Michael Crichton was awesome…

April 18, 2009

Posted by Nick Sarno


…when he wasn’t dismissing global warming, saying there was no harm in second hand smoke and dying of throat cancer, that is. Therumpus.net directed me to this essay by Mr. Crichton from a 1993 issue of Wired.


Some highlights:

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. It reminds me of the story of the man who decided to kill his wife by having a lot of sex with her. Pretty soon this beaming, robust woman shows up, followed by a wizened little man with a cane. He whispers to a friend, “She doesn’t know it yet, but she has only two weeks to live.”



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.

Once Al Gore gets the fiber optic highways in place, and the information capacity of the country is where it ought to be, I will be able, for example, to view any public meeting of Congress over the Net. And I will have artificial intelligence agents roaming the databases, downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page, or a nightly news show, that addresses my interests. I’ll have the twelve top stories that I want, I’ll have short summaries available, and I’ll be able to double-click for more detail. How will Peter Jennings or MacNeil-Lehrer or a newspaper compete with that?

So the media institutions will have to change. Of course, I still don’t know what I don’t know, which means broad-based overviews or interpretive sources will have value – if these sources engage in genuinely high-quality interpretive work, or genuinely high-quality investigative work. At the moment, neither occurs very often.

On the contrary, superficiality is the norm, and everybody in the world knows it. When Barry Lopez went to a remote Eskimo village in 1986, one of the residents asked him how long he was staying. Before he could answer, another Eskimo said: “One day – newspaper story. Two days – magazine story. Five days – book.” Even in the Canadian Northwest, the audience is way ahead of the press.



Consider the following: I don’t know much about the military. I don’t follow it. Someone says to me, Okay, Crichton, you’re doing an interview with Les Aspin. You have two hours to prepare questions. What am I going to ask? Well, let’s see. I know he was in the hospital for some reason earlier this year. I’ll inquire about his health, but I don’t want to be obvious, so I’ll frame it as a national security issue. Are you really fit to do the job? Then I’ll ask him something about base closings. Are there too many? Is it happening too fast? Is the process fair? Then I’ll ask him about defense conversion. Are we doing enough for unemployed engineers? Then let’s see, waste in procurements. Wasn’t there a $600 toilet seat? I know it was a few years ago, but it’s always good for a few minutes. Then the Soviet Union, should we be downsizing so fast with all the uncertainty in the world? Then I’ll ask him about gays in the military. Was Clinton’s approach wise? Is this really the best way to go about it? And that should do it.

Unfortunately, that’s also the standard Les Aspin interview. But I don’t know anything about the military. Still, I managed to do the interview, because the questions are structurally very general.

This generality creates a fundamental asymmetry between subject and journalist – and ultimately, between journalist and audience. Les Aspin has to address very specific pressures to carry out his job. But I can frame very general questions and get away with doing mine. How do I justify my position? Well, I can tell myself that I’m too busy to do better, because the news rushes onward. But that’s not really satisfactory. Better to say the American people don’t want details, they just want “the basics.” In other words I can blame my own shoddy behavior on the audience. And if I hear the audience criticizing me, I can say I’m being blamed as the bearer of bad news. Instead of facing what is really going on – which is that my customers are telling me that my product is poorly researched, and often either uninteresting or irrelevant. It’s junk-food journalism. Empty calories.


Go here to read the whole thing.


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