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How Cable News Channels Are Covering the Piracy Law Debate (Analysis)

TV networks came late to the SOPA party, but now that they've shown up to provide discussion, how are they faring?

The Piracy Showdown

In his influential 1964 book, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhen posited, "The medium is the message," a nod to the growing information age reality that the delivery of expression is as important in shaping minds as the content itself. Had the Canadian philosopher lived to witness the last few weeks, he probably could have written a whole new chapter, as the online conversation surrounding the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) has been contrasted by the near silence on the issue by broadcast and cable news networks.

The dearth of TV talk about anti-piracy legislation has been a source of curiosity for SOPA opponents. They have have pointed to research reports showing MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, CBS, and NBC have ignored the subject and speculated that parent company interference has been responsible for this.

But in the last few days, facing web-wide protest including today's shut-down of WIkipedia, the TV newscasts have been bending on their failure to provide discussion. To borrow a term used in IP circles, these TV networks have been willfully blind, but now they see. Several on-air discussions of SOPA and the Protect-IP Act have commenced. What can we take from this? And will proponents and opponents of the anti-piracy bills like what they see?

Let's start with MSNBC, which on Saturday, became the first TV network (besides Current TV and Comedy Central) to lead a substantive discussion of the debate.

That conversation was led by host Chris Hayes, who introduced his segment by telling viewers about "the most important bill in Congress you may have never heard of."

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The discussion was a little tricky for Hayes, who has been openly tweeting about the challenges of putting together such a episode. Before the show, he exclaimed that "writing a compelling TV segment about SOPA is kind of hard!" After the show finished, he joked the show took a few years off his life, and mused what the expression of his bookers' faces would look like if he wanted to have Rupert Murdoch come on and talk about SOPA.

On the show, Hayes was joined by Richard Cotton, the top in-house counsel of MSNBC's parent company, who spoke broadly about the need for anti-piracy legislation and the "disinformation" promulgated by opponents. Also on the program was Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit.com. As Cotton put across the notion that it was inaccurate to describe the legislation as affecting US-based websites, both Hayes and Ohanian pushed back that it would.

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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.

Still, the episode was a breakthrough of sorts for the SOPA debate on television. The discussion might have passed through cable news' traditional cross-fire methodology of emphasizing ideological divisions and finding guests to represent both sides, but it did at least touch on substance in a way that had been missing up until that point. Here's a look:

Onto CNN, which has featured a handful of quick reports and interviews about the SOPA debate in recent days. One example is in the clip below from Wednesday night where host Erin Burnett interviews Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Burnett approaches the subject as if viewers are coming to it for the first time -- and if viewers are only getting their news from CNN, that very well could be true. 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. Here's a look:

Finally, let's take a look at Fox News.

On the network's Studio B show with Shepard Smith, the host and his guests had a conversation about the controversy. Smith featured a run-down of the major developments before a chat commenced about Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley.

Much of the conversation could have happened about 15 years ago during the rise of Napster. Smith steered the conversation to a morality play about whether IP holders deserve to be compensated. "If I create dinner and you want it, you have to pay, and I say you have to pay for it you do!” says Smith. “You cannot just take it. Isn’t the concept the same?”

Of course, few people in Silicon Valley would disagree with that sentiment, even if some in Hollywood doubt their sincerity.

Smith and his guest then touched on the DNS-blocking controversy before Smith introduced other guests on his panel. The conversation then goes back to the rights and wrongs of stealing. Here's a look:

For months, many people caught up in the SOPA saga have wondered why the issue has not been getting more attention on TV. Is it corporate influence? Maybe. But a stronger explanation seems to be that TV news hosts are themselves struggling to understand what's at stake and figuring out how to present it to viewers. As the above clips show, these TV personalities sometimes let personal feelings about piracy and free speech influence their coverage. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But when you're working in a medium that tends to emphasize the controversy of political process over the minutiae of policy substance, the inclination to look another way is understandable, if not acceptable.

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner