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Are the media really clear on readers' No. 1 right?

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First it was the Gannett Company, the nation's largest newspaper chain, buying the respected Des Moines Register for $200 million in January. Then Time Inc. paid $480 million for Southern Living and a group of other regional magazines in February.

In early March The New Yorker was sold to S. I. Newhouse Jr.'s privately held cable television and newspaper company for $142 million.

Several weeks later the Washington Post picked up a significant interest in Cowles Media, publisher of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, for an undisclosed sum.

And then came the blockbuster: The relatively unknown Capital Cities Communications acquired the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) for $3.5 billion.

By now, the widely reported financial pressures and incentives behind this spate of media mergers are reasonably clear. So, too, are the combinations of money, power, glamour, and personality -- that old Hollywood formula for success -- that make this such a corker of a news story.

But there is a larger issue here. It has little to do with communications companies as moneymakers or as fathomless subjects for gossip. It centers on the fact that these firms are all, one way or another, involved in what is loosely known as ``the public's right to know.'' The most important question, then, is not who gets rich or who gets fired. It is whether such changes portend a monopolizing of the channels of information that will seriously affect the way we get our news and view our world.

It's not an idle question. Consider the context into which these events have swirled:

The CIA reportedly drafted a bill for White House consideration that would make the unauthorized disclosure of classified information a crime. The bill, which would impose stiff penalties, was aimed at drying up the press ``leaks'' that stimulate a fair amount of Washington-based reporting. Last week the bill was dropped.

In a pretrial ruling in Baltimore, a federal district judge has held that Samuel Loring Morison, a civilian employee of the Navy, is guilty of selling secret intelligence photographs to Jane's Defence Weekly, a British magazine. If he is convicted, the case could set a precedent which, some observers feel, might seriously impair the open public debate of military issues.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and a group known as Fairness in Media are complaining about what they see as a ``liberal bias'' on CBS television news -- and are calling on conservatives to buy shares in CBS in order to ``become Dan Rather's boss.''


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