Journalists were agog last week at news of the biggest corporate merger of all time, with those at Time Warner (formerly Time Inc.) naturally enough wondering whether, now that they had become paper millionaires, it was time to sell stock and buy Porsches. Swamped by the hundreds of column inches and hours of talk-show speculation was thoughtful analysis of the implications for culture and journalism.
Such gee-whiz coverage of a blockbuster media deal--a combination of business event and gaudy spectacle--is precisely the sort of journalism we have been seeing steadily more of, and need less of. The news fraction of the entertainment business shares, or rather leads, the national obsession with corporate deals. Forget family values; it's stockholder values that wag the national dog these days. The sheer magnitude of these deals draws attention--the calculations of financial payoff and, not least, the soap opera of clandestine meetings and secret codes, with obligatory attention to what the CEOs were wearing, where they dined and took their walks in the woods, and what ultimately tipped the balance to seal the deals of the epoch.
True, consumers may benefit from this particular merger in some ways. There may well be competitive value in AOL's coupling with the cable part of Time Warner to compete with AT&T in bringing Internet as well as phone and TV service into the home--all via cable. Right now, local cable monopolies charge exorbitant rates, and a bit of competition might help bring those costs down. But those savings (a few bucks a month per household) will almost certainly come at the much higher cost of Time Warner's unending promotion of movies, TV shows, magazines and CDs over the new pipeline.
Even stockholders and journalists are citizens, though, and both ought to care about the larger consequences of such deals. Is there any reason to think the merger will do any good for the flow of news? For the vitality of the culture?
The first obvious fact is that the AOL Time Warner deal is not motivated by any impulse to improve news reporting, magazine journalism or the quality of public discussion. Its purpose is to boost the customer base, period. Thus, the brave new combination is unlikely to arrest the slickening of news coverage, its pulverization into ever more streamlined and simple-minded snippets, its love affair with celebrities and show business, and the rest of its easy-listening aspects. It is far more likely that the deal will accelerate these trends, since the bottom line usually abhors whatever is more demanding and complex, slower, more prone to ideas, more challenging to complacency. What would AOL president Robert W. Pittman (best known for pioneering MTV) make of a proposal to devote more news time to substantial reports on campaign finance, pharmaceutical prices, postwar Kosovo or Chechnya?
The deal also multiplies opportunities for conflicts of interest. Will either CNN or Time, in its new incarnation, plunge vigorously into reporting on AOL? Will it report fairly on its rivals, present or future--or HBO's, for that matter? AOL and Time Warner chiefs Steve Case and Gerald Levin declare that they will bend over backward to keep the news independent, and no doubt they're sincere. But what if AOL Time Warner stockholders decide at a certain point that serious journalism is battering the bottom line?
There is likely to be political fallout, too. One widely unnoticed root of the corruption of our politics consists of the stupendous sums charged to candidates and parties by publicly licensed broadcasters for political advertising. Like other broadcasters, CNN and the WB network (a small outpost of the Time Warner empire) were already disposed to resist the (admittedly utopian but democratically elementary) idea of providing free air time to political candidates, most of whose desire to rustle up millions of dollars in campaign contributions is, after all, in response to the cost of broadcast time. Levin and Case might profess a desire to improve public life; if they mean it, they should embrace such democracy-friendly reforms. But don't hold your breath.
The deal is likely to make already bad tendencies worse. But devotees of independent journalism should beware nostalgia. Even before the AOL Time Warner deal was announced, many journalists at high-end media outlets had more invested in pension funds--and in entertaining readers who buy luxury cars and expensive liquors--than in the lives of the great unwashed. The reportorial agendas of Time, People, Fortune and other outlets of the Time Warner conglomerate are already tailored to the demographics they prize. Meanwhile, serious journalism about the owners of sports teams is hardly high on the agenda of television newsmagazines, whose parent networks have billions of dollars at stake in football, baseball and basketball deals. Nor are corporate tax breaks, for advertising, say, a subject of interest for ABC News--or CBS or NBC or Fox, for that matter.
The big story here is the continued submerging of serious news and debate in the all-engulfing business of entertainment. That is the beat that goes on, and on.
Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University, is the author of "Inside Prime Time," which will be reissued next month by the University of California Press.