When faced with a gargantuan merger like AOL Time Warner Inc., some media outlets seem to lose their perspective faster than you can say Road Runner. The blitz of media coverage has treated this business deal as if it were the discovery of a lost continent. Look at The New York Times: On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Times ran or blurbed ten stories about the merger on its front page, compared to one story about the presidential contest.
But guess what? The AOL-Time Warner merger is far more interesting than the presidential race; it's probably more important.
No one wants to be an apologist for voter apathy, but there's no sense in denying it either. A Harvard-affiliated outfit called the Vanishing Voter Project reported this week that a small majority, 52 percent, of people polled had paid no attention to the presidential contest in the last week. In addition, nearly nine out of ten said they had spent no time in the previous day thinking about the presidential race.
Granted, it's early in the race. Voter interest will undoubtedly rise as the general election nears. There is also some truth to the oft-heard, cynical argument that apathy reflects satisfaction, and therefore isn't the worst possible situation.
Beyond those eternal forces, there are specific weaknesses to this campaign, and the AOL-Time Warner merger inadvertently spotlights them.
1) AOL Time Warner affects people's lives in concrete ways - not necessarily because of the merger's size, but because both companies already have a powerful hold on the public mind. The numbers rolled out during the AOL Time Warner press conference were truly impressive: AOL has 20 million paying subscribers in the U.S.; Time Warner's HBO alone has 35 million paying subscribers. Together, just those properties represent more people than will vote in presidential primaries.
Just ask yourself: How many intense conversations have you heard about how Bill Bradley's health care proposal will affect Medicaid, versus how many conversations have you heard about what will happen in the second season of The Sopranos?
2) Business stories are the dramas of this age. If it seems like enormous, obsessive amounts of time and energy are being paid to the question of AOL and Time Warner's stock strategy, that's because it's true. Like it or not, more than 50 percent of Americans now own stocks or mutual funds in some form.
Following the stock market is a national pastime: It is a leading conversational thrust in the workplace, at family gatherings, in bars and restaurants.
Like the Internet, the stock market gives Americans a sense of control, of having a stake in the outcome of public dramas. Is that illusory? In many ways, certainly. But it's not necessarily more illusory than insisting to people that every vote counts, or that the outcomes of individual elections will change their lives.
3) The AOL-Time Warner merger has had immediate international impact. The day after the merger was announced, Thomas Middelhoff, the CEO of German media giant Bertelsmann AG and AOL's single most important international ally, resigned from AOL's board, saying the merger made AOL into a competitor.
Considering that the deal is months, maybe a year, away from completion, that's a remarkable ripple effect.
By comparison, the presidential race seems nauseatingly parochial. Once presidents take office, their actions, obviously, can have tremendous international significance. At this stage of the race, however, local concerns are given microscopic attention. Did you see the Democratic debate in Iowa last weekend where Al Gore made a farmer stand up in the crowd, and then announced to the television audience that the poor schmuck had nearly lost his crops during the 1993 floods? Gore then had the audacity to ask Bradley why, in a Senate vote nearly seven years before, he'd voted against a farmer aid bill.
This kind of stuff would look cheesy in a race for the presidency of a local 4-H Club; the notion that the leadership of the free world (or, these days, the pay-per-view world) rests on such stunts is simply embarrassing.
4) Americans are in love with refining their consumption. That's the biggest subtext to the public fascination with AOL Time Warner. It's misguided and silly to treat CEOs like Steve Case and Gerald Levin as if they were important leaders of society. At the same time, they have succeeded in important areas where most American elected officials have failed: They respond effectively to what people want.
If AOL were just another Internet service provider, it would not have the hugely dominant market share it enjoys. By emulating the look and values of television, and by relentlessly simplifying the Net's complexities, AOL has molded itself to our national character. AOL is the Internet's answer to Ronald Reagan.
It's not that the current crop of presidential candidates doesn't try to deliver what voters say they want, but they do so in such narrow and cautious ways that the result is homogenization. They come off to voters as essentially interchangeable parts: There may be minor differences in policy or character, but they are likely to be exactly the same once in office.
With his cultivated maverick image, John McCain is arguably an exception - he may be the Netscape of this campaign. But remember what happened to Netscape.