Unless you’re a hermit on a remote mountain top or lost in the jungle, this question should be, what’s the source. Growing up, I had two sources – the morning and evening newspapers and the radio. We gathered around the latter to hear BBC reports of second-world-war bombings and invasions and sometimes speeches by Winston Churchill. Most of the places mentioned were worlds away.
Now I start the day reading a facsimile Globe & Mail on my Ipad and the New York Times on my laptop. My Iphone gives me updates on a few key headlines with story links, stock market returns in real time, instant messages, updates from family and friends on Facebook, Gmail, LinkedIn or Twitter. If that isn’t enough, I can always turn on the TV’s competing news channels. Very rarely, breaking news starts with a phone call – and then I can switch to any of these other sources. But am I learning anything that matters – or asking why I need to have all these 24/7 always-on sources in my life?
So I was glad to run across Alain De Botton’s The News, A User’s Guide (public library) because he not only asks the same questions but also posits some answers. They are worth sharing. He starts by suggesting that we measure the time we spend on news; he cites Hegel, who saw our reliance on news as getting the sense of direction in our lives previously assigned to religion. For me, that echoes Phyllis Tickle’s key question, “Where now is our Authority?” The news creates the world we live in. We breathe it in. It’s school that never ends.
De Botton turns to how we hande politics. Like most people, I read the headlines and skip to the next item with an attitude of “Who Cares?” But I’ll pounce on a celebrity article – even though I might never have seen the person in a movie or on TV – and especially if it is about a failure or a fall from grace. Am I even more shallow than I’m prepared to admit?
Then there’s the matter of bias. De Botton suggests that we recognize it as part of the human condition. Nevertheless, we assume that news is accurate and unbiased. Accounts should be transparent; straightforward solutions to problems should be easy. What we receive instead is disorganized, fractured and intermittent. We’re getting only a sliver of the real story.
A newsroom is full of well-meaning and flawed individuals not unlike ourselves but with a power over us – the ability to select. I may scan the headlines and choose what I will read- but I am have a limited range of choices that others have made. News creates a picture of society as a whole. Its obsessions are passed on to me. I have a friend who takes the news very seriously and she now believes that most people are crazy or violent and that most politicians lie. Reading my local paper I would have to assume that money, status and the economy matter most – with a tad of hockey thrown in. I don’t buy any of this right now. But what does my daily exposure to these views do to me?
Let’s face it – reality is not news. We don’t see headlines that most people are boringly sane and that while husbands and wives sometimes would like to murder each other, they don’t. I’m happy whether the market is up or down and I never watch or follow hockey.
What is the role of the news? De Botton thinks news presenters have a responsibility to calm anxiety and bring a sense of perspective and hope. He mirrors Ed Friedman’s wish for an antidote to the highest level of anxiety that America has ever seen. You can see it in “comments”. Usually the suggestion is that any idiot could solve this issue in a minute. What that misses, de Botton reminds us, is that problems are tough, systemic and complicated. What’s missing is a larger context that a single news release can never supply.
The news loves to watch the mighty fall. A big scandal is fodder for weeks and even a gaffe gets more attention that it deserves. There are also news stories full of complicated and technical jargon that make us feel more stupid than usual. Big type and big headlines give a sense of authority to anything we see in print.
Governance by tweet is to say the least – a new thing. But rather than rail against the daily content, perhaps it’s time for news to start help us start learning. We have asked it to tell us the truth. A post truth era is one in which news can only blow itself up.