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SOPA Debate Occurring in Media Vacuum

The opposition to a pair of Internet censorship bills in Congress has grown over the past week. The Online News Association delivered its opposition to the bills, joining the American Society of Newspaper Editors. As these are rights holders and content creators who would stand to gain from anti-piracy legislation, it’s significant. The State Department, reeling from charges that their ambassador to Spain pressured that country’s government to pass its own anti-piracy law, declined to take a position on SOPA or PIPA, the bills working through the House and the Senate, respectively. This is a step back from what looked like a tacit endorsement of the bill by Hillary Clinton, in a letter to Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA). Then today, Paul Ryan came out against SOPA:

The internet is one of the most magnificent expressions of freedom and free enterprise in history. It should stay that way. While H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act, attempts to address a legitimate problem, I believe it creates the precedent and possibility for undue regulation, censorship and legal abuse. I do not support H.R. 3261 in its current form and will oppose the legislation should it come before the full House.

The bills, which have split coalitions, are starting to wane in support. The outcome is genuinely unclear. This would seem to be a situation where the media would have interest. But that’s where you would be wrong. In fact, as this Media Matters story makes clear, broadcast networks in particular, which have corporate parents in favor of the legislation, have almost totally ignored it.

ABC and CBS are listed as supporters of the bill on the House Judiciary Committee website, along with Comcast/NBCUniversal (which owns MSNBC and NBC News), Viacom (CBS), News Corporation (Fox News), and Time Warner (CNN). Disney Publishing Worldwide, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Corporation, which owns ABC, is also listed as a supporter, as are other Disney properties such as ESPN and Hyperion publishing.

To their credit, the online arms of most of these news outlets have posted regular articles about the fight over the legislation, but their primetime TV broadcasts remain mostly silent.

The media watchdog Free Press has a petition out to the news directors of ABC, NBC, MSNBC and Fox, asking them why they have not said a word on their air about this legislation, probably among the biggest issues Congress will tackle this year.

The Senate version of the bill will come to the floor when they get back from recess in two weeks.

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David Dayen

David Dayen