Drawing Lessons From The Media 'Machine' On The Media co-host Brooke Gladstone says the media is not so much a machine, as a mirror that reflects the world back at us. Her her comic book is called The Influencing Machine.
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Drawing Lessons From The Media 'Machine'

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Drawing Lessons From The Media 'Machine'

Drawing Lessons From The Media 'Machine'

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Sometimes the media really nails it: the Pentagon Papers, Watergate. Sometimes it's more ka-ka than kudos: weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina.

The public's trust in the media has recovered a bit from record lows of 2007, but not much. And there's a pervasive sense that newspapers, TV, radio, magazines, the big websites, are either incompetent or in cahoots, at least the other side's media are.

In a new book, Brooke Gladstone reminds us that the good old days weren't much better or worse than today and that if we decry the gossip, the crime, the groupthink and the rants, we consumers are at least partly to blame.

Which particular news story helped shape your view of the media? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Or you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Or zap us an email, the address is talk@npr.org.

Later in the program, Trombone Shorty drops by to talk jazz and take your calls. But first, our colleague Brooke Gladstone joins us. The book is "The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media." Many of you will recognize those last three words as the title of the weekly program she co-hosts for WNYC, which is distributed by NPR. And she joins us now from the studios of the aforementioned member station in New York City, WNYC. Brooke, glad to have you with us today.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hi, Neal. You know, you've just solicited people to call in about the stories that shape their view of the media. Invariably, people will call in on any story that they have had a part in because that's when they see the seamy underbelly of inaccuracy that follows so many news stories.

CONAN: And accuracy seems to be, you argue, one of the things that people care most about.

GLADSTONE: Well, this is one of the things that people say they care most about, but if you actually track the popularity of the media through good times and bad, what you'll find is that accuracy tends to take second place or third place to basically the gestalt of the story.

In other words, the public wasn't very happy when the media were reporting critically on the run-up to the war, and they were so unhappy that no one then said anything critical about the run-up to the war, at least in the mainstream press.

But they loved the media after 9/11 and during Hurricane Katrina because it expressed the anguish and the anger that the public felt. In other words, it had truthiness, and it seems like truthiness is more important than truthfulness. I'll throw out a hello to Stephen Colbert. It's his famous phrase that has entered the lexicon.

CONAN: So the media much admired for its war coverage in 1991, not so much in Iraq the second time.

GLADSTONE: Right, and why should it be admired for its 1991 coverage when so much of it had to, you know, emerge from hearing rooms covering essentially what looked like video-game shots of smart bombs that turned out in the aftermath not to be so smart after all?

CONAN: Was there one story when you were coming of age that made you decide to be a reporter?



GLADSTONE: I mean, I would love to say that it was, you know, Watergate or something like that, which would have been what I wanted to - you know, would have been a great little history for me. But actually, I was a theater major, and I was much more interesting(ph) in the telling of stories than necessarily what they were about.

And so I came into it from a craft point of view rather than a content point of view. I've been bludgeoned into focusing on content over the last 25 years or so.

CONAN: By some of your associates. I think I know some of them.


CONAN: It's...

GLADSTONE: I would love to say, with regard to truthiness, if you don't mind, Neal, that when I was editing ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and you were the executive producer, I did put inaccuracies into those intros from time to time, and although the hosts were furious, you would say very generously that nobody conveyed the sense of a news story better than I did.


CONAN: The metaphor was more important than the facts, I think may have been the phrase. But everybody's going to make mistakes. I mean, mistakes are inherent in a business you're doing so quickly, and you're trying to cover very complicated stories and tell a narrative, tell people that story that you wanted to tell.

GLADSTONE: That's right. I mean, obviously mistakes are an occupational hazard. But one thing that - one of Internet's - one of the Internet's great visionaries, David Weinberger(ph), once observed that perhaps transparency is the new objectivity.

If you can tell people how to get to the essence of the information, if you can offer them the links, the documents, maybe some of the raw interviews from which you derived your story, then they don't have to just trust you, and they don't have to be suspicious of investing that kind of trust in you, nor do you, as a reporter, have to ignore your experience and the wisdom gleaned over decades covering a beat and abstain from offering a true judgment on what you've seen, because people can then have the information to agree or disagree.

CONAN: I wanted to - we're going to get to calls in just a minute, but I wanted to read you something you wrote, totally unfair, of course, to do 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: everything we admire.

