Philosophical gadfly de Botton (How to Think More About Sex, 2012, etc.) has ruminated, delightfully and often incisively, on the meaning of status, architecture, travel, Proust, sex, work, religion and love. Now he turns his attention to the news industry.
“What should the news ideally be?” asks the author. “What are the deep needs to which it should cater? How could it optimally enrich us?” De Botton insists that the overriding function of news is to make us better people. News about dire crimes, for example, tells us “how badly we need to keep controlling ourselves by showing us what happens when people don’t.” Journalists should foster a sense of community, using their immense “power to assemble the picture that citizens end up having of one another.” We need foreign news that imparts the texture of other places and people and “ignites our interest in events by remaining open to some of the lessons of art, a news that lets the poets, the travel writers and the novelists impart aspects of their crafts to journalists.” We can learn more from Shakespeare and Flaubert, he believes, than, say, the Huffington Post. Unfortunately, de Botton’s agenda for newsgathering is too often didactic and naïve. He is not a fan of capitalism or consumerism, and he wishes that economic journalists could be “guided by a sense of where one should be going, operating with an economic Utopia in mind.” In the weakest chapters, the author asks why readers are captivated by celebrity and envious of the rich and famous. He ignores investigative journalism that churns out films, books and documentaries that do ask hard questions. In the end, he urges us to forego news as distraction—especially on the Internet—and master “the art of being patient midwives to our own thoughts.”
How does news shape our thoughts and lives? That’s a significant question, but de Botton’s musings fall short of a serious response.