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on June 6, 2011
"We get the media we deserve," declares NPR's Brooke Gladstone in her excellent The Influencing Machine, an insightful graphic manifesto that sits comfortably alongside Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business and Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage), both of whom make cameo appearances.

Gladstone, aided by Josh Neufeld's seamless visuals, makes a compelling case that the ills that plague media today -- mass and social -- are nothing new, that "we've been here before: the incivility, the inanities, the obsessions, the broken business models. In fact, it's been far worse and the Republic survives."

What follows is a broad, contextual overview of the history of media, recounted with a healthy sense of humor, and a refreshing undertone of optimism. eg: Near the end of the book, in two pages, she covers Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity, Lanier's skepticism, Planet of the Apes and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs... and it all makes sense!

"Graphic non-fiction" is a tricky format to pull off and not to everyone's taste, but Neufeld does a great job complementing Gladstone without letting the medium overshadow her message, and any student of media, formally or arm-chair, should read The Influencing Machine without hesitation.

Kudos to W.W. Norton for taking a chance on such an innovative book, though it's rather disappointing that the publisher of Frank Rose's excellent The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories has zero online presence for it. A missed opportunity, but one that should be easily (and quickly) rectified.
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on June 20, 2011
"We get the media we deserve."

That's the simple premise that NPR's Brooke Gladstone and artist (not "illustrator"--this is comics after all) Josh Neufeld defend in a variety of often brilliant and always thought-provoking ways over the course of The Influencing Machine. The title itself, while intriguing and central to Gladstone's message, is somewhat deceptive: If you knew nothing about this information-packed yet highly readable work of graphic nonfiction, you might think it's a polemic about today's corrupt media cabal and the scary manner in which it manipulates the public. On the contrary, if anything, it's a polemic against those who hold such beliefs.

Of course, not all people, under every political system and throughout history, have gotten the media they deserve. Indeed, that's probably a point that the historically minded Gladstone would concede. Still, her book makes a convincing argument that in today's late-capitalism democracies, the consumer-driven media publishers are just that: driven by consumers. It's a truism that's easy to lose sight of, especially in its implications, so it's good that Gladstone is so persuasive when remarking that "when we see ourselves distorted in the media mirror, we should probably consider that some of what we see is actually us." But that's not all. She's also able to see the situation in far greater complexity and sum it up in language that instantly strikes with the force of aphoristic truth: "The media landscape is so cluttered with mirrors facing mirrors that we can't tell where an image begins or ends."

Analysis at this depth effectively renders the "Is the media biased toward the left?" question not exactly moot, but just far less compelling than perhaps it had been. And it's in this manner that Gladstone's work is very much in keeping with current thinking in the field of media literacy: All media products are inherently biased, so as the audience it's our duty simply to identify these biases as they reveal themselves. Gladstone, however, addresses the question of bias by pulling back to the 50,000-foot level and positioning the "boring" controversy about "political bias" alongside the far less obvious biases that we really "should worry about"--commercial bias, status quo bias, access bias, visual bias, narrative bias, and, most iconoclastically, fairness bias. All of these are covered in a nine-page section that feels like it comprises the most valuable takeaways in a book full of gems. In short, if for some reason you can't purchase The Influencing Machine or find any copies at your local library, then you should at least pull it off a bookstore shelf and read it for a few minutes starting on page 62.

Of course, the main reason the book flows so well and delivers its ideas so efficiently is related to Neufeld's contributions. Avoiding the easy laughs achieved by outlandish caricatures of historical figures, Neufeld likewise achieves an approach to storytelling that's always smart but never descends into mere (and annoying) cleverness. Employing an understated style that doesn't try to draw attention to itself but instead always works in concert with his collaborator's prose, he helps create what is a truly multimodal text with the artwork working on a parallel, if clearly complementary, track to the print--hence the objection to the "illustrated by Josh Neufeld" byline. Certainly all the research and original analysis are Gladstone's to claim...and recognition of this is amply provided by the book's "branding" subtitle ("Brooke Gladstone on the Media") and her appearance as narrator on nearly every page.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it's also Neufeld's engaging visual explication of its ideas that make the book so accessible to what is potentially a wide range of audiences. In fact, in an interview with GraphicNovelReporter, Gladstone remarked that she'd like to see teachers assign The Influencing Machine to their students to read. Certainly the book has great promise in terms of curriculum, but one wishes it hadn't undermined itself regarding high school application by including profanity that could have been avoided and imagery that might make it a tough sell in some classrooms (e.g., a baby is bayoneted in silhouette, a dog sniffs another's derrière)--nothing that an adult readership is likely to be overly offended by, only disturbed or amused as the case might be.

