Analyzing AOL/Time-Warner — Profits and “Success” Aren’t the Real Story

  • Analyzing AOL/Time-Warner — Profits and “Success” Aren’t the Real Story
    The On-Line Journalism Review’s senior editor J.D. Lasica has written a fairly lengthy analysis of AOL/Time-Warner and its impact on journalism, especially for millions of people for whom the AOL start screen is their first welcome to the Internet every day.

    Lasica rightly points out that

    “In recent weeks the news media have lavished saturation coverage upon the company’s woes. But almost all of the attention has focused on the its incredible shrinking stock price; the prospect of layoffs; or the new parlor game among analysts and pundits of predicting what the empire’s breakup might fetch.Meantime, barely a column inch has been written about the impact of the merger and the company’s financial troubles on other key players: the public.”

    He then turns in a decent overview of some of the issues facing the company, but still really fails to raise any really new questions or answers. He dedicates a whole page to an interview with media scholar Ben Bagdikian (of Media Monopoly fame), who expectedly alerts us to the pitfalls of synergy and holding journalism to a profit standard. I have no quibbles with that, except that’s where Lasica leaves it. Significantly, none of these important concerns are raised with either of the AOL/T-W execs who Lasica interviews. Shouldn’t they be held to defend the effects of synergy? So what results really reads like 4 separate and discrete interviews with a limp introduction and summary, leaving us with only the obvious yet ineffective advice that

    “The public needs to keep vigilant watch that the company’s wide-ranging journalism operations are not sacrificed on the altar of Wall Street profits.”

    Sure — we can can keep “vigilant watch,” but what good does it do? Is keeping watch enough? I can vigilantly watch an angry mob tear down my house, but that doesn’t stop them from tearing it down.

    I’m glad that Lasica broaches the public interest question and further quotes Bagdikian extensively without having to have his every assertion countermanded by some corporate shill. But I’m not going to pretend that it’s enough. If we want a responsible media that is duly respectful of the fact that journalism is protected by the constitution because it provides a valuable service to citizens in a democracy, then that fact needs to be posed not just to scholars and critics, but to the profession, and more importantly, those who rule the profession. We have to think practically and concretely about how we can hold AOL/Time-Warner accountable to the privileges of passing itself off as a journalistic enterprise. We have to demand that AOL/T-W justify itself and the work it does, not merely accept its profits (or lack thereof) and audience size as proof.

    And simply because this big experiment in old media/new media synergy might be rocky doesn’t mean that the species is near extinction, nor does it mitigate the damage such concentrated media ownership does to our democracy. While I hope and believe that such mega-corporations would collapse under their own weight, who do they take out when they fall? Just because they haven’t been as successful as their CEOs and stockholders would hope doesn’t mean that they haven’t been successful in exerting undue and dangerous control over the news and information we’re bombarded with every waking moment.

    Who cares if they make money by carpet bombing us with news about Britney’s sex life if we can’t avoid it either way? The damage of missing data and stories that are vital to informed citizenship is already done. What we need to do is figure out how do we mitigate the damage or stop it alltogether, not just watch it happen.

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