Saturday, 20 February 2016

The News by Alain de Botton

Lowdown: There is plenty of room for improvement in the news coverage available to us.
It used to be that Alain de Botton was counted as one of my favourite contemporary philosophers, a person that deeply affected my world views. Then came his book on atheism to greatly deflate that image. Regardless, I missed de Botton and his writing; upon learning he's got a book dealing with the way news is covered, a subject matter that annoys me so often given my opinions on the lackluster monopoly controlled things that pass for news agencies nowadays, I decided it was time to reacquaint myself with my man Alain.
In News, de Botton's core argument is that good news coverage should follow the same themes as good art. All those claims of neutral coverage prohibiting personal opinion are bullshit, de Botton argues (eloquently; he doesn't use the bull word), and I wholeheartedly agree. For there is no such thing as objective coverage anyway.
Alain continues. There is no way for media to effectively convey events in, say, Africa, while at the same time assuming Africa works just the same as the UK (the author's home). Media should do more to portray what things really feel like, as through the use of photography. Similarly, financial news coverage should not stick to dry figures but rather bear in mind that economics is a social science dealing with choices; there could be so much to financial news coverage that is exciting and interesting, yet virtually no media outlet dares venture there.
As the plot thickens, so to speak, de Botton recycles many an argument from his previous efforts. Discussions about similarities between art, architecture and news coverage reminisce statements made in The Architecture of Happiness, while the chapter on celebrity news coverage reads a lot like Status Anxiety. Like the news media he criticises, de Botton seems to struggle to come up with original ideas.
While, in general, I am in full agreement with de Botton on the issues affecting contemporary news coverage, I do think it is important to note that not all is lost. Take The Intercept as an example: here is an exemplary news coverer that does pretty much everything de Botton asks for, including not shying from lengthy coverage, complicated depictions of the very complicated, and clearly subjective writing - while also delivering ground breaking news.
Other examples, such as Australia's Global Mail, show that while de Botton may be correct, it could well be that the public isn't really interested in what the news agency has to say. Global Mail went for the lengthy, detailed coverage but ultimately failed and shut down. Perhaps the average Aussie, to whom Global Mail was aimed, actually prefers the dumbed down short snippets of trivially excruciating tidbits thrown at her by the kiloton from the direction of Murdoch's media empire? It wouldn't be the first time the public did not know what's good for it.
It's not like I'm not beyond fault myself. I like good news coverage, but do I have time for it? I cannot recall but one or two cases in which I read a Global Mail article from start to finish. Time, I believe, is a key factor.
I mean, look at Time Magazine, the elephant in the room. Its editorial line is so annoyingly mainstream and so deeply commercialised that no one is capable of competing with its might. Everyone talks about Time's choice for Person of the Year, but no one bothers discussing anyone else's choice. Yet even de Botton seems afraid to tackle matters of time and money.
Overall: The News is an interesting, often thought provoking read. Yet de Botton is clearly struggling. 3 out of 5 crabs.

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