USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

AOL, Time Warner and Journalism: Life Really Ain't So Bad

Before you claim that the Merger represents the victory of Big Brother (as Bob Scheer did in these pages), requires anti-trust intervention (media grump Norman Solomon) and sounds the death-gong for independent journalism on the Web (Todd Gitlin, all of the above) ask yourself one question: How much of AOL-Turner-Time-Brothers do you actually use, let alone respect?

Here's my tally: I watch that South Park show on Comedy Central, own a few Cure records distributed by the Elektra label, and check out CNN International during a war or when I'm in a foreign country (as I was, thankfully, when the Case-Levin engagement brought forth the latest round of ritual hand-wringing). That's it. Every six months or so I'll pick up a Time magazine at the supermarket for a laugh when they have one of those 'Jesus turns 2000' covers, and if the line's long enough I'll read the first paragraph of a news story before shuddering and putting it back.

If this is the 'new totalitarianism' (as Solomon has suggested), then we're the freest slaves in the history of tyranny.

No, this is not 'good for journalism,' but exactly what in hell associated with Time/Life has been 'good for journalism' for the last 25 years? Why, except out of tired habit, or freebies to all those neato D.C. anniversary balls, would we even pretend that Time is a good magazine? The only thing more offensive than its condescending news-for-dummies tone is its inexhaustible (and inexplicable) sense of self-importance. How anyone half-literate would ever read Time instead of The Economist is totally beyond me.

What's informing the dour reaction, I think, is a nostalgia for a time in journalism that may or may not have ever existed (I don't know, I wasn't born then...). You know, back when the whole nation subscribed to Life Magazine, gathered around their RCA radios each night for Edward R. Murrow's reports from the Front, the kids would secretly smoke a joint and read Rolling Stone's New Journalism while Walter Cronkite tucked mom and dad into bed. I'm sure all that stuff happened, and I would have been glad to have bought Ramparts on the newsstand or waited in line for Sticky Fingers, but those days are long gone.

CBS is a corporate, conflicted news organization, no longer great, no longer remotely run by journalists. 60 Minutes runs false and unlabeled 're-creations' on EVERY BROADCAST. You know that part in each segment where the interviewer walks with the subject through beautiful scenery, gesticulating and talking while a voice-over narrates some part of the story? It's a lie. When Leslie Stahl interviewed me in Prague in 1991, we took that walk on a scenic hill overlooking downtown, and she told me 'now just pretend to talk and wave your hands around like we were having a lively conversation.'

NBC and ABC, of course, are even worse. Even CNN, which has produced some heroic foreign reporting, is notorious for making terrible editorial compromises in order to keep bureaus and broadcast rights in dodgy countries ('World Report' is an astonishing exercise in advertorial propaganda, and producers in Iran and Cuba are all too familiar with their 'sanctions quotas.')

All of this is self-evident enough; what I don't understand is why we continue to let Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, Bernard Kalb and even that terrible Leslie Stahl give us lectures about journalism. Their companies, all of which are now in the media/entertainment/Internet juggernaut biz, no longer deserve our craven respect.

Nor, therefore do they deserve our fear.

It might be sad to watch a once-great news organization decay, or begin a corporate-influenced decline (such as CNN after being bought by Time-Warner), but the end result is that our attention goes elsewhere. Totalitarian states (or monopolist companies, which can be similar), eventually rely on intimidation and enforcement to secure obedience. AOL may well be the runaway market leader for providing Internet access, but there is nothing compelling non-subscribers to join (except for instant messaging, which AOL will eventually have to open to competition). Free ISPs are quickly gaining ground the world over. Time-Warner is the biggest cable content producer in the U.S., but that market is nearly impossible to monopolize, given the competitiveness of audio-visual production.

So before we inappropriately call for anti-trust action (which, it need be reminded, is designed to block monopolist practices, not harass a distastefully popular company), take heart that: Very few market-leading companies in entertainment or media stay on top for long; most go bankrupt. Very few mega-mergers between two companies in different businesses ever work, especially when the companies involved are in media and entertainment. The Internet is more tumultuous than any business sector in generations. The mighty are frequently chastened within 24 months.

If we really want to stave off the Brave New World, let's take a page from dissidents in countries that had to face real totalitarianism: stop taking Big Brother seriously. Laugh at him, detail his many clumsy corruptions and conflicts for everyone to see, stop pretending that he's a credible journalist, and for God's sake don't work for him.

That last bit may be the hardest to swallow, and may provide a clue on why this news leaves so many journalists so glum. Yes, it is indeed horrible to watch all the media coalesce into 10 or fewer companies that copy each other's dull-witted practices, but it is especially horrible if you actually have to work in one of these places. Journalists are a romantic and idealistic bunch (at least at first), and don't like to be reminded of their own sell-out.

Well, the truth is, we screwed up. Because we were hungry, we took jobs for corporations we disrespected, accepted conditions that would have been unthinkable 15 years ago (drug testing, wall-to-wall entertainment coverage), and settled for mediocrity. Some broke free to create wild new things on the Internet, but now even most of those have gone bonkers with greed, easing back one way or another into the corporate lap.

This is pathetic, but it hardly means the death of independent, diverse journalism. In fact, while we agonize about 'The State of Journalism in the Corporate Era' or whatever, our readers just turn the page to something they'll actually read. Modern readers, especially on the Internet, are way savvier than we give them credit for: they know that when CNN devotes two gushing minutes to a Natalie Merchant feature, it probably means she's on a Warner-owned label. They know their local monopolist daily is bland, pandering and increasingly irrelevant, so they don't buy it. The few who get pissed off enough about the mediocrity of the media now start their own websites, some of which have millions of readers a month.

As for me, I can't see how AOL Time-Warner will affect my reading and entertainment habits one whit. The New Yorker is still stimulating and hilarious, The New York Times and Washington Post are still great papers (that I can now read for free), the L.A. New Times still has some biting columnists , the L.A. Business Journal still writes interesting stories about real people, the Atlantic still cranks up about one really good article every four months, and Warner continues to be the worst major record label in Los Angeles. And, thanks to the 'wild libertarian freedom' Bob Scheer thinks is dead, I can read stock-basher Christopher Byron in the New York Observer and jazz genius Mike Zwerin in the International Herald-Tribune, buy out-of-print Martha Gellhorn books, and be directed by several dedicated web freaks whose tastes I trust to fascinating articles in obscure publications. I can even read Norman Solomon, on several different sites. Life really ain't so bad.

I'm much more concerned about the encroaching monopoly that the Associated Press has on much of the world's English-language news, about the hundreds of newspaper monopolies that disserve American cities (ruining the American Newspaper in the process), and especially about the massive diversion of journalism talent into covering the richest 5-15% of the country. This is harming our democracy more than any media/entertainment merger ever could.

So, if other people want to read People and watch Larry King and pay $20 a month for slow and ad-chocked Internet service, well, they probably get what they deserve ... and know what they're getting.

It's not much different, really, than if the World Wrestling Federation merged with National Enquirer (heck, that's more than 21 million subscribers!). We just wouldn't be hearing so damned much about the Death of Journalism.