I just finished Brook Gladstone’s The Influencing Machine. Her name may sound familiar. She is the co-host of NPR’s On the Media. Her book is a musing on the role and history of the media in our society and is created using a graphic format. Gladstone said that this format actually helped her to create the intimacy of radio in book form. I think that’s true, as she figures quite prominently in the book’s historical journeys and intellectual ruminations as the shape-shifting narrator– headless Marie Antoinette, a Mayan prisoner, a citizen of Dante’s Inferno, Saddam Hussein’s statue, Medusa, on Tarot cards as The queen of Pentacles and the Matrix to name just a few.
I picked the book up in the midst of our recent presidential election. I was feeling that I had never experienced a more polarized political rhetoric in my life and wanted to learn more about the context, history, and responsibility of the media.
This is not an easy book. There is much to be digested and processed here, which is why it would make a terrific book for high school or college students. It presents a history of the media/ journalism and its relationship with technology. It explores what is truth and objectivity exploring a wide variety of biases beyond the usual ones: the fairness bias which mistakenly assumes every story has two equally weighted points of view; the narrative bias which gives weight to conclusions that may not even be true so that the news story will contain a beginning, middle, and an end; a visual bias which tends to emphasize stories that have compelling photographs to accompany them; access bias which compels journalists in their attempt to get information to protect their sources which in turn makes them empathize with those sources, a literal “dance with the devil.” The status quo bias assumes that the “system works” and this silences other points of view. The commercial bias represents our craving for the new, for novelty, which leaves the follow-up on stories often neglected. The bad news bias, which plays on our fears, makes the world seem a lot worse than it really is.
Gladstone draws on a wealth of research in history, politics, philosophy, and psychology — from John Dewey to Daniel Hallin, Michael Kinsley to Walt Whitman, John Peter Zenger, Geoffrey Stone, Ethan Bronner, Nicholas Carr, Neil Postman, Shankar Vedantam, William James, Thomas Patrick Dougherty, Marshall McLuhan, Douglas Adams, Cass Sunstein, Ida Tarbell, David Halberstam, Andrea Stone, and many more.
Gladstone debunks the claims of the media’s dumbing us down and distracting us from core issues. She calls this book a “call to action,” emphasizing that the media is really only our own reflection and therefore to change the media is to change ourselves as well as making ourselves more savvy consumers of what the media offers. Her last statement in the book is, “We get the media we deserve.”
Josh Neufeld is the comic artist who collaborated with Gladstone in making this such a rich visual experience.