A Look Back At Michael Crichton's Mediasaurus Prediction

from the pretty-dead-on dept

I have to admit that, while I have read a few Michael Crichton novels, I was never much of a fan of his work. However, it was still sad to hear that he died last week from cancer. Given the renewed focus on Crichton’s works, a friend just sent me a link to the essay Crichton wrote in the fourth ever issue of Wired Magazine in 1993 (based on a speech he had given) called Mediasaurus, all about Cricthon’s prediction for the end of traditional media organizations. While the timing may have been a little off, his analysis now seems pretty prescient. He points out criticism of the news media, and how they simply fail to recognize that people wanted something different. You have to wonder, in retrospect, if the big media companies had actually paid attention if things would be different today:

According to recent polls, large segments of the American population think the media is attentive to trivia, and indifferent to what really matters. They also believe that the media does not report the country’s problems, but instead is a part of them. Increasingly, people perceive no difference between the narcissistic self-serving reporters asking questions, and the narcissistic self-serving politicians who evade them.

And I am troubled by the media’s response to these criticisms. We hear the old professional line: “Sure, we’ve got some problems, we could do our job better.” Or the time-honored: “We’ve always been disliked because we’re the bearer of bad news; it comes with the territory; I’ll start to worry when the press is liked.” Or after a major disaster like the NBC news/GM truck fiasco, we hear “this is a time for reflection.”

These responses suggest to me that the media just doesn’t get it – doesn’t understand why consumers are unhappy with their wares.

His diagnosis for how this happened is quite interesting as well:

The media are an industry, and their product is information. And along with many other American industries, the American media produce a product of very poor quality. Its information is not reliable, it has too much chrome and glitz, its doors rattle, it breaks down almost immediately, and it’s sold without warranty. It’s flashy but it’s basically junk. So people have begun to stop buying it….

In recent decades, many American companies have undergone a wrenching, painful restructuring to produce high-quality products. We all know what this requires: Flattening the corporate hierarchy. Moving critical information from the bottom up instead of the top down. Empowering workers. Changing the system, not just the focus of the corporation. And relentlessly driving toward a quality product. Because improved quality demands a change in the corporate culture. A radical change.

Generally speaking, the American media have remained aloof from this process…. [The] news on television and in newspapers is generally perceived as less accurate, less objective, less informed than it was a decade ago. Because instead of focusing on quality, the media have tried to be lively or engaging – selling the sizzle, not the steak; the talk-show host, not the guest; the format, not the subject. And in doing so they have abandoned their audience.

On top of that, he clearly recognizes the changes that are underfoot as a result of technology ending the old monopoly of the news media:

When I was a child, telephones had no dials. You picked up the phone and asked an operator to place your call. Now, if you’ve ever had the experience of being somewhere where your call was placed for you, you know how exasperating that is. It’s faster and more efficient to dial it yourself.

Today’s media equivalent of the old telephone operator is Dan Rather, or the front page editor, or the reporter who prunes the facts in order to be lively and vivid. Increasingly, I want to remove those filters, and in some cases I already can. When I read that Ross Perot appeared before a Congressional committee, I am no longer solely dependent on the lively and vivid account in The New York Times, which talks about Perot’s folksy homilies and a lot of other flashy chrome trim that I am not interested in. I can turn on C-SPAN and watch the hearing myself. In the process, I can also see how accurate The New York Times account was. And that’s likely to change my perception of The New York Times, as indeed it has. Because The New York Times seems to have a problem with Ross Perot. It reminds me of the story told about Hearst, who remarked upon seeing an old adversary on the street, “I don’t know why he hates me, I never did him a favor.”

But my ability to view C-SPAN brings us to the third trend: the coming end of the media’s information monopoly – a monopoly held since the inception of our nation. The American Revolution was the first war fought, in part, through public opinion in the newspapers, and Ben Franklin was the first media-savvy lobbyist to employ techniques of disinformation. For the next 200 or so years, the media have been able to behave in a basically monopolistic way. They have treated information the way John D. Rockefeller treated oil – as a commodity, in which the distribution network, rather than product quality, is of primary importance. But once people can get the raw data themselves, that monopoly ends. And that means big changes, soon.

He goes on to decry the way news becomes polarized — he refers to it as the Crossfire Syndrome — noting that it uses soundbites and extreme positions to ignore the real issues, and basically does the viewer or reader a disservice. And his premise is that the consumer of media recognizes this and would jump to alternatives. Ten years after he wrote this piece, Jack Shafer checked in with him to get his reaction to the fact that his prediction of the death of such media organizations appeared wrong. Crichton replied that: “I doubt I’m wrong, it’s just too early.”

And, indeed, earlier this year, Shafer checked back in with Crichton, admitting that many of his predictions did seem to now be on target. One of the statements Crichton made towards the end of that interview should be the mantra for the modern newsroom if it wants to be successful: “I want a news service that tells me what no one knows, but is true nonetheless. That’s what I would value.” He’s not the only one.

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Comments on “A Look Back At Michael Crichton's Mediasaurus Prediction”

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Twinrova says:

BBC America's "World News" is better than any US news service.

