The triumph of America Online, in its much-ballyhooed mega-merger with the Time Warner media group, represents a major threat to the Internet as a medium free of government regulation and cultural freedom. Yes, I know, I know – all the nerdiest yuppies are chortling over how it was AOL that swallowed up Time Warner, and not vice-versa, and saying that this is supposed to represent the triumph of the Internet, the ascension of the New Media over the Old. Don’t you believe for a minute. As Matt Drudge put it in one of his more vivid stream-of-consciousness pieces: "Big Media is Big Media, whether it's old or new. Fewer and fewer people will continue to run it all until Orwell's vision is lived and loved. Or until Mel [Karmazin, of CBS] snaps his fingers and orders a rewrite."
You got it right, Matt. AOL-Time-Warner – AOLTiWa – will be worth more than the annual output of Russia. (By the time Putin is through, considerably more.) But the issue is not money. What has happened is that the dinosaurish AOL – the biggest, most obnoxious and restrictive of the self-enclosed cyber-universes created early on in the computer age, has now positioned itself to choke off the competition. And make no mistake about it: that is clearly what the collective corporate mind of AOLTiWa envisions.
Now, wait a minute – aren’t we getting a little paranoid here? I mean, are we going to be subjected to yet another "anti-corporate" anti-capitalist diatribe by some leftist loser whining because his fatuous self-important opinions aren’t aired on This Week and featured on the front page of Time? C’mon, guys, give me just a little more credit than that. Drudge is not exactly a whiny leftist, and he sees the danger, too. Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening . . .
What’s at stake is who is going to be ordering a rewrite – and of what. Politics, culture, the evolving World Spirit – everything is up for grabs in the emerging global order. Do I need to remind regular – or even casual visitors to this site of the tremendous power of the media to shape as well as report events?
My Serb friends well remember how the NATO-crats humbled the truth as well as a proud people. As CNN ran the same video of the same Kosovar refugees in an endless loop, Christiane Amanpour’s pretentious voice intoned a narrative of lies. In a kind of two-part harmony with her husband, State Department spokesman James Rubin, she justified and celebrated a dirty little war as a noble "humanitarian" crusade. Print journalists and elite opinion-makers acted as a kind of Greek chorus, reinforcing and elaborating the central theme of NATO as the champion of justice.
What this merger portends is the CNN-ization of the news media, including the so-called "new media." The globalist vision of Time’s founder, Henry Luce, the quintessential internationalist, providing the "content," is empowered not only by AOL’s technology but also by its political connections. Bill Kristol and other neoconservative foreign policy analysts just talk about the West establishing a "benevolent global hegemony," but Steve Case and Gerald Levin are really doing it.
How? The whole point of the merger is to give AOL access to the high-speed cables owned by Time-Warner’s cable television system: through that highly regulated and costly grid, dominated by local franchises. These franchises, or monopolies, are frankly and openly awarded on the basis of political pull: taking advantage of the infrastructure created by the old television technology, AOLTiWa has grandiose plans to feed "content" into every American home. In preparation for the day when Internet accessibility is truly ubiquitous, and not confined to the hi-tech cognoscenti, AOLTiWa is preparing to take the cultural and ideological reins, and take us where?
"Over the next five years," declared Steve Case, the 41-year-old AOL Chairman and CEO, in a 1998 speech to journalists, "I believe the future of this medium will be determined more by policy choices than by technology choices." This is the voice of the would-be monopolist. Just as the Rockefellers and Morgans before him, Case does not hesitate to use political pull as just another weapon in the entrepreneurial wars. No fan of laissez faire, it was Case who practically led the lynch mob as it screamed for the blood of Bill Gates. It was AOL that conspired with Netscape and Sun Microsystems to break the nonexistent Microsoft "monopoly" and cripple a rising threat to their hegemony. AOL met with the government to clear its own merger plans with government prosecutors and "trustbusters," while egging on the Justice Department jihad against Bill Gates. So much for the myth of the Silicon Valley "libertarians" who dominate the computer industry. The guy is like one of the villains in an Ayn Rand novel come to life – a truly appalling case of life imitating art.
