An Investigation of Media Bias in the MGM vs. Grokster Supreme Court Case

On March 29, 2005, the day oral arguments were heard before the Supreme Court for the file-sharing case Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios vs. Grokster Ltd., a story appeared on the CBS Evening News. The piece, a mere 2 minutes and 17 seconds long, opens with country music singer Sara Evans in her studio, happily singing and playing guitar. The title, “Internet Downloads” flashes beneath her image, followed by the sub-heading, “Profit Motive.” Next, the reporter Wyatt Andrews outlines a few basic details of the case: that there is a law suit; that the oral arguments are to be heard on this day; and that the case is attempting to hold file-sharing companies accountable for its users’ copyright infringement. During these comments, the viewer continues to see and hear Evans singing in her studio along with clips of her music videos (in which she appears very successful and diva-like). Finally, from her studio, the camera circles to the right, so one can see Andrews watching and listening to Evans with enjoyment and appreciation. Near the end of Andrews’ introductory comments, there are a few visuals of a scrolling computer screen showing a file-sharing program called Morpheus. These few comments are followed by a clip of an interview with Evans in which she says internet file-sharing hurts her as an artist. Next behind a visual of the Morpheus user instructions which say, “Using Morpheus is as easy as 1, 2, 3,” Andrews discusses how easy it is to find and download music illegally. He emphasizes this by physically sitting in front of a huge computer screen and showing the viewer how easily he can do it himself. Interestingly, he chooses to search for a song by Sara Evans and plays her music video on his screen. The next image is that of an emotional man playing guitar and singing amongst demonstrators outside the Supreme Court building. They hold signs saying things like, “Don’t steal my future,” “Download Legally,” “Thou Shall Not Steal,” and “Feed a Musician.” This is followed by a mention of a previous “VCR case,” and an approximately 5-second clip of Michael Weiss, President of Morpheus, who explains that his company cannot be held liable for the actions of its program’s users. Next, are various court illustrations of the Supreme Court oral arguments. Andrews explains that some Justices were concerned that condemning file-sharing software would “hurt innovation,” and that it could be likened to legal copying technology. The story shows a drawing of Justice Stephen Breyer with his quote written underneath, “How about the Xerox, the VCR, the Ipod?” This is followed by one of an attorney for the plaintiffs whose quote is, “âÂ?¦there isn’t overwhelming illegal use.” The viewer then sees more images of a file-sharing program on a computer screen and then of people shopping in a music store. During these images, Andrews says Morpheus argues that its innovations are being used more and more by the entertainment industry, which will eventually make the majority of its money through online distribution. This leads to the story’s conclusion – a clip of the Evans interview in which she emphatically responds to this claim: “It’s still stealing.” The viewer is left with Wyatt Andrews standing in front of the Supreme Court building declaring that the case could go either way. He finishes, “Is it harmless; Or is it way of committing a hidden crime?”

An outline of all the arguments, viewpoints, implications, and facts of the case reveal that this news piece is not at all thorough. Let us do an overview: The case’s name is Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios vs. Grokster Ltd., for which arguments were heard by the Supreme Court on March 29, 2005. The plaintiffs include a number of Hollywood’s most influential record and film companies against the defendants, Grokster, Ltd. and Streamcast Networks. The CBS piece fails to mention this, or to explain that Morpheus is in fact, a subsidiary of Grokster. The plaintiffs’ main argument is that they own the copyrights to the music and movies being exchanged on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks and that more than 90 percent of files exchanged using the defendants’ programs are copyrighted material which the users have no right to. They argue that the defendants are guilty of “contributory infringement,” meaning that they not only make copyright infringement possible, but have knowledge of its occurrence.

Grokster, on the other hand, argues that while it makes illegal file-sharing possible, it is then the user’s choice to do so, and the companies have no knowledge of each individual case of copyright infringement. It cites the 1984 case, Sony Corp. vs. Universal Studios, Inc., in which producers of VCRs were not held accountable for users’ copyright infringements. The plaintiffs counter that VCRs are much different than file-sharing programs, and that the 1984 decision was based on the fact that the most common use of VCRs was “time-shifting” – copying television shows for later viewing, not for illegal distribution. The difference, they argue, is that the majority of file-sharing program usage is illegal, and 9 out of 10 users of Grokster fit this generalization. However, Grokster maintains that there are users with licenses to use the material they distribute – illegal uses are not the only ones.

