A Promise To Readers
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A Promise To Readers L ast week's proposed merger between America Online and Time Warner to create a media behemoth raises disturbing questions for those involved in the information dissemination business, including those of us at Chemical & Engineering News.
The AOL-Time Warner deal combines the company that brought the Internet to the masses with a traditional media publishing, television, and entertainment giant. The Washington Post called it a "me-gamarriage of necessity.... The Internet needs content to survive; controllers of magazines, books, music, and television have been vying to capture a larger audience via personal computers." In the world of bigger is better, such a marriage of the new media with the old media makes a lot of sense.
The businesses of AOL and Time Warner barely overlap, so many experts expect there to be few, if any, antitrust concerns. For the firms' stockholders not to mention the Wall Street companies that will reap millions of dollars on tying the knotthis may be a marriage made in heaven. But to many journalists, this media megadeal feels like a troubled relationship fraught with problems. And consumers should be similarly concerned.
What's wrong with this deal? Go back to 1989 when Time Inc. merged with Warner Communications, and then 1995 when CNN and Time Warner merged. These two mergers brought together under one organization the hugely respected, independent news-gathering activities of Time Inc., and later CNN, with an entertainment complex consisting of movie, television, and music producers. Critics have argued that the lines between the news-gathering organizations and the entertainment side of Time Warner have been blurring ever since.
Time Warner has been charged perhaps unfairlywith giving undue publicity in its magazines to some of the products of its entertainment division. Other media conglomerates have been charged similarly. Even if these charges are not true, there is the appearance that they are true. Ultimately, consumers readers and viewers alikebegin to suspect that what they are reading and seeing is tainted, that the news organization
is tailoring its coverage to show a corporate partner in a more luminous light.
Perhaps more important than the appearance of pandering to corporate interests is the reality that information is increasingly concentrated in just a few organizations. Recently, Robert W. McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, wrote a book, "Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times" (University of Illinois Press, 1999). In it, he points out that a wave of media mergers and acquisitions in the late 1990s has led to just nine major companies controlling much of the information and delivery systems around the world: Time Warner, Disney, Sony, General Electric (NBC's parent), AT&T, the News Corporation, Seagram, Viacom (CBS's parent), and Bertelsmann (which, in the interest of full disclosure, owns the company that prints C&EN).
While it is true that there is more information than ever before, McChesney argues that merely having a plethora of "choices" does not guarantee a democratic society. Indeed, he makes the case that the major beneficiaries of the Information Age are investors, advertisers, and a handful of enormous media, computer, and telecommunications corporations.
Time will tell whether the AOL-Time Warner merger and McChesney's warnings are cause for alarm. But at C&EN, these deals and anxieties are a reminder that you, our reader, are C&EN's sole concern. I've written recently on this page that we are adamant that we will not blur the lines between advertising and editorial content (Oct. 18, 1999, page 5). Our mission is to bring you the significant news of the chemical enterprisebe it good, bad, or indifferent. And to bring it to you accurately, in a timely fashion, and without improper influence from any sector of the enterprisebe it industry, academia, government, or even our own nonprofit parent, the American Chemical Society. To do less would be a betrayal of the trust that you've placed in us. And that is my personal New Year's promise to you.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS
JANUARY 17, 2000 C&KN 5
EDITOR'S PAGEA Promise To Readers