Brooke Gladstone & “The Influencing Machine”


By John Semley October 21, 2011

At this point, the “graphic novel” doesn’t really need any more legitimizing. Though some purists may writhe at the aspirational pretension of the term itself, graphic novels (or “comic books”) have emerged as a completely valid, and vivid, narrative format. They have also become a reasonable way to tell something other than fictional stories, from biographies (Chester Brown’s Louis Riel) to historical anthropology (Zach Worton’s The Klondike) to even more ambitious intellectual histories (Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou’s dense account of Bertrand Russell’s career, Logicomix). But there’s never really been anything like The Influencing Machine.

Written by Brooke Gladstone, co-host of NPR’s weekly On The Media program, and illustrated by Josh Neufeld, The Influencing Machine is more a graphic discourse than a graphic novel. Skipping across continents, and weaving threads through historical events separated at times by centuries, The Influencing Machine provides a debrief on the history and operations of media. Gladstone looks at the emergence of the press, the importance of the First Amendment (she refers to it as “America’s greatest contribution to civilization”), and role of bias in contemporary cable news, to name just a few of the book’s bundle of talking points.

Gladstone herself serves as the guide and central character in The Influencing Machine, guiding the reader through her argument like a Dickensian ghost. Along the way, she puts her own ideas in conversation with Richard Nixon, Bill O’Reilly, W.B. Yeats, John Hersey, Prince Albert, Morpheus from The Matrix, and dozens of others. Exhaustively researched, elegantly argued, and stylishly illustrated by Neufeld in a way that gives a guiding simplicity to even its headiest ideas, The Influencing Machine is a singular piece of contemporary media criticism.

Gladstone will be in Toronto on Saturday speaking and reading at the Studio Theatre as part of the International Festival Of Authors. Given The Influencing Machine’s unique formal approach to contemporary matters of media, it’s probably no surprise that the reading is falling under the McLuhan 100 banner, commemorating the 100th anniversary of media prophet Marshall McLuhan’s birth. We spoke with Gladstone about making a comic, “hyperactive attention,” the influence of McLuhan on her work, and what it’s like to be a cartoon dog.


Photo by Robin Holland

AVC: At the International Festival Of Authors, you’re speaking as part of the Marshall McLuhan centenary celebrations. In the book, you refer to McLuhan as “the sage.” When people say stuff like that about McLuhan, it’s kind of hard to gauge how cheeky and how 100 percent reverent it is. What influence has Marshall McLuhan had on your work as a reporter and a broadcaster?

BG: Well, Marshall McLuhan invented a bunch of ideas and categories that have informed everybody’s perception of this media world, just the way Freud did for the landscapes of the mind. Just like Freud, there are a number of conceptual baskets that McLuhan has come up with that may not be adequate in this most modern of ages. But there are still phrases that he’s coined that will never go away, like “The Global Village.” His influence kind of ebbs and flows for all of us who look at the business. Even if you’ve never read a page of McLuhan—and believe me, McLuhan is not the easiest read in the world; he’s often very befuddling—but reading him almost doesn’t matter because his influence is everywhere in how people look at the business. A lot of time is spent challenging his categories. But regardless, it has an impact.

AVC: Now this event you’re reading at is part of CBC Day, which is of course our public broadcaster here in Canada. And you’re with NPR and WNYC, which are also public broadcasters, though a bit differently configured. Do you see that public broadcasting, especially against corporate-owned media, faces any unique challenges or offers any unique liberties for you as a reporter?

BG: I have a feeling the CBC is doing pretty well in Canada, right now.

Read the full interview here:


One Response to “Brooke Gladstone & “The Influencing Machine””

  1. 1 Brooke Gladstone & “The Influencing Machine” « McLuhan Galaxy | Marshall McLuhan and Social Media |

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