In addition, the outcome of this case has numerous and important implications. If the plaintiffs win, Grokster and Streamcast Networks (and other software distributors to follow) will be subjected to steep legal damages, which will likely put them out of business. However, the court’s ruling could completely halt distribution of their software. At the very minimum, it could “impose practical impediments to file-sharing,” (Hilden) or it could utilize very explicit language equating illegal file-sharing to a serious crime, making it more of a stigma in the eyes of illegal file-sharers. However, the likelihood is strong that illegal file-sharing in the United States would not cease. Offshore servers and companies would almost certainly emerge with file-sharing programs for use by United States citizens. So it seems that even with a ruling against the defendants, file-sharing capabilities would remain, unless the Court explicitly described copyright infringement as a very serious crime. If the defendants win on the other hand, Grokster and Streamcast Networks programs will become the models for all other companies wishing to produce file-sharing software that cannot be challenged by law, which will make illegal file-sharing all the more accessible.

Furthermore, the implications as it relates to our government, are also significant. If the Supreme Court rules for the plaintiffs, it is censoring American technology and dictating what companies can and cannot manufacture; while if it rules for the defendants, it is, in effect, legalizing copyright infringement on a large-scale. Either way, one could argue, some sort of basic American ideal is betrayed. Censorship of technology and innovation is practically equivalent to censorship of civil rights like free speech, and legalizing copyright infringement fails protect the rights of those owning those copyrights. The Grokster case it appears, is in fact, monumental. It will set a precedent for any similar case to come and will force the Supreme Court to make a decision that may change the definition of our civil rights and our expectations of government regulation and involvement.

Why then, does the CBS piece mention a mere fraction of this information? And how and why does it fail to flesh out both viewpoints and all possible outcomes? The answer is, it’s television. As stated previously, the piece is a mere 2 minutes and 17 seconds long – only about enough time for one to read our overview of the case. But it is admittedly boring to squeeze all of that information into the couple of minutes allotted. And, the goal of television is to keep the viewer hooked (in the very short amount of time given), not necessarily to inform. The way to do this is with drama, interesting visuals, and the viewer relating to the story, but this reality causes two problems: lack of thoroughness (although stories appear thorough because they are presented methodically), and therefore, bias. Attempts to evoke viewers’ emotions ultimately result in not only them choosing a side, but the news having to do so as well.

For instance, an obvious technique to get viewers’ attention is the appeal to emotion, which is best achieved through the exaggeration of sympathetic human qualities in one or more individuals. The exaggeration is greatly enhanced by the presentation of these individuals in the most sympathetic conditions. From the start, Wyatt Andrews needed a way to draw in the viewer, so he used Sara Evans’ soulful guitar playing and singing as a means of making viewers feel linked to her emotionally. We see the joy she takes in her talent. We even see the joy Andrews receives from her talent, and then visuals of her music videos and her work in the studio, which further the idea that she is a hard-working, successful, talented person and deserves to be heard. Also, consider the man playing guitar outside the Supreme Court building. He is another human being for whom we can feel sympathy, especially as he practices his art in an act of protest, along with the swarm of demonstrators around him. And overall, the emotional appeal of the story is furthered by persistent returns to images of Sara Evans throughout the coverage.

Andrews’s words, as well as clips of the interviews chosen for the piece, also work as emotional appeals. “It’s still stealing,” emphatically proclaims Evans. No matter what anyone tells her, she feels she is being robbed. And, since the average person would hate being robbed, the viewer is able to sympathize with this sentiment and feel strongly for her viewpoint. Note that Evans uses loaded language like “stealing” more than once, but she is never shown defending her argument with evidence.
In addition, the emotion of her statements is actually enhanced by the lack of emotion in Michael Weiss’s comments, even though what he is saying makes much more sense in five seconds than anything Sara Evans has said in the entire piece. As is expected of the President of Grokster, Weiss appears professional and logical, and therefore somewhat less human. This actually puts figures like Evans in an even more sympathetic light, since there seems to be nothing about Weiss to make viewers want to latch onto him. After all, a mere five seconds is hardly enough to get to know Weiss quite like we have learned about Sara Evans. Since we get to see Evans doing what she does best and speaking emotionally about it, she is human. From what we see of Weiss, we learn nothing of his personality, his feelings, or the effects and implications of the case as they relate to him and his company. In effect, we are not given time to discover any human qualities, so his position is immediately less likeable, even dismissible. It is also somewhat dramatic to see Andrews sitting in front of a massive screen and showing how he -not the typical file-swapper- is able to find and download music and videos with just a little typing and a few clicks of the mouse (music and videos by Sara Evans, no less!). He seems to be saying, “Look how shockingly easy it is to perform criminal activities against great people like Sara Evans!” And it does not help that one is further persuaded by the legitimacy of the presentation. The scenario is portrayed in such an official way, as a sort of scientific experiment, that it persuades the viewer of the legitimacy of the report and the importance of continuing to watch. In addition, there is an image of Morpheus instructions that says, “Using Morpheus is as easy as 1,2,3,” as if to indicate that Morpheus itself encourages criminal acts. The implications of the scene therefore becoming even more shocking, because they are supposedly more true. If such an example can exacerbate the drama of the story, then why not utilize it?

