Brook Gladstone, host of NPR’s On the Media, begins her work of graphic nonfiction with the story of psychoanalyst Victor Tausk and his treatise “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia,” written in 1919 and first published in 1933. Tausk describes a patient who believes she is being controlled and tormented by an old suitor and his nefarious electrical device. Among other things, the device causes the woman to feel sexual sensations and urges. Tausk reasons that the woman has invented the machine in order to escape undesirable aspects of herself. Any thought or action the woman is uncomfortable with can be attributed to the nefarious “Influencing Machine.” Gladstone argues that the same relationship exists between the consumer and the media. Humanity may blame and fear the media, but the media are our invention and their faults are a mirror of our own.
Gladstone follows her introduction with a whirlwind tour from the first development of the written word on through our modern cable news culture. Along the way she hits high points of journalistic integrity and free speech as well as low points of propaganda and government censorship. She speaks to journalists, historians, pollsters, psychologists, sociologists, and neurologists. She lays out seven common forms of media bias and then turns right around to examine individuals project their own biases back onto the media they consume.
This is heavy stuff and sounds like it should be dry and impenetrable but somehow, magically, it’s not. It’s light, accessible, and utterly engrossing. Gladstone’s wealth of detail comes off as a chat with a very well-educated friend rather than a professorial lecture. She delivers complex ideas with clarity and affability. At the same time, I can’t overstate Josh Neufeld’s contribution to the book’s readability. His art is loose and cartoony, presented in unobtrusive black, white, and green. Throughout the book he quietly supports the text and draws the reader in. He often brightens quieter passages with small gags or clever visual metaphors. For example, Gladstone’s cartoon avatar often narrates from within the scene, cheerfully taking the place of a Mayan torture victim or standing in for the statue of Saddam Hussein in Al-Firdos Square. Both the text and the art owe a lot to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, clearly echoing his playful inventiveness and enthusiasm.
The accessibility and humor of The Influencing Machine will appeal to recreational readers with an interest in media criticism. The subjects discussed may be of more interest to an adult audience but are in no way inappropriate for younger readers. The scholarship is solid enough to hold up in the classroom the book could easily find a place in a high school or college curriculum. Gladstone makes a point of favoring direct quotations of her various sources and provides an extensive list of citations. Given her background in public radio, some readers may accuse Gladstone of a liberal bias on what can be a politically charged subject. She would no doubt counter that all media are a tangle of implicit and explicit bias from which it is the reader’s responsibility to unravel a thread of truth.