For more than a decade, journalist Brooke Gladstone has investigated the latest media trends on her NPR show On the Media. In June she published The Influencing Machine, with illustrations by Josh Neufeld, the author of A.D.: Katrina After the Deluge. Gladstone’s book earned a star and was named one of the Best Nonfiction Books of 2011. In an e-mail exchange, the author discusses the current state of the media and offers advice for news consumers in this chaotic time.
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I think the graphic format works extremely well for this book. Why did you decide on that format?
I thought speaking in bubbles would be more like radio, the medium I know best. Radio listeners rely on the reporter’s voice to paint pictures, and voices are very personal. It may be an illusion, but the experience of listening seems strangely intimate. I thought that if I could speak in balloons and look readers in the eye, I could approximate that sense of intimacy.
Another reason for using comics: I was trying to respond to a boatload of media books predicting impending doom, or alternatively, cyber-utopia. I build a complicated argument against both assertions on a series of historical anecdotes, and I wanted those stories to stick with the reader. Pictures are sticky.
Finally, I am a total science-fiction geek, and I craved the chance to float through time and space and change my shape as the occasion demanded. That was pure joy.
How did you hook up with Josh Neufeld?
Dan Frank, the head honcho at Pantheon, suggested Josh to me. Josh was finishing up his brilliant A.D. for Pantheon, and I cold-called him after looking at his stuff on line. Luckiest phone call I every made. He was the first one to tell me it was my job to think up all the images (gulp!), and then he was the one to ensure that they could work on the page. And when they couldn’t work, he would guide me to a solution. This was a real collaboration. Josh’s experience and judgment, his skills as an artist and a journalist, are reflected on every page of The Influencing Machine.
Your book examines how many of the biases of reporting have always been around. However, the current reporting on politics seems particularly poisonous to intelligent debate. Do you think our current atmosphere is any worse than it has been in previous decades?
Sure, it’s worse. Part of it is due to the way we gerrymander our voting districts and our system of primaries that benefits the most extreme candidates. And of course, part of it is due to the unmediated environment of the Internet.
The media biases I outline in the book have always been with us, baked into the commercial nature of the business and also baked into us as human beings. We don’t like to be argued out of our prejudices.
Still, in the last 70 years or so, news outlets (seeking mass audiences to pay for increasingly expensive news operations) have worked with the establishment to marginalize the most extreme voices, for good and ill. Now, thanks to the Internet and cable feedback loop, all those voices feed into the national debate, keeping alive issues that once would have been ignored (for instance, the president’s citizenship). But if you look further back in history, say 100 years, we see eras just as poisonous as this one, and they pass. So will this.
With social media and new user-generated content initiatives, it seems more important than ever to have gatekeepers or content curators. Do you agree, and how do you effectively sift through what is an increasingly saturated news marketplace?
Absolutely, this media environment cries out for curators. But more than ever, it’s up to the individual news consumer to work that out. Legacy news operations like the TV networks or major newspapers can and do fulfill that role, but websites also have emerged that do a terrific job, and social media such as Twitter are increasingly vital. The savviest, best-informed news junkies I know find experts they trust on Twitter and follow the links those experts provide. That is “bespoke curation,” that’s the future, and it works.
What advice do you have for readers who may feel overwhelmed and/or completely turned off from news coverage?
My first piece of advice would be to turn off the coverage that offends you (usually, it turns out to be cable news). Then, I would advice readers to return to reading, seek out those reliable curators—they are out there!—and finally, as the sage once said, "fasten your seatbelts…it's gonna be a bumpy ride."
In that vein, what can so-called “traditional” news outlets—CNN, the New York Times, etc.—do to remain relevant?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, they can help curate the media environment, vet the sources of information and provide some historical context and counter-arguments. Or they could go the way of the horse-drawn buggy. It all depends on how much they end up gutting their resources and cutting their coverage to stay alive.
Those traditional news outlets—let’s take newspapers—are used to offering one-stop shops for everything from movie reviews to investigative reporting. They have to reconfigure, eliminate the unnecessary and focus on their unique contributions. Meanwhile, legacy news operations are racing against the clock, trying to hold on until news consumers, used to getting free information online, decide they’re willing to pay. Some of those traditional outlets will survive—many won’t.
Your NPR show, On the Media, looks at current trends in the press? What can we expect in the next three to five years?
Hmmm. I don’t have a lot of respect for prognosticating. There’s an old saying: “The old world is dead, the new world is yet to be born, and in the interregnum, there is much morbidity.” We are in a thrillingly morbid moment, as new technologies leap into the void, and we figure out how to use them to cope with a new world.
Ultimately, it comes down to each of us. People have never been closer to the media than they are now. They’ve never been able to talk back to it, to feed into it, to disseminate it as they can now. They’ve never had more control.
In earlier poisonous times, people were more skeptical than they are today (really!) They consumed several newspapers, even ones they didn’t agree with. They knew the media environment they lived in. We’re still trying to get a grip on ours.