Interview: Journalist Brooke Gladstone And 'The Trouble With Reality'

Jun 19, 2017

Brooke Gladstone, journalist and co-host of "On the Media."

The Trouble With Reality…asserting that premise could easily fill volumes, especially these days when Americans can’t agree on what is fact, what is true and what’s not true.    

But journalist Brooke Gladstone, the co-host of public radio’s On the Media, takes the issue head-on in a compact compilation by that name.  

Now lest you think that an 87-page treatment can’t do the trick, you might consider what one reviewer called it: “A short stiff drink of truth.”

The brief chapters are packed with ideas from a wide range of thinkers, and depending on your reality, Gladstone takes you from despair over the state of things to a recovery of sorts.   

Brooke Gladstone recently sat down with Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser to discuss the book. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Hi, Brooke.  

Hi.

How did we get to this place of alternate facts and fake news and vehement disagreement over what’s real? Why do you think now is the right time for this book?

I think that there’s a much more intense degree of distress in certain precincts, perhaps even more than half the country, much greater than would normally follow an election that doesn’t go your way. If you live long enough, you’re bound to have elections that don’t go your way and you’re bound even to have some fear for the future of the country. 

You’re bound to have all the things that accompany our roiling politics, but this seems to go much deeper. This seemed to be almost existential. In fact, this seemed to be a disruption of people’s realities, themselves, as opposed to simply a bad outcome or an undesired outcome.

You have a couple of interesting definitions of reality. You say reality is “more slippery than a pocket full of pudding.” And later on you talk about reality, saying it’s like “handling a greased pig.” What do you mean by that?

Well, the thing is that we construct our own realities. We have to. The world is just too complicated and vast for us to truly understand. So we build little miniature handcrafted versions of them, and that’s where we live. And normally they’re close enough so that you can move through fairly easily and just close your eyes to the parts that don’t comport with your view of how the world works. This was different.

Why was it different? Because we have been able to build ever more seamless bubbles. And we have been able to block out anything that might cause distress in our beliefs. And so when you are so protected and so insulated, when it does happen, it causes a degree of distress that some people have never experienced in their lifetimes.  

So what are the consequences, do you think, of living in these tightly gated realities that each of us has?

What do you think?

Well, what do I think? I think it’s a problem. What I’m getting at really is since these kinds of realities have been with us since there I guess there have been individuals, what made it peak today? Why are the bubbles so much thicker right now than they were when Barack Obama was elected?

Let us consider that there are a multitude of medias, practically one for every individual in this country, because now we are our own gatekeepers. There was a time when maybe a dozen white men pretty much controlled the political debate. They decided what was appropriate for discussion and what was not. 

Now we have a much more rancorous media, much less civil, much more riddled with complete lies. On the other hand, it is a place where everybody has the opportunity to participate. So, because you can craft information and shield yourself from information in such a way that you never have to encounter information that doesn’t comport with your worldview, then you get really parallel worlds that never have the opportunity to cross. 

There is very little in the way of a public square in this country anymore...only millions of tiny little squares, and that’s basically why we are able to do, what Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said we could never do, which is have the right to our own facts. He said everyone has the right to their own opinion and they don’t have the right to their own facts. Well, now we think we do. And another thing is even when you’re covering facts, now that we know that facts themselves, facts in isolation, never will change a person’s mind, you have to present that fact with context. You have to make that fact relevant to a person’s life and unless you do that, those facts won’t have any impact.    

Brooke, thank you very much for your time today.

Thanks again, bye!

Brooke Gladstone will be speaking Monday night at the Long Island Museum for a WSHU "Join the Conversation" Event.