Influencing Machine: Brook Gladstone's comic about media theory is serious but never dull

Brooke Gladstone, co-host of the excellent NPR-syndicated "On the Media," has teamed up with illustrator Josh Neufeld to produce a fantastic nonfiction comic book called The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media. This is one of those books that feels like the author has been working up to it for her whole life, distilling all her varied experience and insight into one mind-opening, thought-provoking, and incredibly timely volume.

Influencing Machine begins with a history of the news, starting with Mayan scribes, Herodotus, and Julius Caesar's Acta Diurna (the original syndicated newsheet and the first widely distributed sensationalist tabloid), and then to the Anglo-American history of news, propaganda, bias, lies, censorship, bravery, principle, and truth. This fascinating history serves to introduce the major thesis of Influencing Machine: that the "media machine" that cynically distorts in order to serve the rich and powerful is a delusion. The reality is that the "media agenda" is an emergent phenomenon that arises spontaneously from commercial constraints, human frailty, state interference, and cognitive blindspots.

Gladstone's history of the best and worst of journalism is a prelude to an analysis of the present day, and the peculiar moment we inhabit, as partisan news -- once the dominant form of publishing, but long discredited and dormant -- begins to arise, just as the Internet is changing the way that news is gathered, reported, and analyzed and paid for. Gladstone makes a good case for the idea that total upheaval is actually pretty normal in the world of news, and even if this total upheaval is a bit more total than all the other ones, the apocalyptic story of the death of journalism is overstated, as is the evil nature of the Internet as a sapper of critical thought and sustained attention.

Touching on everything from the impossibility of impartiality to the practical way to address bias, from copyright law to business models, from sensationalism to complicit silence, Gladstone and Neufeld's Influencing Machine is an absolutely spectacular read: serious without being weighty, accessible without being thin. It's one of those graphic nonfiction volumes, like Understanding Comics, that shows just how well suited comics are to explaining and exploring serious subjects.

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media


  1. As always, quotes are snipped to serve the writers point rather then the quoted.

  2. “Partisan news” I think is by no means a bad thing.

    The USA was certainly better served for news when we had a wide variety of newspapers and radio stations, openly and unashamedly wearing their political affiliations on their sleeves, than we were with just a tiny handful of newspapers and TV news outlets all pretending to “objectivity”.

    In fact the Dark Age of American news certainly has to be the ’50s through the ’80s, after the centralization of the news media but before the Internet.

    Today, by comparison, I can and do easily visit The Nation, National Review, New Republic, American Spectator, Slate (among many others) on a daily basis. Do I spend much time at the New York Times or Washington Post? Uhhh…. no.

  3. Maybe I misunderstand but:

    This fascinating history serves to introduce the major thesis of Influencing Machine: that the “media machine” that cynically distorts in order to serve the rich and powerful is a delusion.

    …but anyone who thinks that is an idiot and not paying attention. And paid by the right to promote that view, like the group paid by the right to support the view that media is leftist…when what they really mean is it’s not rightist enough.

    The rise of so called “unbiased” reporting was an attempt to satisfy two masters: The owners and ad buyers who were right wing evil, and the readers who were mostly working class and whose interests were opposed to the first group. So journalists pretended and sometimes did publish pure truth, though not when it conflicted with the interest of owners or major buyers of ads. Like even the New York Times would not report on studies showing cigarettes caused cancer because the tobacco industry was the leading advertiser in American newspapers.

    The late George Seldes, who:

    never lost his capacity for outrage – or his conviction that advertisers were a far greater threat to journalistic freedom than government censorship,

    wrote, back in the 30s, of how the head of John Hopkins reported on the effect of tobacco on longevity and the New Times didn’t report what those findings were, just giving a misleading account of Dr. Pearl’s speech.

    This book sounds like paid propaganda by the right. I’m surprised it’s promoted here.

    1. As a huge fan of On The Media, I bought and read this book almost as soon as it was released. If this book “sounds like paid propaganda by the right” to you, rest assured it is not.

      I think that Cory saying this idea is a “delusion” may have been a bit misleading. I would say that this book points out that “it is more complicated than that”.