GLADSTONE: That's right. And of course that's true, because who was the first leaker? We hate leaks today. Who was the first big leaker? That was George Washington. Who was the first person who paid people to write nasty things about an opponent? Well, that was probably Thomas Jefferson.

This sort of nasty, you know, convergence of politics and press has been with us from the very beginning. On the other hand, there were also amazing works by Thomas Paine and amazing investigations of the new nation in a press that was generally scurrilous and blasphemous and libelous and everything that we hate.

We have to have a free press, even when it's terrible. And Jefferson understood that. Jefferson believed that you needed to have the disorder it created to keep the waters clear, as he said, even though at various points in his life, especially when he was president, he would claim you couldn't believe anything that was in a newspaper and in fact you were better informed if you didn't read them.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Brooke Gladstone, author of "The Influencing Machine" and of course co-host of ON THE MEDIA. What's the story that shaped your view of the media more than anything else? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll start with Eddie(ph), and Eddie's on the line from New London.

EDDIE: Hey, how are you doing? I just wanted to say that the election in 2000, the coverage of that is really what shaped me. I mean, you had different agencies calling different election - or the election for different people. It was just - it's atrocious. And nowadays it seems like the only place that I really am interested in getting political news from is, like you said earlier, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

CONAN: So just people who pretty much agree with you.

EDDIE: Well, I wouldn't say pretty much agree with me, but who can say that there's wrong on both sides, and everybody's biased, you know?

CONAN: All right, but the 2000 election, and Brooke Gladstone, of course we had people calling the Florida count for Al Gore at one point, then pulling that back and then calling it for the other side and then pulling that back.

GLADSTONE: That's right, and that was basically a problem of trying to jump the gun and of misinterpreting the numbers they got in. And also there was a problem with various counties being held back. That was a real learning experience, and they won't be making that mistake ever again.

There were even congressional hearings about it. So I don't think that the TV - I mean, we saw it in the last election. Even though everybody knew Obama had won by about 7:00, they waited until the polls closed in order to finally make that decision official on the air, and it was a very, very important moment, and even - and it was so funny to see Wolf Blitzer and everybody else dancing around the obvious.

We're about to make what we think may be an historic announcement. Nobody will ever jump the gun like that again. So it's interesting that that's the one that this particular caller really set upon.

I do think also it's interesting that he mentioned Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, because they have, over the years, become increasingly influential, increasingly a source of news and information for people, and also their audiences tend to be among the best informed. They tend to understand stories extremely well.

And part of the reason is that, first of all, they're becoming somewhat more responsible, even though they claim they're just comedians and they have no responsibility for being responsible. They understand the impact they're having on the culture.

But more than that, because they reveal themselves so routinely, they make themselves more trustworthy, which comes back to the point that I alluded to earlier about objectivity, transparency and trust.

CONAN: Eddie, thanks very much for the call.

EDDIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Mike(ph), and Mike's with us from Monroe in Michigan.

MIKE: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

MIKE: This has to do with the nature of attack talk radio. And I can remember back when Clinton was president, Rush Limbaugh came out and supported NAFTA. And for a whole week all of his callers just called him up and took him to task because nobody that listens to that program wanted to support NAFTA.

By the end of the week, I am sure Rush Limbaugh said we're never going to defend that sort of thing again. And he really hasn't. He'll go on the attack no matter what the issue is of the day. But to defend anything, forget about it.

CONAN: So that's the one story that shaped your perception of the media?

MIKE: Yeah, I'm afraid so, that end of the media, that attack talk show end of the media.

CONAN: And Brooke Gladstone, well, one of the people you cite in your book is John Peter Zenger, and you mentioned the people that Thomas Jefferson paid to attack his rival, George Washington. But the kind of attack radio that the caller was talking about, that kind of thing has been with us from the start.

GLADSTONE: Basically yes. But we've had much more powerful technology to spread that stuff around. Actually, Jefferson was paying people to attack John Adams. Instead of George Washington.

CONAN: Oh, he attacked George Washington too, yes.

GLADSTONE: Well, George well, he did, but not during the campaign.

CONAN: When he was secretary of state, yes.

GLADSTONE: That's right. That's right. He started a newspaper with State Department funds, which he wasn't supposed to do. You are right. And so - so where were we?

CONAN: We were talking about the prevalence of this kind of - but technology, you say, has amplified these voices.

GLADSTONE: Technology has amplified these voices. Technology has amplified every possible voice, which creates this enormous cacophony.

