Gladstone's The Influencing Machine

A comic book to explain media? — a scene so sad that it’s funny

By Steve Behrens

Long after giving a title to her new serious comic book, On the Media co-host Brooke Gladstone is having to explain it away. When forced into giddy sound-bite mode on The Colbert Report July 26, she was quick to say that The Influencing Machine doesn’t follow the alarmist line you’d expect.

“This title is what I want to fight — the popular notion that the media are controlling our minds,” she said. “It’s really a mirror.”

Calling the book “Our Harmless Media Lapdog” wouldn’t have fit the book, either. More like “The Pandering Machine,” because Gladstone offers plenty of evidence that journalists, in their desire to please audiences, do plenty of damage by cheerleading wars and ignoring unpleasant developments below the surface of public life.

Gladstone explained during an earlier bookstore appearance that the book’s title is ironic, like David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, which chronicled some major screw-ups by JFK’s elite White House posse.

She was speaking and signing copies of the book at Washington’s Politics & Prose in June, after W.W. Norton & Co. released The Influencing Machine in a pizza-resistant easy-cleanup cover. A Norton spokesperson said an iPad version is planned. The book’s also available on Kindle.

I must disclose that I came to see her as a Gladstone fan, who enjoyed working with her at Current, years ago when Larry Grossman and Frank Mankiewicz strode the earth as PBS and NPR presidents respectively.

Because she and co-host Bob Garfield make On the Media as entertaining as it is probingly informative, it’s not entirely surprising that Gladstone chose the comic-book format for her serious-and-funny nonfiction.

She tried to give the book a connection with readers as intimate as the bond between radio hosts and listeners, embodying her voice and humor in an omnipresent ink-and-pen narrator — a curly-headed caricature of herself that shape-shifts from the toppling statue of Sadaam Hussein to Elsa Lanchester in her “Bride of Frankenstein” hairdo. (To get Gladstone’s face just right, illustrator Josh Neufeld tried a half-dozen characterizations she could choose among, including one that she thought looked way too much like the star of the old comic strip “Nancy.”)

However, the text in the speech bubbles isn’t radio writing, paced for listeners’ real-time digestion. The quotes and her remarks are as dense as haiku or dialogue from “Doonesbury.”

For the pictures, she put Neufeld through a slalom course of drawing challenges, veering from solemn landscapes of battlefield carnage to caricatures of umpteen middle-aged professors of media theory. Harvard scholar Yochai Benkler comes out best of the lot, inserted in a tableaux inspired by Henri Matisse, dancing in a joyous circle with naked ladies.

Readers might assume that Gladstone compressed a conventional sheaf of nonfiction pages into comic-book style because she had suddenly realized what a narrow slice of the population would ever plow through the book. It wasn’t like that.

She had a dream of speaking in word bubbles and a DC Comics contract to deliver a sci-fi graphic novel. But the plot hadn’t jelled in three years’ work, she told me. After switching to a nonfiction subject she knows well, the book was done in less than two.

Loyal On the Media listeners will recognize favorite bits from the show, such as Scientific American Editor John Rennie’s bitterly ironic column about science nonbelievers, and the piece about the casual origins of widely repeated factoids, such as the estimated numbers of Internet predators, satanic murders and child abductions (all 50,000 a year and questionable).

To connect these recent controversies in a long, long-term view, Gladstone dived into history, where she finds occasional chasms between the reported news and what actually happened. And she asks scientists how the human brain perceives and remembers (or not) these things — which seems to be the missing link in understanding media.

“Once I started writing, I searched for primary sources to support my points and found myself encountering an endless series of fascinating things,” she told John Hogan of Graphic Novel Reporter. “I had an outline, but I started each writing day with the expectation that I would wind up going down a rabbit hole — which eventually led to William James, prehistoric man, Dante’s Inferno … Yeats … the Singularity …”

For example, she revisits an analysis cited in On the Media‘s programs in March about political bias: the insight from political scientist Daniel Hallin that journalists tend to give different treatment to news subjects that he groups in three spheres:

  • Matters of community consensus that are seldom questioned or challenged.
  • Legitimate controversies that are ripe for examination, which Gladstone calls “journalism’s sweet spot.”
  • Opinions on the deviant outer fringe, which mainstream journalists and their audiences “reject as unworthy of being heard.”

