Brooke Gladstone—former Russian correspondent, Stanford fellow, and longtime cohost of On the Media, NPR's weekly radio show focused on the state of journalism and today's media—has turned to comics: The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media (Norton), a nonfiction comics work created in collaboration with artist Josh Neufeld.
Like her radio show, Gladstone's book is an effort to offer an active analysis of the media, its broad history, and its inseparable relationship to technology—and the recurring bouts of public panic and hysteria that have characterized that relationship since the earliest days of reporting public events. But the book is also a very funny, lively examination of how big-time daily news reporting really functions, in the past and today, while peering ahead at the future as both media and journalism transition to a digital era and new problems.
Working with comics artist Neufeld (the creator of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, an acclaimed comics nonfiction account of five survivors of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans), Gladstone brings her signature style of radio reporting—serious yet lightly ironic scrutiny of the tough issues around contemporary journalism, delivered in her inimitable New York nasal voice—to the comics medium. Anyone who has listened to Gladstone reporting on On the Media will immediately recognize both her tone and approach, as she reinterprets her broadcast style for a book as well as for a comic.
But the new book owes quite a bit to another critical work of nonfiction comics. Indeed, in an interview with Gladstone and Neufeld at the PW offices (she was about to leave for Egypt), she laughed heartily when we joked that she should call the book Understanding Media, in reference to the work of comics' theoretician Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics, a celebrated and serious critical examination of the formal elements of the comics medium delivered in the visual language of comics itself. Gladstone said she is more than happy to cite McCloud, and she does, in her acknowledgments. "His influence on this book is huge; I didn't think this kind of book was possible until I read Understanding Comics, a book of abstract ideas absent a narrative. All the great nonfiction comics works—books like Logicomix, for instance—are narrative driven."
Nevertheless, The Influencing Machine is an original work, a highly researched yet highly accessible survey of all things media—from the history of media/journalism beginning in ancient Rome through the Mayan scribes to the First Amendment press freedoms of the U.S. Constitution and beyond—and how the media's mission and its means have advanced through history. At the same time, Gladstone debunks claims of the media's nefarious influence on people—from mind control and presumed biases to "moral panics," recurring historical charges of cognitive distraction, intellectual diminishment, and social alienation, now lodged against the likes of Google, video games, and the virtual world in general as digital culture stakes its claims on our time and attention.
Technology and media are pretty much inseparable, she says, describing media that "take off" as a product of "technology and politics," and emphasizing a litany of venerable, now celebrated technological advances, from the printing press to radio and TV, originally condemned for their alleged negative effects. And she trots out a variety of studies and prominent journalism and media analysts—from Michael Kinsley and Clay Shirky to Robert Wright, Lee Rainie, and Yochai Benkler—to challenge the proliferation of arguments claiming "digital culture makes you stupid" by critics such as Jaron Lanier, Nicholas Carr, and others.
"I tried to write the book in a way that if you didn't care about the media as a subject, you'd care by the end of the book because you'd understand the stakes," Gladstone says. With a 30,000 first printing, Norton expects an audience. The book will launch in New York, and Gladstone and Neufeld are doing a seven-city book tour and, of course, coverage on NPR.
In fact, The Influencing Machine reads like several books mashed into one—a history tome; a formal critique; a confession of a journalist; a how-to manual; and a manifesto. It's "a call to action," Gladstone adds, noting, "The challenge was to structure the book so I can weave all these essential strands together. It's a book for anybody who feels it's their business to understand the information environment they live in," she says, "a formal student of the media or just people who want to be at ease while swimming in all this information." The Influencing Machine, she emphasizes, offers "a big chunk of context. So every time you see something in the media you'll know where it came from, you'll be able to see the antecedents and maybe peer ahead to the next phase."
Although The Influencing Machine is her first comic, Gladstone has been a comics fan since she was a kid: "I love comics and collected them. This was in the 1960s, which was a different comics world—they were so cheap you could really support a comics habit on baby-sitting money." Back then she read "superhero comics, Superman first, then superheroes with problems (from Marvel) and even the occasional Archie." Gladstone says she's been trying to write a book for years: "a lot of people want me to write a book because I have a selling platform—I don't think they even cared much what the book would be about."
After an unsuccessful attempt to write a sci-fi graphic novel ("I plotted myself into a corner"), an editor suggested she try nonfiction instead, and another editor suggested artists to work with, Neufeld among them. She knew she wanted to do a book about the media, but "I didn't like most media books and found them colorless and boring. Not all of them, but I couldn't find what I wanted," she says. "I finally turned to comics because I wanted to create a book with a voice." Gladstone explains, "Radio is the most intimate of all the electronic broadcast media, because you rely on this voice to be your guide through a series of ideas. It's personal." Comics, she says, solved the problem: "I wanted to recreate this relationship to the reader through comics because my ideas would be stickier and I would be forced to write fewer words."
Much like McCloud in Understanding Comics, Gladstone is the omniscient and comical shape-shifting narrator of the book, popping up as the headless Marie Antoinette to explain "Patient Zero," one of the earliest known cases of public hysteria over science (or what then passed for science). In colonial America she totes a flintlock rifle as scores of newspapers are founded that, after the Revolution, monitor the new democratic government, and she appears as a paperboy/girl selling penny newspapers in the 1830s, as the notion of "objectivity" takes root as a journalistic principle at newspapers.
In working with Neufeld to create the visual narrative, she sent him complex instructions about drawing a page and asked him "to expand the boundaries of time and space to do it, like some kind of brilliant director of photography." Neufeld, she says, "would explain how I can't have the entire cavalry; maybe just one horse," as well as offer "vigorous arguments over the meaning of my copy. He was the first line of defense when my copy wasn't clear, even before the editor," she says.
Neufeld, a much acclaimed creator of autobiographical comics, who has worked with the late Harvey Pekar, among others, on a variety of nonfiction comics works, has been nominated for Eisner and Harvey Awards for A.D. He returns Gladstone's praise. "I've worked with folks who've never written a comic before and they can range from ‘no clue,' to Brooke at the other end of the scale," Neufeld says. "She really understood the medium on a fundamental level, plus she provided reference material for almost everything I had to draw—an amazing amount of work that I usually have to do."
Gladstone says we live in a time when media are being transformed by technology, from the Internet to blogs, smartphones, tablets, and Twitter, and technology offers both the good (the ability to spread a great story instantly) and the bad (the ability to spread a lie even faster). So are we living in the best of times for media and journalism or the worst of times?
"We don't know where it's all going, but we never have," she says. "We just have to keep moving forward. I believe we're in the best of times, I really do."