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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Titan Is Threat to News Independence

WASHINGTON -- Fortune magazine reporter Marc Gunther had been scheduled to visit the chairman of America Online in Dulles, Virginia, on Monday for a story whose working headline was "Steve Case Wants to Take Over the World."

At 6 a.m., an AOL executive called Gunther to cancel the interview. "We're buying your company," she said.

The stunning deal under which Case's cyberspace giant is acquiring Time Inc.'s magazines and CNN, among other assets, has sparked a gigabyte's worth of questions about whether they can fairly cover not just AOL but the exploding Internet industry in which it is such a dominant player.

"They are now competing in pretty much every aspect of the Internet business you can think of," James Ledbetter, New York bureau chief of Industry Standard magazine, said of the news organizations.

"Virtually every company they could possibly report on is now either a partner or a competitor."

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, pointed to ABC's problems reporting on Disney - including the killing of a story on a Disney theme park - after the entertainment conglomerate acquired the network. "You just multiply that beyond comprehension and that's how many conflicts there are," he said of the AOL-Time Warner merger. "It's a serious problem: Will people believe them?"

Gunther, who flew to New York to cover the announcement, put it this way: "When I wrote about AOL before, it was clean. Now I'm covering our parent company. ... Readers and viewers have to approach these big companies with a high degree of skepticism."

The merger means that Case, whose only journalistic experience was on his high school newspaper, is suddenly a major media mogul. As with General Electric's Jack Welch, Viacom's Sumner Redstone and Disney's Michael Eisner, the takeover will put him in charge of some of the world's best-known news organizations.

George Vradenburg, AOL's senior vice president for global and strategic policy, said Time and CNN "will have the same degree of independence that they have today. They're permitted to write as they see fit," even if that includes criticism of AOL.

At a more fundamental level, several analysts said this week, the creation of the world's largest media and cyberspace company seems to muddy the original dream of the Internet as a democratizing force that would enable thousands of individual voices to compete with major media organs.

But the rapid expansion of newspaper, magazine and network sites on the web has given it a decidedly corporate cast.

"It's a plus if you're one of their shareholders," said Mark Crispin Miller, director of New York University's Project on Media Ownership. "But is there something good about one very large entity being able to reach everybody?"

Said Ledbetter: "The wonders of the information age are in the hands of very few companies."