A Look Back At Michael Crichton's Mediasaurus Prediction
from the pretty-dead-on dept
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.His diagnosis for how this happened is quite interesting as well:
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.
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....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:
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.
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.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."
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.
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.