How “the news” creates a fake hyperworld in our heads
This absorbing video condenses the message presented by philosopher Alain de Botton in his new book The News: A User’s Manual, whose basic thesis and purpose is described by the publisher as follows:
We are never really taught how to make sense of the torrent of news we face every day . . . but this has a huge impact on our sense of what matters and of how we should lead our lives. In his dazzling new book, de Botton takes twenty-five archetypal news stories — including an airplane crash, a murder, a celebrity interview and a political scandal — and submits them to unusually intense analysis with a view to helping us navigate our news-soaked age.
Here are the points made in the above video (and thus in de Botton’s bok), as distilled by me:
Excess of information: “The news” — a term that seems to deserve scare quotes in de Botton’s analysis (and also, I think, in any sane analysis at all) — erodes any real sense of what reasonable priorities are. We’re virtually drowning in a sea of information that overwhelms our ability to make sense of it. (In this regard, revisiting Neil Postman’s powerful 1990 speech “Informing Ourselves to Death” is a very good idea.)
Bias: The “bias against bias” that characterizes the news is destructive, since this faux “neutrality” actually generates a sense that nothing inherently matters and nothing is better or worse than anything else. By contrast, great men, women, and publications throughout history have always taken an actual interpretive stance on events.
Narrow-mindedness: The agenda for what counts as “news” is determined by adherence to a tightly defined and limited set of issues that are chosen by media organizations themselves, whose basic purpose is simply to keep us watching. Thus, alternative views of what’s important are automatically framed and dismissed as negatively “radical,” and our collective view and valuation of reality itself is narrowed, impoverished, and distorted.
Anger: “The news” terrifies us with an unending flood of stories about disease and disaster while simultaneously making us furious with stories of corrupt buffoons occupying places of power. But the basic point, again, it not to effect or inspire any real change, but simply to keep the megalithic media machine that creates “the news” itself running, and thus the end result is that we’re locked in a state of deep, gnawing, and ultimately unproductive and self-destructive anger and unrest. (Somewhat — but not totally — tangentially, Robert Anton Wilson’s and Robert Shea’s “fnords” come to mind here, since the stated purpose of the ubiquitous subliminal disinformational messages in the world of the Illuminatus! trilogy is to generate a state of perpetual low-grade fear and confusion among the general populace, thus reinforcing the government’s hold on power.)
Who cares? Endless stories of suffering and disaster don’t enable us to care, because we’re only “parachuted into” these situations and societies by “the news” when something big and “newsworthy” happens. The news does a terrible job of filling us in ahead of time, and all the time, about the context of the people and things we’re supposed to care about when bad news is reported about them. It therefore breeds apathy.
Endless: The news locks us in a faux “eternal now” and a perpetual state of narcissism about the importance and enduringness of our own present societal moment with its specific set of concerns. The world and reality are vastly bigger and wider in scope than this, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the news. (In this regard, see Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, which has been discussed here in the past.)
Not insignificantly, in many ways de Botton’s analysis echoes the argument and diagnosis put forth half a century ago by Daniel Boorstin in his brilliant and devastating 1962 masterpiece The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. This has been a defining book in my own understanding of our visual and electronic media environment (and it is, note, a book whose basic message and diagnosis apply not only to America but to much of the rest of the world as well). In a manner that Scientific American described as “sensitive, thoughtful, damning, dead on target and in most respects unanswerable,” Boorstin argues, in essence, that the modern media landscape has reshaped our collective sense of reality and produced a situation where scripted and time-released “news” — in the form of press releases, public relations, advertising, and much, much more — fools us into believing that the world itself is what we falsely advertise it to ourselves as being. And what we advertise to ourselves is a sensationalized version of everything that generates a drastically inflated notion of how much novelty there really is in the world. What’s more, it’s all driven by a never-ending game of one-upmanship as various people and institutions try with ever-increasing intensity to capture and exploit our attention for various purposes (mostly economic and political/power-based ones). The result is a society that lives in the very state of agitated and apathetic confusion and delusion described by de Botton.
A 2012 article in The Los Angeles Times gives a good summary of the focus and scope of Boorstin’s analysis:
Everywhere Boorstin looked, and he looked everywhere — at journalism, at heroism, at travel, at art, even at human aspiration — he believed that the eternal verities that had once governed life had given way to something cheap and phony: a facsimile of life. Of journalism, he would say, “More and more news events become dramatic performances in which ‘men in the news’ simply act out more or less well their prepared script.” Of heroism, he would say that it had been replaced by celebrity, which he famously described as “a person who is known for his well-knownness.” Of travel, he would say that tourists increasingly demanded experiences that would “become bland and unsurprising reproductions of what the image-flooded tourist knew was there all the time.”
For a bracing reality check, I encourage you to read the following words from the introduction to Boorstin’s book, titled “Extravagant Expectations.” He wrote them fifty years ago, but don’t you find that they describe your own experience of life right now, and also that of everybody you know?
