The Influencing Machine

NPR’s Brooke Gladstone entertainingly recounts media history in a graphic novel.

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    The Influencing Machine
    By Brooke Gladstone
    W.W. Norton
    181 pp.
    View Caption

“I wanted to write a comic book long before I wanted to write a book about the media,” Brooke Gladstone explains in The Influencing Machine, her new book about the news business. The host of NPR’s “On the Media,” Gladstone makes what could have been a chewy book on media theory – snooze – more fun with the help of something unavailable at her day job: pictures.

“I thought writing in bubbles would be easier, more like radio,” Gladstone writes. “It was more like radio, but it wasn’t easier.”

Although writing it wasn’t easier for the radio host, “The Influencing Machine” will prove easier on her readers than most of the inside-baseball navel-gazing done by media personalities. As digital publishing buries newspapers and books, writers either wax nostalgic for dead trees (like former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans in his memoir “My Paper Chase”) or drool over the possibilities of the Internet age (like Cory Doctorow, publisher of the tech blog BoingBoing, who blurbed “The Influencing Machine”).

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Gladstone, more level-headed, charts a middle course.

“Everything we hate about the media today was present at its creation,” she writes. “Also present was everything we admire – and require – from the media: factual information, penetrating analysis, probing investigation, truth spoken to power. Same as it ever was.”

Of course, as any newspaper editor will tell you, “Same as it ever was” isn’t a great headline. “The Influencing Machine” doesn’t break new ground. Starting with ancient Guatemala, where she says Mayan scribes wrote “primordial P.R.,” Gladstone takes us through touchstones familiar to any Journalism 101 student: the explosion of newspapers after the American Revolution, William Randolph Hearst’s yellow journalism, Watergate, and the invasion of Iraq. She also offers tired Jon Stewartesque gripes about partisan cable-news bloviators.

Here’s where the illustrations help. Josh Neufeld, veteran illustrator of topical graphic novels such as “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge” and “9-11: Emergency Relief,” makes Gladstone’s arguments about, for example, the unreliability of polls, more memorable. Poll-hating isn’t novel – John Allen Paulos, for one, outlined arguments against surveys almost 20 years ago in “A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper.” Still, it’s easier to wade through a statistical discussion accompanied by Gladstone’s curly-haired avatar, which Neufeld supplies with a Sherlock Holmes cap and magnifying glass in one panel where she takes on NBC’s Chris Hansen.

Hansen, host of “To Catch a Predator” – horrifying infotainment that, as one judge ruled, entrapped would-be statutory rapists by soliciting them on the Web – cited law enforcement officers in 2005 to claim “50,000 predators are online at any given moment.” Then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales even cited the number in a speech. Gladstone, however, was dubious.

“[The number] 50,000 is a death magnet,” she writes. “Every year 50,000 die in road accidents ... and from secondhand smoke ... and from trans-fats in America.... What’s the deal?” After talking to Hansen’s source, she learns that the figure was, essentially, a guess-timate.

“It was a Goldilocks number,” Hansen’s statistician tells her. “Not too hot, not too cold.” Gladstone thinks that such poor journalism, whether motivated by laziness or outright bias, is common. “Sometimes the simplest reasons are the scariest,” she writes.

Without offering excessive hyperbole about the promises of the Digital Age (see: any paper that enthuses about “citizen journalists” while offering multiple buyouts to its newsroom), Gladstone makes a solid case that more democratic access to information improves news.

Though, regrettably, she’s doesn’t say much about WikiLeaks, she praises cellphone images of Iranian upheaval after a contested election in 2009 and websites such as data.gov that let normal folks find and report stories.

“How can we ensure that our development as moral and social animals keeps pace with our rapidly evolving communications technology?” she asks. “By playing an active role in our media consumption.”

It shouldn’t be news to Gladstone that publishing empires are desperately trying not to go broke while hoping to make readers more active. And older, less easily digestible books – Marshall McLuhan’s “Medium is the Message” and Roland Barthes’s “Mythologies” – better describe the 21st century’s media disease. Still, Gladstone gets points for offering some solutions and staying positive.

“I am generally a dark individual, but I think this is a great time to be alive,” she writes. In 2012 – 40 years after Woodward and Bernstein started writing about a break-in at a Washington, D.C., office complex – that’s great to hear.

Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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