Archive for January, 2013

Around five years ago, while in graduate school, I took a class that required some readings related to Media Ecology. I believe it was while working on one of those required readings that I came upon a reference to Scott McCloud. Always hungry for book recommendations, I jotted the name down with my notes, and later looked him up at NYU’s Bobst library. And so I came upon some of the most exciting and intelligent books I have read thus far. I have read McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comicswhich are both works of graphic nonfiction, comics about comics. In these books, a McCloud cartoon is the storyteller and guide, explaining the art and theories of  comics in a wonderfully clever and accessible way. I think the books are genius and some of the few that I aspire to own.


When I picked up The Influencing Machine (2011) last week, I immediately thought of McCloud. The Influencing Machine is a “media manifesto in art form”, another work of graphic nonfiction that is stylistically similar to McCloud’s comics series (the author does acknowledge being inspired by Understanding Comics). Author Brooke Gladstone, whom you may know from On the Media, is the storyteller in this book, or rather an illustration of Brooke Gladstone is the storyteller (while the voice is Gladstone’s, the illustrations are all by Josh Neufeld). Gladstone begins at the beginning of media – the written language, and uses scenes including from the Roman Senate,  and early American politics to make the point that:

Everything we hate about the media today was present at its creation: its corrupt or craven practitioners, its easy manipulation by the powerful, its capacity for propagating lies, its penchant for amplifying rage. Also present was everything we admire – and require – from the media: factual information, penetrating analysis, probing investigation, truth spoken to power. Same as it ever was.

Gladstone also devotes several pages to the complexities of war reporting:

To well and truly report a war – amidst official lies, commercial pressures, horror, trauma, principles, and patriotism – is to be at war with oneself. Objectivity is essential. Objectivity is impossible.

Media deceive as well as they expose. But as Albert Camus said, “A free press can of course be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom it will never be anything but bad.”

We influence, and are influenced by the ever-changing media landscape. The changing nature of media has transformed us, the audience, from consumer to co-creators. I think what Gladstone is ultimately trying to say is that we, as intelligent participants in media-making and partaking, need to be aware of both the dangers and beauty of media.

Graphic nonfiction is a powerful format, but not easy to conceptualize and create. Gladstone’s narrative and Neufeld’s images are engaging,  full of interesting ideas, and manage to be optimistic and cynical at the same time. But as someone who is not familiar with journalistic theories and concepts, I found it less readily accessible than McCloud’s works (my only frame of reference in this genre), although that could entirely be because of my own limitations. On the whole, it is a clever book in a brilliant format. I do wish Gladstone had taken the trouble to really spell out the central premise of each chapter, so I could follow her train of thought better. Again, I’ll be the first to acknowledge the limits of my own comprehension. Or it could be that there are too many lessons packed into 160 pages, and require a couple of re-readings.

I would like to point readers to some insightful articles that Gladstone mentions in the book.

Good journalism values balance above all else. We owe it to our readers to present everybody’s ideas equally and not to ignore or discredit theories simply because they lack scientifically credible arguments or facts.

I chuckled and you might too.

  • This 2011 New Yorker article on the iconic fall of Saddam’s Statue in Baghdad, aptly titled “The Toppling: How the media inflated a minor moment in a long war.”

Propaganda has been a staple of warfare for ages, but the notion of creating events on the battlefield, as opposed to repackaging real ones after the fact, is a modern development. It expresses a media theory developed by, among others, Walter Lippmann, who after the First World War identified the components of wartime mythmaking as “the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe, and out of these three elements, a counterfeit of reality.” As he put it, “Men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities [and] in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.”

Also, when considering new and wondrous technologies of media, I encourage you to remember Douglas Adams’ wisdom:

…everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal; anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it; anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.


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I have two books to blame for my slow reading spell this past month. One, Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, was almost poetic, and I spent considerable time re-reading it (something I am not usually wont to do). The second, Haiti After the Earthquake, simply took me forever, although I am glad I read it.


On January 12, 2010, at close to five in the evening, the earth shook  for about thirty seconds. In the hours and months that followed, horrific estimates of the dead, destroyed and injured emerged. More than two hundred thousand were dead, a million were injured, and more than a million were left homeless. Twenty thousand had to undergo amputations. Most municipal buildings were destroyed or gravely damaged. This included the Presidential Palace, the National Assembly, City Hall, and the main jail. Many primary and secondary schools were also destroyed, as were some major universities.

