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The Influencing Machine

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

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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.

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“[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 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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