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