Michael Crichton passed away yesterday. Many of you might remember Crichton as the author of superb science fiction novels such as "Andromeda Strain" and "Jurassic Park." Fewer people will know Crichton as a prominent global warming skeptic. And very few of you out there might know that Crichton was also a prophet who predicted the demise of the mainstream media way back in 1993. This seems like a good time to honor the memory of Michael Crichton by taking a retrospective look at his 1993 Wired magazine article titled "Mediasaurus" about the impending demise of the mainstream media (emphasis mine):
I am the author of a novel about dinosaurs, a novel about US-Japanese trade relations, and a forthcoming novel about sexual harassment - what some people have called my dinosaur trilogy. But I want to focus on another dinosaur, one that may be on the road to extinction. I am referring to the American media. And I use the term extinction literally. 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.
There has been evidence of impending extinction for a long time. We all know statistics about the decline in newspaper readers and network television viewers. The polls show increasingly negative public attitudes toward the press - and with good reason. A generation ago, Paddy Chayevsky's Network looked like an outrageous farce. Today, when Geraldo Rivera bares his buttocks, when the New York Times misquotes Barbie (the doll), and NBC fakes news footage of exploding trucks, Network looks like a documentary.
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."
It is this perception that the media, and our current concept of news, is outmoded, that I would like to address.
So for a moment, let's set aside the usual bromides about the press. Let's take it as given that the bearer of bad news is often executed; that all human beings have an appetite for gossip and scandal; that media must attract an audience; that bias is in the eye of the reader as much as in the pen or sound-bite of the reporter.
And let's talk instead about quality.
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.
Poor product quality results, in part, from the American educational system, which graduates workers too poorly educated to generate high- quality information. In part, it is a problem of nearsighted management that encourages profits at the expense of quality. In part, it is a failure to respond to changing technology - particularly the computer-mediated technology known collectively as the Net. And in large part, it is a failure to recognize the changing needs of the audience.
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. There have been some positive innovations, like CNN and C-SPAN. But 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.
Keep in mind that Crichton wrote this article in 1993 before many of us even heard of something called "the Net." And with newspapers now in freefall as more and more people are getting their news information from the Net, Crichton's predictions about the "Mediasaurus" now look incredibly prophetic.
Michael Crichton, R.I.P.