So here's some advice for those who support enhancing news literacy in our culture: Read the book yourself, then buy a copy for the teens and educators you know who need to read it. That is, don't wait for the powers that be to approve its content and put in a mass order for the title. Instead, circumvent the system while also alerting individual readers to any "objectionable" content, as rare as it may be. If nothing else, such a strategy would align nicely with The Influencing Machine's main thesis: We need to be aware of our own media choices and take responsibility for the ramifications--and problematic aspects--of those choices...because in the end, we're the ones who influence the production and dissemination of media messages.

-- Peter Gutiérrez
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on June 9, 2011
It's easy to look at the media organizations in the US these days and fear that they are worse than they've ever been. This book reassuringly recounts how biased, slanted, and lying media have always been a part of our culture. The messages are delivered faster and constantly now, but truth, distortions, and lies have always coexisted.

The book covers the history of the media in the United States, from Thomas Paine's pamphlets to today's internet spam and cable news. It describes how the media have changed over time, sometimes influencing our society, and sometimes responding to how society has changed. It also presents some interesting research about how we respond to media and how we determine which of it to believe.

The graphic (aka comic book) form of this book made it very easy and entertaining to read. It was easy to put down and pick up again. The cartoon panels were an effective way to present historical anecdotes clearly.

Regular listeners of Brooke's excellent radio program will find some familiar material here, but there's more as well. I heartily recommend this book.
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on July 27, 2011
A wise person once said to me, "Tell me what you yearn for and I'll tell you who you are." Though I do not think that it's Ms. Gladstone's intent to add to our national alarm, she does hold the mirror up to the public, so that we can see more clearly what we yearn for and who we are. Looking at the Media as a mirror, in these times, is important. Brooke Gladstone invites us to understand that, "The fault, dear [Public], is not in our stars, But in ourselves." (Julius Caesar).

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media is an invitation for us to make positive change. Because how can we change what we loath, for the better, if we can not see that so much of what we see and hear in the Media is a reflection of ourselves, and thus, we have the power to change that which belongs to us. As long as we continue to think it's "them" and expect "them" to change, we are powerless.

Ms. Gladstone makes a truly important and an awakening statement with her deep insights about our relationship with "our" media; about how what we engage with in our Media reflects who we are, and how our yearning for what we engage with tells us a great deal about who we are; about the how and what we live for. It forces the question: "Where must I be at, to be thinking, this, engaging with this?"

In 1967, Marshall McLuhan opened our awareness to how "the medium is the massage." Today, Brooke Gladstone extends McLuhan's and our vision further, by showing us how "the medium is the mirror."

This is one of the most important, and fun (a rare combination) reads and messages that I have come across in a very long time. Fresh thought. Thank you, Brooke Gladstone for your wonderful insights in: The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media.

I love this book!
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on August 3, 2011
Do you wonder about the media? do you hate the new york times for being too liberal? Do you hate fox news for being right wing propaganda?
As a moderate, Do you hate your coworkers lunchtime debates, arguing those two positions?
then this book is absolutely a must read for you, and for them.

Step back from the heat of the moment, and have some well presented, deep thoughts on the overall way we create our media.

This book is a intelligent, understanding and deeply expressive look at all forms of media.

This is a well written book, a fun and easy read for people of all ages and all walks of life, and I promise, will teach you something revealing
about the media. I'd give it to 15 year olds, and I'd give it to college professors. that's a rare treat to have a book who's ideas are so well presented, yet so deep, that everyone would benefit from reading it.

