If the only place you get your news is from the Sunday talk shows, you would not have been informed in the slightest today about the political and technological battle over the Stop Online Piracy Act last week. Yes, there was a huge primary yesterday that completely up-ended the Republican contest, but you’d figure a powerful people-powered protest resulting in some of the biggest and most visited websites either blacking out or using their resources to raise awareness of the bill would garner at least a brief discussion today.
The only exception was Howard Kurtz, who did his due diligence bringing up the conflicts of interest inherent in the media’s coverage of SOPA and how some networks were better at disclosing such conflicts than others. However, Kurtz only brought this up at the tail end of Reliable Sources for about two minutes, so if you weren’t paying close attention, you might have missed it.
And it’s not just the Sunday shows. On Wednesday, the day of the blackout, none of the primetime shows on MSNBC and Fox News brought up SOPA or the blackout at all except for Rachel Maddow. It’s honestly embarrassing. Yes, it’s awful and/or hilarious how the rest of the Republicans are going after Mitt Romney for being a wealthy venture capitalist. And who knew that Newt Gingrich had marital issues?
But if your argument defending these hosts is “Oh, well they probably had more important issues to cover!” how is it that Lawrence O’Donnell found time to talk about ModernFamilyFuckGate but not the blackout? I completely agree with his position on profanity, but when in the editorial process did they decide “Internet freedom is good, but ABC primetime programming is just a little better”?
This needs to be part of the conversation. We are talking about the future of the internet. And whether you support SOPA or oppose it, we all use the internet. That’s how you’re able to read this column right now. There has been some coverage of SOPA and the like last week in the lead-up to and in the reaction to Wednesday’s blackout, but it was noticeably marginalized.
It was encouraging to see John King ask the GOP candidates about SOPA during last week’s CNN debate, but with the exception of Ron Paul, I don’t think any of these candidates actually cares about the bill. Gingrich had a good line explaining that as a Republican, it would be foolish of him to look out for the best interests of Hollywood. But only Paul has been bringing up SOPA without being prompted, because he actually forms opinions on things before the media starts to notice them and doesn’t immediately drop an issue just because the media coverage has ended. In fact, Paul gave a shout-out to anti-SOPA activists during his post-primary speech last night, though he accidentally referred to the bill as the “Stop Online Gambling Act.”
To Romney’s credit, he did come out against the bill even though its author, Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, endorsed him back in October. But Paul is the only candidate who understands more people really need to be informed about this issue. And they would be, if not for the fact that the media’s coverage of it has been increasingly lacking.
The day of the blackout, Hollywood Reporter’s Eriq Gardner examined the media coverage of SOPA leading up to Wednesday’s protest. It was relatively satisfying for people concerned about the bill to see anchors like Chris Hayes and Erin Burnett bring the topic up for discussion on their programs, but Gardner took issue with how they personally handled the discussion.
Hayes wanted to know why so many people were protesting the “consequences of legislative change,” struggling to figure out a way to steer the debate where he wanted — or needed — it to go: the potential obligations, for better or worse, of US-based tech companies to do something about foreign-based piracy.
Burnett talks about discovering a little website called Pirate Bay, and tosses a softball to Wales about whether the site is a problem. Yes, says Wales. She follows it up by asking for an example of how the legislation would restrict free speech. Not a terrible query, but we wonder if Burnett is really listening to any of the answers given. At an earlier point in the interview when Wales is describing DNS-blocking, Burnett is murmuring assent as if she wants to get onto her next question on her checklist, and after getting a cursory response to the free speech question, Burnett is already onto her next topic by invoking Murdoch’s most basic criticism.
In short, Burnett highlights the most heated rhetoric in the debate and in doing so, demonstrates a lack of patience and curiosity about what’s really going on.
On Greta Van Susteren‘s website, the only item that mentions SOPA is a press release from Lamar Smith’s office posted verbatim the day before the blackout. And on the day of the blackout, MPAA head Chris Dodd appeared on Morning Joe to defend the bill. In the video below, Dodd refers to the blackouts by Wikipedia and others as an abuse of power, with not much of what he’s saying being challenged by the hosts.
Bill Maher dismissed worries about internet freedom as a “red herring,” but it’s a very real concern shared by people inside the tech industry and legal experts. Some coverage of this bill has basically been no more than “Well, the bill is called the Stop Online Piracy Act. Why don’t you want to stop online piracy? Huh?” That’s not the point. The difference of opinion is not whether piracy is good or bad, but what is the best method to deal with piracy. But by giving the bill that misleading title, it hoodwinks some of the less aware media personalities into assuming that is what the debate boils down to.
Here’s another example. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who proposed SOPA in the first place, has another bill out there called the Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act. If all you knew about the bill was its title, you’d automatically assume that anyone opposing it is okay with internet pornographers. Once again, it misses the point. A provision of the PCIPA that applies to all Americans, not just people accused of child pornography, mandates that all ISPs collect information for all users including “customers’ names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and temporarily-assigned IP addresses.”
Some blogs and message boards have been trying to bring some attention to the PCIPA and the ACTA treaty being voted on soon by the European Union to create internationally mandated limitations on the internet in other nations, but they’ve gotten almost no traction. Anyone who understands the media knows it has enormous power to shape the agenda. And based on how the media coverage of SOPA is back to almost non-existent, many people might wrongly assume the debate is over and the bill has been shelved for good. SOPA and its Senate counterpart PIPA have not been “killed,” as some media outlets have phrased it. They have merely retreated for now, ready to strike again long after people have stopped caring. SOPA will be revisited a few weeks or months down the road, but the media can still look into all these different government efforts to regulate the internet and try to at least have an open and honest dialogue with people about it.
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