Bursting the bubble: A conversation with Brooke Gladstone

By Aaron Burkhalter, by contributing writer

In 1796, London tea broker James Tilly Matthews said that criminals operated an “air loom” that controlled people through rays that travel through the air. In 1919, Freud apostle Victor Tausk met a young woman named Natalija who said an ex-suitor was hurting her through a coffin-shaped “influencing machine.”

Today, we blame our own odd behavior on the media. Civic discourse losing its civility? Blame the talking heads on CNN and Fox News. Students gunning down their peers at high schools and college campuses? Must be video games. But Brooke Gladstone, host of the weekly NPR program “On The Media,” rejects that idea in her graphic novel “The Influencing Machine.”

As depicted by comic artist Josh Neufeld, Gladstone is shown on every page, addressing the reader face-to-cartoonish-face as she lays out her manifesto on modern media. She contends that while the media might represent a warped, funhouse mirror, it’s still a telling reflection. Just as James Tilly Matthews and Natalija blamed their erratic behavior on imaginary constructions, contemporary media consumers too quickly scapegoat media outlets when they don’t like the stories being told.

Gladstone wags a finger at media producers and consumers alike while splicing together centuries of history and commentary. Because every new development in media resembles an old development, she remains optimistic. We survived the advent of radio and television. We’ll survive the Internet.

Aaron Burkhalter: Many NPR and public radio personalities have published books. And no doubt you could have written a traditional book on this topic. Why did you decide to work in the realm of comics?

Brooke Gladstone: A variety of reasons. One of which is that I get books all the time about the media, and they start to blend one into the other after a while. And I didn’t want to write a book that I didn’t want to read. So, that was one thing. Another thing is the way that I am used to relating to people and conveying information has everything to do with radio, and I thought comics would be the closest I could get to preserving that voice. Not because I’m a comic person on the radio, but because there is a unique quality of intimacy. But radio also is unique because it’s not offered in the same way (as) any other medium. And so I wanted to be able to do what I get to do on the radio, which is to talk directly to people. There’s that illusion that the person is speaking directly to you on the radio. It’s not something that you experience when you’re reading an article or even watching a TV, when you have the sense that there are a million people tuned to the same channel. When you’re listening to the radio you feel like somebody’s breath is practically on your cheek. And so I wanted to be able to speak in balloons and look my reader in the eye because I was taking them on a complicated and non-chronological journey through history, right? Starting with the invention of the written word and projecting forward to the year 2045, and I didn’t want to lose them along the way.

A.B.: What was the writing process like?

B.G.: It was nothing like I had ever done before. Basically the process was, I would, you know, roughly write a page, and then I would divide it up into sections. And then I would write it again with shorter and fewer words. And then I would write it a third time after I had thought up the image. In an illustrated book, the pictures support the text. But in a comic book, the pictures replace the text. It’s a very dense book. You may have had that experience if you read it. There’s just a lot jammed into those pages. And a big part of that has to do with the fact that I could remove context and description, because I could supply it in the image. And I would write a very complicated description, maybe 200 words with three reference links from the Internet that I would send to Josh, and then maybe 35 words of actual text.

A.B.: You compare media consumers to this young woman from the early 1900s who told her psychiatrist that an ex-boyfriend had a machine that he could use to control her. Please explain how we view the media today as a controlling machine.

B.G.: The more widespread media becomes, the more it becomes part of the air we breathe, the more suspicious of it we become. A lot of that suspicion is justified. I don’t pretend that the media are not biased or that they in any way reflect a true picture of the world as it is. It’s a reflection in a fun house mirror. What I was saying is that we participate in the process of making the media the way they are. They’re essentially a commercial operation. If they didn’t sell their image of the world, then they wouldn’t continue trying to peddle it. There isn’t a conspiracy, is my point. Every time there is a new technology, there is the suspicion that it’s going to change what it means to be human; that we’ll lose our volition to it. And that’s been going on since the beginning of science. That’s why really the Patient Zero in the book is James Tilly Matthews, who ends up in the loony bin. Basically what I contend is that it’s not a responsible or useful position to blame the media whenever, increasingly, it is in our own hands to change the media.

A.B.: Have you seen any recent examples where, as consumers, we have changed the media?

