Alain de Botton is a British writer of books that have been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life.’ He is pretty popular in Europe and his every book is translated to Russian, and I’m sure to a few other languages. His latest book is The News: A User’s Manual.
Take two real headlines, Alain de Botton — not in these exact word — urges the reader: “Sydney man charged with cannibalism and incest” and “Tenants’ rent arrears soar in pilot benefit scheme”.
Which one of the two headlines is more likely to grab the attention of a fickle reader? The first one, naturally. Cannibalism, incest — wow! — is a promise of a lot more exiting read than the mundane topic about delinquent renters.
Are we, the author wonders, nothing but “truly shallow and irresponsible” people? Or the victims of journalistic “habit of randomly dipping readers into a brief moment in a lengthy narrative … while failing to provide any explanation of the wider context”?
Note: Alain de Botton, clearly, is not the clearest of narrators.
De Botton is of the opinion that news has replaced religion to become the modern society’s “prime creator of political and social reality”. There is too much of it. People develop addiction to it, become news junkies, they cannot leave without repeated shots of the “envy and the terror” it promotes.
Seems about right, don’t you agree? The author hopes that his “little manual” will “complicate a habit that, at present, has come to seem a little too normal and harmless for our own good”.
As I said, Alain de Botton is not the clearest of narrators. Complicate? I’m not the only one to expect “clarify”, “explain”, “illuminate” or even “elucidate”, but then again, it’s his book. And as it turns out, “complicate” is what he does best.
Journalism’s predilection for easy targets bothers Alain a great deal. It would be wonderful if he’d verbalize his opinions less fancifully, making them easier to figure out.
Journalists were first to leap to their profession’s defense –The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian…
The Telegraph laments:
How about this sentence, in a section titled “World News”:
“However, if Tolstoy, Flaubert or Sophocles were in the newsroom, the medium might well give us rather more of what we need in order to keep our souls from ‘dying’, for what were War and Peace, Madame Bovary and Antigone in their original state but just the things that William Carlos Williams so unfairly attacked – namely news events?”
This sentence, however often you read it, is sheer gobbledegook. […] De Botton clearly does not read through what he has written – else, how could he have set down: “A journalistic gaffe is something a powerful person inadvertently says or does in a momentary lapse.” Well, no. A journalistic gaffe would be one made by a journalist. But he is talking about gaffes made by a famous person and then reported by a journalist.
De Botton wonders if the news distort and warp realistic view of human affairs. But he isn’t the only one.
“Man abandons rash plan to kill his wife after brief pause” is highly unlikely headline. It won’t make readers devour every word. “Man murders wife” has more chance. Nephew-eating guy from Sydney is definitely “better news” than the story about someone who has change of heart and don’t kill his wife.
The British nation, we are reminded, “isn’t just a severed head, a mutilated grandmother, three dead girls in a basement… trillions of debt”.
It is also “the cloud floating right now over the church spire, the gentle thought in the doctor’s mind … the small child tapping the surface of a newly hardboiled egg while her mother looks on lovingly, the nuclear submarine patrolling the maritime borders with efficiency and courage…”
And it gets stranger. De Botton, it seems, mistakes news for a novel and journalists — for “creative writers”. To distort a fact? To change a date — the author has no problem with it: “falsifications may occasionally need to be committed in the service of a goal higher still than accuracy: the hope of getting important ideas and images across to their impatient and distracted audiences”.
A goal higher than accuracy? No wonder journalists — of whom Alain de Botton thinks very little — are baffled and comment with derision:
In a book about the news, even one written by an author who cannot decide what news is, there can be no more dangerous form of words. (The Guardian)