Michael Crichton was right about fake news. And we love it

Grant Warkentin
Feb 21, 2017 · 6 min read

“You don’t have to be right, any more. Nobody remembers,” Michael Crichton said way back in 2002.

How prophetic. And how ironic that he was right about not having to be right.

Crichton, world-famous author of such thrillers as “Jurassic Park” and “The Andromeda Strain” (and also a medical doctor), gave a speech titled “Why Speculate?” at the International Leadership Forum in La Jolla, California, on April 26, 2002. His speech addressed what he saw as a growing problem with speculation in the media. In other words, he was tackling “fake news” 15 years before the Trump presidential election made everyone recognize it as a real problem.

Crichton criticized the news media, TV and print, for moving away from fact-based reporting to useless speculation.

“The reason why it is useless, of course, is that nobody knows what the future holds,” he said.

Dr. Michael Crichton. Image from https://arthuride.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/34ths-of-usa-senate-gop-doesnt-believe-in-science/

The problem, he pointed out, is that “media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved” and is unfairly rewarded by the the effect of our selective amnesia.

For example, let’s say that I, a person with an above-average understanding of salmon farming, read an article about the topic and find it riddled with errors, showing the author has no understanding of the facts or issues.

“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,” Crichton said.

The danger of this phenomenon is that it only seems to apply to how we consume media, he says.

In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

It’s only gotten worse since Crichton gave this speech. Remember the hundreds of hours of pure speculation CNN devoted to the missing Malaysian Airlines flight back in 2014? Remember Wolf Blitzer and his stupid plastic airplane? Remember how the police shootings of two black teenagers sparked endless speculation about racism and police brutality throughout 2015, speculation that amplified people’s emotions to the point of creating the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement? Remember the non-stop election coverage and candidate speculation that went on for the entire year of 2016?

To find the missing plane, you must become the plane. Segment from The Daily Show mocking the endless CNN coverage of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane in 2014. Photo from http://redalertpolitics.com/2014/03/25/watch-jon-stewart-eviscerates-cnn-for-ridiculous-malaysian-plane-coverage/

But we hadn’t even come close to peak speculation.

We’ve reached a new height of speculative stupidity since the US election. It has infected the entire world, with people in other countries fighting with President Trump on Twitter and European countries releasing videos countering and mocking speculation.

We’ve got people literally punching each other over media speculation, and the media egging it on with tacit approval with yet more speculation, leading to a speculation spiral.

Who knows how far it will take us.

There’s always been a proper place for speculation. It’s called the editorial page. But journalists in all mediums don’t seem to care any longer about keeping stories as neutral and fact-based as possible. Opinions and biases have always been in news stories, but most writers always made a conscious effort to overcome bias and favour facts over opinions.

So what changed? Why did the media shift?

Crichton hit on the likely reason in his 2002 speech.

1. It’s incredibly cheap. Talk is cheap. And speculation shows are the cheapest thing you can put on television, They’re almost as cheap as running a test pattern. Speculation requires no research, no big staff. Minimal set. Just get the talking host, book the talking guests — of which there is no shortage — and you’re done! Instant show. No reporters in different cities around the world, no film crews on location. No deadlines, no footage to edit, no editors…nothing! Just talk. Cheap.

2. You can’t lose. Even though the speculation is correct only by chance, which means you are wrong at least 50% of the time, nobody remembers and therefore nobody cares. You are never accountable. The audience does not remember yesterday, let alone last week, or last month. Media exists in the eternal now, this minute, this crisis, this talking head, this column, this speculation.

A classic Mark Twain quote, featured on a postcard. Image from http://www.twainquotes.com/Speculation.html

The countless rounds of newsroom budget cuts since 2002, which has left investigative journalism on its deathbed, is yet more evidence that Crichton was right. So is the rise of the Gawker network of fake news sites, which offer cheap opinions and “hot takes” disguised as news. Gawker may be down, but it spawned a legion of wannabes that aren’t going away.

Why do we put up with it? Simple. The growing number of people who choose to get their news from comedy performers such as John Oliver, Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart is evidence that we don’t just tolerate it, we like it.

For all the complaining there has been in the last two months about “fake news,” I’m not seeing any real effort to change it. Rather than pledge to be more fact-based, and reinvigorate investigative reporting, mainstream media outlets are instead doubling down, trying to present themselves as trustworthy while attacking anyone who they deem is on the fringe. For example, while I find Rebel Media and Breitbart to be mostly (and sometimes odious) conservative echo chambers with the occasional interesting exclusive, the voracity of the endless attacks by mainstream media on these upstarts is surprising. They’re biased, clearly, but they don’t try and hide it. The hate, and “Nazi” branding they get, is undeserved.

Besides, all the negative attention they get will just drive people to those sites to see what all the fuss is about. We get more news about the news. More stupid stories about tweets. The speculation spiral continues.

Quote by Daniel Defoe, from Robinson Crusoe

We need to be honest with ourselves. we love it. We love fake news, and drama about news, no matter how much we might complain about it. We like the drama more than the actual facts. We don’t care about the facts so much as what other people think about them.

Where else would we get all our daily social media excitement, arguing about the latest hot takes? How else could we boldly repost some article that condemns the bad guy of the day on our Facebook page in order to make ourselves feel like Internet heroes?

We love it, and that’s why it’s not going to stop.

As Ian Malcolm, Crichton’s famous mathematician character from Jurassic Park said, “In the information society, nobody thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought.”

We need to bring back thought. Otherwise, we’re stuck with fake news. And we will deserve it.

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