Granted, it’s not perfect, but it’s much, much better than the glitzy “leading bleeding” stories shoved by US media which only gives less than 1% of the truth.

Admittedly, Americans (I’m one, so don’t go there) are too sensitive to hear the truth and spend more time pointing fingers rather than focus on fixing the issues.

This site is filled with examples.

What truly sucks is looking all all of our “issues” and then watching a news story to which innocent people in Africa are killed simply for getting in the way of a war.

Puts a little perspective on issues like the recent presidential winner or our economic mess.

I watched a recent show about the Aztec calendar “predicting” the world will come to an end in December, 2012.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed it’s that accurate. Humans are idiots who no longer deserve to live on this planet.

Anonymous Coward says:

One of the interesting bits about his commentary...

… is about empowering the people lower down. Now, I know a little something about this as my wife was a journalist for years and went to Columbia’s prestigious school of journalism.

When she was working at CNN in New York, as a field producer for one of the big stock exchanges, her salary was pitiful. It was so low I used to send her money every month (I lived in DC at the time), you could have made more at Starbucks. The result was that the only people who could survive to make it into the higher ranks were either rich kids or people with wealthy spouses.

Basically, it’s even worse that the problem with school teachers. Everyone bitches about the quality of the product but no one will pay for better staff.

As far as Americans being too fingerpointing (comment 1), well, I lived in Europe for 17 years, and I think that Americans have one of the most self-examining and self-correcting societies anywhere. The BBC is not exemplary of how the British or Europeans think or do. It is exceptional.

Ajax 4Hire says:

Re: One of the interesting bits about his commentary...

I did do something about the ultra-high cost of public education.

I got so tired of the local public schools getting $10k a year per student, yes that is $250,000 per classroom and how much does the teacher get? So I got tired of people like you suggesting that throwing more money at schools would somehow magically make the education better. I still pay taxes but my children go to private school.

What a difference it makes. The Private school gets half of what the public school gets per student and yet there is no constant begging for more money, fundraisers and the like. I have always been very involved in the education of my children, visiting at least once a week for lunch, reading to the younger grades, telling stories and talks about my profession to the older grades.

The public schools are weighted down with so much bureaucracy, more money will only increase that bureaucracy.
More money will only give others ideas about how to further educate my children, like Jocelyn Elders suggestion to teach masturbation to elementary school children.

That is why your schools are failing.
You have people, well-meaning folks with good intentions utterly forgetting the basic task of education. What good is a computer when you can’t spell, read or write.

Like I said, I made the sacrifice and put my kids in private school, what a difference. And at half the price.
Money is not the problem it is the people who run public schools who are the problem.

Crabby (profile) says:

Re: Re: public schools

You are so right. Public schools are little prisons for the mind, where no independent thoughts are welcome. And they are a big waste of taxpayer money.

But most of all, they waste student’s lives and time. I’m a victim of public schools; I learned because I had to hide in the library at lunch or be beaten up. There were about 4 of us, and we read all the books. That is how we got our education, because in a 50-minute class period the teachers spent so much time trying to calm down the bad kids that they ended up with only enough time to issue homework assignments.

Forced busing in my area moved students from a poorer, minority school to a larger, newer building. Fights erupted every day. I was left at school – 15 miles from home with no transportation. And the ninth graders lost graduation credits. But who cared? The judge who forced the busing got a pat on the back. He was Mr. Politically Correct. But the students got the shaft. No child left behind? Well, the school bus left me…

Ajax 4Hire says:

Control of Information is no longer a monopoly...

Don’t forget the newspapers are equally culpable or more so.
I continue to amaze at the hubris, the indifference, the gall, the contempt that newspapers have for the general public. It is as if they still believe they are the only news source, the only conduit of outside information.

This is one thing Communism and Public Schools have in common, they both rely on control of Information distribution. When you control the knowledge, you control the thoughts, you control the actions. Today, look at how eager, forceful and intent China is at maintaining control over information and it dissemination.

Television news at least recognizes it has competition but newspapers still believe that TV news is simply “reading the paper to the public with pictures.”

Just as the Candle Maker and Horse Stable fell to new technologies; so too did the Elevator Operator, Telephone Operator, Copy Smith, gasoline station attendant, Office Secretary and many others, all forced to find new work as the ease of technology allowed them to move into better positions.

Newspaper journalist all talk of preserving a cherished and time-honored tradition, sounds like a hobby not a job.

Michael Long (user link) says:

Fact Check

We now live in a world where The Daily Show gives us better political coverage than does 99% of the “traditional” news media.

Mainstream media can no longer rely on the same old tricks. Remember when Rove dismissed Gov. Tim Kaine as a prospective vice-presidential choice due to lack of experience. And then, months later, praised Sarah Palin, who had even less?

Or when Bill O’Reilly said that the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter Bristol was clearly a private matter… but who had previously blamed the parents of the teenage actress Jamie Lynn Spears for her pregnancy?

Youtube news clips and factcheck.org and other sites are giving the common individual a deep memory and providing us with the ability to say, with conviction, that the emperor truly has no clothes.

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