Brooke Gladstone managing editor and co-host of NPR’s and WNYC’s On the Media, has a long history with public radio. After working in print media, she joined NPR in 1987 as senior editor of Weekend Edition with Scott Simon and became senior editor of All Things Considered in 1989. In 1991, she spent a year at Stanford University as a Knight Fellow and then reported for NPR from Moscow during Boris Yeltsin’s turbulent presidency (1992-95.) After that, Gladstone served for six years as NPR’s first media correspondent and then joined On the Media when it relaunched in January, 2001. Gladstone is the recipient of two Peabody Awards, a National Press Club Award, an Overseas Press Club Award and several others.
She also is the author of The Influencing Machine (W.W. Norton), a media manifesto in graphic form, listed among the year’s top books by The New Yorker and Publisher’s Weekly, and among the “10 Masterpieces of Graphic Nonfiction” by The Atlantic.
What do you think of the coverage of the Trayvon Martin incident?
What was really interesting about the coverage was how it got into the national headlines. It’s quite a fascinating circuit. It began with Trymaine Lee, who is a reporter for the Huffington Post, who got a tip, who went down there, and was following it not too long after the event happened. There were some wire reporters down there, and the local papers followed it a little. But it didn’t really make a ripple. Then, Ta-Nehisi Coates—who has a great blog on the Atlantic site, he has a huge community—picked it up, and then Charles Blow mentioned it in the New York Times. We’re talking about three black journalists, who made this part of the national conversation. That’s a real argument for diversity in the newsroom. And Ta-Nehisi was particularly interesting on it, because he said that he got so sad and depressed covering these things, that it was his internet community talking about it before he did. And then he commented on it and suddenly realized that he had to talk about it. It got headlines because of that, because of the ability of the internet to coalesce communities and create a strong force. It also has to do with the political community; with Florida’s very peculiar Dirty Harry, stand-your-ground laws. It has a lot to do with race, with Trayvon’s face, and it has a lot to do with the tapes. I think the coverage is developing, the story is changing, the story is broadening. It’s a long time coming that this story gets these types of headlines.
In terms of evaluating the coverage—you know, I haven’t read every word that has been said about it. You have Geraldo Rivera saying that the problem is the hoodie—which even his own son found embarrassing. It seems to be one of those moments of reckoning for America. I’m curious to see how it rolls out. There are so many different kinds of media now, though, that it’s difficult to give any kind of grade to the whole mess o’ coverage.
What do you think of the development of new, amateur media? How does that contrast with the old, professional newsroom?
Trymaine Lee, the Huffington Post reporter who had been a reporter at the Times-Picayune before, said there’s such a thing in newsrooms as a garden-variety murder. At first, the Trayvon Martin story seemed like a garden-variety murder. And however cold and dehumanizing that phrase is, people who cover murders all the time, just like doctors who cover death all the time, develop a thick skin. To penetrate those assumptions is crucial, and that is precisely the ability of these communities coalescing online and these voices who speak in alternative media. I mean, Charles Blow is New York Times, but Trymaine Lee is Huffington Post and Ta-Nehisi is a blogger—so, it just shows you that there is an ecosystem that relies very heavily now on the web and the ordinary people, the non-professional voices that it brings into the conversation.
Do you think there’s a downside to that?
There’s a downside to everything. The price of freedom is having a lot of ugly voices and scurrilous voices and lying voices. There’s no way to cherry-pick freedom. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, but there’s not a whole lot more than that, that you restrict in this country. I think, fundamentally, that’s the safest way to go.
Do you think that any government can seek to regulate online media or that it would be a futile effort to try to do that?
Well, there’s all kinds of regulation. I think that regulating speech is a bad idea. I think that the government is a little crazy when it comes to copyright, and it tends to be bullying the whole world about it. I think that that kind of regulation has gone overboard—the intellectual property regulation. There’s a role for it, but I think that intellectual property in every endeavor has gone too far. But, specifically, what kind of regulation do you mean?
I was wondering whether the current American model of unfettered media can apply equally to other societies that may be less stable or have deeper fault lines. One classic case would be the Danish drawing of the Prophet Muhammad. Now that citizen journalism is the new thing, should other governments seek to regulate any kind of expression, or should it be a free-for-all?
