Changing the Dynamics: The Press Sphere
The recent legislation against Internet piracy, brought to Congress in the forms of SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act), and the subsequent protests against the Acts exploded onto the news scene in traditional media as well as not-so-traditional sources. By and by, it took about a millisecond for the entire nation to know about the impeding legislation and about two milliseconds for the rest of the world to find out. The impact of this story on the legislation was as swift as it was devastating. The fact that this story went “viral” so quickly and had such a huge impact says a lot about our current media system today, how it is changing and what influences the stories we, the people, get to hear about.
The story about SOPA and PIPA did not actually become a story until a large-scale protest was organized by some of the biggest names in the digital media world, such as; Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter. The initial reporting of the story in traditional media focused largely on the protests rather than the Acts themselves with headlines like, “Internet community cheers power of protest; Hundreds of websites showed their support”, an article written by Roger Yu and Jon Swartz in USA TODAY (Internet Community), or “Tech companies boldly protest anti-piracy bills”, an article written by Beth Krietsch in PR Week Magazine (Tech). The first stories to surface about the protests were posted the Tuesday before “Black Wednesday” (the name given to the protest) went into effect, but even then only a small number of stories were published before the actual protests began. According to Ben Dimiero’s report, “News Networks Ignore Controversial SOPA Legislation”, (which was posted on January 5th, 2012. Black Wednesday occurred on January 19th, 2012) next-to-nothing was reported by traditional media about SOPA and PIPA themselves. Dimiero writes,
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” (Dimiero).
Apparently, SOPA and PIPA had been extensively debated through sources on the Internet, from blogs to forums to memes, for several months leading up to the Black Wednesday Protests and had yet to be even remotely discussed in the traditional media. Dimiero does give some credit where credit is due and writes in his report that, “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” (Dimiero).
Dimiero’s report unveils an interesting perspective of today’s media system and press sphere as a whole. The reporting of SOPA and PIPA shows us is that today’s media system is centered on events. The bigger the event and the more important the event, the more reporting is done. Now, there are huge discussions to be had about what is deemed “big and important” by the press and why, but that is a debate for another day. For now, lets leave it at this: SOPA and PIPA were not deemed important news until after the Black Wednesday Protests. As Nick Tan, a blogger for the website Game Revolution, so eloquently writes,
So either mainstream media is extremely slow to pick up on things (definitely possible), they're being paid not to cover it or to cover it once and then slip it under the radar (also possible), or they've been waiting for something big to happen like today's SOPA Blackout on the internet to give a hoot about it (probably). Parentheses are original.
Both Tan and Dimiero discuss what is, and perhaps more importantly, what is not reported in Traditional media. But why wouldn’t traditional media report on an issue that people obviously care about? Well, Tan lists some very compelling reasons that other people have mentioned as well. In Josh Feldman’s article, “As Major Companies Plan Blackout Protest, Where Has The Mainstream Media Been On Coverage Of SOPA?” Feldman, who points to the fact that the parent companies of most major media sources were, in fact, in support of SOPA and PIPA and yet did not spend anytime covering the bills in the least. Feldman writes,
Either the network brass is pressuring the news division to not cover the legislation at all (the more conspiratorial point of view), or news anchors are simply avoiding their stories so as not to put their jobs on the line. Some will argue that, perhaps, news anchors are avoiding the story because there is so much more on their platter– why spend an entire segment explaining the serious consequences of a convoluted bill when you have a ten-second soundbite of Rick Santorum maybe saying the work “black“? Whether the possibility exists or not, it does not exonerate reporters from their responsibility to report”(Feldman).
In the end, Feldman writes that while Eric Boehlert believes that “People are smart when it comes to their careers, and may feel that raising the story isn’t a good way to get along with their parent companies,” he believes that reporters knew the story wouldn’t go over well. Feldman writes, “I suspect the networks are smart enough to understand that no matter how much you try to put a smiley face on it, alarm bells go off in people’s heads when they hear the phrase ‘regulate the internet’”(Feldman).
Despite Traditional Media’s somewhat questionable efforts to avoid the story, it got out to the public anyway. The efforts of the Digital Media Giants basically forced Traditional Media’s hand and required them to run the story: highlighting the powerful influence the Internet now holds over the press.
