Turning scrutiny on the media

If Facebook can facilitate a revolution and the world gets first word of Osama bin Laden’s demise (or a congressman’s failures) through a Tweet, when it comes to the dissemination of information, all we need really is social media, right?

Nobody needs old media to sift through all the information out there, then interpret and present it. All we need are the facts, presented coldly, crisply and, above all else, fairly. Then we can make up our own minds about a proposed health care plan or involvement in a possible war, right?

Author and NPR host Brooke Gladstone thinks all of that is just flat out wrong.

Through her “On the Media” show, she explores the state of contemporary journalism through criticism of both newsmakers and the media itself, taking on notions of objectivity and exploring the way information is manipulated.

In her new book “The Influencing Machine,” Gladstone looks at the role of media, from the invention of the written word all the way to what it might look like in 2045. Along the way she holds not only media and its sources up for scrutiny, but also those who consume media, which pretty much means all of us.

She and illustrator Josh Neufeld (“A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge”) do all this in a graphic novel format that is just 170 pages long.

Here she talks about bias, influence of social media and how objectivity is impossible to achieve.

Q: So there was no golden age of journalism. Why not?

A: Oh, I think they were all great times, but the overriding principle of the book is that [media are] a mirror of the technology and the politics of every era.

Q: You say that if you repeat a false fact enough it becomes the truth.

A: Not only that, if you are so inclined, being confronted with information that contradicts your view will only cause you to become more deeply entrenched in that view.

Q: So if I only watch Fox News or MSNBC but I flip over to the other every now and then to hear what they have to say, it will only reinforce my belief in what I normally listen to?

A: Yes. Absolutely.

Q: You argue that there is no such thing as objectivity. That's what journalists are supposed to strive toward.

A: It's a semantic problem in a way. A lot of people think objectivity is the issue when really what they want is simple. They want people to be honest and fair. But they think that's not possible unless people have no opinions or no emotion, whereas it's having no opinions and no emotion that's impossible.

Q: But you say fairness isn't easy to achieve.

A: That's what I call the fairness bias. Where in an effort to make sure that you appear fair or unbiased, you will offer to unequal sides equal time, and thereby distort the world and serve your audiences less well because you are concerned that they will identify bias that you don't even have.

Q: Isn't that what some said led to a ratings slump for CNN when for a while it went to a on-the-one-side/on-the-other-side/just-the-facts format?

A: That's incredibly boring. Either boring or trivial, as are so many of the other cable news channels. They are really more like electronic fireplaces in some ways rather than purveyors of news. ... The appearance of objectivity is far less important than a genuine adherence to the truth.

Q: Well, then who decides what is true?

A: The truth is a sticky wicket. There must be some armature of factual information and knowledge that we have of the world on which to hang stories. Not everything is relative. Some things are simply true or false.

Q: These are heady, but necessary concepts. So why explore them in a graphic novel?

A: What I've always done is radio, and this was a close as I could get to radio. The big thing about radio is it's intimate and I write that way. So I thought that if I wrote in bubbles, I could literally look the reader in the eye.

Q: Are you happy with the drawings of you throughout the book where you lead readers on this media tour?

A: I am happy with it. I'm a science-fiction geek. I get to be Medusa, I turn into a dog, I get to go into "The Matrix," I become Spider-Man. I want to be Buffy.

Q: How much back and forth did you have with Josh Neufeld, the illustrator?

A: I had to think of every single image. I had to describe every single one, send links from the Internet about what it was and how to draw it. I presented it in the form, more or less, of a screenplay [to Neufeld]. He functioned like a director of photography for a newbie director. He instructed me in the art of the possible. A lot of times he would say to me, "You need to rethink this idea because it isn't possible."

Q: So bottom line, we can't just survive on Tweets and trending topics on Facebook? We still need larger media filters?

A: Of course. What it comes down to in the end is that media is just basically a metaphor for social evolution.