The media is very big on speculation.
With the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade last week, doomsday predictions are already available: Fall of Roe will have immediate economic ramifications, experts say:
“Abortion rights are economic rights, and this decision means the loss of economic security, independence, and mobility for abortion seekers. Low- and middle-income people, especially Black and Brown women, will bear the brunt of the impact.”
Speculation is one of the services the media provides — it is a handy substitute for reasoned argument and debate.
Twenty years ago, before fake news became a thing, the author Michael Crichton called out the media on its penchant for speculation and cast doubt on its value. In a talk he gave to the International Leadership Forum, entitled Why Speculate, he referenced a front page article in the New York Times about then-president George Bush raising tariffs on steel. The New York Times speculated on the friction tariffs would cause with allies — especially those allies Bush was relying on in the fight against terrorism. Crichton dismissed the drama:
Isn’t it reasonable to talk about effects of current events in this way? I answer, absolutely not. Such speculation is a complete waste of time. It’s useless…The reason why it is useless, of course, is that nobody knows what the future holds.
The fact that the future is so difficult to predict is often lost on people because of the credibility that the media has, not only when claiming to predict the future, but also when explaining the present. Today, we smirk at the suggestion that the media retains some level of credibility, but the fact remains that what Crichton called the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is still at work:
You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know. [emphasis added]
It was at this point that I thought it would be interesting to write about Crichton’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Or of Israel in general
Or of the Middle East
But it seems Mr. Crichton was more interested in Jurassic than Jews.
However, he did have a lot to say about the news media, and that is worthwhile taking a look at. Crichton will get no argument from us when he writes that “media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved.” And what goes for the media goes for academia as well.
Periodically, Elder of Ziyon exposes academic papers that are completely off-the-wall:
o The Transnational Palestinian Self: Toward Decolonizing Psychoanalytic Thought, where we learn that “Zionism is intricately and inextricably linked with and haunted by a Palestinian identity, which it fundamentally works to negate…interpolating all identities through its racialized social and class hierarchy.”o Palestine and the Will to Theorise Decolonial Queering, which reveals “Abu Hanna is the perfect embodiment of a sexed and gendered other, whose racialised [oriental] essence makes it possible to demarcate the necessity of Zionist conquest, with its moral modern and civilizational attributes. “o Veganwashing Israel’s Dirty Laundry? Animal Politics and Nationalism in Palestine-Israel, which exposes how “the contemporary cultural politics of veganism in Israel circulate and reinforce national myths of exceptionalism tethered to a Zionist exclusionary ideology, including claims to unique victimhood, pioneering achievements and moral rectitude, which further entrench Jewish Israeli belonging and Palestinian unbelonging.”
Crichton pointed out this pseudo-intellectual exploitation in academia:
Most areas of intellectual life have discovered the virtues of speculation, and have embraced them wildly. In academia, speculation is usually dignified as theory…This is in part aping science, but it’s also an escape hatch. Your close textual reading of Jane Austen could well be found wrong, and could be shown to be wrong by a more knowledgeable antagonist. But your theory of radical feminization and authoritarian revolt in the work of Jane Austen is untouchable.
This brand of unassailable speculation, he writes, has found a secure home today in the information age because “it is perfect for the information age, which promises a cornucopia of knowledge, but delivers a cornucopia of snake oil.” (There is a reason that today no one refers to the Internet as the information superhighway anymore.)
Crichton was writing 20 years ago and things have only gotten worse.
We need to start remembering that everybody who said that Y2K wasn’t a real problem was either shouted down, or kept off the air. The same thing is true now of issues like species extinction and global warming. You never hear anyone say it’s not a crisis. [emphasis added]
Of course, this kind of censorship was before Twitter, so it was not quite so obvious.
When it comes to speculation, the media is notoriously bad at it — just as everyone else is. Crichton points out how a major reason for voting for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater was to keep the US out of Vietnam. But it was Johnson who, once elected, sent 200,000 troops there. Some in the media learned their lesson better than others. The Wall Street Journal gave up endorsing candidates long ago:
The Wall Street Journal last gave its imprimatur to a presidential hopeful in 1928, when it endorsed Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover over New York Governor Al Smith. A vote for Hoover, the paper said, was “the soundest proposition for those with a financial stake in the country.” But when the onset of the Great Depression made it clear that Hoover had been the wrong man for the job, the Journal learned its lesson. It has never again endorsed any candidate. [emphasis added]
The problem is that speculating about the future is not only a great way to attack a political adversary or opponent in a debate. It’s a natural reaction to current events. And everyone likes to try their hand at it.
Including Michael Crichton. And he wasn’t any better at it than the media he criticized.
In 1993, ten years before he gave his talk on the ineffectiveness of speculating, he wrote an article, Mediasaurus. In it, he confidently predicted the future of the media:
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…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.
But let’s face it: what passes for “information” is devoured by people who welcome the simplicity and emotional manipulation of the media. It is one of the reasons that “news” that puts Israel in a negative light is so popular.
It is news, but is it “information”?
A quick Google search will tell you that information is “facts provided or learned about something or someone.” — But the second definition is more accurate: “what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.”
Which is why Crichton could write about the need for improving the quality of the news and in the same breath write that “there have been some positive innovations, like CNN and C-SPAN.”
Writing in 1993, he wondered aloud:
Who will be the GM or IBM of the ’90s? The next great American institution to find itself obsolete and outdated, while obstinately refusing to change? I suspect one answer would be The New York Times and the commercial networks. Other institutions have been pushed to improve quality. Ford now makes a better car than it has any time in my life; we can thank Toyota and Nissan for that. But who will push The New York Times?
The answer, I think, is technology. [emphasis added]
True, social media is considered a more powerful force today — but not because it is more factual. The technology that Crichton saw as part of the solution has merely become an extension of the same sloppiness. Sure, people want real quality information, but that is only for what they need in order to live, for practical purposes. When it comes to the news, however, people are too used to accepting it as a form of entertainment, as something that gets the emotions going:
This is one reason why so many people who regularly interact with the press come to view it as an anomaly. They go about their daily work, which is specific and complex, and then they meet with the press, where interactions are general and oversimplified.
Another anomaly shows itself in human discourse.
Crichton likes the model of the parliamentary debates in Great Britain. No matter how determined they are to attack and even insult each other, the opponents in a parliamentary debate will address each other as “the right honorable gentleman” or “my distinguished friend.” And writing in 1993, Crichton believes he has found the one place where civil debate is still possible:
And where can you find this kind of debate in today’s media? Not in television, nor in newspapers or magazines. You find it on the computer networks, a place where traditional media are distinctly absent. [emphasis added]
Which just goes to prove Crichton’s point that speculating really doesn’t hold much weight.
It also seems to show that the much-vaunted quality media that Crichton thought he saw coming over the horizon was just a pipe dream after all.