This up-and-coming robber baron went on to instruct the assembled journalists on how "important" it will be "to establish ground rules for how to position the Internet in the political process." And what about these "ground rules" – who will make them? Correct me if I’m wrong, but somehow I have the sneaking suspicion that Case and his Washington cronies – skilled as they are in the 21st century art of "positioning" – will play a key role in all this. This prospect should fill you with fear and loathing.. For Case’s vision is as dystopian as the AOL cyber-community he created a restrictive, self-enclosed almost hermetically sealed environment, heavily policed by censors. In this latest mega-merger of media giants, we are getting a glimpse of the future of the Internet – and it isn’t pretty.
According to Case, "there are some legitimate concerns about the impact of the Internet on politics." To begin with, those bad politicians might get their hands on it, and even engage in such nefarious practices as "fundraising." We can’t have fundraisers going to the American people, and taking in millions in $20 donations – where would that leave the fat cats but with a diminished capacity to influence the political process? But that’s not all. There’s also the great danger of "demagoguery, creating false rumors to disrupt elections, or circulating unattributed negative information about opponents."
We wouldn’t want to "disrupt" elections, now would we? If we permit the flow of "negative" information, the carefully previewed and thoroughly vetted candidates of the Establishment might get derailed someone outside the elites might even make it to the White House. I shudder at the very thought of it.
As for "demagoguery" – we all know there are no demagogues on the left, just as there are no "extremists" on that side of the political spectrum. And who could disagree that "unattributed negative information" is a kind of Hate Speech? It’s "negative," isn’t it? In the ideal world of the most powerful media mogul on earth, Pat Buchanan’s famous oration at the 1992 Republican National Convention would have gone unheard and unremarked on – a state of affairs fervently desired by our totalitarian "liberals."
Yes, "creating false rumors" such as the rumor that the US government lied about the casualties in Kosovo that supposed sparked NATO intervention – is something that the Proper Authorities could not control last time around. As we subsequently found out, the "false rumors" long denied by NATO turned out to be truer even than we at Antiwar.com imagined. The total number of all casualties in the Kosovo war has come down to less than 7,000, counting both Serbs and Kosovars. Antiwar.com proudly broadcast the "false rumors" that the alleged "genocide" was a fake – and prouder still that we stood by our story until the truth of it was uncovered. The NATO spinmeisters did everything in their power to control the flow of information, and shape public perceptions of this, the first "humanitarian" act of conquest in history. They succeeded to a large extent, but not completely – the Internet has so far been uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Naturally, this cannot be allowed to go on. Case and his cohorts will see to that.
The most common complaint about the Internet is lack of speed: most people do not have access to cable modems, and cannot access the kind of complex images that Case & Co. dream of beaming directly onto your computer screen. Movies, news, opinion, and entertainment of all kinds – prepackaged, pre-approved, and properly sanitized – and all delivered directly to your hard drive. How? By making high-speed computer transmissions practical and commonplace via cable as opposed to phone line transmissions. When that kind of speed becomes the standard, then the Drudge Report and the tiny little startup media companies and news organizations – all potential rival producers of content – will be eliminated. For this content must pass through cables, and the ground cannot be broken for these without the approval of politicians, federal, state, and local. The gatekeepers are still with us, in the form of federal, state, and local regulators. And this is the key to understanding the emerging Media Trust, taking shape before our eyes in the preliminary form of AOLTiWa – and Matt Drudge’s well-justified pessimism about the future of the Internet.
