My 18-year-old self would have thoroughly enjoyed “The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media” as required reading for an undergraduate course on mass communication.
The graphic novel illustrated by Josh Neufeld traces the evolution of the media, from Julius Caesar’s Acta Diurna that divulged the activities of the Roman senate to penny papers like the New York Tribune that marked journalism’s adoption of standards of objectivity.
But despite its wealth of shocking anecdotes and clever metaphors, Gladstone — managing editor and co-host of WNYC’s “On the Media” — isn’t very insightful for informed readers. Her argument can be summed in a sentence: an audience plays an active role in its media consumption. It’s an argument drawn from uses and gratifications theory that was popular in the mid-1900s. Today, few people still view the media as an “influencing machine,” a magic bullet or a hypothermic needle.
Although effective, even the analogies Gladstone employs were coined by other people. She compares the press to blackbirds perched on a wire, saying, “one bird will fly to another wire, and when it doesn’t get electrocuted, all the birds will fly to that other wire.” Senator Eugene McCarthy came up with that. Then there’s the argument that a journalist’s world is comparable to the three spheres of a donut. Historian Daniel Hallin deserves the credit here. He considers the donut’s hole the sphere of consensus that holds unquestionable values, the donut itself the sphere of legitimate controversy where issues are debated and the air around the donut the sphere of deviance that consists of issues unworthy of being addressed. Additionally, Gladstone’s metaphor that the human mind is a matrix as our actions and beliefs are driven more by impulse than rational though was conceived by Shankar Vedantam. This novel is an aggregation of other people’s media theories.
Gladstone’s only somewhat novel contribution is her prioritization of six biases that plague the media. As exemplified by visual bias, images and graphics are often prioritized over text. Commercial bias addresses audience demand for novelty while access bias recognizes the reporter’s dilemma of being a watchdog without burning crucial sources. Articles are susceptible to narrative bias; they need beginnings, middles and ends to be comprehensible. But some stories, including science articles, aren’t appealing to audiences because they only contain middles. Status quo bias is our natural tendency to oppose the unfamiliar, leading the media to ignore positions that advocate for radical change. Lastly, there’s bad news bias. We are programmed to react to news about anything threatening, causing the media to depict the world as a much more dangerous place than it is.
There is no question that “The Influencing Machine” is well-researched. Gladstone presents 2,000 years of history in digestible thought and speech bubbles. Her comic counterpart helps the reader wade through abstract theories and alarming scenarios of unethical journalistic behavior. Her strategy would be helpful to someone leaning about media literacy. I was more interested in Gladstone’s support for her arguments than the overarching message itself. She cites lesser known examples of government censorship and media blunders. In one, American reporter George Seldes interviewed German Supreme Army Commander Paul von Hindenburg, who admitted to Seldes that Germany lost World War II as a result of the American infantry’s superior strength, not because of the “sabotage of German socialists, Communists, and Jews.” Seldes’ story was killed and Seldes himself was court-martialed for crossing into Germany in violation of the Armistice.
Although commonly cited by anthropologists, Gladstone’s claim that humans and their tools co-evolve was enjoyable reading. According to Gladstone, humanity’s first use of handheld tools coincided with the growth of the prefrontal cortex, grammatical language and more complex social networks. Consuming information on the Internet therefore develops different cognitive abilities that ultimately make us smarter (though not necessarily wiser). Gladstone also notes that technological advancement is often wrongly feared by the masses. The invention of writing was originally dreaded because it was thought to lead to forgetfulness, books were argued to cause information overload, the radio was said to provoke nightmares for children and television was linked to smoking, childhood obesity and sexual activity. Just as little of this proved true — some claims about television consumption are an exception — many of the fears associated with the Internet are also exaggerated.
“The Influencing Machine,” with its numerous interviews and citation of other people’s research findings, is presented in the wrong media platform. The text would be more appropriate as a long-form article than a book. Informed readers might find the content trite, but non-media practitioners can rely on the text to familiarize themselves with the industry. While the theories, historical examples and current controversies discussed can be dense, Gladstone’s acute analyses make them palatable for a novice.