Thursday, November 6, 2008

Michael Crichton: The Decline in Media Quality is a Threat to Freedom

World renowned author Michael Crichton passed away on Tuesday. Even if you don't know his name, you almost certainly are familiar with his work: he wrote the novels "The Andromeda Strain," "Disclosure" and "Jurassic Park" and he created the TV series "ER," for which he won an Emmy, a Peabody and a Writer's Guild of America Award. More importantly, Crichton was a visionary. That does not mean that every single one of his predictions was right but rather that he possessed the intelligence, imagination and foresight to look at a current trend and make a reasonable projection of where it would lead. In 1993, he predicted, "To my mind, it is likely that what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within ten years. Vanished, without a trace." Naturally, when a decade passed and the New York Times was still in business, some people chose to mock Crichton's prognostication but he stuck to his guns, declaring, "I assume that nobody can predict the future well. But in this particular case, I doubt I'm wrong; it's just too early." Many geniuses are "too early" to profit from their ideas and artistry--think about the impoverished artist Vincent Van Gogh, whose canvases now sell for tens of millions of dollars--so Crichton was fortunate (literally and figuratively) that as a writer he found an outlet for his creativity that was not only rewarding to him intellectually but also financially. I often pose this question: What would have happened to Swiss patent clerk Albert Einstein if he had been born 100 years earlier and there existed no way to prove his seemingly outlandish theories correct by measuring the perihelion of Mercury? The answer is that the man whose name and image became synonymous with genius would likely have lived a life of obscurity; decades after he passed away, if someone preserved his papers, scientists would be able to reconsider what he wrote and then conclude that he had been far ahead of his time--"too early," in Crichton's words.

Obviously, this analogy is not meant to suggest that Crichton was a genius on par with Einstein; the point is that farsighted individuals may seem like misguided fools to their contemporaries, particularly if there is not a simple, objective way to prove what is true and what is false. In the specific instance of Crichton's prediction about the media, it does not seem like it will take decades for his analysis to be vindicated. Jack Shafer, Slate's editor at large, declared in a May 29, 2008 article, "As we pass his prediction's 15-year anniversary, I've got to declare advantage Crichton. Rot afflicts the newspaper industry, which is shedding staff, circulation, and revenues. It's gotten so bad in newspaperville that some people want Google to buy the Times and run it as a charity! Evening news viewership continues to evaporate, and while the mass media aren't going extinct tomorrow, Crichton's original observations about the media future now ring more true than false. Ask any journalist."

In a sidebar interview with Shafer, Crichton had some chilling commentary about the current state of the media. I placed a particular passage in bold because anyone who still watches TV news broadcasts--whether from the old broadcast networks or any of the cable stations--should try Crichton's little experiment:

* "Factual content approaches zero, and accuracy is not even a consideration. I think many younger reporters aren't really sure what it means, beyond spell-checking. And in any case, when the factual content approaches zero, accuracy becomes meaningless.

Why do I say factual content approaches zero? The easiest way is to record a news show and look at it in a month, or to look at last month's newspaper. That pulls you out of the narcotizing flow of what passes for daily news, and you can see more objectively what is actually being presented. Look at how many stories are unsourced or have unnamed sources. Look at how many stories are about what "may" or "might" or "could" happen. Look at how many news stories have opinion frames, i.e., "Obama faced his most challenging personal test today," because in the body you probably won't be told much about what the personal test was, or why it was most challenging (which in any case is opinion). In summary, reliance on unnamed sources means the story is opinion. Might and could means the story is speculation. Framing as I described means the story is opinion. And opinion is not factual content."

Crichton decried the polarization that has infected our society and resulted in the demonization of anyone who holds a differing opinion:

*"I grew up in the 1950s, supposedly the heyday of conformity, but there was much more freedom of opinion back then. And as a result, you knew that your neighbors might hold different views from you on politics or religion. Today, the notion that men of good will can disagree has disappeared. Can you imagine! Today, if I disagree with you, you conclude there is something wrong with me. This is a childish, parochial view. And of course stupefyingly intolerant. It's truly anti-American. Much of it can be laid at the feet of the environmental movement, which has unfortunately frequently been led by ill-educated and intolerant spokespersons—often with no more than a high-school education, sometimes not even that. Or they are lawyers trained to win at any cost and to say anything about their opponents to win. But you find the same intolerant tone around considerations of defense, taxation, free markets, universal medical care, and so on. There's plenty of zealotry to go around. And it's hardly new in human history."