B.G.: Certainly the biggest headline of the last year was probably the Arab Spring, as it’s been called. Much of that was largely reported in its initial stages and throughout by social media that is entirely in the hands of amateurs. And in that case you saw the limitations of official media, because the Middle East in particular is a region in which it’s very difficult to maintain a free press. And you have Al Jazeera; it does a wonderful job within its limitations. It doesn’t really do a great job in the Persian Gulf states because its principal sponsor is a Gulf state. But elsewhere it did a magnificent job. Wherever Al Jazeera and the mainstream Western media were not, you had individuals with cellphone cameras and passion bringing those pictures to the world. It doesn’t mean those pictures are absolutely reliable or that they ought not be vetted. But, I mean, even the BBC, a very respected organization would sometimes say, ‘This is all we can get from the region. We cannot vouch for it, but we feel that we should bring it to you anyway.’ And in large part that stuff actually was quite reliable. I’m not saying we should always trust it; we should question everything. That’s part of the responsibility of living in this world as it is, and as it’s developing.

A.B.: That reminds me that you have that old Spider-Man quote, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

B.G.:(Laughs) I’m such a geek, Aaron, you have no idea.

A.B.: I am too! And Spider-Man was actually my personal favorite. But, it seems like you’re not necessarily directing that to members of the media as much as you are to the consumers.

B.G.: I am chiding the media continuously in that book. It’s often been presented to me that what I’m offering is some kind of apologia, and I feel maybe that’s a failure in the writing. Because so much of the book is constructed to explain why the messages are distorted in the way they are — the commercial reasons, the reasons that are built into the business and the reasons that are built into our human wiring. I’m not letting the media off the hook. The media that don’t do the trick ought to die. But if you look at the polls and if you look at the progress of media, as I have, I’ve seen it isn’t necessarily the best media that live the long and healthiest lives. And there’s a great deal of worthy media that has to struggle for existence. And if you face that simple fact, you have to understand that this is a mutual relationship.

A.B.: As a creator of media, what kind of expectations do you have of readers, viewers and listeners? What is your vision of an ideal media consumer?

B.G.: Well, I hope that they’re consuming more than just what I supply. I hope that they’re cognizant that they should have a rich and varied media diet and that they shouldn’t hold back from correcting us when we are factually wrong. I hope that they’ll speak back to us, but, before they yell at us, I hope they really listen to what we do. I mean there are a number of people who will write into the message board not having really listened to the story, but to what they expect that the story might have been.

A.B.: So I found a reader online who wrote a review on the Goodreads website. The reader questioned the conclusion that you come to, that we get the media we deserve. This person disagreed, saying that the press is controlled by the people who own it. And to quote the review, he said, “I’m not responsible for the greed-driven politics of Rupert Murdoch.”

B.G.: I am talking about our totality. I’m not speaking about us as individuals with myriad individual preferences. All I know is that Rupert Murdoch has been profit driven far more than politics driven. His news (corporation) is right wing and — at least according to studies by the Pew Research Center and others — tends to be very inaccurate. His television channel — as opposed to his cable news channel — has been often on the cutting edge of pushing what are American standards in a way that is anything but conservative. You may not be old enough to flash back to the beginning of “The Simpsons,” but it was regarded by conservative culture critics as an absolute monstrosity. “Married With Children” was another. He wasn’t worried about offending conservative sensibilities when he was creating a very profitable channel, filling a need that people had to push the boundaries. In creating Fox News channel, he found an audience of angry white men, the very audience that had been assembled by Rush Limbaugh when he essentially revived AM radio all by himself and basically migrated the tone of AM radio to cable news.

Now, this individual who wrote this review is not responsible for that, but that doesn’t mean that we as a culture aren’t responsible for it. And so, to put all the blame on Rupert Murdoch as if he were acting in some sort of void where his money is coming from a mysterious place disconnected from the society and the culture that he is appealing to, is just not facing reality squarely in the face. Certainly Rupert Murdoch is responsible for not applying the standards that many of us would prefer to his media properties, but we as a culture have to take some responsibility for consuming those properties so avidly. And if this person who wrote the review chose to read that last line as applying to each and every individual with their individual preferences, I can’t help that. I was making a statement about the symbiosis that exists between news-media producers and media consumers.

A.B.: Now that you’ve done this research and you’ve put together this book, has it changed how you do your work at WNYC?

B.G.: Actually, it does. I have learned so much that I apply every day. I learned about what Adolph Ochs said after the famous “without fear or favor” phrase when he wrote the opening editorial after he purchased The New York Times. I learned about what the Penny Press really meant and how our flawed notion that represents objectivity is rooted in that period. Probably the main thing that got driven home to me is that almost everywhere we seem to be going, we’ve been, in some manner, before. There is some new stuff, for sure, there always is. But that ultimately it comes down to human nature. And every way that we respond has to do with that, and that if anything, the Internet is only making us more of what we already were to begin with.

Reprinted from Real Change, Seattle, Wash.

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