REPORT: News Networks Ignore Controversial SOPA Legislation

For an updated version of this report, click here.

Controversial legislation that the co-founder of Google has warned “would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world” has received virtually no coverage from major American television news outlets during their evening newscasts and opinion programming. The parent companies of most of these networks, as well as two of the networks themselves, are listed as official “supporters” of this legislation on the U.S. House of Representatives' website.

As the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) makes its way through Congress, most major television news outlets -- MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, CBS, and NBC -- have ignored the bill during their evening broadcasts. One network, CNN, devoted a single evening segment to it. (The data on lack of coverage is based on a search of the Lexis-Nexis database since October 1, 2011. The Nexis database does not include comprehensive daytime coverage, and also does not include Shep Smith's 7pm nightly Fox News program, so both are excluded from the study.)

Over the past few months, debate over SOPA and its companion Senate bill, the PROTECT IP Act (also known as PIPA) has boiled over online. Numerous tech writers, experts, and companies have spoken out against the bills, warning that while they ostensibly target online piracy and “rogue” foreign websites hosting pirated copyrighted content, the bills could severely limit internet freedom and innovation.

NY Times media columnist David Carr, who described the legislation as “alarming in its reach,” explained in a column earlier this week that “digitally oriented companies see SOPA as dangerous and potentially destructive to the open Web and a step toward the kind of intrusive Internet regulation that has made China a global villain to citizens of the Web.”

The legislation also has powerful supporters. As Carr laid out in his article, “Virtually every traditional media company in the United States loudly and enthusiastically supports SOPA.” This includes the parent companies of the TV news outlets now ignoring the fury over the bill during their primetime broadcasts, as well as two of the channels themselves.

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), 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.

Several major companies, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, and eBay published a joint letter to Congress in November expressing serious concerns about the pending legislation and declaring that the measures to combat piracy in the bills “pose a serious risk to our industry's continued track record of innovation and job creation, as well as to our nation's cybersecurity.”

In December, users of Reddit, the influential social news website, organized a boycott of major internet domain registrar GoDaddy after that company's support for SOPA was publicized. After customers -- including prominent organizations like Wikipedia -- pledged to start transferring domains to different companies, GoDaddy issued a statement claiming that the company now “opposes SOPA.”

Despite all of this, the response from American television news outlets has been to almost completely ignore the story during their evening programming. The lone exception was a segment on CNN's The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer in December, during which CNN parent company Time Warner's support for the legislation was not disclosed. (Though Fox News Channel has apparently not touched the story during evening programming, conservative/libertarian host Andrew Napolitano has run several segments vocally opposing SOPA on his program, which runs on the separate Fox Business Network.)

The fight over SOPA does not fit into the usual left vs. right narrative that occupies so much of the political horserace coverage with which TV news outlets fill their schedules. The cosponsors of SOPA come from both sides of the aisle. Likewise, the most vocal opponents of SOPA in Congress are an ideologically diverse bunch, including Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Ron Paul (R-TX) and Darrel Issa (R-CA).

Online, opposition to SOPA has also come from a wide ideological spectrum. Conservative writer Erick Erickson penned a piece for Red State last month proposing a bipartisan effort to raise funds for candidates to challenge the incumbent cosponsors of the bill.

Note about methodology:

I reviewed Lexis-Nexis transcripts since October 1, 2011 for any references to the Stop Online Piracy Act, the PROTECT IP Act, and related terms. Since the Nexis database does not include comprehensive transcripts for daytime programming on news channels, the search focused on broadcasts at 5pm or later that are available in the database. Shep Smith's nightly 7pm Fox News program is not available in the Nexis database, so it is not included in this study.

I used the following search:

publications (ABC or NBC or CBS or MSNBC or Fox News or Fox or CNN) and (internet or web or website or webpage or rogue websites or rogue sites or pirated or intellectual property or online or piracy or Stop Online Piracy Act or Protect IP or SOPA or PIPA or Lamar Smith)

**CORRECTION: The original version of this report incorrectly referenced Viacom as the parent company of CBS. CBS is currently owned by the CBS Corporation, which split from Viacom in 2005. I regret the error.