‘AOL-Time Warner Merger Is Bad News For Us’: A Special Commentary: Robert W. McChesney

The merger of American Online (AOL) and Time Warner is bad for consumers and bad for citizens. It hammers the last nail in the coffin of the argument that the Internet will democratize the media by giving ordinary citizens the ability to compete in the marketplace against the media giants. You and I don’t stand a chance against AOL Time Warner or other conglomerates. There may be millions of underfunded obscure websites, but the commercially viable journalism and entertainment in the digital future is going to be controlled by just a few massive media giants.

The merger of American Online (AOL) and Time Warner is bad for consumers and bad for citizens. It hammers the last nail in the coffin of the argument that the Internet will democratize the media by giving ordinary citizens the ability to compete in the marketplace against the media giants. You and I don’t stand a chance against AOL Time Warner or other conglomerates. There may be millions of underfunded obscure websites, but the commercially viable journalism and entertainment in the digital future is going to be controlled by just a few massive media giants.

Yes, it might be faster now and more convenient. But it also may be costly. And a handful of media executives will still be setting your information diet.

The AOL-Time Warner merger — the largest in history — is the culmination of a stunning wave of concentration of ownership in media and communication industries over the past decade.

There were 12 major telecommunication companies in 1996; today there are six, and many of them have moved aggressively into new areas. AT&T, for example, is the largest cable television company in the nation. The media system is now dominated by eight or nine massive firms, with another 12-15 rounding out the system. These two dozen profit-driven companies, owned and managed by billionaires operating in barely competitive markets, account for nearly the entirety of the U.S. media culture. This goes against any notion of a free press in a democratic society.

The merger is also part of the related trend toward “convergence,” meaning that with the rise of digital communications, the dominant firms in media, computing, and telecommunications are combining into supercolossal transnational corporations, the likes of which we have never seen or imagined before. This deal, which unites the largest media firm with the dominant Internet firm, will in all likelihood trigger another round of mergers that will leave the entire realm of communication under the thumbs of a handful of companies.

The Internet is accelerating the pace of concentration because firms know that in times of rapid technological change, it is far better to be very big and have less competition than to be smaller and have more competition.

As citizens, we should deplore this concentration of media power. It is dangerous when so few people control what we see and hear. And these giants have enormous power not only over the economy but the political system as well.

One cruel irony is that the government has handed the Internet over to the private sector. Bill Gates did not invent the Internet. The Internet is a direct result of government-sponsored innovation. The government created and subsidized the Internet and its predecessors for three decades; private-sector firms wanted no part of it because they couldn’t figure out how to make a buck from it. Then, in the early 1990s, with barely a shred of public debate or deliberation and with virtually zero media coverage, the Internet’s trunk lines were privatized, the prohibition against commercialism was ended, and, in effect, cyberspace was turned over to corporate America.

It’s an extraordinary tale. The public does the spade work and takes the risks; Wall Street takes control and rakes in all the profits. The public gets nothing in return except a tidal wave of public relations extolling the virtues of the corporate-run digital era. Most of the media treat all of this as a business story, where the control over media and communication rightly resides on Wall Street. Only rarely is it asked how this affects consumers. Almost never is the even more fundamental question asked: How this affects us as citizens. It is a telling comment on the decline of democracy in our culture that so blindly condones greed and inequality and worships wealth.

So this is where we are at the dawn of the new century: Our communication system is changing at a bewildering pace, and those with the most money are at the controls, regardless of the social and political implications. They are driving 100 miles an hour down an unlit highway and nobody knows what lies ahead. Meanwhile, the government seems willing to do everything it can to expedite the process.

This is a dangerous — and highly undemocratic — way to proceed. And it is in all of our interest that this change.

– A Brief Bio –

Robert W. McChesney is Research Professor in the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From 1988 to 1998 he was on the Journalism and Mass Communication faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. McChesney earned his Ph.D. in communications at the University of Washington in 1989. His work concentrates on the history and political economy of communication, emphasizing the role media play in democratic and capitalist societies.

McChesney has written or edited seven books, including the award-winning Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935 (Oxford University Press, 1993), Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy (Seven Stories Press, 1997), and, with Edward S. Herman, The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism (Cassell, 1997). McChesney’s newest books are multiple award-winning Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (University of Illinois Press, 1999; paperback version with new preface: New Press, 2000) and, with John Nichols, It’s the Media, Stupid!. McChesney’s eighth book, Making a Molehill out of a Mountain: The Tragedy of U.S. Communication Research will be published in 2001 by Monthly Review Press. His books have been translated into five languages. McChesney has also written more than 75 journal articles and book chapters and more than 85 newspaper pieces, magazine articles and book reviews. Since finishing graduate school in the late 1980s, McChesney has made some 300 conference presentations and visiting guest lectures as well as more than 500 radio and television appearances.

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Author: Robert W. McChesney

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