Free-for-All

From a Slate.com interview with Michael Crichton regarding his 1993 prediction of mass-media extinction ("Michael Crichton, Vindicated" by Jack Shafer, 5.29.08):

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.