"Senior scientists running labs don't read journals; they say the younger people will tell them about anything important that gets published—if they haven't heard about it beforehand anyway," he says. "So there may be other networks to transmit information, and it may be that 'media' was never as important as we who work in it imagine it was. That's an argument that says maybe nobody really needs a high-end service."
It will take a media visionary, he believes—somebody like Ted Turner—to create the high-quality information service he foresaw in his 1993 essay. In addition to building the service, the visionary will also have to convince news consumers that they need it.
Sounding like a press critic, Crichton criticizes much of the news fed to consumers as "repetitive, simplistic, and insulting" and produced on the cheap. Cable TV news is mostly "talking heads and food fights" and newspaper reporting mostly "rewritten press releases," he says.
Crichton suggests that readers and viewers could more objectively measure the quality of the news they consume by pulling themselves "out of the narcotizing flow of what passes for daily news." Look at a newspaper from last month or a news broadcast.
"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," he says. "Might and could means the story is speculation. Framing as I described means the story is opinion. And opinion is not factual content."
"The biggest change is that contemporary media has shifted from fact to opinion and speculation. You can watch cable news all day and never hear anything except questions like, 'How much will the Rev. Wright hurt Obama's chances?' 'Is Hillary now looking toward 2012?' 'How will McCain overcome the age argument?' These are questions for which there are endless answers. Contentious hosts on cable shows keep the arguments rolling," he says.
Crichton believes that we live in an age of conformity much more confining than the 1950s in which he grew up. Instead of showing news consumers how to approach controversy coolly and intelligently, the media partake of the zealotry and intolerance of many of the advocates they cover. He attributes the public's interest in Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to its hunger for a wider range of viewpoints than the mass media provide.
He tosses out a basket of questions he'd like to see the press tackle, some of which I've seen covered. "What happened at Bear Stearns?" got major play this week, after Crichton answered my questions, in a Wall Street Journal series. And I know I've seen "How much of the current price of gas can be attributed to the weak dollar?" answered a couple of times but can't remember where. (Answer: a lot.) But such Crichton questions as "Why have hedge funds evaded government regulation?" and what specific lifestyle changes will every American have to make "to reduce CO2 emissions by 60 percent?" would be great assignments for news desks.
"I want a news service that tells me what no one knows but is true nonetheless," he says.
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