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A Conversation With Brooke Gladstone About Her Book The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone On The Media

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The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media is one book I knew I was going to find fascinating before I even started it. And I was proven right. Let’s start with the author, Brooke Gladstone, co-host of the great weekly NPR program On the Media. Who better to write a book about the influence of the media than someone who has both been a part of the media and reports on the media regularly?

The book is written as a graphic non-fiction book. Brooke told me she did that because “I am a total science fiction geek.” It was illustrated by Josh Neufeld, who does a wonderful job.

The book’s introduction sets the tone.
“I see our most hallowed journalistic institutions crumbling. I see the business model that relied on mass audiences being displaced, with stunning speed, by one that survives by aggregating millions of tiny, targeted audience fragments.

“The reality that anyone with a cell phone can now presume to make, break, or fabricate the news has shaken our citadels of culture and journalism to the core.

“The once mighty gatekeepers watch in horror as libelous, manifestly unprofessional websites flood the media ether with unadulterated id.
We’ve been here before: The incivility, the inanities, the obsessions, and the broken business models. In fact, it’s been far worse  and the Republic survives.

“The irony is that the more people participate in the media, the more they hate the media. The greater the participation, the greater the paranoia that the media are in control.

“But I have watched journalists cover countless catastrophes, elections, political gridlock, moral panics, and several wars. I’ve seen how public opinion coalesces around the issues dominating the news, and I tell you that NO ONE is in control.

“There is no conspiracy. Even though the media are mostly corporate-owned, their first allegiance is to their public because, if they lose that allegiance, they lose money.”

On to the interview…

I began by asking Brooke why she thought politics was so often treated as a “horse race”, with a lots of attention on polls, and whether anything could be done to get people to understand their lack of meaning.

The news organizations, Brooke said, are often the ones funding the polls and they want headlines even if there is no real news coming from the polls results. The book points out that if they asked a more accurate question along the lines of “Who will you vote for in November?” versus “Who would you vote for if the election was today?” you would get a different, more accurate answer.

You would get a higher percentage of “undecided” voters, she said. But that’s not interesting to write about. The result are these polls that are missing real insight, she said. As the book notes, asking who they would vote for if the election were held right now is “an irrelevant question because we aren’t voting right now.”

What will it take to stop the media from reporting on these polls? Like so much else, Brooke said, this falls to the news consumer to educate themselves, to look at how the poll was done and what its failings are.The news organizations are not going to tell you not to read the polls, that they do not mean anything, she said.

I asked her if one of her goals was to grapple with such misunderstood issues.

“My overarching goal was to simply explain how the media got to be the way that it is,” Brooke said. That involves talking about culture, economics and biases we already have. Media bias is just one “particularly publicized part of the bigger picture,” she said.

She talks in the book not only about political bias but also a bias toward the status quo, clear narratives, bad news, among others. What she tried to do with the book was break the information into “digestible historical nuggets whenever possible.” That helped provide a structure. So, for example, there are sections on each of those biases I mentioned.

I wask her if the issues of the book overlapped with her radio program On the Media, and if their audiences were shared.

Brooke agreed there is overlap and she was able to use information she had learned not only with the radio program but prior reporting for NPR. She chose to write the book when she was starting to reach some conclusions about what she was observing with the media and perception of the media.

She thinks the audience for the book and radio program are pretty much the same – what both are looking for is more information and knowledge about the news they are consuming.

I asked how she’d researched the book and what surprising things she’d learned. As a reader, I was surprised to learn how far back censorship, and favoritism, of the new media from the U.S. president went, namely all the way back to ol’ George Washington and even “Honest Abe” Lincoln sounded like he played favorites with newspapers while also censoring, as she described it, “300 opposition newspapers.”

To put the book together, Brooke said she developed an outline for each chapter,  then found herself “going down a bunch of rabbit holes, which would lead to another than another,” and so she ended up researching everything from William James to Dante to modern figures and everything in between.

One of the interesting pieces of information she learned concerns a famous piece written by Adolph Ochs after buying The New York Times. She said it sums up perfectly a problem many newspapers struggle with still: “Many cite his statement of intent as one of the earliest, best expressions of journalism’s highest ideals… ‘It will be my earnest aim that The New York Times gives the news… impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interest involved… to invite intelligent discussions from all shares of opinion.’ People usually end the quote at this point but he goes on… ‘Nor will there be a departure from the general tone… unless it be.. to intensify its devotion to the cause of sound money and tariff reform… and in its advocacy of the lowest tax consistent with good government and no more government than is absolutely necessary to protect society.”