CONAN: Brooke Gladstone, a radio professional, knows when she hears the music it's time to be quiet.


CONAN: She's our guest today. We're talking about her book "The Influencing Machine." What big news story shaped how you feel about the media? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Accuracy and objectivity are considered pillars of good journalism, but it has not always been so. It turns out that getting it right without a slant was of little interest to publishers or to readers, to be fair, in the early days of newspapers.

And while staying out of the story eventually became a norm for American reporters, Brooke Gladstone says impartiality will always be an unreachable goal. You can read and see her trace the evolution of objectivity in an excerpt from "The Influencing Machine" on our website. Just go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We have this email from Patty(ph): I was in bed for a year recuperating from an auto accident and was glued to the Watergate hearings. Richard Nixon still gets my blood boiling. I have great respect for the reporting that led to uncovering that scandal. When I entered college, I majored in journalism. I had a young journalism professor who required 21 different books on the killings at Kent State. I read them all and dropped journalism as my major.

That reading showed me there is little chance for objectivity in reporting, a lesson I share with my students as a school librarian in Houston, Texas. We want to hear what story shaped your perception of the media. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And Brooke, I say you can see an excerpt of your book at our website because this is actually a comic book. It's very visual.

GLADSTONE: It is extremely visual. I did that because I thought it would be more like radio.

CONAN: Really?



CONAN: More like talking directly to the audience.

GLADSTONE: Exactly. I could talk to the audience. I could speak in balloons, and it also enforced an enormous amount of discipline. These are very, very, very, very dense comic book pages. You can say a lot - it turns out you can say a lot with pictures. They may even be worth 1,000 words in some cases.


CONAN: Let's go to Dewan(ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - with us from Traverse City in Michigan.

DEWAN: Yes, Dewan, yes. I was a reporter in Central America during the wars down there, '82, '83, '84. And I'd been there about a month or so and went out on an operation with the El Salvadorian forces. And we came back in, and the (unintelligible), the general's staff, had the first press conference.

I'm sitting a couple rows back, and the bombs go off in the front, and next to a guy from the Boston Globe, and the guy from the Globe says, well, they're just trying to convince us they're winning this war. And I said, well, I've only been here about a month or so, and I'm not sure about the war, but I can tell you that the battle came down exactly the way the general's laying it out.

And he said, well, how do you know? And I kind of looked down at my mud-covered boots, and I said, well, I just got back from it. And he said, well, how do you get to go out and we don't? And I said, well, do you have any military experience? And I'd just left several years in the military. And he says of course not, biased right away. And I said, well, then how would you know what you were seeing once you got out there?

And he muttered something about the First Amendment, and it seemed as if the reporters down there were waiting for the guerrillas to bust through the gates of the presidential palace with their tanks, a la Vietnam. And frankly, what I could tell was every time the guerrillas stuck their heads up, the government would chop it off - a typical brutal war, of course.

But nonetheless, every journalist I met down there seemed to be predisposed to the El Salvadorian forces, the forces the U.S. was backing, losing the war. And of course in the long run they never did. And quite frankly, that really reinforced the fact that there was tremendous amount of bias in the field.

CONAN: Brooke?

GLADSTONE: Yeah, I think that's very interesting. I think that you'll find that there was a tremendous amount of disaffection between the press and the military during the first - at least 15 years after Vietnam. And I think that you have - you probably saw it right at its height, when there was so much suspicion about government that the press were not inclined to believe anything they saw.

That's no excuse. I think that that is probably unusual, though generally, if you look at the history of war reporting, you'll find that the press has generally stood very staunchly with what the American government and its allies tend to say when it comes to American wars. They do tend to part company more when it comes to wars in which America is not a big participant.

DEWAN: Well, the bias went beyond just what the Americans were doing, obviously. Any of these journalists could have used the opportunity to learn more about the military or even sort of embedded themselves in a manner that I did. But obviously the El Salvadorians realized that having been a former soldier myself, I would see what - you know, I would know what was going on with some experience, where these guys, they're all coming out of college and with great ideas in their head of being Woodward or whoever else and being there on the day the guerrillas triumph, of course.

And many of them, many of them, were extremely near left-wing. I mean, they were obvious about it. I didn't even like to stay at the hotel that the press had set up. They had a nasty pool. And I stayed where the military was, you know, where I could find out information.

And nobody seemed to do that. There were, if anything, distancing themselves from that entirely without any comprehension of what they were doing to the actual final story.