And yet, the devastation was not entirely natural. Indeed, it might even be called unnatural, as Evan Lyon insists it is:

The disaster on January 12, 2010 was…an absolutely unnatural disaster at the dangerous intersection of a natural trigger…and an absolutely unnatural vulnerability created in Haiti by centuries of political, environmental, and social forces.

An earthquake is only as catastrophic as the buildings and other physical infrastructure in the area are weak. Haiti’s Port-au-Prince area, where the quake hit, was not only overcrowded, but the offices and schools and hospitals that housed the people of the city were poorly engineered and constructed, and came crushing down on them all too soon. It is estimated that 95% of buildings in Haiti are self-constructed, and in the absence of a national building code, these structures were downright dangerous. If man made conditions allowed this natural disaster to result in unnatural loss, they also delayed the recovery of the country and its people.

Haiti’s challenges are many, and deeply rooted in its troubled history. Born of a slave revolt, Haiti is the world’s first black republic. However, the Haitians’ victory in achieving freedom proved pyrrhic. The world, or at least that part of it that it had dealings with, was openly hostile and actively thwarted Haiti’s growth with unfair trade policies and crippling debts.

During the twentieth century, Haiti had survived a foreign occupation (followed by various regimes of short duration, none properly elected), a twenty-nine-year-long family dictatorship with scant interest in long-term development, a series of military-civilian juntas, brief democratic rule, more coups, and the slow sundering of a once united popular movement.

Political instability only exacerbated the nation’s intractable poverty. The country has been plagued by social, economic, and ecological problems – “shoddy housing, bare hillsides and overfished waters, scarce access to clean water and modern sanitation, an undesirable business environment, cash-strapped health and school systems, high structural unemployment…”. The earthquake was the proverbial straw on the camel’s back, an acute event that pushed an existing chronic condition to beyond breaking point. The Port-au-Prince area is as crowded as the countryside is silent – bereft even of the scant services offered in the capital. The concentration of public services in Port-au-Prince meant that “many died or were maimed at the time of the quake because they came to the capital to study or simply apply for a passport.” Those that were uncovered from the rubble alive were laid under the open sky. Painkillers, X-ray machines, operating supplies and rooms, why, even basic supplies were insufficient for the vast ocean of human beings with crushed limbs and uncertain futures. Indeed, these supplies and services were never nearly enough, even in pre-quake Haiti. And so, “twenty-first-century people die(d) of nineteenth century afflictions – minor injuries and simple fractures as well as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other infections, such as tetanus, preventable with a vaccine available for pennies”. Conditions in quake-ravaged Haiti also proved ripe for a cholera epidemic that struck in October of 2010, and killed around 8,000 more people.

The earth would have shook anyway, but did so many have to fall?

The international community responded with generosity. A staggering $9.9 billion of reconstruction pledges were made on March 31, 2010, at a donor conference. But deploying the aid effectively was another story. “Everyone wanted to help, but no one knew exactly what to do”. Take the case of the “young Canadian man who, wanting to help out in Haiti, flew to the Dominican Republic and drove west to Port-au-Prince without much in the way of cash – or anything other than his goodwill. Before long, he ran out of money, and the Canadian embassy had to help send him home. It was meant as a lesson about the importance of planning and the shortcomings of goodwill alone.”

Farmer writes at length about the need to invest in Haiti’s people, in its government and public institutions (instead of directing funds through not-for-profits),  to lead to sustainable and equitable development and local capacity building for Haiti so that the nation can thrive without continued dependence on foreign assistance. Haiti needs more jobs, local business development, watershed protection, alternative energies, access to food, water, education and healthcare, and not just in Port-au-Prince.

Farmer’s account is long. Important, but long. An essay in this book, “Lopital Jeneral Struggles to Survive”, by Dr. Evan Lyon of Partners in Health, offers a much shorter, thoughtfully written, equally poignant account of many of the aspects of the disaster. 

Haitians have long been celebrated for their resilience in the face of hardships. But, as a young Haitian says in the book:

If being resilient means that we’re able to suffer much more than other people, it’s really not a compliment.

It is not. This characterization is a sad reminder of the inequalities in this world.

On a different note, I wish Farmer did not try so hard to tell us how much he adores President Clinton. However, I do note that Farmer, like all of us,  is not beyond criticism, but this book is ultimately not about Farmer, or Clinton. It is about Haiti.

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