Put simply, he first says the newspaper will be impartial, before going on to suggest its position on certain issues. Still, Brooke writes, “The Times positions itself as the paper that favors information over narrative; the ‘facts’ over the readers’ assumptions, emotions, and values. It’s journalism’s first giant step toward an unreachable goal — because it’s unprofitable to ignore your readers’ emotions, assumptions, and values. And it’s impossible to ignore your own.”

I commented on the recent  fascinating Internet meme where people were Photoshopping the image of the now infamous UC Davis police officer, the one who pepper sprayed Occupy protestors, on to all kinds of images. I thought of that as I read her comment about Photoshopping: “History is awash with dubious photos. But now anyone can fake a photo. And everyone does. It’s what Farhad Manjoo, author of the book ‘True Enough,’ calls the photoshopification of society. The big threat of photoshopification of society is not that we believe documents and photos that are fake. It’s that we’ll find it easier to disbelieve documents and photos that are real.” I asked if she could elaborate on that last half of that thought.

Brooke said my interpretation was correct. The fear is that people so many photos doctored that even when they see something real and genuine they won’t recognize it as such. “We need to develop a different kind of muscle to chew this information,” she said.

Interestingly, she says, during the days of the yellow journalism readers were more skeptical than they are today about what is real and what is not.

One line in the book I found myself walking around thinking of was:  “‘Anna Quindlen (author, former columnist) once said ‘being a journalist is as much a diagnosis as a job description’ Not true for everyone, but…” That resonates with me – for years I let my job define my life even choosing my online name of Scoop and thinking and acting like a reporter even when not one on the clock.

Heck I still, more than five years after leaving the journalism profession, do interviews and have been known to frustrate people trying to talk or interview me because I have a hard time turning off my right brain and not trying to interview THEM. I asked Brooke is she ever had that problem?

She responded that when she started promoting this book it was hard at first to be the interviewee, instead of the interviewer, but she soon grew used to it.

As far as whether she shares that diagnosis she pointed me to a section of the book where she writes this: “Well, I can’t really process things unless I’m reporting them, you know what I mean?  “Like when the Twin Towers fell – my station was nearby we had to evacuate. And my show was suspended for a week… so I couldn’t report it. Couldn’t explain it to other people. So I couldn’t explain it to myself. My head almost exploded. But when my mother died… I recorded it… and that was a relief.”

I always, when I do interviews, invite others to suggest questions. One friend and colleague asked this question: “A lot of people think shows like NPR’s On The Media, like CNN’s Reliable Sources, are far too easy on the media, failing to ask tough questions or examine the real impact on the public policy debates of the media’s choice of what to cover. Do you think On The Media takes an adequately critical look at today’s media environment?”

“Certainly that is our intention,” she replied. Some will tell her and the show that it’s doing a great job, while others will say it’s not. Obviously, though, it is never their goal to make excuses for the news media.

I thought it’d be appropriate to end the interview- since this will be published on the internet – by talking about the Internet. I liked the perspective Brooke provided, that just as some say the Internet is making us dumber, so did some say that about the television (Neil Postman et al), and radio before that and books before that. How would she summarise the impact of the Internet on us.

She responded that the technology today is causing unprecedented situations. For example, 80 percent of the world can now talk to each other – at least in theory – through Facebook. We have world news and less important information coming at us faster and so we have to be more adept at how we process and deal with all this data.

Finally, I asked Brooke to explain the final page’s message: “We get the media we deserve”?

Brooke said in this environment there is a greater responsibility for everyone, including the news consumer. A generation ago we were spoon-fed limited infromation from a limited number of news outlets – the onus then was on the gatekeeper.

Now the onus is on everyone, since we all, through Facebook and other ways, can pass on news to others. So we are the ones deciding what is and isn’t newsworthy.

That makes me think back to the paragraph I mentioned liking in the introduction: The irony is that the more people participate in the media, the more they hate the media. The greater the participation, the greater the paranoia that the media are in control.”

So we (the populace who are not part of the professional media) have added responsibilties and hopefully we’ll use it well instead of using it just to criticize the professional media.

And with that I’ll end my write-up of my conversation with Brooke. If you found this information interesting I’d strongly suggest picking up her book. Thanks to Brooke for the conversation and for writing this fascinating book.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.