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Free Speech

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Broadcasts the Nightly News

by Susan Sterling

“Freedom of speech and freedom of discourse are not abstract ideas; they are more vital to the life of our democracy than daily blood transfusions are to Keith Richards.”

While word hit the street that the Justice Department would pursue the breakup of Bill Gates' Microsoft, the merger of Time Warner, the world's largest conventional media company, and America Online, the world's largest Internet service, was hailed as the beginning of a new era. The Wall Street Journal declared the "death of old media" while David Ignatius of the Washington Post spoke of AOL's rise to power like a dad after his kid hit his first home run at little league.

The combined company, estimated to be worth $350 billion, will be America's fourth largest. Its interests and target audience stretch far and wide, from the premier publishing house Little, Brown to the similarly lofty intellectual heights of World Championship Wrestling. AOL is by far the largest Internet provider in the country, with some 23 million subscribers. In terms of power and influence over our everyday lives, few companies will have a more prominent voice than AOL Time Warner.

While most mainstream media are hailing the emergence of our miraculous economy (after all, bigger is always better, isn't it?), it is time we pay some attention to the coagulation of these media behemoths which are more and more frequently deciding what we see and what we hear. I am constantly astounded at how only those on the periphery of media criticism are willing to express reservations about these conglomerates. Last year CBS merged with Viacom, and Sumner Redstone came to the helm of a $100 billion entertainment empire, including Blockbuster, Paramount Pictures, and the CBS News Division for starters. Newlywed Rupert Murdoch's diverse NewsCorp controls hundreds of newspapers around the world, including the South China Morning Post, the Financial Times and the London Times, plus that bedrock of journalistic fortitude, the Fox News Channel.

Time Warner baron Ted Turner, who made approximately $3 billion in last week's merger, called the deal the most exciting since his first sexual encounter when he was 19. This is arguably the most influential man in the history of news, talking about a deal which affects us all through a prism so narcissistic it makes our commander-in-briefs look like Gandhi. It's easy to see AOL and Time Warner's interests in the deal. AOL wants the cable access of Time Warner to program itself into millions and millions of additional homes. AOL is the most well-known provider on the net. Time Warner's business is content. In this instance, please understand that content is not the same thing as substance. All Time Warner news sources, including CNN, have been watered down in enough info-tainment to make Joan and Melissa Rivers gag. When they do focus on politics they go over nonsense poll results on topics like whether or not Hillary Clinton should do the Letterman show from the University of Hawaii at Maui as if they are election returns. The result is the type of journalism that is starting to make Matt Drudge look like Edward R. Murrow.

The CBS/Viacom, Time Warner, and Newscorp enterprises all seek to blind the public in 24-hour marathons of The Blame Game and South Park while there really are important issues being discussed out there. These discussions are more and more being relegated to ivory towers where professors are starting to feel like Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London. I don't begrudge the media robber barons their loot. However, I can't help but think that Redstone, Murdoch, Turner and Steve Case are all one Mini-Me shy of becoming Dr. Evil. There is a genuine danger in the newest phenomenon, an entry-to-content corporation which controls what we see and are thus in full command of the dissemination of information.

While those in our government seek to nail down Bill Gates for his monopoly on faulty, cheap software, there is hardly a moment's notice paid to these men who control what we read and use to make decisions about not only consumption, but about our leadership and the destiny of our democracy. While I am usually unabashedly pro-business, the dissemination of information through the media is the one area where I think the public interest needs protection from corporate America. Freedom of speech and freedom of discourse are not abstract ideas; they are more vital to the life of our democracy than daily blood transfusions are to Keith Richards. The resonance of ideas will always have something to do with who has the largest bullhorn, and the big, respectable sources will always use that bigness to clobber out the dissent which it is the very essence of the First Amendment to protect. It's about time we start to leaven our optimism and pay a bit more attention to just who is deciding which news is fit to print.

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