Earlier this month, Brooke Gladstone, host of NPR’s On the Media, appeared on KQED Radio’s Forum program to discuss her new graphic novel, The Influencing Machine. Afterward, I asked her some questions related to — what else — the media.
When the story about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love child broke, I wrote a post asking whether it was legitimate news or not. Do you think the media went overboard on that one?
Of course. They always do. It is entirely in the natural order of things for people to settle on narratives about famous people. There’ a sort of magic juice in celebrity coverage and that’s basically what we’re talking about here. It had a political gloss because he was a politician, but it’s essentially celebrity coverage. ‘Are they like us, are they worse than us, gosh, I hope they’re kind of worse than us because they have so much money and they look better.’ This is id-oriented journalism as opposed to information-oriented journalism.
I have to say, though, that story was the very first thing my wife and I talked about in the morning. What about the notion that these kind of water-cooler stories might prompt discussion about larger issues?
Oh go ahead and justify it any way you like. We like these stories because we like these stories. They do prompt water-cooler discussions. But I think when you want to talk about the placement of stories, where they go, order of importance, the fact that a story commands the public imagination doesn’t necessarily mean that the stakes are particularly high.
I mean, if there are wars going on, do you really need to know about a philandering movie star? If there’s skyrocketing inflation, do you really need to know about a runaway bride? It doesn’t matter; they still dominate the headlines because that’s what we’re wired to be interested in. We project onto them.
But we can program according to our lizard brain or according to the later- acquired part of our brain. They’re both valid. It’s all teaching us about the world, but there are stakes, and if you program according to stakes, it wouldn’t rank very high.
There seem to be a lot of conspiracy stories these days that have taken hold on both the left and the right. How does one become a more sophisticated consumer of information, now that there’s so much out there that is inaccurate?
You shouldn’t trust anything until the source of the information becomes trustworthy. How do you find out if its trustworthy? By taking some time to follow up what has been reported that you might doubt or an assertion that’s been made.
Skepticism is necessary always. It was necessary in the times of the penny press when people were more skeptical; and also when we were sort of lulled during the consensus reporting of mid-20th century America. Now we’re back to fragments; there’s a lot of lying out there, there’s a lot of truth too.
Anything to say about the Anthony Wiener story?
Anthony Wiener was famed for using a technology that he understood well. He was very engaged with his Twitter followers. He was considered one of the really new-media savvy representatives. Of all people to understand the consequence of living out loud, it ought to have been him.
So it shows that people who even seem to understand how this new media operate don’t really understand it. Maybe you have to have been born after 1985. For most of us, it’s like learning a new language. As Jeff Jarvis of the City University of New York says: Some day we may be so used to and bored with people’s personal peccadilloes being exposed that we will be living in an age of mutually assured humiliation.
But until that day, you need to know that when you write to one person on one of these digital forums, you are writing to 50,000 or a million or the entire world, because it can escape the environment like a virus and make its way through every single pipeline there is.
We all need to learn how to use this stuff. We have to learn if we really want to maintain our engagement with the world, because the world is less and less mediated through what was once known as mainstream media. We’re all creating our own media streams, millions of them, all formulated and tailored to our own personal tastes.
Do you think there are some issues the media doesn’t cover fairly or accurately?
There’s something I talk about in the book called status quo bias, which means the media doesn’t like to challenge basic principles. They don’t advocate for change; reporters tend to be fans of stasis unless there’s terrific injustice going on. So nobody is going to question the way we elect presidents, even though it’s clearly flawed. There’s a tendency for enquiring minds to close down when it comes to changing fundamentally the way things work. So it isn’t that there’s a conscious effort not to report something fairly or accurately, but there’s a tendency to steer clear of explorations of the potential for radical change.
Why did you write your book in graphic novel form?
To me it was more like radio. I wanted to maintain that intimate contact with the reader, which I could do by speaking in bubbles and looking the reader in the eye. And also because I was building a very complicated argument and I wanted to build it economically. There are things that are done in a page or two that would have taken 20 pages of text. It helped me boil down a very complicated argument and a wide-ranging history into a very concise book.