After the initial Black Wednesday Protests the story quickly shifted focus from the main event to the response to the event. This sort of shift is a natural progression for a typical news story, especially a story as big as the protests against SOPA and PIPA. People want to know what happens next, they want to know more. Thus, we began to see stories that expanded their focus and delved into greater detail. We saw stories that explained the SOPA and PIPA legislation in more detail, stories that focused on the pros and cons to the legislation and stories that discussed the viewpoints of the legislation’s opponents and defenders. However, what is unnatural about this particular story’s development is how self-reflective it has forced media to become. News writers and bloggers across the board all noticed that the SOPA and PIPA protests were a shining example of Internet’s vast potential to influence the press sphere and, in turn, the political landscape as a whole. The Huffington Post’s article, “SOPA And PIPA Bills: Online Companies Win Piracy Fight” points out that,
Just weeks ago, the bills seemed headed toward quiet approval with bipartisan backing…The turnabout was so unexpected that some think the online world's triumph signals a pivotal moment marking its arrival as Washington's newest power broker. ‘This does serve as a watershed moment,’ said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a communications professor at the State University of New York at Albany who studies how political groups use high technology. "Certain channels for communication that people routinely use have the power to get their users to become political activists on their behalf (AP).
The huge response garnered by the Black Wednesday Protests has shown the world just how far-reaching and widely used digital media has become. With that reach comes an immense amount of political power for the Digital Media Giants, a power that most (even the giants themselves, I think) did not know they had. The Huffington Post is but one of the many news providers, worldwide, that has realized the power the Internet now holds. In an editorial published in The Observer, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, the author writes, “Little people? Facebook, Apple and Google are embryo media masters of the planet. Perhaps we still tremble about BSkyB's cash clout or Fox News’s baleful influence, but that's not the way News International sees the future. It feels weak, vulnerable and scared” (The Internet). The Observer notes the power shift from traditional media to the less traditional media of the Internet. The Internet took a story that the traditional media had previously ignored and turned it into an international media sensation. According to The Observer, the idea that digital media now has a greater influence over international news has News International more than a little nervous.
Of course all this talk of power poses a larger question, where did this power come from? The International Herald Tribune answers that question in its article, “Internet generation flexes its lobbying muscle; An impromptu coalition halted copyright bills, but can it hold together?” The author writes,
Can the Internet industry, along with legions of newly politicized Web users, be a new force in Washington? And if so, what else can they all agree upon? If labor unions once amplified the legislative agenda of certain American industries, the anti-piracy fight showed the power of a different force: young Americans who live and breathe the Internet (Internet Generation).
The Huffington Post and The International Herald Tribune both note the underlying reason the Internet has gained so much power; young Americans use the Internet as their source for news more than almost every other media tool that exists today. There lies the strange self-reflective quality of this news story. Through the press sphere this story has morphed into a story about the future of the press sphere.
Through the press sphere the Black Wednesday Protests became more than just a story about protests against anti-piracy bills, the protests became a symbol of a new age. The interaction of the press, the simple reporting, the claims and counter-claims, the expanding and forwarding of ideas, serves to dig out from a story its essential meaning and purpose. For the SOPA/PIPA story its implications became very clear: a new era of News Media has arrived and with it comes a shift in the power balance between traditional media, digital media and, subsequently, the entire political landscape of how we, the people, receive and influence our news.
AP. "SOPA And PIPA Bills: Online Companies Win Piracy Fight." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 21 Jan. 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/21/sopa-and-pipa-bills-anti-piracy-legislation_n_1220817.html>.
Dimiero, Ben. "REPORT: News Networks Ignore Controversial SOPA Legislation." Media Matters for America. 5 Jan. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2012. <http://mediamatters.org/blog/201201050008>.
Feldman, Josh. "As Major Companies Plan Blackout Protest, Where Has The Mainstream Media Been On Coverage Of SOPA?" Mediaite.com. 8 Jan. 2012. Web. 05 Mar. 2012. <http://www.mediaite.com/tv/as-major-companies-plan-blackout-protest-where-has-the-mainstream-media-been-on-coverage-of-sopa/>.
"Internet community cheers power of protest; Hundreds of websites showed their support." USA TODAY. (January 19, 2012 Thursday): 958 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2012/02/28.
"Internet generation flexes its lobbying muscle; An impromptu coalition halted copyright bills, but can it hold together?." The International Herald Tribune. (January 28, 2012 Saturday): 1109 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2012/02/28.
Tan, Nick. "Mainstream Media Ignoring SOPA." Game Revolution. 18 Jan. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2012. <http://www.gamerevolution.com/manifesto/mainstream-media-ignoring-sopa-10587>.
"Tech companies boldly protest anti-piracy bills." PR Week (US). (January 19, 2012): 450 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2012/02/28.
"THE INTERNET: Beware new dynasties in fight for web freedom." The Observer (England). (January 22, 2012): 1176 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2012/02/28.