Sounds like a philosophical question, doesn't it? And oddly enough it came up because of a writer who styles himself as a philosopher, but is a good illustration of why we shouldn't be too impressed with people just because other people define them as 'clever'.
On Wednesday night, Newsnight ran a lengthy piece which was effectively an advert for the latest book by Alain De Botton, who has written books on everything from sex to religion to travel. He has now turned his attention to writing about news. This week, he launched his own daily online newspaper, The Philosopher's Mail, which mimics the style of The Mail Online to supposedly make profound statements about life, offering a different slant on what gets covered as news. Have a look for yourself, but I think it is total tripe. Far from asking difficult questions about the world (which is what I thought philosophers did) it seems to veer between trying to be funny (which it isn't) and making really trite observations. If it was set up with the aim of showing people how ridiculous 'news' as a genre is, with its obsessions with celebrity and trivial stories, it doesn't do much of a job. And in any case it's been done before- very well, by the likes of Charlie Brooker:
(WARNING: There's swearing in these videos, so don't put them on loud in class!):
and in the USA by The Onion:
and probably best of all by The Day Today (which, if you've never seen it, you should watch all twelve episodes):
But enough of these enjoyable parodies of news- what's this got to do with the title of my post? Well one thing about parody is that it often draws attention to the things that we take for granted, and all three of these examples do that with some biting satire on the way that news operates. Media Studies attempts, amongst other things, to draw attention to the form of texts and the ways in which they work and how that creates meaning. Its been around (Media Studies) for quite a long time now, and I suspect you get as fed up as I do with people saying its a soft option or a 'Mickey mouse' subject, particularly when they say it in the media. On results day each year, there is almost routine reference on news programmes to media studies as if it is the subject nobody should be doing. Each year close to 30,000 students complete the A level and 60,000 the GCSE. Imagine my surprise then, when in his (awful) video, De Botton says that no-one teaches about news in schools and, in the discussion afterwards, Alistair Campbell asserts that 'there is now a need for an education about the modern media'. It's true that media education is not compulsory and that Michael Gove seems to be doing his utmost to stop people studying it, but it is bizarre that Newsnight should give such coverage to a book which talks as if no-one has ever thought about studying the news and that no-one on the programme showed any awareness that it has been taught in schools and universities for many years!
I'm not the only one to spot this- there was some discussion on a Higher Education mailing list, on twitter and on the Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies blog, written by Kerry Moore too. We are all now wondering whether we dreamt it all and that Media Studies doesn't exist.
Anyway, enough of my ranting. Judge for yourself. Here is the video De Botton made for Newsnight, followed by the studio discussion.