Michael Crichton Writes an Obit of the Mass Media
Crichton, Michael, Nieman Reports
In my own mind it's likely that what we now think of as the mass media will be gone in 10 years - vanished without a trace. We all know the statistics about the decline in newspaper readership and network television viewership, the polls which increasingly show negative attitudes toward the press and the media, and with good reason. A generation ago, Paddy Chayefsky's "Network" looked like outrageous farce. Today, when Geraldo Rivera bares his buttocks, when The New York Times misquotes Barbie doll, and NBC fakes news footage of Chevy 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 the questions, and the narcissistic, self-serving politicians who refuse to answer.
I'm troubled by the media's response to these criticisms. We hear the old professional line: "Sure, we've got problems; we could always do our job better." Or there's 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." These responses suggest to me that the media just doesn't get it, doesn't understand why the consumers are now unhappy with their wares....
Let's talk about quality.
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 a warranty. Poor product quality results in part from the American educational system, which now graduates workers too poorly educated to generate high-quality information. in part, it's a problem of near-sighted management that encourages profits at the expense of quality. In part, it's a failure to respond to changing technology. And in large part, it's a failure to recognize the changing needs of the audience.
In recent decades, many American companies have undergone the painful, wrenching changes that restructuring produces in order to create high-quality products. 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 in recent years, like CNN and CSPAN. 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, I would argue it has abandoned its audience.
Who will be the GM or IBM of the '90's - the next great institution to find itself obsolete and outmoded while obstinately refusing to change? I suspect one answer will be The New York Times and the commercial networks. …