      I’m glad to see this book show up on boing boing, maybe exposing it to some people who hadn’t seen it yet. And if you haven’t heard On The Media, I’d definitely recommend that as well. The only mainstream news show I know of that consistently got wikileaks, lulzsec, etc. right.

    2. This book sounds like paid propaganda by the right. I’m surprised it’s promoted here.

      This would be very puzzling if true, since “On the Media” is the only program on NPR that I consider ‘liberal’.

    3. …but anyone who thinks that is an idiot and not paying attention.

      THAT is your thesis. Disagree with me an you’re stupid?

      And further, you’re using it to claim that this sounds liberal??!?

      Allie. Cart, horse, you’re doing it wrong. thanks for playing.

  4. I suspect that “working the refs” has become such a ubiquitous strategy on the part of partisans to prevent any discussion of media failings that some comments are posted straight from the RS feed headline alone.

    “On the Media” is an excellent program, and I look forward to reading more of the comic.

    Along similar lines, I highly recommend checking out the Columbia Journalism Review’s analysis of coverage that important topics are getting. Guarding yourself from feared “epistemic closure” is more than a matter of just trying to forcefeed from the firehose of all possible sources. It’s useful to read thoughtful analysis that compares and contrasts the coverage from different sources.

  5. I hear this name every week in some sort of editorial capacity on what is invariably an insightful and engaging radio program. SOLD!

  6. OnTheMedia Fans: Anybody else listen to CounterSpin from ?
    I listen to on the media occasionally, but they seem to try too hard to be objective. In another NPR station , I get CounterSpin from, and they’re much more decisive (or less objective). Too bad they don’t have as nice production values as OnTheMedia. It’s like comparing a glossy magazine vs privately produced z-ine.

    just trying to sample what others think.

    1. FAIR seems like a version of on the media except they like the sound of their own voices a whole lot more.

  7. The “media machine” as it is constituted does what it does in order to drive viewership and readership. Those generate demographic numbers that the ad sales departments use to generate revenue. (Eyeballs = $$$, simple enough.)

    Controversy and “shiny thing” sensationalism are the two easiest vehicles for that.

    Then there is the special case of Fox News and its service as a carefully constituted propaganda outlet for a political party. As there has been a large number of pixels spilled on that already, I won’t, here, except to say that the “propaganda” description is apt and relevant.

    In general, though, news purveyors are really vehicles for advertising. They make their money by selling your viewing/reading/listening to those who want to sell you things.

    Want better media? Get better viewers and readers.

  8. “This book sounds like paid propaganda by the right. I’m surprised it’s promoted here.”

    Brooke Gladstone, “propagandist for the right?” You’re kidding, right? NPR’s On The Media is one of those shows that tries so hard to be centrist that it does painfully earnest reporting. Take The Bias Bias, a show they did a few weeks ago about how NPR is perceived as bias, and whether or not it really is. Although there were few conclusions, two thing jumped out at me: the interviewers were repeatedly accused of asking “liberally biased” questions, and the producers were shown that they were heavily biased toward having “conservatively biased” people on their shows.

    Even NPR can’t escape the “When liberals run the government, Conservatives must have overwhelming access to the airwaves to explain why what those in government are doing is wrong. When conservatives run the government, conservatives must have overwhelming access to the airwaves to explain why what those in government are doing is right.”

    Brooke Gladstone is a national treasure.

  9. I doubt it would be propaganda for the right when it seems to be criticising Adolph Ochs for his leanings to the right.

  10. I never knew what Brooke Gladstone looked like until these drawings of her in this comic. I have officially only successfully guessed the physical appearance of two radio hosts in the past 20 years:
    1) Dr. Drew
    2) Ira Glass

    1. I’ve never contemplated this metric in my own life but, since you brought it up, I suspect that I land very close to your own correct guesses. Ira Glass? Yep, he had to look as he does.

      As for Brooke Gladstone, I’ve always had a bit of a crush on her and the comic version just amped that up a hair. Smart, and comic-cute!

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