GLADSTONE: Well, war reporters tend to like to be in the field though. That's why they are war reporters. Again, if you look through the history of war reporting, these are people, regardless of their politics, who are not hesitant to get their boots dirty and to be where the action is.

You know, I can't comment, I certainly won't argue with the experience that you had there. I have no doubt that there were plenty of people like that there. But I don't know whether you can generalize to all war reporting from that particular experience, though clearly it shaped your perception.

DEWAN: Obviously not, obviously you can't generalize on that basis. And I think what we're seeing now is a little more in line with reality. But during that period of time, it was just unbelievably biased. You know, they were (unintelligible)...

CONAN: Dewan...

DEWAN: And as a result, we end up with a situation like in Guatemala. When the Carter administration cut Guatemala loose, they just became more brutal. And to, you know, get the situation in line. And El Salvador constantly reminded the U.S. of that: If you cut us loose, we're just going to have to fall back to the Guatemala model.

CONAN: Dewan, we're just going to give somebody else a chance, okay?

DEWAN: You bet. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Bonnie(ph), Bonnie with us from St. Petersburg.

BONNIE: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Bonnie.

BONNIE: My perception of the media reporting was changed during the Howard Dean scream, because I had had a background in broadcasting, and it was immediately apparent how manipulated that was. And the fact that it was played over and over and over on every medium. It didn't matter what their political - and it single-handedly, I believe, sunk that candidacy. So that was pretty powerful.

CONAN: Indeed it was. He did scream shortly after he lost a primary. And said he was going on to - and rattled off any number of states, and then the famous scream. But a moment like that can - well, Brooke, you talk about the ability to define a candidate, and that's one of the things the media does.

GLADSTONE: Yes, I mean, it's all part of creating a narrative. And I guess they wanted to create a narrative of Dean as slightly unhinged. I mean, that scream was rather decontextualized. It was a bit of a rebel yell in the middle of a rally. It was too hot for television, which of course we all know is supposedly a very cool medium.

And - but I have to say, I'd love to say it at this point, that most of the time, when I'm out in public, and people are complaining about the media, they're almost always complaining about cable news. And that's not the only place where you have to get your media these days.

I mean, it's wonderful fodder for Colbert and Stewart, for sure. It's just the very worst, the silliest stuff that you can see because it's on wall to wall to wall. And God knows, they certainly did use that scream a lot, just like every three minutes on Fox they showed the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, and even seven minutes on CNN.

But just because they constantly repeat it doesn't mean that that's the only place that we necessarily see it. I mean, I don't think - obviously, the scream isn't going to be as useful in a print medium. I don't remember, at least I don't remember on NPR it being aired over and over and over again. It became a talking point because, sadly, cable news tends to set the agenda, and it's all about those moments.

But there's a lot more out there and more and more all the time. So people really need to start looking elsewhere.

CONAN: Bonnie, thanks very much.

BONNIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Email from Nina(ph) in Little Rock. The story that shaped my opinion in the media is the original Sam Sheppard murder trial. My mother served on the jury and was outraged by the media coverage on her return home after the trial. She read all the articles my sister kept in a scrapbook at the time.

My mother conveyed that the judge conducted an orderly trial courtroom and that it was in no way a three-ring circus as stated by the media. That taught me to be very skeptical of what the media states, how it tries to sway me and what control it has over our culture, our opinions and our political movements.

GLADSTONE: The Sam Sheppard trial, is that "The Fugitive" trial?

CONAN: That's "The Fugitive" trial.


GLADSTONE: That was a long time ago.

CONAN: It was.

GLADSTONE: You know, it was, I don't even know how that was covered. I'm sure if it was covered by - do you know anything about this? I have no idea how it was covered at the time. I can't comment. It's fascinating that her disaffection goes back that many years, but why not? As we've said, there's been outrages practically since the media were born.

CONAN: And outrage, as you say, people are most concerned about stories they know something about because that's where they could spot the inaccuracies.

GLADSTONE: That's right. That's right. Whenever somebody - generally, someone says, I generally love this newspaper, but then they called me on a story and they just totally screwed it up. And as a matter of fact, the famous - infamous Jayson Blair, New York Times fabricator and plagiarist, apparently spoke to a number of people and then misreported or completely, you know, or just completely ignored them. And no one even called The New York Times to complain. So used to - so used people are to being misquoted in the media. I mean, I get nervous about getting misquoted in the media all the time too. Happens to me constantly if people interview me about something.

