I’ve been listening to WNYC’s On the Media podcast religiously since 2007. News, especially political news, stresses me out, but something about OtM makes it bearable. They take an overhead view of issues and talk about the ways different types of media succeed or fail in a snarky, intellectual way. The hosts, Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone, are great. If I had to answer one of those questions about hosting dinner parties and inviting anyone dead or alive, Brooke would 100% be on my invite list. When she published a graphic novel, I meant to get to it right away, but my rather large TBR list just kept expanding and here I am 5 years later finally getting to it.
Whenever I read something written by someone I really, really like, there’s always that fear that it won’t be good. Luckily, The Influencing Machine delivered. At 172 pages, it’s rather long for a graphic novel, but it’s so dense that it could easily have been much longer. It takes true mastery of a subject to condense the history of media in such a clear and concise book. Since journalism was born, it has been in a struggle with both the people and the government to find and tell the absolute truth in an effective way. Not the easiest job in the world and there have been plenty of failures along the way.
Gladstone starts at the beginning with what she calls publicists in Sumaria, Egypt, China, and Guatemala. After years and years of truth suppression, Americans finally make it so journalists can’t be prosecuted for libel when they tell the truth (Honestly, my worldview is so completely shaped by this development that I can’t actually wrap my head around anyone being prosecuted for libel when they’re telling the truth, but apparently it happened. Frequently.). Then she moves forward through the various tactics government has taken to suppressing information like the Alien and Sedition Acts, Civil War newspaper censoring, the Espionage Act, McCarthyism, and the Patriot Act. Through US History, government has sought to keep information secret and journalists have fought the government through many tactics with varying success.
One of my favorite parts of the book is when she talks about bias. Everyone is always going on about liberal or conservative bias, but there are many more kinds that are arguably more prevalent and problematic:
- Commercial Bias – “The biggest bias. News needs conflict and momentum. It needs to be new. That’s why news outlets too rarely follow up on stories they’ve already reported.”
- Bad News Bias – “We are wired to care about anything that even remotely threatens us.”
- Status Quo Bias – “The media ignore any position that advocates radical change.”
- Access Bias – “When you’re fed an exclusive quote, it’s natural to be grateful. When you’re man-hugged by the powerful at any one of the half-dozen black tie parties the Washington press throws for politicians each year, it’s natural to be flattered.”
- Visual Bias – “News that has a visual hook is more likely to be noticed.”
- Narrative Bias – “Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Some news stories never really end. They’re all middle.”
- Fairness Bias – “Journalists will bend over backward to appear balanced by offering equal time to opposing viewpoints, even when they aren’t equal.” (Looking at you birther movement)
Of course, I can’t write a review of a graphic novel without talking about the artwork. I think Josh Neufeld did a really good job here. Because the book is so long and dense, the artwork is done in simple colors: black, white, & light blue. You’d think the actual drawings would be kept simple too, but there are many detailed panels of real life and imagined events. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to do the layout which is both extremely clear and visually interesting. Well done, Neufeld, well done.