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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.

influencing

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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