file even a 1,500-word story attempting to address possible underlying causes.

Along the way, de Botton also gives us what I think is an amazing insight into the tradition of so-called gaffe journalism, consisting of something “a powerful person inadvertently says or does in a momentary lapse which (as everyone knows) in no way reflects their considered views and yet which the news seizes upon and refuses to let go of, insisting that the gaffe must be an indicator of a deep and shameful truth.” Think Dan Quayle’s “Potatoe,” Mitt Romney’s dog, or Obama getting a little tongue-tied and mistakenly calling himself a Muslim during an interview. Quayle’s not stupid. Romney loves animals. Obama’s not a Muslim. The media knew this, for the most part, yet it happily replayed these and thousands of similar clips over and over.

De Botton’s opinion: “Behind gaffe journalism lies the impotent rage of journalists who know that many things are deeply amiss in their country but who lack the access to power or the patience with bureaucracy that would enable them to pinpoint the true problems with any measure of accuracy.”

Unfortunately, my dad was right about bad news being a magnet for most readers. As a journalist, he and others have been doing their jobs and, more often than not, doing them well. Alain de Botton wishes talented people like my dad had better platforms for their skills. Most journalists, too, wish they had time and space to tell a more complete story.

That’s the good news. The bad news is it ain’t easy to see it happening anytime soon. Alain de Botton for emperor!

Michael Causey is a past president of Washington Independent Writers and a longtime trade journalist. His father, Mike Causey, was a longtime columnist for the Washington Post and is now senior columnist and on-air analyst at FederalNewsRadio/WTOP.


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