It's just the nature of the beast. We are so flawed and we do come with agendas. We - best that we marshal our resources to guard against that the best we can, and to be fair to offer both sides. But let's not think that those agendas aren't there. If we hide them from ourselves, it doesn't mean we're hiding them from the audience. We may not be conscious of them. If we are conscious of them, we can work to do better reporting.

CONAN: It's important to remember in that context, of course, Charles Barkley, the great basketball player, once claimed the he was misquoted in his autobiography.



CONAN: We're talking with Brooke Gladstone, the host of ON THE MEDIA, which comes to us from our member station in New York City, WNYC, and is distributed by NPR. Her new book is called "The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News. Let's get Randy on the line, Randy with us from Salt Lake City.

RANDY: Thank you, Neal. Thoroughly enjoying your program.

CONAN: Thank you.

RANDY: I was telling your screener that 10 or 11 years ago, my son who was a Salt Lake City police officer was shot in the line of duty. And so as a family, we followed the coverage of that incident very, very closely. Every newspaper we could find, every radio, every television program we could find, we listened to and read. And, Neal, this doesn't have anything to do with bias, but more to do with the inaccuracy of the reporting. But without exception, in every article or program that we listened to or read, there were inaccuracies, more than once, sometimes the location, sometimes the name of the police officers who were involved, sometimes the name of the criminal, the perpetrator who had shot my son.

And ever since then, in reading the local newspapers and listening to local and national television and radio, I have been acutely aware of the potential for inaccuracies. And I know that probably isn't the way to listen and read, but it has skewed me even though it was something very personal and it hit home very closely, but certainly not of a national scope.

CONAN: And I'm sorry for your son's experience. Is he OK?

RANDY: He's fine.

CONAN: Good.

RANDY: Well, four kids later and 11 years of marriage, he's doing great.

GLADSTONE: Can I jump in...

RANDY: And still on the police force.

CONAN: Go ahead, Brooke.

GLADSTONE: There's no reason why you think this isn't the way that you should be consuming the news, because now you can double check all those facts. If you want to get - make sure that the name of the officer, of the perpetrator is correct, you can check numerous sources, even original sources. I think newspapers, though frequently inaccurate, news - all news outlets, though frequently inaccurate, really do try to get it right. A lot of times, they borrow from each other, so one mistake can get perpetuated endlessly. That's lazy. That's a shortcut. It shouldn't happen.

But often, one reliable news source will get something wrong and it will just proceed on through other media, which pick it up and then work from it. So - but now, you can be skeptical. You should be skeptical. I think it's good advice for every news consumer because now you can check all that information - or most of it at least - for yourself.

CONAN: Randy, thanks...

RANDY: And I think you're absolutely correct. But I'm almost certain that a majority of the people, of us American citizens, don't take the time to do that and even though we should and it's our obligation to do so. And I think it's even more critical because we don't do that that newsprint and television and radio do maybe a little bit more research before they broadcast or print the story that can influence millions.

CONAN: Randy, thanks very much for the call.

RANDY: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And for the advice. Here's an email we have from Phil: I was fortunate enough to hear the great Walter Cronkite speak in the early '60s about the difficulty of covering a story. He wondered out loud if showing up at a race riot would cameras actually cause the riot, or was a riot his camera has only recorded. Then, how much time to give the story? One minute, three minutes, zero minutes. Where did it fit in today's most important event? I find my opinion of the news today colored by those decisions. Who decided the story was important. Why did they decide to begin the news with it or end with it? And those are all pretty interesting questions.

GLADSTONE: They are. And, Neal, I'm sure you'll remember, calling upon our common experience again, there was a period - and this is maybe airing some of NPR's internal discussion, but I remember editorial meetings where we talked about should we cover this Ku Klux Klan rally when we knew that there were likely to be more reporters there than actual Klan members, and that we were, you know, as an institution, as a - as media, we were creating the event that otherwise would have gone utterly unnoticed because it had no significance except as a media event? And those are the kinds of things you have to discuss. Is this news or is this designed just to manipulate us?

CONAN: And those are questions you can find explored in amusing and interesting depth in "The Influencing Machine: Brook Gladstone on the Media," illustrated by Josh Neufeld. And thanks very much, Brooke, for joining us today.

GLADSTONE: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Brooke Gladstone with us from member station WNYC in New York. She's co-host of ON THE MEDIA, distributed by NPR. Stay with us. When we come back, we're going to be talking with Trombone Shorty. What are the young musicians doing to jazz? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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