The Influencing Machine

infmachineThere’s supposedly an old Chinese curse that states “May you live in interesting times.” If that’s the case then Brooke Gladstone, author of The Influencing Machine, would not only most likely be happy, but be able to tell us all about it. The long time host of NPR’s On the Media, Gladstone has now put her fascinating thoughts and theories about the changing nature of our media landscape into a graphic novel manifesto, ably aided by artist Josh Neufeld.

Gladstone sets the bar high, tackling concepts that are not only difficult, but often hard to put in a graphic context. So she can be forgiven for at times foregoing a full graphic treatment, and giving us a page or two of typeset prose as she explores ideas more fully. But along the way, she and Neufeld are able to pull off their hard task: Not only giving us a look into the history of how we get our news, but a better idea of the concerns and issues that any reporter worth their salt has to understand in order to report that news to us.

Throughout the book we are guided by Gladstone herself, or at least her image in the straightforward manner chosen by Neufeld. As Gladstone acknowledges in her afterword, the style of the book is heavily influenced by Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. So it’s a cartoon avatar of Gladstone that helps us navigate through issues such as media bias, objectivity, disclosure, reporting during war times, and how journalists themselves are viewed by the public.

The answers Gladstone comes up with are often surprising, and refreshingly she often admits that she doesn’t have all of them. But each point she makes is extensively researched. The topics she chooses and the people she quotes, with references as varied as Dante and Rush Limbaugh, keep us entertained along the way. For instance on the subject of bias, the typical dichotomy of liberal versus conservative is given short shrift. Gladstone doesn’t say it doesn’t exist (even as she admittedly ducks her own bias), but that it’s not the important question. Instead, she illustrates other biases the media and audience should be more aware of, like commercial, bad news, status quo, access, visual, narrative, and fairness biases.

Large sections of the book deal with war reporting, and the subject of objectivity. The history of reporting during wars is fascinating, as well as the various ways people in positions in power learn to spin, suppress, and otherwise affect the news of their day. Likewise Gladstone shows how our concept of objective reporting has changed through the last century. She then ends with an interesting foray into how our own psychology influences how we take in the news that’s reported. She also suggests some interesting possibilities of what we have to look forward to as we increasingly are able to do a Google search to find the exact news we want.

Every step of the way, Gladstone’s flights of fancy as well as her depictions of real events and people are aided by the pen work of Josh Neufeld. The art is two-color, essentially black and white with a cool blue used for variety, tone, and contrast. Gladstone is drawn in a simplified, iconic manner, letting Neufeld stretch his artistic muscles in other places as he humorously gives us riffs on works by William Hogarth, Civil War newspaper illustrators, and Henri Matisse. There are also a plethora of caricatures of both historical and current media, political, and academic figures which rarely strike a false note. It’s an impressive juggling act and one can only imagine the discussions between author and illustrator as the book took shape. Neufeld deserves high praise for being able to draw seemingly any scene and make it coherent, boiling down the contents to a few concise lines of ink.

Overall, The Influencing Machine provides substantial food for thought, and is perfect for the adult graphic novel or nonfiction shelves. When we all too often blame the media for sensationalizing the news or reporting from an obvious bias, Gladstone is able to peel back the curtain and show us the reasons behind the news stories that irritate us. She frankly admits that sometimes journalists could to better, but also that we ourselves are the ones that make them what they are.

The Influencing Machine
by Brooke Gladstone
Art by Josh Neufeld
ISBN: 9780393077797
W. W. Norton & Co., 2011
Publisher Age Rating: (Adult)