I’m biased! I have a very, very, very strong bias in favor of free speech. This is a fundamental value for me. There are other cultures in which it is not. It makes me feel funny to profess a universal principle. But I do believe that people benefit from a free exchange of ideas. I believe that it leads to greater tolerance and a more civil society. Because I believe this so strongly, I don’t know what I would say to other cultures that feel so differently. I reported from Russia for three years, when it was a free-for-all. Then I went back twelve years later, during the Putin period, and things had become very clamped down. I spoke to a very, very Kremlin-oriented newspaper, Izvestia, and the editor told me, “Don’t preach to me about what you think. We here believe that stability comes first, and freedom comes later.”
Even the Chinese say that, too.
Right. Well…I don’t believe that. But I don’t want to be on the record saying, “You must imitate us in every aspect.” Because that doesn’t work out, either. I don’t have the wisdom to answer your question, I think.
Many newspapers have now instituted fact-checkers—the Washington Post has one, and there’s Politifact and Factcheck.org. The Washington Post’s Ombudsman actually criticized the newspaper for simply reporting and not actually checking the facts. So what do you think of fact-checkers? And do you think it is the media’s responsibility to fact-check politicians’ statements?
Do you mean not calling a lie, a lie? I think fact-checking is great. Unfortunately, not that many people go to these sites to checks them, but reporters use them, which is good. We have our own site called “MST” (“Media Scrutiny Theater”), which is a take on Mystery Science Theater 3000. That was a series where this guy and a couple of robots would watch really, really, really bad science fiction movies. And all you’d see were the backs of their heads, and they’d just make snide comments at the screen. Bob, my co-host, and I have this animation, where all you see is the backs of our heads, and we’re basically doing Mystery Science Theater. And you can find it on our website.
I think what the ombudsman said is very true, and it speaks to one of the biases in the media business, which is what I call, “Fairness bias,” in that, sometimes media outlets will pull their punches in order not to appear bias. It’s always been my view that if a politician says something and it’s a lie, you should say it’s a lie right after, not after the jump or in a box marked “analysis.” But it’s the convention of newspapers not to call a lie, a lie. And there are so many lies that people are desperate for clarity right then. I think that the convention is changing, but the newspapers haven’t implemented that change yet. But you see it happening; you see it slowly drifting, because people crave it.
Journalists usually try to make events in a campaign fit into some sort of narrative. But it might be the case that that’s somewhat artificial and that, by doing so, the media is actually influencing how people think. How do you think the media can and should balance their effect on what they’re observing with their role as an observer?
It’s funny you should bring this up, because fairness bias and narrative bias (which is my favorite bias) are baked into the media and baked into us as human beings. But part of the problem with campaigns and the run-up is that they’re over-covered. I really think that that is a problem. And so what happens is that you have these little incremental stories, so you create narrative boxes, you create characters. Hillary is a scheming emasculator; Bush is a dumb frat-boy; John Kerry is an elite francophone; John McCain, not in the last campaign but in 2000, is a maverick; and so on. And as soon as you’ve set them down, then you can start throwing things into it without much thought, it’s easy. When somebody changes the narrative—like John McCain did in his subsequent campaign, where he capitulated and all of his maverick views went away—the press gets upset and angry, and there’s a serious backlash. I think they should cover it less, but people love to read it. The solution is just to be more honest and more rigorous and accept that people are complicated. That’s difficult. The horse-race is a very easy and very straightforward narrative. Talking about the complexities of the President’s healthcare plan is not. As a result, the public really doesn’t understand Obamacare, and that really does not serve the public. It behooves every reporter to be as informative, at least, as they can.
If I were you, I would not use that answer, because it really sucked.
No it didn’t! That was great!
I definitely wanted to get your opinion on Stephen Colbert. As you know, he launched a Super PAC last year…
…and then he proceeded to run for President of South Carolina and even funded attack ads against some of the other candidates.
And against himself…
So, I wanted to ask—and it seems like you don’t think this—but do you think he crossed a line? Do you think that anyone in the media should actually involve themselves in the political process directly like that?
Well, satirists have run for President and all kinds of offices. Pat Paulsen did in the ’60’s on a program called Laugh-in, which was a big deal back then. Jimmy Breslin ran in New York, and I think that Norman Mailer did, too. This is a form of civil disobedience. He did more to teach the country about the absurdities of Citizens United and Super PACs than any ream of newspaper articles could possibly have done. His prank has had no effect on voting—we saw that when he ran with Herman Cain. So he’s not screwing with the political process. All he’s doing is exposing it in a stunningly creative and effective way. And kudos to Stephen Colbert for coming up with such an inspired bit of lunacy, which has done so much to inform the American people about what is wrong with our political process.
I don’t want to make you late for your talk. So, thank you so much for speaking to us.
Image credit: colbertnewshub.com.