Abstinence from the news

Topics News | Journalism | Rupert Murdoch

Credits: Amazon.in
This is not, strictly, a book that should be reviewed by a journalist. Yet Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer Life can by no means be described as irrelevant for any practitioner in the information industry, even if its premise is flawed. Rolf Dobelli is part of that growing breed of business professionals: A self-help guru.  

The reason The Art of Thinking Clearly — or so he thought. Instead, Mr Rusbridger, then editor, asked him speak on an essay he had found on Mr Dobelli’s website, titled “The News is Bad For You”. 

“The article Rusbridger had found on my website listed the most important arguments against consuming precisely what these internationally respected professionals spent their days producing: the news. …After twenty minutes, I’d reached the end of my argument, concluding with the words, ‘Let’s be honest: what you’re doing here, ladies and gentlemen, is basically entertainment’.

“Silence, You could have heard a pin drop.”

 At Mr Rusbridger’s direction, a condensed version of the essay was published on the newspaper’s website, and it maxed out the 450-comment limit. The clear-thinking Mr Dobelli saw this as an opportunity to write a book-length exposition of that essay. 

I get why Mr Rusbridger thought the topic worth discussing. It provokes journalists and editors responsible for the daily news on any medium to think about what they do, why they do it and who they’re doing it for. 

The problem is that Mr Dobelli is writing from the point of view of a news junkie (he uses the term news news-aholic) and speaks with the fervour of a reformed rake. But most people aren’t obsessive about news, and, anyway, what’s wrong with being well informed, even if the information doesn’t impact you directly?   

So why did he decide to go cold turkey on the news?  A creeping recognition of something akin to attention deficit disorder and growing anxiety (true, an evening spent watching our home minister fulminate in Parliament — he rarely speaks normally — gave me nightmares). Also, when he asked himself whether he understood the world better today and took better decisions from tens or thousands of hours spent consuming the news, the answer was no. 

Then he describes the rehab programme he created on the fly and reports the results: “Today I’m ‘clean’. Since 2010 I’ve been entirely news-free, and I can see, feel and report first-hand the effects of this freedom: improved quality of life, clearer thinking, more valuable insights and vastly more time.” 

Mr Dobelli does not prescribe information abstinence. He says he relies on other people to keep him up to date — friends, family and associates. This system failed him just once, when he arrived at the airport only to discover that all flights had been cancelled because Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland had erupted.  He also recommends you read the quality weekly journals to get up to speed. The Economist is a favourite, and he says you can Google for stuff you want to know (but avoid all hyperlinks). 

There is some validity to Mr Dobelli’s argument. Information overload is an acknowledged psychological problem that has grown in direct proportion to the explosion of the internet. He is right to deplore the disintegration of media corporation ethics, but fails to spot the problem embedded in the emergence of the profit motive (Rupert Murdoch’s singular legacy to global journalism) in place of the earlier free-spending millionaire owners.  

He also deplores the fact that news corporations focus on “facts, facts and more facts”. Why this should be “marginalising” or a problem at all is a mystery. He says most journalists cannot explain “causal relationships that shape cultural, intellectual, military, political and environmental events are mostly invisible”. True; if they could they’d be champions of academia.

Most egregiously, he says this is why “news corporations focus on the easy stuff: anecdotes, scandals, celebrity gossip and natural disasters”.  This is a breath-taking generalisation and it makes you wonder what just what Mr Dobelli was reading in his junkie days. You suspect it was exclusively the mass-circulation tabloids. Even if he had read Business Standard. The real crisis in the media appears to have escaped Mr Dobelli, perhaps because he no longer reads the news. This is the rise of social media, fake news and the rank amorality of the entrepreneurs who own these platforms. There is an oblique reference to this in the penultimate chapter but it’s mostly linked to the dastardly money-making proclivities of the media giants. 

Fake news can be created by any kook or gook — such as the President of the United States and trolls and bhakts — on social media platforms in a matter of minutes. The explosion of Twitter, WhatsApp and their ilk has raised anew the challenge for ethical media organisations to produce credible, authentic information and analyses. If Mr Dobelli had devoted himself to social media abstinence, this would have been an unexceptionable book. Maybe, that’s the next subject on his to-do list.

Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life
Author: Rolf Dobelli
Price:  Rs 399
Pages: 160

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