The Metaphysics of Reading the News, with Alain de Botton

“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.
–Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual

The proliferation of fake news lately, especially heightened during the U.S. presidential election, had me scratching my head in confusion: so people actually fell for it?

In a podcast by Planet Money, they tracked down the “Fake-News King” Jestin Coler who makes profit off of the ads he ran on fake news articles and website. Once you see it from that perspective, it isn’t impossible then that this would exist. What’s the golden piece of nugget in this story? Coler said it himself:

Like, there is a demand for this product. People want conspiracy. Like, people want fake news that confirms what they already believe.

If you think that fake news is problematic, it may be the real news that actually falls short. This I learned after reading Alain de Botton’s The News: A User Manual, an exploration and analysis of the news we consume (and are given) on the daily: political, world, economic, celebrity, disaster, consumer.

When I was still a high-schooler back in the Philippines, I remember participating in news writing workshops and contests where the bare bones of news writing were taught. I even won a contest at some point and considered pursuing journalism in college for a minute.

But I knew journalism wasn’t for me, because what I saw published in the news lacked the kind of creativity I wanted to infuse in my work. Turns out, I’m not alone in this thought.

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We consume news in various methods and from different platforms — news alerts straight to your inbox, articles on your Facebook timeline, 140-character tweets on your feed — that it’s impossible not to drown in all that information (or misinformation). The question that de Botton asks is: is the news we are given presented in a way that warrants our attention? Does it elicit something more than passive indignation, a quick (nasty at times) comment or a mere glance enough to compel us to action?

Central to the book is the way news is presented to us and the way we contextualize the information we receive. Take political news for example: we are given the facts, the political actors, the ramifications. If today’s headline underscores a politician’s incompetence, it is not hard for an ordinary citizen to be enraged. It is easy for us to point fingers, to dismiss the politician and/or the system as stupid or not working when in reality, there’s actually much that we don’t see.

What is the role of mainstream media then, when it presents us political news?

political

He also delves into foreign or world news, of which we all have become accustomed to in the form of war, disaster or tragedies which need more than #Prayfor_____ posted on our social media accounts.

An understanding of human nature is what’s needed, de Botton explains: “Foreign news should find ways to make us all more human in another’s eyes, so that the apparently insuperable barriers of geography, culture, race and class could be transcended and fellow-feeling might develop across chasms.”

foreign

Most of the news articles we see don’t have much room to make this into a reality, unlike publications like The New Yorker. I think this is why I also cherish books so much, because they are able to expound with depth themes and issues that are hard to tackle in a piece that’s 300 words or so.

To humanize the Other seems impossible when facts are all there’s room for, when objectivity’s the name of the game. News seem to be devoid of all feeling yet it is precisely what we need for it to be useful. Instead, what it amplifies are fear, anger and in the case of celebrity news, either indifference or envy.

For the most part, these emotions play a role in putting things in perspective for us. But when these are heightened and become central to the way we live, it’s time to put the brakes on an industry that feeds on our purported misery. Along with what’s happening in the world daily, the spotlight is also on a few individuals that our society has deemed extraordinary. Celebrities — although ordinary citizens like us — grace the covers of printed material and dominate our phone screens.

How best do we consume news about celebrities, as opposed to envying the “good life” or worse, pretend like we don’t care about them?

celebrity

I can always count on de Botton to give us all a dose of humanity, to bestow some clarity when it comes to things that can seem as mundane as the news. He cautions: at the heart of wanting fame is a longing to be treated nicely. Tell that to anyone dismissive of the celebrities!

The ease of consuming news happens at a small price though, something that we’re not used to identifying: introspection, and a lot of it. What happens when all we do is keep up with world affairs and who’s dating who and which politician is close to being exposed Watergate-style? An endless stream of everything, and nothing all at once.

Perhaps it would do us well to pause for a period, and imbibe the “monastic discipline” it now takes to be calm, at ease, undistracted. For it is only in these times, de Botton urges, that we are able to do the kind of work we’re really meant to, a time when we can actually re-center.

Consider that the next time an email screams “Breaking News!”

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* * * 

If you found this interesting, check out de Botton’s dedicated site newstherapy.com or get the lovely book:

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The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton
December 2, 2014
Vintage International (272 pages)

The News: A User's Manual

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