Do you really believe that just anyone can start digging up the ground and laying down cable? Go out and try it. Forced to deal with state-privileged monopolies, content providers will pay dearly for access to the high-speed information highway – if they can afford it at all. The evolving New Media made up of independent news providers and alternative, decentralized nodes of opinion-making will be stopped dead in its tracks: the technology that catapulted them to the cutting edge will have reached a bottleneck through which they cannot pass. Far from symbolizing the triumph of the New Media, the AOL-Time Warner merger marks the victory of the Old Media over its nascent competitors. Drudge mourns this as "the death of the new media," and, if so, the obituary headline should read: "Strangled in the Crib."
The world Case and his corporate minions are preparing for us is reflected and prefigured in the artificial cyber-universe he created, the self-referential and highly controlled AOL system, with its network of chat rooms, posting boards, email, and instant messaging. The AOL world is relentlessly policed by guardians of political correctness who would have shut John Rocker up before he even opened his mouth. During the Clinton impeachment crisis, chat rooms were tirelessly patrolled by AOL censors, who immediately gagged anyone for even the slightest criticism of the President’s Caligulan excesses. This was one of the reasons for the birth of FreeRepublic.com, the famous conservative posting board and online community: founder Jim Robinson and friends chafed mightily under the strict rules imposed by AOL’s Clintonian commissars. In any case, the insufferability of the AOL Thought Police is legendary, and you can follow the links yourself for plenty of horror stories.
I would just point out that the movement to impose "hate speech" laws in this country, similar to the "speech codes" that exist on our college campuses, is making great strides against the First Amendment – and the creation of an incipient Media Trust for the age of the Internet is a giant step in that direction. This way, we don’t even need to pass official legislation, and it never comes up for a vote: we simply use the "private sector" to define and enforce political correctness – by creating a media monopoly that exists because of government intervention in the economy.
Make no mistake: this is not the product of laissez-faire capitalism, or a truly free market. We may be in the age of the Internet, said to be inherently libertarian, but we still have with us the legacy of the television era: a highly regulated economic environment, in which the government doled out access to the airwaves while holding them as a "public trust." The development of cable technology broke the monopoly of the networks – and established yet another monopolistic system, or at least a series of local and regional monopolies. The infrastructure set up by these highly regulated and politically-driven markets is the material and technological basis of the evolving Media Trust, and in this sense the AOLTiWa merger is a harbinger of the future. The immediate future may not be One Big Media Company perhaps there will be two or three global conglomerates but in the realm of newsgathering and opinion-making the effect will be virtually the same.
The apparent demise of the Internet’s original vision of radical decentralization does not mean the end of alternative venues, but only their increased marginalization. Any "content" produced outside of the Big Three, or the Two Majors, will be relegated to the sidelines, or else quickly absorbed into the "mainstream." It’s the end of history, online as well as off, the endpoint in the evolution of the Internet. From now on, the Media Trust will not only record history but also rewrite it, erase it, and recreate it at will.
Well, then, is that it? What can anybody do about it? Asking government regulators to come in and repair what they have damaged, right a wrong they made possible, is just asking for more of the same. No one can predict what turn technology will take, least of all me. It could be that those precious cables will soon be rotting in the ground, abandoned for some wireless cable-less innovation, and the bottleneck will soon be broken. An upsurge of popular outrage at the plans of the monopolists could break up the cable monopolies and establish a free market cable delivery system more efficiently and productively. The great danger is that the government will be called in to "fix" the problem – by the very foxes that have had their eyes on the hen house all along. That is the story of "reform" and "trust-busting," from the era of Teddy Roosevelt to the present day.
It seems that nothing short of a social and political revolution will dislodge the elites in government and the media as cultural gatekeepers and arbiters of political correctness. As to whether or not such a revolution is on the horizon – that’s another column. For now, let us conclude that the much-vaunted role of technology as a way to automatically and effortlessly achieve liberty by rendering government irrelevant was a myth that deserved debunking. I never believed it. It looks like we are learning, the hard way, that elites never give up their power voluntarily, and never leave quietly.
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