Crichton essentially abandoned mainstream media sources, explaining, "I long subscribed to three newspapers, the L.A. Times, the N.Y. Times, and the WSJ. I canceled the L.A. Times a year ago, with no discernible loss. I skim the other papers. The rest of my time is spent on the Web. I would say 95 percent of my information-gathering time is spent on the Web." He concluded, "I do think that in essence, anybody on the Internet can get the equivalent of a wire service feed, and that means you are not waiting for the news. By the time 6 o'clock rolls around, or you open the paper the next morning, you already know the headlines and the talking points. The problem is that the TV and the newspaper don't give you much more than you already have. Hence the endless decline. I might add as a personal note that we have been talking about the quality of the media and the quality of information they pass on, but from a broader perspective, the present situation scares the hell out of me. A democracy needs good information. A rapidly changing, highly technological society in a global economy really needs good information. We don't have it. We don't have anything remotely approaching it. On the contrary, we have an increasingly constricted media run by increasingly partisan forces, to the detriment of our society. For example, the tendency of media to lock in a single story day after day, like the Hillary [Clinton in] Bosnia story, effectively prevents a leader from getting any other message out. Even in its decline, the media is all we have, and thanks to Sullivan, it operates entirely free from litigation, or other forms of regulation that might make it more responsive to public needs. Not good."

It is merely annoying when ESPN turns SportsCenter into "FavreCenter" or tries to act like Terrell Owens is the root of all evil--but the problems with the way that the media covers sports are just a microcosm of what is wrong with the way that the media covers events of far greater significance, events that are literally of life and death importance. As Crichton said, "We have an increasingly constricted media run by increasingly partisan forces"; the same corporations that bring you biased sports coverage bereft of sound journalistic standards also bring you biased news and political coverage bereft of sound journalistic standards.


Anonymous said...

Those are the exact reasons I stopped buying and reading mass media.

I remember reading about a graduate thesis that analyzed the content of Israel's leading paper (where I live) and was able to determine that 80%, on average, consisted of PR releases which were published as content.

I'm not sure I agree that the situation is worse than in the past - we have a lot more choice today and we enjoy a full range of intelligent news gatherers and analysts in almost every field - such as yourself and several other bloggers (and commenters!) in the field of basketball.

If the majority of people choose ESPN over David Friedman than that is their privilege - most people prefer to live in a fantasy world and that certainly is not news to anyone, is it?

Anyway, David, thanks for the interesting article.

Anonymous said...

Is this a joke? I mean, a story in Wired making a grand prediction about how old media is dying is about as rare as, say, an article in Sports Illustrated about an athlete. You understand that’s what Wired was all about? Sure it shows he was thinking about the impact of the internet a little before many people, but not before everyone. I mean, if there’s a whole glossy magazine devoted to publishing similar thoughts to yours, it’s hardly indicative that you’re a solitary voice of genius fighting a cruel and dismissive world.

Plus, I don’t really see much intellectual rigor in his ‘insights’. Let’s see, just in the quotes you’ve provided, Crichton says
a) it’s a bad thing that people can no longer respectfully disagree with each other,
and b) environmentalists are all ill-educated, stupid or immoral.

In a related story, Terrell Owens held a press conference to decry the trend of selfish athletes trying to get media attention.

As a bonus, the author whose every book contains at least one flat-out scientific impossibility complains about how news media are fact-free.

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more. Overall, I think the media is a disaster these days. Not just in politics, but everywhere. There's no objectivity at all.

Side note: I saw this video on another blog today, and couldn't believe how funny it was. Steve Nash, a comedian?

David Friedman said...

Anonymous (the first one):

Crichton made his prediction in 1993 when the internet was in its infancy. Regardless of where his article was published, his prediction was right on the mark, even if he was a bit "early" in terms of the time frame he mentioned for the demise of mainstream media.

If you don't think that our national discourse has become more vituperative then you are not paying attention. As for environmentalists, whether or not you agree with Crichton's take on that particular subject, his larger point is that the media does not discuss issues in an intelligent manner.

Crichton's books were fictional and, as such, can rightly be expected to contain fictional/fantasy elements. That does not at all preclude them from providing insight about science, politics and society in general.

You appear to have completely overlooked the larger and very significant critiques that Crichton made about the way that the media operates.