Many college students woke up this past Wednesday morning to find their number one source of information, Wikipedia, blocked. In Wikipedia’s place was a short article explaining the decision of Wikipedia and other internet companies, such as Google, to “blackout” in protest against proposed United States legislation- the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate. My Facebook feed became overwhelmed with statuses lamenting the loss of Wikipedia, but also questioning the nature of these relatively unknown bills that had caused such a response from these fundamental internet sites.
As a result of the internet blackout, in one day, more than 4.5 million people signed Google’s petition urging Congress to reject the legislation that has since been nicknamed “the most important bills in Congress you may have never heard of.” Four months after these bills were introduced to Congress, Americans were learning of these bills for the first time. How had legislation so important to the American public remained hidden from the public view for so long?
The answer to that question is found in the list of organizations supporting the bill- media corporations who own the news organizations that bring you your nightly news. Five of the Big Six media conglomerates own news organizations: General Electric, owner of NBC News; Walt Disney, owner of ABC News; TimeWarner, owner of CNN; NewsCorp, owner of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal; and CBS corporation, owner of CBS News. Media ownership seems to be playing a role in the lack of coverage of this important news story. Media Matters, a media watchdog organization, conducted a study of all major broadcast and cable news networks’ prime time news coverage of SOPA and PIPA in the few months after the legislation was introduced. The study found that as of early January, there had been no coverage of SOPA and PIPA except for one short segment on CNN.
Online coverage of these bills has also been relatively scarce. While NPR, a publically funded news organization, has been covering SOPA and PIPA since November, ABC News published its first online news story about SOPA on December 30th. However it should be noted that CBS, one of the Big Six, has been posting online news articles regarding SOPA and PIPA since November as well.
Since the internet blackout, coverage has increased. Unfortunately, very few news organizations have attempted to explain exactly what the legislation entails. Online articles include vague references to the bills. For example, CBS describes the legislation as “intended to strengthen protections against copyright infringement and intellectual property theft.” Instead, news organizations have focused their energy on highlighting the battle of new media versus old by pitting Hollywood against Silicon Valley to heighten the drama of the story.
For those of you who still have unanswered questions about SOPA and PIPA, here is one example of great coverage by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that I encourage you to watch:
Not only does Hayes explain in detail the actual legislation, he also acknowledges the fact that his employer, NBCUniversal has openly supported the legislation. In this case, we should commend Hayes for not only acknowledging this ownership bias but also fulfilling his journalistic duty to cover the bills objectively and fairly even under these circumstances.