Interview With Michael Crichton
Crichton's answers were received May 23, 2008
How do you cull your news these days? If it's not too much of a bother, describe how you consume news each day.
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.
Has the collapse of the classified-ad market at the hands of Craigslist surprised you? Or the massive migration of ads to the Web? Your '93 essay didn't really talk much about changes to come on the ad side of the mass media. Last year, the Web ad-sales passed those on radio.
Sorry, I don't think about ads much. I do think it is interesting how much of the real-estate market, for example, has moved onto the Web. You will recall that I argued the Web was the true home-shopping channel, and it certainly is proving to be that.
Do you think the media's factual content and accuracy is up or down from 2002 (when we last corresponded)? Do you still think it's flashy but junk?
Surely you jest. 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.
Have you noted any news-industry innovations since last we talked?
You had very negative notions about Web-page design and implementation when last we talked. Do you still feel that way? RSS feeds have really changed the way I get news, especially RSS feeds of Google News alerts.
I no longer feel so critical. Web pages are more professional now, and we've established some conventions. And connection speeds are faster. It's all better. I personally dislike ads in the middle of stories, and I loathe animation and sound in ads anywhere, but that, at least, can often be blocked by your browser.
In your essay, you wrote: "As the link between payment and information becomes more explicit, consumers will naturally want better information. They'll demand it, and they'll be willing to pay for it. There is going to be—I would argue there already is—a market for extremely high-quality information, what quality experts would call 'six-sigma information.' "
I don't think there has been the emergence of much of a market for six-sigma info outside of the data manipulations you can do on a Bloomberg terminal. What do you think?
I agree, and I must say I am perplexed. Several thoughts come to mind. 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. 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.
A second thought concerns Ted Turner. It may be that instead of waiting for audience demand, we are waiting for a visionary entrepreneur to create a service that most people think can't be done. As Ted Turner once did.
A third thought concerns changes in our society. I have been very interested in the differences between how scientists and engineers treat information, for example. The fact is, engineers are much more rigorous about information, and it has legal consequences for them. In contrast, scientists (and politicians) are just playing with information. Broadly speaking, they have no responsibility for what they say at all. Now, as our society shifts away from manufacturing (now something like 15 percent of workers are engaged in making something), I speculate that this is having an effect on what we regard as information. I speculate we are moving from the rigor of engineers to the free-for-all of politicians. In which case, nobody is interested in high-quality information. It only gets in the way.
Arguably, contemporary media has made that shift away from hard information toward free-for-all opinion and speculation. This shouldn't cost a lot, and indeed modern media peddles an inexpensive product. Most cable television "news" is just talking heads and food fights; they don't even change the heads very often—they hire regulars who appear week after week. Most newspaper reporting consists of rewritten press releases and faxes. Many reporters don't go after stories, they wait for the stories to be fed [to] them by publicists and flacks. Now if you set aside this cheap model and instead start staffing bureaus around the world, putting reporters and cameras on the ground, assembling smart teams to do real investigative work in business, high tech, and so on, that costs a lot of money. I remain convinced that plenty of people would pay for a good news service—who stayed with a daisy wheel printer once laser printers arrived? We didn't know we wanted laser printers, as we didn't know we wanted digital cameras, but it turns out we did. In any case, what we are now being fed as news is repetitive, simplistic, and insulting.
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.
Here are some important questions that I don't hear [being] asked: "Why has the dollar been allowed to fall so far?" "Why have hedge funds evaded government regulation?" "How much of the current price of gas can be attributed to the weak dollar?" "Does the Fed control the price of the dollar?" "What happened at Bear Stearns?" "How exactly are you going to reduce CO2 emissions by 60 percent? What specific lifestyle changes does that require for every American? What nation in the world now has per capita emissions at 60 percent less than the US?"
No one hears the answers to these questions, and if they did, they would start a mini revolution.
Maybe the questions are too sophisticated and difficult for television? Then it ought to suit the sophisticated N.Y. Times. The notion that we have no source in any media for and extended and detailed discussion of economics is frankly astonishing. (A special note of appreciation to Robert Samuelson of the WaPo, always excellent, frequently prescient.)
How many years do you think we are from the futurism predicted by your essay?
Intelligence agents roaming the Web, televised congressional hearings on demand, etc.
People are having second thoughts about Web-roaming agents, and they'll probably have second thoughts about congressional hearings, too, if they watch a lot of them. But actually an awful lot of hearings are already televised and already available online. Just hard to find, sometimes. (This is not new. When I gave my Senate testimony two years ago, it was on the Web.)
Do you think the media are more entertainment oriented today than they were in 1993 or less?
Just as you were slammed as a Japan-basher, you've been called a denialist (and worse) for your climate-change views. Do you think that stands as another example of how the media stifle debate?
The truth is, we live in an age of astonishing conformity. 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.
The media might stand as a corrective, cool and a bit detached, showing by example how to approach information and controversy. Instead, the media has clearly caught the fever of our intolerant times. Formerly, news people would never openly state their allegiance; young reporters understood it was poor form, and a senior person would carry the caution born of the experience that at least some of what one believes in the course of one's life turns out to be wrong. But it's a new era. Now, media reporters are proud to pound the table and declare their advocacy. Since so few of them have any training in science, they don't really know what they are pounding about, when it comes to global warming. They couldn't tell you even in general terms how the global mean temperature is calculated, for example. But it doesn't matter anyway. They just want to declare they believe what "everyone" believes. Who values such a news source?
I want a news service that tells me what no one knows, but is true nonetheless. That's what I would value.
Second, the media narrows the expression of viewpoints to an extraordinary degree. We've already discussed the small population of talking heads on cable shows. At the same time, the interest aroused by figures like Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul occurred because, in my view, the American public had never heard people talk that way. Similarly, the Rev. Wright is espousing views that are hardly rare, but people react with shock and awe. People should take it as a sign that something is wrong—the media isn't giving them the full story. By a long shot.
How much has the ability to surf foreign news sources upset the monopoly on news that the U.S. media had over news consumers?
I don't think it's really foreign sources; the BBC has had scandal after scandal of late, which has greatly tarnished its former splendid image. But 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.