SOPA and the framing of contested facts

The recent attention to SOPA and PIPA has gotten me thinking about the role that contested facts have played in how mainstream journalism represents public debate. Case in point, the media has been calling attention to the MPAA’s estimates of the amount of money the entertainment industry supposedly loses due to piracy. The pattern seems to be that journalists will give lip service to contrarians by describing the debate over piracy costs as a question of “how much” rather than “is there cost at all”? The idea that piracy might not be a legitimate economic threat seems to be off-limits within main stream circles. At the same time, tech-commentators like Julian Sanchez have been consistently critiquing this assumption by pointing out the sketchiness of the industry models for estimating cost. Nevertheless, for the media, the “problem of piracy” has become a common sense position that “everyone” seems to agree on. This way of framing the debate seems particularly common among moderators on NPR. For example, midway through this interview, Los Angeles talk show host Madeleine Brand responds to a description of SOPA’s dangerous overreach with the following question:

Well… you know. Piracy is a huge issue… as Hollywood has made abundantly clear. So what can be done short of shutting down these websites?

And today The Los Angeles Times and many other news outlets perpetuated this framing by directly quoting Harry Reid’s statement on the postponement of PIPA without any additional qualification.

Counterfeiting and piracy cost the American economy billions of dollars and thousands of jobs each year, with the movie industry alone supporting over 2.2 million jobs. We must take action to stop these illegal practices,” Reid said.

My guess is that for journalists covering SOPA, the “factness” of the piracy threat serves as a kind of scaffolding for a larger story about the competing interests of the entertainment industry vs. the tech industry. That’s the story they want to tell. So disputing the methodology by which the MPAA has arrived at its estimates (as Sanchez has been doing) doesn’t compute within this narrative. The “fact” that rampant piracy threatens entertainment jobs is self-evident, since this assumption helps to set up the entertainment industry’s role as victims defending their turf. After all, if piracy wasn’t a problem why would they need to do this in the first place? Or so the story goes. The SOPA/PIPA debate can then become an argument over the appropriate response to the problem of piracy. The question of whether the premise of the problem should itself be questioned has been left out. And on this point the proponents of SOPA/PIPA seem to have already won, because they’ve defined the debate on their terms.