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Pity the press. The poor folks comprising the Fourth Estate think they are still relevant, and they bicker with each other over whether they are doing their jobs better or worse than before. Yet they are basically a self-satisfied lot, and they like nothing better than to interview each other about the day's events.

In a column headlined "Raffish and Rowdy," Maureen Dowd of The New York Times concedes the press is a "noisy, imperfect lot struggling to scribble what has been called the first draft of history."

But when one of their own gets a little too noisy or rowdy they quickly try to smooth over the incident for fear of offending the very establishment that they so fearlessly write about. When radio "shock jock" Don Imus took shots at not only Hillary and Bill but the three network anchors at the White House press dinner the other week, the Washington press corps was aghast. But these same people, after an appropriate absence, will slink back to his show sucking up to him again, because Imus provides a forum for reporters to spout off.

Mr. Imus must be getting a big laugh out of all this. He knows he and his reporter guests are discussing a world where what they say really matters. It's quaint and even kind of cute, but it's also far removed from the real world.

Here's the real world. CBS hypes its ratings having Elizabeth Taylor do cameos on four of its sitcoms in one evening, turning some of CBS' most valuable programming assets into "shills," as we editorialized. Or here's the real world: ABC trades putting a sponsor's name on the new Dana Carvey show for spoofs of the sponsor during comedy sketches. The real world is when CBS and ABC cave in to pressures from cigarette companies and pull back on exposing some of the cigarette companies' dirty little secrets. And was it happenstance that ABC issued an apology to Philip Morris when Disney was all set to buy the network? In the real world, Cap Cities/ABC looked much more attractive without a potential $10 billion lawsuit getting in the way.

What concerns me is that these shenanigans will seem like child's play compared with what could happen next. The growing and complex entanglements and alliances of media companies make it next to impossible to discern whether stories and articles are designed to inform or curry favor with a future partner or affiliate.

With telephone companies buying cable companies, computer companies doing deals with long-distance telephone companies, liquor companies buying entertainment companies, magazine publishers merging with music and movie studios, the entire media landscape is becoming a series of interlocking relationships-on a worldwide scale.

Maybe traditional journalism isn't completely dead and buried, but it sure isn't displaying many vital signs. Reporters can yap on endlessly about how they are doing a better job of informing the public, but there are forces that are rendering objective reporting a relic of another era.

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