Since 1993, the University of Maryland has annually selected a "First Year Book," which is made freely available to the campus community. Faculty members are encouraged to include a discussion of the book into their syllabi. Given all the books from which to choose, one would expect that the First Year Book would be something quite special, and it usually is. This year's book is The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone. It is a "graphic nonfiction" work, illustrated by Josh Neufeld. This alone is certainly not a reason to dismiss the work. There are many graphic nonfiction works that are well worth reading; see particularly many excellent monographs in the "For Beginners" series published by the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative. What makes these books worthwhile is the ability to provide more than a superficial treatment of their subjects in a readable and entertaining style. Cleverly chosen or executed illustrations can be a significant asset. Unfortunately, The Influencing Machine provides neither depth nor entertainment.
The work is certainly readable, but this has less to do with the writing style than with the superficiality of the ideas it expresses. It is a fast paced tour across the surface of the history of journalism, free expression, government control, and the influence of audiences on media content. Gladstone seems to have assimilated too many of the self-validating assumptions current among mainstream journalists regarding the above issues. Most of all, she concludes that the media and its contents are a product of the demands of news consumers. "We get the media we deserve" is her final word. For a more insightful analysis of the U.S. media, one would do well to read the works of Ben Bagdikian, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Michael Parenti, or Herbert Schiller to name just a few more thoughtful authors.
Gladstone says virtually nothing about the systemic biases that appear in the privately controlled U.S. media, except to note that "the American media are not afraid of the government. They are afraid of their audiences and advertisers. The media do not control you. They pander to you." While there may be a modicum of truth here, Gladstone provides no serious examination of the political economy of the media. In Gladstone's view, media consumers appear all to be equal. This would imply that the consequences for media content would be democratic and would reflect the impulses of ordinary people (for good or ill); however, media consumers are not all equal. Different potential audiences have different purchasing power. This means that the media content will be skewed to attract an audience with the greatest aggregate wealth, and in this formula, the rich have a much greater say over what appears in the media than the poor. We don't get the media we deserve, we get the media that money prefers. This is reinforced especially in the national media by the cost of advertising. Only large corporations are able to purchase advertising on national broadcasts, and so media content reflects the interests of (1) large media corporations, (2) well-to-do audiences, and (3) large corporations seeking to advertise their products.
There are a number of other features of the U.S. media as significant as its political economy. They make no appearance in The Influencing Machine. What does appear is a superficial and choppy presentation of mostly trite observations and journalistic mythologies.
One would hope that the artistry in the work would be a saving grace, but it is mostly unimpressive.