I feel like after reading this book I have a deeper tolerance for the "other side", and for people who hold different opinions than my own. And, most importantly, where I thought I was in the center, I see that Im just a point on a perfectly valid series of spectrums.

read this book, explore what bias really means, and start to awaken to ones own hidden beliefs.

This book puts whole constellations of complex ideas into understandable stories, two to three pages at a time.

The brilliance of this book is that it gives a rock solid view of our media, and as a reflection- of all of us.

You will have wonderful jumps back in time, to the history of media, how its shaped human culture, and how its shaping us- and how we shape it.
You'll be presented with a real look at both sides of the debate, and then, suddenly, the lights come on about the mechanics of the debate itself, and what then is really the conflict.

I learned more about republican media, liberal media, Freedom of media vs government suppression of media.

I learned all the ways Bias shows up in the media, and in myself.

I learned how media checks the government, and how media supports the government. I also learned how our government surpress the media, how other governments surpress the media.

I love the part that talks about in the 1900's america developed the telephone as a mass means of communication. this is a "one to one" type of media.
Russia on the other hand? They developed the loudspeaker instead. a "one way, one to many" communication.

she shows us a story from our past- the New York Times publishing the pentagon papers. Its the age old debate "its treason to publish secret government workings, and can kill operatives in the field and give our enemies an advantage over us" versus "whistleblowers must be protected, because they are a check on government abuses"

I was too young to see that one play out- Nixon orchestrating treason charges against new york times, in an attempt to stem the leaks about his lies. It is treason to spill state secrets. It is often the way too, that treason happening by government officials can come to light.

Of course, that debate lives today with the Julian Assange issue- "Arrest that traitor!" vs "protect the whistleblower".

Its not that one view is right or wrong always. Its just that, that argument has swung back and forth many, many times. and sometimes protecting the government wins- and rightly so- and sometimes its just the freedom of information that suffers, and protects the guilty.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the 5 page tale of Social Drift- the idea that what is true, what is in debate, and what is completely taboo from debate in media, is constantly shifting. By looking at news from the 1900's, and pointing out what was "taboo" which today is now clearly discussed, helped me to see what we today consider taboo, and don't consider.

We live in a time of great change. Technology is changing the media game for good. I strongly urge all walks of life to buy this book. its a fair, balanced, and overall positive view on the world we live in, and its rich and varied world views.
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on May 18, 2012
Must admit, being on the other side of the world and, er, not American, I hadn't heard of Brooke Gladstone, but the recommendation from the Brain Picking blog was enough to tell me I'd love this book, and I did.

It's a great summary of thinking on the media and with a hefty dose of humour and iconoclasm that you'd expect from being in comic book form. Her argument, that we are the media - so we get what we deserve - seems irrefutable to me, and her anecdotes and references were spot on.

My only quibble was this book is clearly meant to be read in print form only, or passably on on a tablet I guess. It was impossible to read on my Kindle (text too small) so I had to read it on my iPhone. Clunky, but possible.

But how much better it would have been if it had been divided into single cartoon frames per page so that you could whip through it on the Kindle and - perish the thought - that it had links on each quotation so you could zip to your favourite original source material on the page; surely not too much to ask of a book written by and for lovers of media?
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on September 2, 2011
My first experience with "graphic" non-fiction was just OK, but my 2nd, Brooke Gladstone's Influencing Machine, was more enjoyable. Part history lesson, part analysis and part opinion, IM is a nice survey of the role of media in our society.

I liked Ms Gladstone's candor in the good, the bad and the ugly of the media, and how it has evolved over its 200+ years in America. I'm not, though, entirely convinced by the argument that media is a mirror of vs a shaper of public opinion. The example I'll draw from this book is Walter Cronkite's use of the term "stalemate" with respect to declining public support for the war in Vietnam following the Tet Offensive. Ms Gladstone points out that public opinion had been on a steady march downhill prior to Cronkite's statement, but the public was getting their information somewhere - public opinion wasn't all based on first-hand experience... What role did the media play there?

