More with Alain de Botton, author of ‘The News: A User’s Manual’

Here’s more from our interview with Alain de Botton, which appears in this week’s issue of LEO.

LEO: What made you decide to tackle the issue of news media?

Alain de Botton: There’s no more powerful force in modern society than the news. It shapes how we see the world, what we judge to be good and bad, important or silly, right or wrong. And yet too often, we don’t see the extent to which the news is forming our mentalities.

No one teaches you this at school. It is deemed more important for us to know how to make sense of the plot of Othello than how to decode the front page of the New York Post. We are more likely to hear about the significance of Matisse’s use of color than to be taken through the effects of the celebrity photo section of the Daily Mail. We aren’t encouraged to consider what might happen to our outlooks after immersion in Bild or OK! magazine, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or the  Hokkaido Shimbun, the Tehran Times or the Sun. We are never systematically inducted into the extraordinary capacity of news outlets to influence our sense of reality and to mold the state of what we might as well – with no supernatural associations – call our souls.

For all their 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 twenty 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 is over, 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.

That helps to explain why I wrote the book: to make sense of one of the most powerful sources at work in the world today.

LEO: What are your biggest concerns with the news?

AB: I’d say there were three things. Firstly, we’ve got a real problem popularizing important news. Serious journalists often think that what is central to their jobs is to go out and find out ‘the truth’, then everything in society will change. But in my view, in this distracted, sensation hungry age, the real task is subtly but importantly different. There are lots of truths out there already that people don’t care much about at all. This is really fatal in a democracy, because politicians have to rely on people caring about issues in order that they can have the popular mandate to change things. So in my eyes, a really important task for journalists is to learn how to make what’s important seem interesting – to a large audience. We have too many stories that are ‘important’ but entirely boring to us, because journalists haven’t worked hard enough to connect them to our own interests.

Secondly, it’s so hard to focus on what matters, because we have a news agenda which deluges us with information, but makes it extremely unlikely that we can track an issue across time and keep an eye on it. It’s almost as if there were two ways to render a society supine, apolitical and resigned to the status quo: either you censor all news, or else you flood people with so much news, they can’t focus on anything. We’re in danger of this latter scenario.

Thirdly, we have political news that is obsessed with a Watergate style of journalism which identifies what’s wrong in society with active skullduggery: it’s always looking out for crooks. The problem with this is that a lot of what’s wrong in society is the work not of crooks, but just people who have the wrong ideas, or a lack of imagination or have grown stale and uninspired. The point of journalism shouldn’t always to hunt out scandal because errors don’t crop up in ‘scandal’ shaped forms all the time. What’s important is to look for errors in more subtle, pervasive but invisible forms.

LEO: What’s scarier—what the news does to our brains, or people who don’t actively consumer the news at all?

AB: I’m sympathetic to thoughtful people who have opted out of news, not out of ignorance, but out of conscious choice.

Every day the news gives us stuff that is both interesting for some people and irrelevant to you. So one reads a very insightful article on the prospects for political reform in Pakistan, meaning that if you were wondering whether Pakistan was a good place to locate a new factory you’d be able to make a better informed decision. Or there are revelations that tensions in the cabinet are more serious than previously supposed. So if you were wondering whether this might be a good time to launch your leadership bid, this would be a good piece to read. But otherwise…?

The modern idea of news is pleasantly flattering. Yet it’s really quite strange. We keep getting information that isn’t really for us to know what to do with. No wonder we’re sometimes a bit bored. It’s not our fault.

The news is also rather jealous. It wants to distract you from a private sense of purpose. It would be dangerous if hardly anyone paid attention to what the government was doing, or what was happening to the environment or events in Kiev. But it is not right to go from this to the demand that everyone should be interested in every item at the very moment when the news machine requests their attention.

Indeed, we badly need people whose attention is not caught up in the trends of the moment and who are not looking in the same direction as everyone else. We need people scanning the less familiar parts of the horizon. There was a time when a particular country in crisis hadn’t reached the headlines, when the approved legislation hadn’t even been formulated, when few people were interested in coral reefs… These things had to get going, and to do so, they needed a pool of independent thinkers of a kind who turn today’s unpromising themes into tomorrow’s mainstream, ‘obvious’ topics of interest.

Indifference to big banner events can be churlish. But it can also be the mark of deep and important originality. Let’s treat the phenomenon of not being interested in some stories with cautious respect.