The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media (W.W. Norton)

Hate the way the newsmedia is run? WNYC host Brooke Gladstone says you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

 

170 pgs., color; $23.95
(W: Brooke Gladstone; A: Josh Neufeld)
 
The next time you feel like denouncing the media for sins such as avarice, cowardice, or mendacity, perhaps you can take comfort in this thought, courtesy of Brooke Gladstone: not only are such faults nothing new, their continued existence is more or less inherent in the way we produce and consume media. In her view, the media only exists in relation to the public which consumes it, and it generally gives that public what it wants to see and hear. The faults of the media are thus the faults of the public which consumes it, according to Gladstone, so it’s your own fault if you don’t like it because they are doing their best to please you. To put it another way, business is business and despite what those in the industry may want you to believe, most people go into media for the same reasons people seek work in any other industry: to make money. "Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable" (as the slogan goes) is not the quickest route to that nice house in the suburbs (if you’re a reporter) or a positive profit-and-loss balance sheet (if you’re an owner): there’s more money to be made with celebrity gossip and it’s far easier to repeat what politicians have said than to investigate the truth of their claims.
 
Gladstone is the co-host of the WNYC program "On the Media" (http://www.onthemedia.org/) and clearly wants to defend the good name of her profession while also pointing out some of its flaws. The Influencing Machine is devoted largely to tracing a history of the relationship between media and power, and it’s a great read that will convince you that government censorship and entirely invented "news stories" are nothing new. To her credit, Gladstone doesn’t get involved in the tail-chasing argument of whether the media are "objective" (is anyone?) but instead outlines some common types of bias which are primarily a product of the way business is done (and money is made) rather than the free choice of any particular reporter or media outlet. These include commercial bias (the average consumer is more interested in novel news items than in follow-up stories), bad news bias (anything which is presented as threatening is inherently interesting to many people), status quo bias (most people prefer things to stay the same rather than change), access bias (reporters may censor criticism of the government in order to retain their access to high-ranking officials), visual bias (fires are more interesting to watch than city council meetings) and narrative bias (people like stories with a beginning, middle and end, and news stories are regularly forced into this form whether it fits the information being delivered or not). In each case you could add the tagline "so that’s what the media provides" to each type of bias, e.g. if people are more willing to tune in to see pictures of fires than reports of Congressional deliberations, that is what the media will provide.
 
This is a pretty useful list of biases and while I agree with her analysis, I think she’s letting her colleagues off the hook a little too easily. Most of us would like to make a nice living, but would she excuse a physician who made a habit of doing unnecessary surgery in order to collect more fees, or a policeman who openly took bribes and then excused himself by saying "people get the police force they deserve"? She also relies heavily on a lower common denominator version of the media-consuming public, not considering that there are plenty of people who are disgusted by the infotainment which frequently passes for news these days. The good news is that for those willing to make the effort (and who have access to the necessary technology), there are more sources of news than ever available these days. The bad news is that the most common sources accessed (television and radio) are often the least reliable. Is this really the news "we" deserve? I think not, but I don’t have any concrete suggestions to improve the situation.
 
The Influencing Machine is a textbook example of how to use the graphic novel format to deliver information efficiently while also keeping it interesting. Josh Neufeld declares on his web page (http://joshcomix.com/) "I am a storyteller and my medium is comics" and that’s a pretty fair description of his work here (he also wrote and illustrated A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge). Every frame makes a point and his semi-realistic drawings create context for the text and reinforce its meaning without drawing attention to themselves. The narrative is nicely paced, alternating between first-person narration by a cartoon Brooke (complete with curly black hair and high-heeled boots) and third-person presentation of historical facts, and he uses a variety of layouts which complement the rhythm of the narrative as well. You can see a preview here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/38023940/The-Influencing-Machine. | Sarah Boslaugh

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