I’d read only twenty pages of this rather slim book by Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli, when I thought, “Dobelli, you’re preaching to the converted.” But I still read the book twice in a fortnight.
For over ten years, I’ve avoided televised news, radio news and digital news-feeds. I read an article or two in a newspaper only every couple of weeks if I’m without a book in a cafe and there’s a newspaper available. I can’t claim my decision has made me wiser, but it has certainly made me calmer and more cheerful. My decision to focus on reading books and journal articles while avoiding the news cycle is based on the idea that I need to know what happened in the previous twenty-four centuries; I don’t need to know what happened in the past twenty-four hours. Rolf Dobelli is more succinct. He says, “Go deep, not broad.”
Stop Reading the News is a manifesto, as the subtitle specifies. It isn’t an academic tome and lacks the closing accoutrements of most non-fiction books: an index and bibliography. It is lucid, well-written (presumably well-translated), accessible and engaging. To begin, Dobelli charts the history of newspapers, including their ever-compromising links with advertisers. He laments that advanced digitisation means that advertising and news-feeds are now individually targeted—via algorithms responding to each person’s search history—making it even more tempting to follow hyperlinks and descend further and faster into transient, prurient and purely commercial matters.
The thirty-five chapters (each is short, commonly less than six pages) present a range of reasons to avoid the daily news media completely, including the steps necessary to remove oneself from the drip-feed news culture. A sample of these chapter titles indicates some of the reasons: “News is Irrelevant”; “News Obscures the Big Picture”; “News Gets Risk Assessment All Wrong”; “News is a Waste of Time”; “News Produces Fake Fame”; “News is Invented by Journalists”; “News is Manipulative”; “News Destroys our Peace of Mind”. These are perhaps obvious arguments, but Dobelli does well to remind us of the obvious which we errant humans keep overlooking.
It’s the less obvious arguments that are especially intriguing. Other chapter headings include: “News Kills Creativity”; “News is Outside Your Circle of Competence”; “News Gives Us the Illusion of Empathy”; “News Encourages Terrorism”; “News Keeps the Opinion Volcano Bubbling”; “News Encourages Crap: Sturgeon’s Law”. Dobelli points out that no genuinely creative person is addicted to the news. The addiction would kill their creativity, enfeeble their imagination and cheapen their art. It would rob them of the time necessary to reflect, meditate, envision and practise.
Our “circle of competence” is our area of individual expertise, talent and vocation. When we operate within our circle of competence we are most effective, most ourselves, most fulfilled. Daily news from around the world—train derailments, the death of someone we didn’t know existed, Ebola outbreaks, celebrity divorces, and so on and on—does nothing to enrich our circle of competence. Instead, we’re encouraged to leave it and wander in alien areas where our searches are fruitless and our concerns are changeable.
Further, reading or watching the news gives us the illusion that we are model citizens. We lament the war footage; the thin, hungry faces of famine victims; the blanketed bodies at car crashes; the devastation unleashed by terrorist bombs. But these calamities do not concern our lives, here and now. We sit and read or watch the horror and it continues unabated while we recount our distress at seeing it. We’re so sympathetic and thereby, apparently, so good.
In fact, it’s the local news that’s most important to our lives: council upgrading an inadequate bridge on our main road; an industry innovation in our region providing more jobs for our school-leavers; a Sydney Music Conservatory string quartet performing in a nearby suburb. Not a mud-slide in Japan, a cold snap in New York or a terrorist act in Turkey; these sorts of news items have no immediate impact on our lives. When news becomes a form of entertainment it proclaims its fatuity.
Terrorism in its modern guise needs the news media. The terrorists need to know that their bomb, stabbing or gunfire will hit the headlines; without the reports, they are much less effective. Since ancient times there have been insurrections and politically motivated assassinations, but contemporary terrorism is linked inextricably to the news. Inducing fear through widespread news coverage, preferably lurid, of their violence is a major aim. Without the coverage they become merely what they are: murderers.
The news media encourages us to have opinions about many issues which not only don’t involve us but about which we know next to nothing. Dobelli writes, “This is a classic behavioral error: we form opinions on issues that don’t really interest us, that cannot be fully answered, or that are too complex without in-depth analysis.” Despite this being the case, your and my opinion-volcanoes spew out noise and smoke anyway.
“Sturgeon’s Law” is named after sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon who, when needled by a patronising critic complaining that 90 per cent of science fiction was rubbish, replied that 90 per cent of everything published was rubbish. This principle applies to the news. Nonsense is prevalent. The major fraud of the news media is that anything recent is relevant. Dobelli observes:
Nonsense is not only tolerated and repeated, it’s actively given top billing … there are an increasing number of media outlets—especially free newspapers and online—whose business model involves shovelling the greatest possible magnitude of rubbish over the greatest possible area.
Here, Dobelli echoes Kierkegaard, a fierce critic of the press, who wrote in the 1850s: “Indeed, if the Press were to hang a sign like every other trade, it would have to read: Here men are demoralised in the shortest possible time on the largest possible scale for the lowest possible price.”
Dobelli admits that when he was a young man he was constantly reading newspapers, fearful of not knowing what was happening in the world. He describes himself as an addict, a news-aholic. He doesn’t quote Kierkegaard, but I will: “What we need is a Pythagorean silence. There is far greater need for total-abstaining societies which would not read newspapers than for ones which do not drink alcohol.”
Throughout the book there is the reminder that living well by making sound decisions is our primary responsibility, and the news is extraneous to this life project. We need this reminder. And we are assured: if we avoid the news and instead read books and longer journal articles (both in print and online) then we may not know everything current but we will have a deeper knowledge and richer perspective to bring to any discussion of current affairs. Dobelli highlights that avoiding the news doesn’t make us naive numskulls. Anything we really need to know, truly important news, will always find its way to us via family, colleagues or friends. Avoiding the news does not mean we remain dangerously uninformed; it means, if we read at depth, that we are judiciously informed.
A key to our continued education in culture and history is re-reading. Dobelli writes, “When you read something a second time, it’s not twice as effective as the first read-through—in my experience, it’s more like ten times as powerful. I’d recommend reading long-form articles twice, too.” I don’t review any non-fiction book unless I’ve read it twice because the repeated reading gives a much better understanding; it’s also much fairer to authors who labour long over their books only to read appraisals by reviewers who appear to have skim-read the work.
Two points of disagreement: Dobelli warns against ideologues and dogmatists, but everyone has their dogmas, the only difference is that some people know their dogmas and hold them consciously (for example, religious people) while other people hold unconscious and undefined dogmas. In other words, we are all dogmatists at some level. Second, Dobelli seems to conflate dogma and ideologies, but defined dogmas restrict rather than create ideologies. The contemporary West, for example, is not ruled by religious dogma; and ideologies are proliferating with few effective checks.
My second reading of this book allayed a different concern: the book is slim, only 158 pages; it’s brisk rather than scholarly in style and tone, and can be read in only two or three sittings. It seems somewhat slight. But the brevity and brio make the book accessible to a much broader range of readers, particularly young adult readers who can avoid wasted time, needless anxiety and misinformation over decades if they take the arguments of this book to heart. Another benefit of its accessibility is that people already time-poor because they are news-aholics may be more inclined to read it—and reclaim their sense of what is important to them.
Stop Reading the News is definitely worth reading, and re-reading. And note: this review is in a journal filled with long-form articles, not in a newspaper obsessed with the evanescent and thick with distracting advertisements.
Gary Furnell is a frequent contributor. His story “Saltwater Reaction” appears in this issue.
Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life
by Rolf Dobelli, translated by Caroline Waight
Sceptre, 2020, 158 pages, $27.99