Brooke Gladstone’s Graphic Commentary of Media’s ‘Influencing Machine’

Brooke Gladstone is the long time co-host and managing director of WNYC’s On The Media. She has a new book about media and our society called The Influencing Machine. It takes the form of a comic book, illustrated by artist Josh Neufeld, the author of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge.

Gladstone joined us in our newsroom for a conversation:

[Read the transcript after the jump]

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you spent years reporting on, studying on, telling us about the media. Why write a book? What were you after?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, it took me about two decades to finally come to a conclusion about a few things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I always wanted to write a comic book. And I thought a comic book would be the perfect way to deal with this material.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because it’s so complicated. And a comic book is both concise, dense and forces a kind of mental discipline that I have since used in my writing for the radio. You cannot waste a word. You don’t spend your time in pyrotechnics. All the magic has to come from the ideas. And much less can you get from style, because you just don’t have the space for it. So, from a writing point of view, that made— that was a good choice for me, because: no temporizing, no thumb sucking. I had to really know what I was talking about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what is it that, in all your years of looking at this so — when you went to put this down — what is it that you think most people do not understand about today’s media that you wanted to help us understand?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That makes me sound so arrogant. Here’s what I learned about the media, and what I learned about people when I went outside and spoke to them, is, invariably, there would be someone who would say in a public forum, ‘Why aren’t the media covering x?’ I went, ‘Wow, that’s a good question. Where did you hear about x?’ And invariably, it would be the New York Times, but it would be on A10, rather than, you know, in the front. And that’s when it began to occur to me that what people really want, what they need from their media, is a reflection of their own values and their own priorities, and if you look at the polls of media trust, generally it’s been on a solid decline—

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, I think we’ve all noticed that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there have been spikes. And when there have been spikes, it is when the media are best reflecting the public mood. There was a spike right after the coverage of 9/11, because the anguish and incomprehension of the public was expressed by the media in those moments. But there was another spike during Katrina. Not because the coverage of Katrina was so terrific, because as we know it was a rife with inaccuracies, as was the immediate coverage after 911. But again, the media were expressing our pain.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you refer to the media as a mirror, and that is a way of saying that there is — because you say it explicitly here — there is no great media conspiracy, right? There is no manipulator behind the scenes to present, to make happen, whatever people see, so somehow it is a mirror. What does that—

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s right. It’s a funhouse mirror, it’s a little cracked, a little distorted. But basically what you see in there is the reflection of our civilization, our politics at a given moment. And what we see in the media now, given that it is so vast, is the shards of a trillion reflecting mirrors. Basically anybody who has a cell phone in their pocket has an opportunity to contribute to the media, to participate in it, and to change it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So for example, I mean, there is a moment here when one of your cartoon characters looks ahead and says, why is there so much crap? Right? I mean we all hear it: Why is there so much crap in the media? But your answer is because, well there is crap in our society? What, because that’s part of what our culture is about?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Part of it has to do with the fact that our culture is the way it is. Part of it has to do with the fact we are wired to like narratives, to like conflict, to like visuals, where we have an almost genetic predisposition to be interested in celebrities that we can project upon, and all of this triviality is kind of baked into the business, just like it’s baked into us, and it’s a kind of vicious circle. And I don’t absolve the media of blame for being trivial, of rushing to judgment, of being full of garbage. But I also know that at the very moment when the media are just rife with crap, it’s also full of some of the best reporting we’ve ever seen. Across the board. And then, in every phase of American journalism, we have come to what a lot of people think is the brink of apocalypse. The society is coming apart! And at every phase, we’ve pulled away from that brink, if in fact we were ever there at all. There has been brilliant reporting and dreadful reporting at every single phase of our culture, throughout the invention of journalism, in fact since the invention of the written word.

JEFFREY BROWN: But we have to be more open, transparent, etc. about, for example, biases. You have a long section here where you say—

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Seven biases.

JEFFREY BROWN: Seven biases but not the one everybody talks about. Which is political bias.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which is the easiest one. I mean, you know, here’s the thing: People think that if a reporter has an opinion that they are then untrustworthy. Whereas we’ve seen throughout history, during the invention of the penny press, during the nation’s founding, and on and on, that inflected journalism was the norm. And there was amazing reporting done in that period. Also horrendous reporting. It’s really a mid-century aberration that objectivity, so-called, became the sort of founding— the sort of standard bearer of great journalism. It doesn’t guarantee great journalism. It can guarantee craven and misleading journalism. It’s really how you deal with the information, not who you are, that matters. The biases that I worry about are the ones that are baked into the business and baked into human cognition.

JEFFREY BROWN: Such as?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Things like narrative bias. We love to squeeze things into stories with a beginning, middle and end. But most news, or at least a great deal of news, doesn’t have that. Doesn’t have villains and heroes and a narrative arc. I mean, especially science stories. Science stories are nothing but middle, nothing but process, which is why you end up with the kind of reporting that’s like, you know, ‘Coffee is good for you,’ ‘Coffee is bad for you,’ ‘No, coffee is good for you,’ ‘No, coffee is bad!’ Because this is a process, there isn’t an end. And political stories can be terrifically distorted, because you create a character. You know. Gore is a liar, Hillary is an emasculator, you know. Bush is a stupid frat boy. And then anything that deviates from there reporters are resistant to changing because once you have a template, you can just stuff everything into it and that’s terribly misleading. There are visual biases, commercial biases, access biases, on and on. This is about the process of journalism and how we consume information and it’s got nothing to do with politics.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, so what is your advice to media consumers?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: My advice to media consumers is to take responsibility for your behavior. Everything that they want and need is out there and they have to stop thinking that media is just cable news. You know, it’s usually when people are hysterical over something, it’s because of cable news, which has disproportionate impact for its tiny numbers. Really. And so my view is that if you don’t like cable news, you can go through your life and be incredibly informed and never watch it. Let’s face it, the Arab spring was reported largely by amateurs. Amateurs with attitudes and opinions and cell phones. But that doesn’t mean that the people who were filing dispatches on Twitter or posting things on Facebook were liars and cheats. They were there, they were there for a reason, and they sent that information to the larger world, with the mainstream media acting as a signal amplifier.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you have fun doing this, finally?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I always wanted to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer and this was as close as I could become. I get to turn into a dog, I become Medusa, Spiderman. I wandered through the Tarot deck and the Matrix, and all in pursuit of explaining, you know, a pretty complicated idea, which is, you know, if you go and look back a couple of millennia, we are changing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are, you know, dying as a civilization. We are simply evolving.