Last year’s ridiculed fringe opinions, of course, sometimes become today’s debatable subject and tomorrow’s consensus, as Gladstone demonstrates in this two-page excerpt by applying Hallin’s analysis to a New York Times dispatch from 1909, in which the era’s profoundly racist assumptions restrict what the reporter considers to be legitimate controversies.

That's clearly  a bagel, not a donut

The sequence is part of Gladstone’s prolonged wrestling match with Objectivity, which she treats as an unattainable ideal that came into favor in American journalism during the last century because growing newspapers and broadcast networks wanted enormous, broad audiences to support their growing costs.

This thing for Objectivity has been a historical aberration, Gladstone says, and the splintering media are returning to their old ways of courting narrower audiences.

Not that journalists are required to indulge in dishonesty, underestimate their audiences or surrender to bias.

At no extra charge, the book provides a pocketable list of biases that often plague journalists. Gladstone admits to being bored with political bias, which is easy for everyone to see differently. She’s more concerned with biases toward:

  • Novelty. “News needs conflict and momentum. It needs to be new. That’s why news outlets too rarely follow up on stories they’ve already reported.” This is Commercial Bias, which is often used as a basic argument for nonprofit and noncommercial media, though Gladstone doesn’t get into that.
  • The status quo. “Human beings tend to oppose change unless the benefits are guaranteed to be huge — and the risks minuscule.”
  • High-ranking sources who give journalists access to the halls of power. “Antagonize power and the door is barred,” Gladstone writes. “When you see the phrase ‘senior administration official,’ somebody has struck a deal.”
  • A visual hook. The Washington Post reported torture of terrorism suspects on its front page in 2000, Gladstone reminds us, but it didn’t become a widespread issue until photos were leaked from Abu Ghraib in 2004.
  • An appealing narrativewith prefab characters and plot arcs. “My favorite bias,” says Gladstone. When the statue of Sadaam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad, the tape of the expected iconic moment was replayed every few minutes on U.S. cable news networks. Viewers didn’t see the U.S. marine providing tools to the small crowd or the relative sparseness of the crowd in the vast plaza.Reports on science, with its ongoing reconsideration, often fail to fit popular narrative lines, she says. Science is a process that often has no clear beginning or end within sight — “all middle.”
  • Equal coverage of unequal assertions. Media afflicted with Fairness Bias are so eager to appear balanced that they distort their reports — for example, by repeating the trumped-up Swift Boat charges against John Kerry.
  • War coverage that favors the home team. “Every media bias shows up in war reporting, in spades.” The government packages an entire narrative, supplying “the plot, the threat, and the enemy’s depravity.”
  • Bad news. “We are wired to care about anything that even remotely threatens us — so emphasizing bad news is good business.” This naturally goes into overdrive in wartime.

“Which bias is the worst?” Stephen Colbert asked Gladstone on his news-comedy show.

The bias of news media and news consumers toward bad news, she replied, because it “makes you think the world is much scarier than it is, and that’s a very bad thing.”

Colbert looked concerned.

“How bad?” he asked. “Will it kill us?”

Comments, questions, tips? behrens@current.org
Copyright 2011 American University

A cartoon book gets a cartoon trailer

In an animation of her cartoon avatar, Gladstone describes an early appearance of the “influencing machine” idea, on the couch of a Middle-Europe psychiatrist. The trailer for the book was animated by Benjamin Arthur with sound design by Jonathan Arthur.

EXCERPT

What’s regarded as a legitimate controversy for journalists to explore?

EARLIER STORIES

On the Media was one of a slate of successful national programs launched by WNYC in the past decade under President Laura Walker, 2004.

With a push from Ira Glass, Gladstone and On the Media looked at the familiar “liberal bias” accusations against public radio, 2011.

RELATED LINKS

Jeffrey Brown interviews Gladstone on the PBS NewsHour, June 24, 2011.

John Hogan of Graphic Novel Reporter interviews Gladstone about the graphic non-novel.

Gladstone visits The Colbert Report: Rejecting her view, he insists that the media are still in control of people’s minds, commanding his audience: “Clap for me, my monkeys!” And with raucous hoots, they do.

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