In the interest of reviewing this book I will disclose the following: I do not watch TV news. I hate TV news. I think TV news undermines democracy and makes us dumb. I will, on rare occasion, watch the PBS Newshour, because that show usually does not do this. I do get news, however, from the New York Times (delivered daily), the Chicago Tribune (online), the Washington Post (online), by listening to National Public Radio (NPR), and reading websites (too many). I am a “news junkie,” as they say, but I see that as a good thing. I like to know what is going on. I feel it’s my responsibility to know what’s going on.
So does Brooke Gladstone, who hosts the popular NPR show “On the Media.” Her new graphic non-fiction book, The Influencing Machine, is outstanding. She wrote it and Josh Neufeld drew it (who also wrote and did the art for his terrific graphic non-fiction account of six survivors of Hurricane Katrina, A.D. New Orleans: After the Deluge). This book is about media and journalism: what it is, some history of it, its political controversies, and especially the complexity of it involving issues of truth, objectivity, manipulation, ethics, bias, and purpose. If you want to see your news more critically, gain some insight into the role news and journalism has played (and continues to play) in shaping political and social discourse, and grapple with some questions that do not have single or easy answers, read this book.
Gladstone’s book is about so much more than merely media and the media. It is about us; our own human and cultural biases; our assumptions and our psychologies; and how these interact with media and create truth – our truth – which is not necessarily the truth. To better understand media, and how we consume and transmit media, we need to better understand ourselves and the human animal.
If I have any gripes it would be my hope that Gladstone was more explicit in showing how “news” is not really the truth, but one constructed version of “what happened.” And along with this is the idea that what is not included in a news story can be as important (or more important) than what is included. The only way for us to know if something is missing – a different perspective for example, or specific factual information – is for us to get our news from multiple sources. This, I believe, is key. That’s why I don’t read just one newspaper or get my news from just newspapers. By getting information from multiple sources and different types of media I am able to put together an infinitely clearer and more critical picture of what’s going on. Most of this is part of the book, but Gladstone shows rather than tells, and sometimes, especially with non-fiction, you just need to tell.
As en educator I am dismayed at the deep civic illiteracy in our country. Far more Americans know the winners of American Idol than our Supreme Court justices. (In an actual survey more than twice as many respondents could name two of Snow Whites dwarves than two justices.) This is a recipe for perpetuating a faux democracy at best and destroying a democracy at worst. The Influencing Machine can help us to make a better and more thoughtful democracy, but it is not just about encouraging people to except their responsibility to take the time to consume news, but to be far more critical and reflective of the news they do consume. But in the end Gladstone puts the responsibility for media consumption – and its accuracy in our new digital world -- exactly where it belongs: with us.
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