the new Michael Crichton thriller, "Airframe," may seem to be just another page-turner about death in the skies, written with a movie sale in mind. But Crichton's message about airplanes isn't the usual nail-biting alarm: The planes themselves, "Airframe" argues, are plenty safe, despite all the TV footage of air disasters. Deregulation, however, has gutted aircraft maintenance and rule enforcement that's why we have disasters.
Air travel is safer than we thought (fewer people die on domestic commercial airlines, it declares, than on bicycles), but we're in danger from a different direction, according to Crichton: The American institution that's truly a public hazard is the news media. Crichton wants us to worry more about what's on the air than what's in it.
"Airframe" does open with a scene of apparent "fatal turbulence" that sets the novel's mystery plot in motion. But its chief conflict is between a hardheaded spokeswoman for an airplane manufacturer and a bubbleheaded producer for a "60 Minutes"-like TV show. The climactic showdown takes the form of an on-camera interview.
The case against the press is an old hobbyhorse for the author, who first took aim at the media as a "dinosaur on the road to extinction" in a 1993 speech before the National Press Club and later elaborated on the theme in a Wired magazine article titled "Mediasaurus. " Crichton's critique is harsh but hard to dispute: Broadcast media are relentlessly superficial, most TV news is driven by "visuals," and TV news magazines are usually out to get someone.
In Wired, Crichton argued that the U.S. media produces a faulty product: "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." Furthermore, the companies that produce it are unresponsive, arrogant and out of touch.
Much of this is true. But these shortcomings haven't exactly ruined the media industry the way Crichton predicted when he wrote that "what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within ten years." That was nearly four years ago. In the intervening time the mass media, far from crawling into dinosaur holes, have grown into ever-more-powerful global conglomerates with unprecedented cultural and financial reach.
"Airframe" laments the passing of an older ethos of fair-minded print reporting in the heat of post-Watergate scoop-hunting: "Talking to a reporter these days was like a deadly chess match; you had to think several steps ahead; you had to imagine all the possible ways a reporter might distort your statement. The atmosphere was relentlessly adversarial. It hadn't always been that way. There was a time when reporters wanted information, their questions directed to an underlying event. ... But now reporters came to the story with the lead fixed in their minds; they saw their job as proving what they already knew. They didn't want information so much as evidence of villainy."
"Mediasaurus" envisioned and said people would embrace "a service with high-quality information ... A service in which all the facts were true, the quotes weren't piped, the statistics were presented by someone who knew something about statistics..." And indeed you can find more and more neat, high-tech ways to get instant facts-at-your-fingertips today.
But the way people get their news what they worry about, what they talk about over coffee has if anything become even less "objective" over time. A vast volume of cultural information flows into the mass mind not from the traditional news media but from TV shows, the advertising industry, and oh yes! the bestseller.
The blurring of the line between news and entertainment is something that "Airframe" denounces. Yet surely it is a process that Michael Crichton intimately understands: He has himself raised it to a fine and immensely profitable art. Every Crichton devotee knows that his books aren't so much novels as dispatches on current affairs that borrow the form of the thriller to make some provocative argument. "Rising Sun" delivered an editorial on how Japan was beating the U.S. in the global marketplace; "Disclosure" offered a paranoid but entertaining vision of the sexual harassment issue; "Jurassic Park" sounded an alarm about the gene-splicing industry.
These arguments and the facts that support them are often unwieldy, but they're still far more absorbing than Crichton's hastily sketched characters and sometimes rickety plots. Crichton is very much a journalist in novelist's clothes. It is not his generic talent as a storyteller but his reportorial instinct for the hot-button issue or peaking pop-culture trend that has made his career.
For the acuteness of this instinct, Crichton deserves his success. But he does not have much of a leg to stand on in complaining that other media rely too much on oversimplification, polarizing dramatic conflict and easy stereotypes. It may well be that the novelist doth protest too much that he is so passionate in condemning the "chrome and glitz" of superficial news dissemination because he senses how much of it decorates his own work.
I was supposed to interview Crichton for Salon, but he canceled our appointment, evidently miffed at our light-hearted treatment of "Airframe" in a recent Sneak Peek. Maybe he felt Salon was institutionally disposed against him. Maybe he feared we were hopelessly superficial. Or maybe he's just a sorehead who can't take a review that isn't adulatory. In any case, here are some of the questions I didn't get to ask him:
- If the mass media are doing such a lousy job, why are they so prosperous? If Time Warner, ABCDisney, Fox/Newscorp and the rest are heading toward extinction, how is it that they are so dominant?
- As the creator of numerous bestsellers that have been turned into numerous blockbuster films, aren't you an influential part of the mass media yourself?
- You accuse TV shows of oversimplifying issues to heighten their entertainment value, but don't your novels sometimes do the same thing? Doesn't any writer in any medium?
I had hoped for an in-depth interview (nothing superficial, I promise!) partly because Crichton is clearly intelligent and highly articulate, and partly because so much of his critique of the media is inarguably accurate. Apparently, he doesn't feel secure enough to discuss the issues outside of the fictional worlds he builds himself. That's something to think about as we await the movie version of "Airframe" and wonder how much it will oversimplify the book.