The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone

The Influencing Machine is a graphic nonfiction book written by Brooke Gladstone, and illustrated by Josh Neufeld. The book tackles the media through the lens of history and modern media theory, offering a dizzying (and sometimes depressing) view of our media heritage as well as her “vision” for the future.

Since Brooke Gladstone has been the host of NPR’s seminal radio Show, On the Media, for over ten years, she’s got great material from countless interviews with reporters, editors, commentators, and media luminaries to draw upon. I’ve listened to the show a lot, and it’s clear that Brooke Gladstone holds journalistic ethics and responsibilities to their highest standard- and is not afraid to ask the tough questions of her guests to make them accountable.

A panel from The Influencing Machine

I was also looking forward to reading this book because it’s a comic book….er, graphic novel, beautifully and amusingly illustrated by artist Josh Neufeld. To me, comic books and radio are a natural fit—they’re both theaters of the imagination, of sorts. The art in The Influencing Machine is rife with creative and colorful interpretations and a cast of vividly drawn historical and real life characters. Because it’s a comic book, it can take you right into a scene- from Woodward and Bernstein’s newsroom to a civil war battlefield- just like a move- but it’s a book. (radio is words and sounds that evoke pictures- a book for your mind, if you will).

The Influencing Machine takes on a wide variety of media-related issues, like freedom of information, media access and ownership, accountability and accuracy, public trust, bias, war reporting, consumption theory, and more. It’s a tough task to pull off, fraught with nuances and controversy at every turn, but Ms. Gladstone’s prodigious experience makes it seem easy to condense all of this material into a worthwhile narrative. There is a wealth of examples to make this narrative unfold.

The best of these examples place media issues in the context of history- a very useful perspective to have when lamenting the deplorable state of the media today. For instance, did you know that Julius Caesar started the first PR machine newspaper, the Acta Diurna, and disseminated it throughout the empire to control information? Good ‘ol George Washington may have never told a lie, but he did invent the ‘political leak’- inviting reporters to fancy dinners to ensure that they reported stories to his liking. And what’s so wrong with using State Department money to fund a newspaper that opposes your political rivals? Thomas Jefferson did it. Apparently, things like plagiarism, PR stunts, tabloid reporting, and unethical alliances have been happening for a long time.

I couldn’t help but be struck by a certain tone of cynicism in most of these examples. While she does justice to people like war reporter Ernie Pyle and Jacob Riis, for the most part media history seemed like a string of lies, betrayals, and misrepresentations. I could have used a couple more positive examples, not to mention some women and people of color. No mention of Nellie Bly (one of my childhood journalist heroes), whose pioneering work writing an expose of the mistreatment of patients at mental hospitals changed public health policy in the United States? Or Langston Hughes, the American poet and writer, who bravely reported on The Spanish Civil War “for the colored press”?

According to Gladstone, reporters are a sorry lot- the government will always try to control them, the public will never trust them, and they are constantly prey to editors, a hungry audience who wants their news fast, and the purse-strings that tempt them to say things that aren’t true.

Hanging over the book like the albatross of every reporter who wants to be worth their weight in salt, is the myth of objectivity. Objectivity, Gladstone insists, “is impossible.” Biases are inherent: gender biases, race biases, political biases), as several scientific studies cited in the book have proved. If you don’t believe me, try this test.

As one salient quote in the book points out, we as journalists are in fact responsible for everything we see as well as everything we do. But ‘advocacy’ journalism is relegated to the sphere of ‘deviance’, outside of the donut-hole sphere of consensus. A media consumer should watch for media biases, but a reporter can’t help but have them- no matter how much they try to make up for it.

So what’s the solution? According to Gladstone, in a time of public online identities and opinion-oriented journalism, transparency is the new objectivity. Reporters must earn people’s trust and assume that the public is savvy enough to sniff out the real truth in this age of information (re: don’t end up like this guy, duh). They should always link to their sources, open themselves to comments and criticisms, and even disclose their voting records, affiliations, and biases openly. Founder of Entertainment Weekly Jeff Jarvis does. Then, after all that disclosure, still make kick-ass quality journalism that is reliable, documented, and committed to the truth.

In the end, ‘the influencing machine’ spins its course on us, fragments us into pieces of incomplete knowledge, and challenges our identities. Technological changes ensure we’ll biologically develop into how we consume media- our brains are already changing to handle this new global universe of rapid news and information. The final panel of the book shows a group of people staring up at you, holding cell phones and microphones, as Gladstone says, ‘We get the media we deserve.” For better or worse? I guess it’s up to us to find out.

More:

Read Brooke Gladstone’s Media Manifesto on Transom:
http://transom.org/?p=7004

Watch an animated Video on The Influencing Machine:
https://vimeo.com/23867276

Buy The Influencing Machine at:
http://www.amazon.com/The-Influencing-Machine-Brooke-Gladstone/dp/0393077799

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2 Comments

  1. Session 4 – Global Systems, Watchdogs and What Comes Next « UW Digital Democracy
  2. The Influencing Machine Book Review « Digital Infinity

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