The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media

What is the media? Is it biased? If it is, how, and who does it favour? This is one of those subjects that everyone will have an opinion on, especially in the era of Brexit, Trump, and ‘fake news’, and often your opinion will be that it is biased in favour of the other guys.

Brooke Gladstone is our host as we take a brief look through the history of the media, censorship, the control of information, war, photo opportunities, and the nature of the narratives we tell to explain what is going on in the world, some of them more accurate, some of them outright lies. Most people in Britain (including me) won’t have heard of Brooke before picking this up, as she is a radio personality in the USA. This inevitably means the focus of the comic is to North America, although the historical sections touch on the UK too, given our intertwining history.

Brooke comes across as knowledgeable, likeable, and fully aware of her own flaws and biases. A comic is a perfect vehicle for the subject, as it combines Brooke’s compelling and convincing voice with Josh Neufeld’s often darkly amusing, cynical, and disarmingly cheerful artwork. Both words and images are needed to give a complete picture of what is being discussed, and manage to turn what is potentially a pretty dry subject, of interest only to a handful of academics and special interest groups, into an engaging and enjoyable piece.

The Influencing Machine belongs to a genre of factual, documentary-style or biographical comics, made famous by people like Art Spiegelman (Maus), Alison Bechdel (Fun Home, Dykes to Watch Out for) and Joe Sacco (Palestine). The best of these are informative while remaining entertaining and accessible, and Brooke’s book easily achieves this. You are virtually guaranteed to learn something.

Moments in recent history are used to highlight examples of misleading media in action

The title is misleading, as it suggests that the author believes that the media industry influences us by manipulation. It actually refers to a psychological study by Victor Tausk, a disciple of Sigmund Freud, on one of his patients, Natalija. She believed she was being controlled from afar by a rejected suitor operating a malicious influencing machine, which he was using to control her feelings. In short, she had dissociated aspects of herself and transposed them onto the machine, losing her feelings and identity in the process. Brooke argues that we do something similar with the media. When we look at it, we are looking into a mirror, albeit a warped and misshapen one. The media is us, so the theory goes, but we disassociate ourselves from it as we often don’t like what we see. Essentially Brooke is telling us that we get the media we deserve.

Although there is a degree of truth in this (how many people proclaim to despise the Daily Mail and yet indulge in the cheap titillation and celebrity gossip featured in its online ‘sidebar of shame’?) in my opinion Brooke’s analysis lets a lot of different media empires off the hook.

True, any website, paper, magazine, or whatever, needs to find an audience to be successful, but what really matters is commercial viability. As long as you can sell enough copies, or find advertisers with deep pockets, you can smuggle in all kinds of self-serving nonsense that in no way reflects the interests of the people you’re talking to. For example plugging Sky TV in Murdoch’s newspapers, or Channel 5 in the Daily Express, or going on a diatribe about how going after non-domicile tax dodgers is a bad idea, won’t work, or will drive business away, when it just so happens that the owner of the newspaper the text appears in is a non-domicile tax dodger.

Of course, the media is not a homogenous entity but a whole host of different things. It often masquerades as being for, by and of the people who consume it, but is often created in the interests of those who own, control, and produce it, even if those people pretend otherwise, and can’t forget about their audience for risk of losing them, and losing the opportunity to sell them something.

To be fair to Brooke, she does touch on this in a brilliant section on different types of bias. While going through the standard argument on whether the media is biased in favour of the political left or right, more interestingly she highlights the dangers of commercial, bad news, status quo, access, visual, narrative, and fairness biases, all of which are present in much of the media we consume.

There isn’t space to go through all these different biases here – I’d encourage you to go and read the comic if you’re unfamiliar with them – but it effectively illustrates how the media isn’t and can’t be objective. Some things are considered worth mentioning or commenting on, others aren’t, and the manner in which they are written about is always from a particular point of view.

It’s a truth that bears repeating – there is no such thing as objectivity. No one and nothing is completely agenda-free, and there is always some kind of explicit or implicit bias. Rather than attempting impossible and incongruent neutrality, state your case, then justify and support it. The best media does exactly that, backing up assertions with evidence and carefully reasoned arguments, rather than false logic, weasel words, screaming headlines, mud-slinging, and hyperbole. Unfortunately, as Brooke’s book shows, the latter tactics often work.

But there is room to be hopeful too. Well written pieces about serious policy stories can hold viewers just as well as fluff and nonsense on reality TV stars. As well as the numerous crimes and failures of the media, those moments where the media uncovered abuses of power and helped bring the powerful to account are rightly highlighted.

Although this comic is a few years out of date, largely examining the Bush and Blair years and earlier, with a few references to Obama, it is an excellent resource and a compelling read. Sequential art is the perfect medium for this work, which, despite its few flaws, should be required reading for anyone with more than a passing interest in the media. Given its potential influence, that should be pretty much everyone.

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