In 1993, Michael Crichton, the man behind Jurassic Park and Westworld, opined on the state of the news media industry at the time in a thought-provoking piece in Wired titled Mediasaurus. The piece opens with a bold claim:
“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.”
Crichton correlates the declining numbers in both print and television news viewership with his perceived decline in its quality and cites polls that indicate that the public’s trust in the fourth estate is deteriorating, as a result.
He laments the domination of “junk” content which offers many opinions but few facts. Sounds like an information-action ratio, right? Crichton assumes that audiences look to the news primarily for factual information, which explains why he detests the idea of it having any entertainment-value.
It should be noted that such diatribes have been echoed for years: in 1917, esteemed journalist and media theorist Walter Lippmann urged the press to return to “trustworthy news, unadulterated data, fair reporting, [and] disinterested fact”. His seminal book on journalism, Public Opinion, asserts that democracy dies when biased or censored information prevent citizens from engaging with objective truth. A press incentivized by advertising revenue is incentivized to produce not truth, but whatever is palatable to a reader’s innate self-interest. In 1958, Aldous Huxley framed a similar idea in Brave New World Revisited:
“In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies – the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
Crichton diverges from Lippmann and Huxley over the assumption that people seek truth over distractions and entertainment. He treats the superficiality of news media as a symptom of the journalist’s laziness, rather than a symptom the audience’s nature. Humans think in narratives (insert your favorite Sapiens quote here), and Crichton seems to recognize that:
“The tendency to characterize people’s beliefs - instead of focusing on their actions - is one of the true abuses of the power of the media.
Worse still, characterization lies at the heart of the impulse to polarize every issue - what we might call the Crossfire Syndrome. We are all assumed, these days, to reside at one extreme of the opinion spectrum, or another. We are pro-abortion or anti-abortion. We are free traders or protectionists. We are pro-private sector or pro-government. We are feminists or chauvinists. But in the real world, few of us hold these extreme views.” (emphasis mine)
As he would have known well, characterization is at the heart of narrative. I think the media’s gravitation to narrative is a simple case of supply and demand.
The most personally interesting part of his op-ed is his vision for news consumption in the Internet age, in which traditional news publishers are disrupted by AIs that aggregate and deliver factual content to your mailbox.
“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?”
Crichton suggests that public raw data feeds like C-SPAN would obviate the need for a journalist’s editorialized interpretation. Under Crichton’s assumption that we desire facts above all else, this makes complete sense. To his credit, we do now have online information aggregators that use artificial intelligence. They live inside our social networks.
As Crichton predicted, the internet, and social networks in particular, brought tremendous disruption to the media industry. The internet leveled the playing field by lowering barriers-to-entry and making content harder to monetize. As readers got online, social networks amassed the distribution power that newspapers once held over print.
“…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.”
The artificial intelligence that powers algorithmic social feeds provides readers with functionality similar to what Crichton describes. Some argue that artificial intelligence (in the way social networks have employed it) has exacerbated the disinformation and bias problem in journalism by feeding into our “appetite for distraction”. Crichton hoped that AI would stop the production of “fake news.” Over the past few years, some would argue that it’s actually helped create it.
So, the painful disruption that Crichton foretold came to fruition: traditional news agencies saw advertising profits fall quarter after quarter, which necessitated layoffs and restructuring. When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post, it was clear that technology was not only disrupting journalism, it was eating it.
Yet, times are changing yet again in 2019. The media industry is in the midst of a painful transition from a digital advertising model back to a subscription model. It’s become clear that digital advertising is not a sustainable source of revenue, even for digital-native news agencies. While Vice, Vox, and Buzzfeed have either missed revenue targets or been marked down, subscription services like The Athletic and The Information have seen readership grow heathily. The New York Times recently reported that it, too, is gaining digital subscribers, increasing profit, and weaning off its need for advertising revenue.
Undoubtedly, there is truth in Crichton’s assumption that we value truthful reporting. Soon, I anticipate we’ll have a better idea of just how much we do.