We expect too much of the world. Our expectations are extravagant in the precise dictionary sense of the word — “going beyond the limits of reason or moderation.” They are excessive.
When we pick up our newspaper at breakfast, we expect — we even demand — that it bring us momentous events since the night before. We turn on the car radio as we drive to work and expect “news” to have occurred since the morning newspaper went to press. Returning in the evening, we expect our house not only to shelter us, to keep us warm in winter and cool in summer, but to relax us, to dignify us, to encompass us with soft music and interesting hobbies, to be a playground, a theater, and a bar. We expect our two-week vacation to be romantic, exotic, cheap, and effortless. We expect a faraway atmosphere if we go to a nearby place; and we expect everything to be relaxing, sanitary, and Americanized if we go to a faraway place. We expect new heroes every season, a literary masterpiece every month, a dramatic spectacular every week, a rare sensation every night.
. . . We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive. We expect to be inspired by mediocre appeals for “excellence,” to be made literate by illiterate appeals for literacy. We expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move and ever more neighborly, to go to a “church of our choice” and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God.
Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed.
Also see this long opening passage — which is well worth your investment of time to read in full — from Chapter One of Boorstin’s book, titled “From News Gathering to News Making: A Flood of Pseudo-Events”:
The simplest of our extravagant expectations concerns the amount of novelty in the world. There was a time when the reader of an unexciting newspaper would remark, “How dull is the world today!” Nowadays he says, “What a dull newspaper!” When the first American newspaper, Benjamin Harris’ Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, appeared in Boston on September 25, 1690, it promised to furnish news regularly once a month. But, the editor explained, it might appear oftener “if any Glut of Occurrences happen.” The responsibility for making news was entirely God’s‑or the Devil’s. The newsman’s task was only to give “an Account of such considerable things as have arrived unto our Notice.”
. . . Of course, this is now a very old‑fashioned way of thinking. Our current point of view is better expressed in the definition by Arthur MacEwen, whom William Randolph Hearst made his first editor of the San Francisco Examiner: “News is anything that makes a reader say, ‘Gee whiz!”‘ Or, put more soberly, “News is whatever a good editor chooses to print.”
We need not be theologians to see that we have shifted responsibility for making the world interesting from God to the newspaperman. We used to believe there were only so many “events” in the world. If there were not many intriguing or startling occurrences, it was no fault of the reporter. He could not be expected to report what did not exist.
Within the last hundred years, however, and especially in the twentieth century, all this has changed. We expect the papers to be full of news. If there is no news visible to the naked eye, or to the average citizen, we still expect it to be there for the enterprising newsman. The successful reporter is one who can find a story, even if there is no earthquake or assassination or civil war. If he cannot find a story, then he must make one — by the questions he asks of public figures, by the surprising human interest be unfolds from some commonplace event, or by “the news behind the news.” If all this fails, then he must give us a “think piece embroidering of well‑known facts, or a speculation about startling things to come.
This change in our attitude toward “news” is not merely a basic fact about the history of American newspapers. It is a symptom of a revolutionary change in our attitude toward what happens in the world, how much of it is new, and surprising, and important. Toward how life can be enlivened, toward our power and the power of those who inform and educate and guide us, to provide synthetic happenings to make up for the lack of spontaneous events. Demanding more than the world can give us, we require that something be fabricated to make up for the world’s deficiency. This is only one example of our demand for illusions.
Many historical forces help explain how we have come to our present immoderate hopes. But there can be no doubt about what we now expect, nor that it is immoderate. Every American knows the anticipation with which he picks up his morning newspaper at breakfast or opens his evening paper before dinner, or listens to the newscasts every hour on the hour as he drives across country, or watches his favorite commentator on television interpret the events of the day. Many enterprising Americans are now at work to help us satisfy these expectations. Many might be put out of work if we should suddenly moderate our expectations. But it is we who keep them in business and demand that they fill our consciousness with novelties, that they play God for us.
Fifty years after Boorstin said these things, and with de Botton and others offering their current and persuasive takes on our mass media situation, isn’t it the case that the cultural disease Boorstin identified is not only still around, but has now become even more advanced, entrenched, and universal? And this being the case, isn’t the optimal response we can give to this situation still to be found in the (literally) inspired call to action issued by the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves himself, Howard Beale, in 1976’s Network? Quoth Beale:
Listen to me: Television is not the truth! Television is a goddamned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business! So if you want the truth, go to God! Go to your gurus! Go to yourselves! Because that’s the only place you’re ever going to find any real truth. But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell. . . . In God’s name, you people are the real thing! We [on television] are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now! TURN THEM OFF!
I humbly submit that although scripted television dramas have improved these days from the insipid drivel that clotted the airwaves in 1976, the news situation has only gotten worse. And the “them” to which the prophet Beale referred now includes almost the entirety of the media web.
Turn it off.