I personally believe the media more often plays the role of mirror than that of influencer (why else would we get the tripe that passes for TV news?); however, I also think there is a shaper/mirror dualism going on. While an enjoyable, informative overview, IM didn't move the needle of my perception in this respect - maybe that, by itself, is one proof point that media is a mirror rather than a shaper of opinion.
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VINE VOICEon October 1, 2015
I know Brooke Gladstone primarily as one of the two co-hosts of On the Media, which is a must-listen for me each week. There have always been hints of her geekiness on the show, particularly her love of Star Trek, but The Influencing Machine lets both sides of Brooke let their respective freak flags fly. Similar to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, Brooke and Josh Neufeld use the comics medium to discuss the non-fictional world of media and influence in an engaging, amusing fashion. An excellent read for anyone interested in how media gets made and its impact on American life.
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VINE VOICEon March 23, 2014
This book made me feel scatter brained. I am not sure why. It seems the use of pictures - harking back to days when comic books were something I occasionally looked at - is something I no longer have enough practice with to deal with well. I know some of my kids liked Japanese books that used this technique and generally had more writing than the Spiderman Comic books did. But of course there is the comment in the book that we get the media we deserve. Do we deserve this? By comparison, I know I get much more from serious books. But they typically take much longer to read. This book is an evening at most and even then allows you to do some other things - like hold and pet a Chihuahua. Is it a critique of us? Of the media? Of how the social zeitgeist drives what the media respond to? Or what Frances Fukuyama and Robert Putnam have described as breaking up our social cohesiveness? Hmmm. Well, tomorrow we have a book group discussion planned on this and it is also one of the community books of the year. I will be interested in seeing why.
Well, the group discussion was interesting. But most did have comments on the oddity of having a comic book as our discussion topic. There is no getting away from the feeling that there is irony here. It was also odd that the gist of the book is that the media is essentially untrustworthy and yet if we believe this thesis we seem to be trusting the media!
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VINE VOICEon November 4, 2013
The Influencing Machine is a history of media and its manipulation. How biased is the media? Do we really want objectivity? And how do you define objectivity? And just how much science is behind those numbers they project?

I know I sound naive, saying I hadn't realized how pervasive the media is. I don't mean it that way. I mean, considering how pervasive the media is and how strong its influence on us, you'd think there would be more regulation or research or fact-checking or something. But there is a worrying lack of all those things.

Or is it worrying? Gladstone managed to terrify me about the way stories stick with us, even when it turns out they are completely wrong (for example, the idea of vaccines leading to autism). But she also made me feel just slightly better because apparently the media has always been biased and inaccurate, and we've managed to muddle through all right so far.

The idea, though, that the news we hear is not accurate, and even when there are retractions, we ignore them, is really disturbing. It's not that I expect everything to be 100% correct all the time, especially with reporting now happening live almost all the time. But I do worry about the stickiness of an idea and how the wrong idea can stick and create very real consequences. Especially when this is paired with the "fairness bias" that Gladstone mentions. People in the media are often worried that they are not viewed as being objective, so they are sure to present two sides to every story, especially science stories, even if one side is just wrong. This explains a lot about the continued belief in the vaccine-autism link that DOES NOT EXIST, and a host of other things that seem to get media attention without really deserving it.

I also really appreciated Gladstone's commentary on objectivity and how what we deem "objective" has changed over time. We think of it as being static, that we always want someone to present the facts and let us make up our own minds - but what are the facts we want presented? Whose stories do we want to hear? It's a good point to make, and really just helps to prove that the media is a reflection of our own thoughts and biases more than it is anything else.

I found this book very engaging and entertaining. I don't know that it had to be a graphic novel - in a way, it felt like Gladstone wanted to share a story and the illustrator wanted to be involved, so it became a graphic novel. There's a lot of text and facts and information and while I enjoyed the graphic format, I think that it could have been just as effectively told in a more traditional format (though not, perhaps, have appealed to the same audience). Gladstone points out so many interesting facts and ideas that it will definitely effect the way you approach media and your consumption of it. And if you listen to her podcast, the book complements the show very nicely and many of the same themes come up in both formats.
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