“The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media” by Brooke Gladstone, Illustrations by Josh Neufeld, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2011, 156 pages
Review by Curt Prendergast
This book might be the easiest read you can find on media criticism. The author, the host of “On the Media,” a newsmagazine on National Public Radio, brings her experience as a journalist to a rather unexpected medium: the comic book. Through 156 pages of engaging green-and-white illustrations by Josh Neufeld, the book takes the reader from the beginnings of writing to a future in which humans have computer implants in their brains.
The drawings and lively characters make reading the book an absolute breeze. It only takes a few hours to burn through the pages, but there is a richness that deserves a closer look. In true journalistic style, Gladstone pulls quotes from a variety of historical figures, academics, authors, and journalists. She backs up these quotes with a thorough list of sources at the end of the book. Who knew that a comic book could be great reference material?
Among the topics discussed in the book is the Great Refusal, a term taken from Dante’s Inferno and used to describe “the neutrals, whose lives meant nothing, because they refused to commit themselves.” Gladstone, as a character standing among a swirling mass of lost souls explaining why they didn’t take a stand, says: “Few reporters proclaim their convictions. Fewer still act on them to serve what they believe to be the greater good. Even now, arguably another time of profound moral crisis, most reporters make the Great Refusal.”
On the facing page, a caricature of W.B. Yeats reads a poem next to an image of the devastation of World War One. Gladstone gives the counterpoint to her previous statement with the phrase “Deeply held conviction leads to mayhem.” This is how Gladstone tells her story. To call it ‘balanced’ would be an understatement. She pulls together a wide array of perspectives that offer new avenues of research even for readers educated in the issues that face news producers and consumers in 2011.
She is both narrator and character in a world that brings historical figures onto the same pages as fictional ones. These are accompanied by drawings of authors and academics on social and media behavior. How would Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, look in a comic book? Here is your chance to find out.
Throughout the book she draws parallels between the state of journalism in specific time periods and its current form in the digital world of the 21st century. Just as Kovach and Rosenstiel wrote in Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, Gladstone notes that the rise of the Internet is not a unique historical phenomenon. The alphabet, the printing press, the telegraph, and even the newspaper all radically changed how the public gets its news. All of these changed how we think, but none led to the end of the world. The goal is to find a new way to navigate the world as presented by the Internet.
Read a review of “Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload” here.