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Drawing Lessons From The Media 'Machine'

Sometimes the media really gets it right, changing minds and even history. Just think of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, two events that are still hailed as shining episodes in the history of American investigative journalism.

But Gallup polls show that the public's trust in media has faltered in recent years. And while those poll numbers are up slightly from record lows in 2007, many media consumers still long for the age of media legends like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

In her comic book, The Influencing Machine, public radio host Brooke Gladstone and illustrator Josh Neufeld trace the volatile history of American media, and remind readers that the "good old days" of journalism were not actually any better — or worse — than today.

Interview Highlights

On the enduring tradition of "nasty" journalism

"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 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."

On the public's expectations for accuracy in media

"This is one of the things people say they care the 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 [second Iraq] war. And they were so unhappy that then no one 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."

On the influence of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert

"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."

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