The Brooke Gladstone Interview

November 23, 2011

In 1995, NPR created a brand new media beat and gave it to today’s interviewee, who covered it for six years from NPR's New York bureau in midtown Manhattan, until she was tapped by WNYC to help re-launch On The Media in 2001.

The program was reborn in January of 2001 and now has nearly one million weekly listeners and has since won quite a few awards by showing how the journalism sausage is made.

Earlier this year, Gladstone became an illustrated character in her book The Influencing Machine, with comics drawn by acclaimed artist Josh Neufeld. The cartoon version of Brooke conducts the reader through two millennia of history-from the newspapers in Caesar's Rome to the penny press of the American Revolution and the manipulations of contemporary journalism.

Gladstone's manifesto debunks the notion that "The Media" is an external force, outside of our control, since we've begun directly constructing, filtering, and responding to what we watch and read.

Gladstone has won several awards, including an Overseas Press Club Award, a Peabody and the Milwaukee Press Club's Sacred Cat Award for lifetime achievement.

What are some of your favorite graphic-style books, other than your own?
There are so many. Certainly the most influential was Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It was my guide. I kept it by my bedside the year I was writing the book. I also got a lot of ideas from Paul Karazik’s and Dave Mazzuchelli’s graphic adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass – it’s stunning. And I’m a huge fan of my partner-in-crime’s moving work of graphic journalism about Hurricane Katrina, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge.

Which chapter of your book was the hardest to get together, and which came together the most easily?
The hardest was the chapter on war reporting ("War") – it was the longest, the goriest, the most sweeping and complex, almost like a book within a book. It was also the one where I had the greatest trouble coming up with images simple enough to  fit into the format. Josh and I had to go through it again and again. As for the easiest chapter – I really can’t say. None of them were easy.

Was there a discussion regarding how the illustration of you would be portrayed on the cover? You look a bit pensive: was there any talk about giving you a bit more of a smile?
I wanted that stunned expression. She needed to be stupefied, aware of her place within the machine, but stymied… ambivalent…um…maybe I’m reading too much into a straight line but it was definitely my choice.

Who did you specifically picture as the target audience of you book, since we’re all consumers of the media?
This is supposed to be for everyone, specialists and laymen. The Influencing Machine is both a map of our cultural landscape, a history, an analysis and a manifesto. There’s a lot in there that people who’ve spent their whole lives in the news business didn’t know (or so they tell me.) Certainly, I didn’t know most of it until I started researching the book.

When politicians criticize the media, do you feel flattered or annoyed (or other?)
Mainly, I feel weary and bored. I’ve heard it all before. The main argument in my book is that people project everything they hate about our culture, our country and the people who live in it – onto the media. We the Media comprise a big crazy funhouse mirror of America. Not a perfect reflection, but if we look closely enough we can see almost everything in it, including ourselves and everything we can’t stand.

Do you think there was ever a golden age of reporting, or will information just get better with time thanks to technology?
Nope, there never was a Golden Age and there never will be. There’s just more and more media, more democratized, and everyone with a computer or a cell phone has an increasing role to play. The big change is the evaporating  line between media producer and media consumer. Now that you can get virtually everything you want (and you can if you look hard enough) the onus falls on you to be mindful of your own prejudices and predilections when consuming and propagating information.

What are some of your favorite depictions of reporting in movies or TV?
I’m very partial to the 2007 David Fincher film, Zodiac about a dissolute reporter who’s defeated by the unsolved Zodiac murders, and a cartoonist who loses his family because of his obsessive need to solve it. These are not heroes, just human beings in the grip of something they can’t control. Reporting can feel like that. Then again, so can life. On the other hand, I can’t get enough of All the President’s Men. (So sue me.)

When you go on vacation or take time off, is the concept of temporarily avoiding the news one that you embrace, or is it even possible with your job?
Can I embrace the concept of avoiding the news? I insist on it! Seriously, hosting and editing “On the Media” can really make your head hurt after a while. I’m not really a media junkie. I don’t suck in all the news like a Hoover. I hop gingerly across the media landscape like it’s hot sand on a beach and I’m looking for a conch shell to hold up to my ear to hear the sea. On my own time I’m off that beach and usually watching the Sci Fi channel.

I know that you’ve worked on a sci-fi book in the past: What is it about the genre that appeals to you? Is it an escape?
I feel completely liberated when reading science fiction. It reinvents the rules and reinvents the world. It’s unbounded imagination and in fact, a study of the work of futurists, specialists and science fiction writers found that the science fiction writers were more likely to make accurate predictions. The reason, apparently, was that they didn’t worry about what seemed impossible at the time they were writing. The telephone, space travel, nanotechnology, at one time they all faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The science fiction writers imagined their way past those blocks. Why doesn’t everybody love science fiction?

What would a future book from you most likely resemble in terms of genre and/or tone?
Before the The Influencing Machine, I tried to write a science fiction comic book about two reporters in the year 2042. I kept coming up with inventions and then finding out they’d already been invented. I came up with devices that didn’t exist and found they’d already been depicted by writers before me. I liked the characters, but had problems with the plot. I still want to do it, but I’m going to have to let go of the idea that I will break new ground. I have to try.  As Samuel Beckett once wrote… The sun shone having no alternative on the nothing new.”

How does it feel to be the 297th person interviewed for Zulkey.com (and now WBEZ)?
It feels right.