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AOL-Time Warner merger terrifying for journalism

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The two Atlanta-based anchors peppered the entire Jan. 3 morning newscast with humor at their new employers' expense. The forecast? "You've got weather!" they nervously giggled.

The news that America Online is buying Time-Warner hit me like a bad call in the middle of the night. My first thought: So now who will report objectively on Steve Case -- the new Bill Gates -- and AOL's shenanigans? Time magazine? Fortune? CNN? The Book of the Month Club? How many editors and reporters will bite the hand that signs the checks?

By itself, AOL was a problem to watch. It's like a little sanitized online world where many (perhaps most) newbies pass through on their virgin forays onto the Internet. Nothing wrong on the surface; I've advised many new users to check into Hotel AOL before venturing onto the meandering Internet. But way too many AOL users never leave: They like the proprietary content, the user-friendly interface, that annoying "You've got mail!" message that tells them someone out there cares enough to hit Send.

But the Virginia-based company wields terrifying gatekeeper power -- which, again, can sound great on the surface. Their child safeguards, for instance, can help keep kids from venturing into naked territory. However, as I've complained before, AOL has a way of using its expurgatory powers unevenly -- particularly against gay users -- and only seems to do something about it when it's caught.

America Online is undoubtedly the new bear to watch. Now it has the power to control the world's media, the flow of information, what's investigated and what isn't. (This could make Microsoft's software monopoly look like a board game.) And the new merger likely will increase media-bashing on the part of the public.

As a journalist, I find myself defending reporters as often as I bash their employers. Just about every editor and reporter I know wants to do the right thing: to report the big stories, touch people's lives, expose corporate and government excesses that hurt everyday people. But often those attempts get foiled -- fear of libel (often meaning fear of deeper legal pockets), losing advertisers, pissing off the owner. The more bloated the corporation, the harder the ax falls.

And even journalists who don't work for the big guys are affected. I've chosen a less mainstream path precisely to have a better outlet for thoughtful stories. But, even in this arena, I often meet disbelief from the public: If that story is true, why haven't we seen it on the AP wire or in Time? Maybe we left-wing radicals are making it all up to sell our weekly entertainment calendars.

Worse yet, many reporters fear being seen as too edgy to move up the ladders of elite journalism. They'd like the higher paychecks associated with writing watered-down stories for Time, so they're careful not to go too far--(recruiters may be watching, you know--). A New York reporter friend said to me about the AOL merger, only partially in jest: "I predict all media will soon be owned by three companies, and none of them will hire me."

Fortunately, some good journalism manages to slip through anyhow. But what will happen under the new AOL regime? Journalism schools these days are awash with talk of the Internet disintegrating good journalism -- personal Web sites and schlock like the "Drudge Report" will help obliterate "gatekeepers," we worry.

Meantime, much of the Internet public applauds the ability of the little guy to bypass the media and get the word out. I often feel caught in the middle of the two arguments: I appreciate good journalism (decent writing, fact checking, balance) and like to feel as though I can trust certain media outlets, but I want more perspectives out there and believe in the free flow of information.

Frankly, this is a whine -- I don't have the answer. But I suspect that it lies somewhere in public scrutiny, and in demanding more from these new sanitized gatekeepers. Blaming the media isn't enough; consumers must dial up with dollars.

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