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Brooke Gladstone on the Media and Us

As host of NPR’s On the Media, reporter and writer Brooke Gladstone has some unique and interesting opinions about the role of media in our lives and how it affects us. But also, as she points out in her new book, The Influencing Machine, we have a huge say in how we affect it: That is, the media is a mirror reflecting society for better or for worse. More challenging ideas abound in this fun, insightful book, and we’re happy to give Brooke the forum in which to discuss it. Here’s her take on all things media. 

How did this graphic novel come about?
I thought speaking in bubbles would be more like radio—the medium I know best. Radio is the most intimate of mediums. The listener relies on the reporter’s voiceto paint pictures, and voices are very personal. I thought that I could approximate that sense of intimacy if I could look readers in the eye while guiding them through my manifesto, which begins with the invention of writing and ends in the year 2045.
 
Another reason for using comics: The world is full of media books with bold declarations about impending doom, or paradise. My argument—which steers a complicated course between those shoals—is built on a series of historical anecdotes. I want those anecdotes to stick with the reader. Pictures, especially the witty, evocative pictures drawn here by Josh Neufeld, are sticky.
 
This book would make for a great textbook in a high school or college course. Did you see it that way when writing it?
I’d be lying if I said it never crossed my mind. Unquestionably, my approach to the subject is idiosyncratic and opinionated, but The Influencing Machine presents a scholarly (if brisk) history of the media and addresses vital questions any good media studies or journalism class must raise. There are hundreds of jumping-off points for classroom discussion in the book. And of course, it looks very cool.
 
So, yeah—teachers should assign it! (She humbly suggests.)
 
Who do you see as the best media watchdogs of today? Are there any?
Everyone is a media watchdog today. Every day the ground levels between the professional and the so-called amateur. The communication between them grows more productive and the line that separates them becomes blurrier. For better or worse, we have met the media and it is us.

In fact, it always has been us. But we used to be able to deny it.
 
Now we have no choice but to admit it. In fact, one of the big morals of my story is that every news consumer—awash in a sea of unfiltered information—has to function as his/her own watchdog. We have unlimited access to different information sources and to original documents. We can assess the work of reporters. All we require is the will.
 
How long did you spend working on this book? The research must have been fairly daunting, all told.
 
It would have been daunting if I’d known how much work was ahead of me. Once I started writing, I searched for primary sources to support my points and found myself encountering an endless series of fascinating things. I had an outline, but I started each writing day with the expectation that I would wind up going down a rabbit hole—which eventually led to William James, prehistoric man, Dante’s Inferno…Yeats…the Singularity…
 
Then there’s the comics part of this. Who knew that the writer supplies the ideas for the pictures?! Apparently, you and everyone else familiar with the genre—but I didn’t know. (Often, it was up to Josh to explain the obvious to me.) Coming up with visual representations of abstract ideas was the hardest part of the project. Often Josh jumped in to help me scale down, rearrange, or rethink images because I kept trying to cram too much into a panel. All told, this project took about two years.
 
You cover a lot of ground here, and in the end, you describe yourself as “generally a dark individual.” Ultimately, would you say the book left you feeling optimistic or pessimistic? 
What I dread most of all—what I simply cannot handle—is boredom. The era we’re entering is one of the most fascinating, most transformational in history. So I am feeling extremely optimistic! Not necessarily because I think everything will turn out fine, but because I get to live in a fascinating time in a fascinating place.
 
Also, I am a science-fiction geek, and we’re entering geek heaven. History shows us that human beings like to run up to the brink of total annihilation and then pull back, so we have that going for us—so far. We have the potential to be smarter, wiser, more foresighted, more generous than we are —and global communications is a potent tool to help us get there. I don’t know if we will, but we’re definitely going somewhere new.
 
What are you working on next? Will you do more comics?
Oh, boy—I have this radio show that takes a lot of time. But I’m already missing the comics. I have a story—science fiction, obviously—that I was working on before The Influencing Machine. I think I am going to have to return to it. I’m hooked now.