The Influencing Machine
written by Brooke Gladstone
illustrated by Josh Neufeld
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“We get the media we deserve.”
That’s the simple premise that NPR’s Brooke Gladstone and artist (not “illustrator”—this is comics after all) Josh Neufeld defend in a variety of often brilliant and always thought-provoking ways over the course of The Influencing Machine. The title itself, while intriguing and central to Gladstone’s message, is somewhat deceptive: If you knew nothing about this information-packed yet highly readable work of graphic nonfiction, you might think it’s a polemic about today’s corrupt media cabal and the scary manner in which it manipulates the public. On the contrary, if anything, it’s a polemic against those who hold such beliefs.
Of course, not all people, under every political system and throughout history, have gotten the media they deserve. Indeed, that’s probably a point that the historically minded Gladstone would concede. Still, her book makes a convincing argument that in today’s late-capitalism democracies, the consumer-driven media publishers are just that: driven by consumers. It’s a truism that’s easy to lose sight of, especially in its implications, so it’s good that Gladstone is so persuasive when remarking that “when we see ourselves distorted in the media mirror, we should probably consider that some of what we see is actually us.” But that’s not all. She’s also able to see the situation in far greater complexity and sum it up in language that instantly strikes with the force of aphoristic truth: “The media landscape is so cluttered with mirrors facing mirrors that we can’t tell where an image begins or ends.”
Analysis at this depth effectively renders the “Is the media biased toward the left?” question not exactly moot, but just far less compelling than perhaps it had been. And it’s in this manner that Gladstone’s work is very much in keeping with current thinking in the field of media literacy: All media products are inherently biased, so as the audience it’s our duty simply to identify these biases as they reveal themselves. Gladstone, however, addresses the question of bias by pulling back to the 50,000-foot level and positioning the “boring” controversy about “political bias” alongside the far less obvious biases that we really “should worry about”—commercial bias, status quo bias, access bias, visual bias, narrative bias, and, most iconoclastically, fairness bias. All of these are covered in a nine-page section that feels like it comprises the most valuable takeaways in a book full of gems. In short, if for some reason you can’t purchase The Influencing Machine or find any copies at your local library, then you should at least pull it off a bookstore shelf and read it for a few minutes starting on page 62.
Of course, the main reason the book flows so well and delivers its ideas so efficiently is related to Neufeld’s contributions. Avoiding the easy laughs achieved by outlandish caricatures of historical figures, Neufeld likewise achieves an approach to storytelling that’s always smart but never descends into mere (and annoying) cleverness. Employing an understated style that doesn’t try to draw attention to itself but instead always works in concert with his collaborator’s prose, he helps create what is a truly multimodal text with the artwork working on a parallel, if clearly complementary, track to the print—hence the objection to the “illustrated by Josh Neufeld” byline. Certainly all the research and original analysis are Gladstone’s to claim…and recognition of this is amply provided by the book’s “branding” subtitle (“Brooke Gladstone on the Media”) and her appearance as narrator on nearly every page.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s also Neufeld’s engaging visual explication of its ideas that make the book so accessible to what is potentially a wide range of audiences. In fact, in an interview with GraphicNovelReporter, Gladstone remarked that she’d like to see teachers assign The Influencing Machine to their students to read. Certainly the book has great promise in terms of curriculum, but one wishes it hadn’t undermined itself regarding high school application by including profanity that could have been avoided and imagery that might make it a tough sell in some classrooms (e.g., a baby is bayoneted in silhouette, a dog sniffs another’s derrière)—nothing that an adult readership is likely to be overly offended by, only disturbed or amused as the case might be.
So here’s some advice for those who support enhancing news literacy in our culture: Read the book yourself, then buy a copy for the teens and educators you know who need to read it. That is, don’t wait for the powers that be to approve its content and put in a mass order for the title. Instead, circumvent the system while also alerting individual readers to any “objectionable” content, as rare as it may be. If nothing else, such a strategy would align nicely with The Influencing Machine’s main thesis: We need to be aware of our own media choices and take responsibility for the ramifications—and problematic aspects—of those choices…because in the end, we’re the ones who influence the production and dissemination of media messages.-- Peter Gutiérrez