A few numbers tell a dramatic story about extreme changes in media fascination with the Internet.

After the 1990s ended, I set out to gauge how news coverage of cyberspace shifted during the last half of the decade. The comprehensive Nexis database yielded some revealing statistics:

  •   In 1995, media outlets were transfixed with the Internet as an amazing source of knowledge. Major newspapers in the United States and abroad referred to the "information superhighway" in 4,562 stories. Meanwhile, during the entire year, articles mentioned "e-commerce" or "electronic commerce" only 915 times.
  •   In 1996, coverage of the Internet as an "information superhighway" fell to 2,370 stories in major newspapers, about half the previous year's level. At the same time, coverage of electronic commerce nearly doubled, with mentions in 1,662 articles.
  •   For the first time, in 1997 the news media's emphasis on the Internet mainly touted it as a commercial avenue. The quantity of articles in major newspapers mentioning the "information superhighway" dropped sharply, to just 1,314. Meanwhile, the references to e-commerce gained further momentum, jumping to 2,812 articles.
  •   In 1998, despite an enormous upsurge of people online, the concept of an "information superhighway" appeared in only 945 articles in major newspapers. Simultaneously, e-commerce became a media obsession, with those newspapers referring to it in 6,403 articles.
  •   In 1999, while Internet usage continued to grow by leaps and bounds, the news media played down "information superhighway" imagery (with a mere 842 mentions in major papers). But media mania for electronic commerce exploded. Major newspapers mentioned e-commerce in 20,641 articles.

How did America's most influential daily papers frame the potentialities of the Internet? During the last five years of the 1990s, the annual number of Washington Post articles mentioning the "information superhighway" went from 178 to 20, while such New York Times articles went from 100 to 17. But during the same half decade, the yearly total of stories referring to electronic commerce zoomed -- rising in the Post from 19 to 430 and in the Times from 52 to 731.

In other prominent American newspapers, the pattern was similar. The Los Angeles Times stalled out on the "information superhighway," going from 192 stories in 1995 to a measly 33 in 1999; Chicago Tribune articles went from 170 to 22. Meanwhile, the e-commerce bandwagon went into overdrive: The L.A. Times accelerated from 24 to 1,243 stories per year. The Chicago Tribune escalated from 8 to 486.

Five years ago, there was tremendous enthusiasm for the emerging World Wide Web. Talk about the "information superhighway" evoked images of freewheeling, wide-ranging exploration. The phrase suggested that the Web was primarily a resource for learning and communication. Today, according to the prevalent spin, the Web is best understood as a way to make and spend money.

The drastic shift in media coverage mirrors the strip-malling of the Web by investors with deep pockets and neon sensibilities. But mainstream news outlets have been prescriptive as well as descriptive. They aren't merely reporting on the big-bucks transformation of the Internet, they're also hyping it -- and often directly participating. Many of the same mega-firms that dominate magazine racks and airwaves are now dominating the Web with extensively promoted sites.

Yes, e-mail can be wonderful. Yes, the Internet has proven invaluable for activists with high ideals and low budgets. And yes, Web searches can locate a lot of information within seconds. But let's get a grip on what has been happening to the World Wide Web overall.

The news media's recalibration of public expectations for the Internet has occurred in tandem with the steady commercialization of cyberspace. More and more, big money is weaving the Web, and the most heavily trafficked websites reflect that reality. Almost all of the Web's largest-volume sites are now owned by huge conglomerates. Even search-engine results are increasingly skewed, with priority placements greased by behind-the-scenes fees.

These days, "information superhighway" sounds outmoded and vaguely quaint. The World Wide Web isn't supposed to make sense nearly as much as it's supposed to make money. All glory to electronic commerce! As Martha Stewart rejoiced in a December 1998 Newsweek essay: "The Web gives us younger, more affluent buyers."

Establishing a pantheon of cyber-heroes, media coverage has cast businessmen like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Steve Case as great visionaries. If your hopes for the communications future are along the lines of Microsoft, and America Online, you'll be mighty pleased.

Norman Solomon's latest book The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media: Decoding Spin and Lies in Mainstream News has just won the 1999 George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language, presented by the National Council of Teachers of English.