A de­vel­op­ing story

Mus­ings on the news any­thing but man­ual-like

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ge­orge Ma­cLean

ONE way or an­other, most of us check the news sev­eral times a day. What “the news” means to us and how we de­fine it, how­ever, can vary con­sid­er­ably. Pub­lic philoso­pher Alain de Bot­ton re­lates deep-think­ing ideas to our daily lives. His books in­clude Re­li­gion for Athe­ists, The Ar­chi­tec­ture of Hap­pi­ness, and Es­says in Love. In The News, de Bot­ton asks what the news is as well as what it could be. His some­times-su­perb ideas, though, are buried amid of­ten-pon­der­ous text. There’s no def­i­ni­tion of the news — rather, it is “de­lib­er­ately left vague” — and there’s al­most noth­ing about cor­po­rate own­er­ship. Isn’t who owns the news im­por­tant for our un­der­stand­ing of it? The book starts off well enough, di­vided into log­i­cal topics like pol­i­tics, eco­nom­ics and celebrity, but de Bot­ton’s or­der­li­ness ends there. There are some ter­rific in­sights on our news cul­ture, but no cen­tral nar­ra­tive; frus­trat­ingly, we’re left with var­i­ous thoughts to piece into some co­her­ent whole. In his sec­tion on pol­i­tics, with the bizarre sub­ti­tle Bore­dom and Con­fu­sion, he ar­gues we choose more pruri­ent items over those of sub­stance be­cause the me­dia ar­ranges them that way. Or, he pro­poses, “per­haps one is, at heart, a truly shal­low and ir­re­spon­si­ble cit­i­zen.” Which is it, then? News ar­guably has more in­flu­ence on us than school, fam­ily or govern­ment; yet, as de Bot­ton sug­gests, it “fo­cuses so much on the dark­ness,” leav­ing us feel­ing fearf or anger (or maybe both). The news should di­rect its users to­wards “pride, re­silience and hope,” and not just with a few min­utes dur­ing a news­cast’s windup for a “soft” in­ter­estn story. The news should lead us to ask, “What can I learn?” from the events of the day, but with money at the helm and a busi­ness model to fol­low, this is un­likely. Busi­ness is why “real” news is not re­ported:r read­ers and view­ers aren’t par­tic­u­lar­lyp in­ter­ested about sub­stan­tive events, and — hard as this may be to ac­cept — we (jour­nal­ists and con­sumers) do not fully un­der­stand them. De Bot­ton has sym­pa­thy for re­porters who be­come “in­stant ex­perts” in fields where they have no for­mal train­ing. As ex­perts spring up — largely in so­cial me­dia — who can we trust? As de Bot­ton notes, tasked with pro­vid­ing real ex­pla­na­tions for com­pli­cated mat­ters (such as the 2008 eco­nomic melt­down), most me­dia is ei­ther too con­fused or dis­tracted — or worse, sim­ply serv­ing the sta­tus quo. De Bot­ton cor­rectly points out we have ex­pec­ta­tions from con­ven­tional me­dia: the news desk, the graph­ics, the stock pho­tos. The po­ten­tial for sto­ry­telling in a pho­to­graph that con­tains real in­for­ma­tion and emo­tion rather than sim­ply the bland two-di­men­sional im­age — the head-and-shoul­ders shot — is be­yond what we’d ac­cept with our news. Oddly, he says the news “speaks to us in a nat­u­ral un­ac­cented voice, with­out ref­er­ence to its own as­sump­tion-laden per­spec­tive.” Not re­ally: jour­nal­ists and me­dia firms al­ways im­pose their as­sump­tions on us. A news­caster’s em­pha­sis on a dol­lar fig­ure, the po­si­tion­ing of a head­line item, a story on the an­chor web­page for a news out­let: all of these are based on heav­ily “ac­cented” as­sump­tions made for us by the news out­let. Un­for­tu­nately, de Bot­ton doesn’t re­ally make the case about par­tial­ity in reporting, par­tic­u­larly as it re­gards cor­po­rate own­er­ship. We’re more in­ter­con­nected than ever be­fore, and in­for­ma­tion is at our con­stant beck and call. The mod­ern news in­dus­try, there­fore, de­serves some re­flec­tion and crit­i­cal eval­u­a­tion. Given de Bot­ton’s past writ­ings, he should have been the one for the job, but this ef­fort falls short. Ge­orge A. Ma­cLean is as­so­ciate dean in the fac­ulty of grad­u­ate stud­ies and pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal

stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba.

JONATHAN HAY­WARD / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

For­mer Lib­eral leader Michael Ig­nati­eff (cen­tre left) is fit­ted with a mi­cro­phone be­fore be­ing in­ter­viewed by CBC’s Peter Mans­bridge (right).

The News: A User’s

Man­ual

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