SOPA And The TV News Tradition Of Blacking Out Conflicts Of Interest

As Media Matters detailed last week, most of the cable and network television news outlets have been busy not reporting during the evening news shows on a sweeping, controversial piece of legislation that's being championed by the parent companies of the same television news outlets busy not covering the story.

The proposed legislation, strongly supported by American media giants such as Viacom*, News Corp. and Time Warner, is known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and it aims to curtail the amount of pirated content found for free on the Internet. But critics, including leading tech companies, complain that if passed in its current form SOPA would provide the Department of Justice with far-reaching powers to police piracy; powers that could severely limit internet freedom and choice.

And that's the debate big media television outlets have been virtually ignoring in their most-watched evening programming blocks.

Unfortunately, we have seen this pattern before where major media outlets, particularly television, have made minimal efforts to report on sweeping efforts by the government to rewrite (favorably) how their parent companies are allowed to do business.

Specifically, during the previous administration, network and cable news division routinely looked away in 2003 while the Federal Communications Commission readied to approve radical media ownership rules that would have allowed significant consolidation among by the likes of Viacom, Time Warner, News Corp. and NBC; the same companies that lobbied intensely to make sure the FCC's cross-ownership rule changes were put into place.

The proposed changes, championed by President Bush's FCC chairman Michael Powell, would have allowed media conglomerates to own up to eight properties in the same market, including three separate television stations. The changes would have piggybacked on the sweeping media consolidation that was ushered in with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. (The FCC's attempt to relax consolidation rules was overturned in by the courts last summer.)

But as the crucial FCC vote in June of 2003 approached, television news teams, much like today with SOPA, stayed mostly mum about the controversial measure. “The broadcast media has been absolutely atrocious on this issue,” said media author Robert McChesney at the time. “The coverage has been virtually nonexistent.”

The claim of a news blackout was highlighted by a poll at the time conducted by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, which found 72 percent of Americans had heard “nothing at all” about the possible change in media ownership rules.

My hunch is that figure would be even higher today if Pew asked Americans what they have learned about SOPA from watching television news.

*CLARIFICATION: Media Matters' report detailing the lack of SOPA television news coverage incorrectly referenced Viacom as the parent company of CBS. CBS is currently owned by the CBS Corporation, which split from Viacom in 2005.