Monday, June 02, 2008

I suspect that those reports of death are exaggerated

One of our readers has sent us a link to a fascinating article on Slate.com. It consists partly of an interview conducted by Jack Shafer with Michael Crichton, partly of Mr Shafer's real-time analysis of that interview.

Back in 1993 Michael Crichton, a novelist, whose views, nevertheless, have to be taken seriously, predicted that the existing mass media, specifically the New York Times and the commercial channels would, in something like ten years, vanish without trace. Harking back to his own mega-successful writings, Mr Crichton entitled his essay "Mediasaurus".

His prediction was a kind of personalized information agency, presumably on the net:
The mediasaurs had about a decade to live, he wrote, before technological advances—"artificial intelligence agents roaming the databases, downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page"—swept them under. Shedding no tears, Crichton wrote that the shoddy mass media deserved its deadly fate.

"[T]he American media produce a product of very poor quality," he lectured. "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 warranty. It's flashy but it's basically junk."
While we, on this blog, agree with his description of what is now named the MSM or, if you prefer Rush Limbaugh’s moniker, the drive-by media, and not just its American branch, there has to be some doubt about this personalized media.

Technology has not produced anything of the kind and the notion that someone with the vision of another Ted Turner should build it all up, as Mr Crichton suggests, is not precisely attractive. All that will do is produce the same sort of media only with a different emphasis. Something resembling the change from the relatively small and controlled newspaper industry of the nineteenth century to the large, popular and still controlled one of the twentieth.

For all of that, as Jack Shafer points out, ten years after the prediction it seemed entirely wrong and the New York Times, for one, was flourishing. Fifteen years on, the picture is very different in America and, one must add, in Britain.
As we pass his prediction's 15-year anniversary, I've got to declare advantage Crichton. Rot afflicts the newspaper industry, which is shedding staff, circulation, and revenues. It's gotten so bad in newspaperville that some people want Google to buy the Times and run it as a charity! Evening news viewership continues to evaporate, and while the mass media aren't going extinct tomorrow, Crichton's original observations about the media future now ring more true than false. Ask any journalist.
What we have is the growing power of the chaotic new media and blogosphere. But pause awhile. The truth of that statement has been amply demonstrated in the United States, where political certainties have been shifting with remarkable rapidity because the traditional media no longer wields the power it once had. (Though let us not forget that at the height of that power, forty years ago, when the MSM turned military success in Vietnam into a defeat for the United States, its darling, George McGovern, the Obama of his day, lost heavily to the media’s most loathed villain, Richard Nixon.)

The fact that the war in Iraq cannot be turned into a defeat as the Vietnam one was; the fact that neither Hillary Clinton nor, most obviously, Barack Obama have been getting the sort of easy ride that the MSM would love; the most recent crazy developments in the Democratic Party; the general acknowledgement that the economy is not doing as badly as the MSM would like to make it out; all these developments are due to the alternative media, the new media, the blogosphere.

Would it were true in this country but I shall come to that in a minute.

Powerline points out that the MSM’s reluctance to deal seriously with the mega-scandal of Barack Obama's church may have had something to do with its basic agreement with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s ranting, though, of course, the man went a leeeeeeeeeeeeeettle too far.

As Glenn Reynolds asks on Instapundit:
Could this contribute, in any part, to shrinking circulations, ratings, and payrolls in the industry?
Who can tell?

In the same way, Glenn Reynolds points out that the new story from Iraq of American and Iraqi government successes and a general retreat and disintegration of Al-Quaeda is being ignored in the MSM because "it does not fit the narrative". There could not be any kind of a link between the two.

Luckily, much of the internet is ready to discuss it. Victor Davis Hanson's column is one example:

How odd (or to be expected) that suddenly intelligence agencies, analysts, journalists, and terrorists themselves are attesting that al-Qaeda is in near ruins, that ideologically radical Islam is losing its appeal, and that terrorist incidents against Americans at home and abroad outside the war zones are at an all-time low — and yet few associate the radical change in fortune in Iraq as a contributory cause to our success.

But surely the US military contributed a great deal to the humiliation of al-Qaedists and the bankruptcy of their cause, since it has (1) killed thousands of generic jihadists, and to such a degree that the former Middle East romance of going to Iraq to fight the weak crusaders is now synonymous with a death sentence and defeat; (2) provided the window of security necessary for the growing confidence of the Maliki government whose success is absolutely destroying the Islamist canard that the U.S. backs only dictatorships. Indeed, al-Qaeda's greatest fear is successful Arab constitutional government; something still caricatured here at home as a neocon pipe dream.
There may be no organized personalized infotopia out there, as Mr Crichton would like, though few of us would agree, as one would miss an awful lot that way, but the MSM is surely taking some very nasty hits and is still unable to work out what it is doing wrong.

Not so in Britain. Newspapers are losing readers and it is not clear how many of those who do not buy the dead-tree production read the same stuff on the internet. For all of that, the MSM, particularly the main newspapers and the BBC have retained their hold over information.

The topics I listed above whose reporting has been taken out of the MSM's hands on the other side of the Pond, remain firmly in those dead hands here. All the old canailles are widely believed and repeated. Not a meeting or discussion goes by without somebody saying, appropriately or otherwise, that the Iraqi was has been a disaster and that Obama is a shoo-in for the Presidency. He might still win but a shoo-in he is not.

What we have seen in this country is a take-over by the MSM and the political establishment of the blogosphere, though it is not complete and there is still time to fight back.

Those clogs on newspapers, so highly regarded by genuine bloggers are nothing but the MSM's intrusion into what ought to be an independent and anarchic sphere of news, analysis and opinion.

The Centre for Policy Studies tried to tackle the problem by producing a pamphlet "Politics, Policy and the Internet" (to be discussed in a separate posting), whose main idea about how the internet can change politics is a strong suggestion that politicians should use it more to transmit information about themselves. That is hardly a revolution. It is also a complete misreading of what has really been happening in the United States.

The problem, as we have remarked on this blog on numerous occasions, lies with the readership, the electorate, the public out there. We have not yet acquired American sassiness and are too ready to doff our caps to the established media and political order. Mr Crichton's predictions will not come true over here in a hurry.

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