- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2000

The behemoth merger and love fest between AOL and Time Warner yesterday produced so many self-congratulatory superlatives, double talk and hype that it was hard to tell which end was up.

Matching moguls from the two companies called the deal historic, unparalleled, visionary, pivotal and extraordinary, among other things.

It would "have a profoundly positive impact on society," gushed AOL's Steve Case, while Time Warner's Gerald Levin claimed the deal would "unleash immense possibilities for economic growth, human understanding and creative expressions."

Indeed.

"It sounded like the dawning of the age of Aquarius. I needed a Dramamine after that news conference," said Mark Miller, a New York University professor and director of the school's Project on Media Ownership.

"All this stuff about public service may be just a way to escape the FCC's radar," he added. "This kind of synergy is not good for journalism, culture or the arts it only intensifies the commercial pressures which are at work here."

For all its million-dollar bravado, yesterday's merger is yet another step in the uneven evolution of the media. Bigger doesn't mean better, and old-fashioned media concerns persist.

News credibility and journalistic integrity still matter.

And in the huge picture, information can be manipulated and opinions steered amidst the cross-fertilization of AOL Time Warner's magazines, TV dramas, sitcoms, films, 24-hour news, music, product placement, e-commerce and interactive "messaging products."

Once the feel-good proclamations were over yesterday, AOL Time Warner billed itself as a "premier global company delivering branded information, entertainment and communications."

"Branded" means content has become a kind of commodity, a product to be co-opted and deftly packaged.

In a mogul's ideal world, media consumers will recognize and remain loyal to the "brand" as if it were a car or coffee. They hope to guarantee this loyalty via strategic and near inescapable marketing.

The megamerger also threatens local media the way a big mall threatens the mom-and-pop store.

"There is, essentially, no local media anymore," notes Mr. Miller. "Even the old alternative weekly newspapers from cities around the country now have the same look, the same sort of content."

Mr. Miller hopes that government officials and lawmakers themselves consider ways to protect endangered local media.

"They need a space too," he said.

In a CNN interview yesterday, Vice President Al Gore hinted that the megamerger could warrant a closer look but did not elaborate, lest he "bias the potential review of something that might raise an antitrust question."

There is an ironic twist as well. Ideally, the Internet was meant to offer consumers marvelous choices and exciting new prospects.

Megamergers may do just the opposite.

"We will have to look closely at whether it makes public policy sense to consolidate control of content, cable and Internet service distribution channels," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat.

The merger itself "will minimize competition and choice, giving us fewer voices and fewer pipelines in the marketplace," Mr. Leahy added. "What we should do is to make sure that all that information does not become funneled and controlled by just two or three sources."

But big, fancy media does inspire inventive competition.

FOXNews.com announced yesterday that a small news team had arrived in Antarctica "to report on an exciting mission in search of extraterrestrial life forms."

A pair of journalists, former Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell and an elementary school teacher will report on "extremophiles," the weird little microorganisms that favor icy climes. Their report will come complete with interactive maps and live updates.

It is a "great opportunity for both young and old to learn about this fascinating environment while feeling like they are part of the mission," said Laura Durkin, vice president of FOXNews.com.

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