Who says bigger is necessarily better?

January 24, 2000|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- The Newsweek headline promised to tell me: "What the Merger Will Mean for You."

I was mildly curious about that, but then I saw I would have to wade through half the magazine to find out. And I was not curious enough to go that far.

The overwhelming coverage of "the" merger -- you are expected to know it is between AOL and Time Warner -- disturbs me first as journalism. The people putting together news, or marketing it, have become addicted to serial mega-stories. Newsweek, with 23 or so pages on the merger, showed where it is going by putting the work of all its book, movie, theater and music critics into a third of one page, with one- or two-sentence reviews using one to five stars substituting for thoughtfulness -- or thought.

With bells and whistles instead of stars, the overall merger coverage represented what used to be called "pack" journalism, but by now is at least mob journalism or stampede coverage. That was the phenomenon most evident when America's entire journalism establishment abandoned Pope John Paul's visit to Cuba to find out who Monica Lewinsky was. In one way the merger over-coverage does seem appropriate in that it reminds me of "the" Internet itself. Whatever I get from it hardly seems worth the time.

I should not complain. America Online works well for me. I can e-mail my copy around the world and take care of a great deal of personal business in less time than it used to take by telephone, fax and letter -- and I can certainly find the odd book more quickly, if less pleasurably, than I used to do wandering around stores. Every once in a while, I find something worthwhile in an online edition of a newspaper far away. All for the reasonable price of $19.95 a month.

Oh, almost forgot, I can get the temperature outside without opening the window.

A reliable product

I know there are a lot of complaints from supercybers that AOL is actually designed for klutzes like me, that it's like a Ford or Chevy. Well, that's fine -- if true. It was Ford and Chevy that changed the world, not Lamborghinis and such.

But is this really the revolution of the century? Or are we giddy on our own cyberhype? World Wide Web and all that is another wonderful tool for the likes of me, but it remains to be seen whether it will rank up there with the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, the airplane, clean water or fire. It makes some things easier to do, but the differences still seem to be differences of degree rather than differences of kind.

I also wonder whether there is not some bait-and-switch going on here. The big idea of the Net is the empowerment of individuals. The dream is that all facts, all ideas, all opportunities will be available to almost anyone, at least anyone in what we call the developed world -- which could be roughly defined as anyplace you can buy batteries. There will be infinite variety, diversity, choice -- or close to it. We will have all things great and small.

Toward bigger profits

But the suffocating coverage, the sameness, the oneness, the bigness of it all seems to belie that promise. The size of "the" merger appears to be its own justification; it sure doesn't look like diversity is carrying the day. The whole idea is to put big things together in prospect of creating (or trapping) bigger audiences.

For what? For advertisers, of course. You ninny. Apparently they want to become a bigger old media. Someday, perhaps, there will be only one book, one movie, one anything for Newsweek to rate. As the newest modern journalism aspires to one story at a time, the merged AOL-Time Warner really aspires to be one-channel network television.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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