Unfortunately, emotion is always biased. Andrews’s attempts to draw in viewers with emotional appeals and drama, leads to a biased story, especially because he fails to present appeals from the opposite viewpoint. Arguably then, bias also results from the lack of thoroughness due to time constraints. Perhaps if Andrews’s could have compiled a much longer story with detailed interviews from both sides and more background information, his report may have appeared less biased. With more time, he would still have to resort to emotional appeals, but hopefully, they would be in the context of more factual information, and the alternate side’s position would be expanded upon somewhat. Either way however, bias would still exist because it is necessary to skim the other side’s argument in order to maintain the drama of the piece. If there is equal emotional appeal towards both sides of the case, it is too emotionless – or objective. In other words, the nature of television is to need subjectivity and bias if it is to attract and keep viewers.

But who can blame Andrews for exploiting this? Artists and musicians specifically, represent the entertainment companies suing Grokster, while the defendants’ representatives are corporate executives and presidents. Put simply, their side of the argument is just plain boring, and there are only 2 minutes and 17 seconds to present a dramatic story. Which side does one choose?

Obviously, turning to television news on March 29, would get one no where in learning about the Grokster case, so what about the newspaper? A March 30, 2005, New York Times article titled, “Lively Debate as Justices Take on File Sharing,” seems more thorough than our television news piece. Writer Linda Greenhouse shares her personal observations in the Supreme Court that day; however, her main focus is on emphasizing the complexity of the case, especially “that a broad definition of copyright infringement could curtail innovation.” Her descriptive details of the proceedings and a bit of background information here and there, show the reader that this decision is an important and difficult one.

The article is also generally more informative and explanatory than our television news piece. For one, the 1984 Sony case, although not completely clear, is discussed enough in detail that one can understand its relevance to the case at hand. Skillfully using a comment from Justice Ginsburg, the article explains why the Sony case cannot be used as a clear precedent for this one, and therefore, why this case is so complicated. Also, by detailing the Justices’ comments during the proceedings, the article expertly illustrates a central dilemma of the case – the future of technology and innovation.

However, while one obviously learns much more from the newspaper article than the television news story, Greenhouse does not outline all of the arguments from each side, nor does she explain the possible outcomes. In addition, the article is still biased. There is no doubt that while both sides’ positions are addressed, Greenhouse’s writing style and tone favor the defendants. For instance, she writes,

Grokster and StreamCast are asking the court to look at all possible uses of file sharing, not just the use that is made of their own software. The plaintiffs, backed by the Bush administration, are asking the court to focus on the business of the defendants. (C2) While it is informative to note that the plaintiffs are backed by the Bush administration, it is also somewhat irrelevant to the reader, unless Greenhouse were to expand this statement further. She also states that the plaintiffs want the focus to be “on the business of the defendants,” (C2) portraying them as a large-scale, powerful interest, and Grokster and StreamCast as a sort of underdog.

In addition, while the descriptive narratives of the court proceedings are helpful, they tend to present the Judges’ as if they are somewhat convinced of the Grokster argument themselves. For instance, Greenhouse writes, ‘I know perfectly well that I can buy a CD and put it on my iPod,’ Justice Souter said. ‘But I also know if I can get music without buying it, I’m going to do so.’ âÂ?¦That Justice Souter, the least technically minded of the justices – he still drafts his opinions by hand on a legal pad – could invite a dialogue about Apple iPods, much less suggest that he could be tempted to engage in illegal file sharing, was an indication of how this confrontation of powerful interests had engaged the court. (C1)

Many readers, finding legitimate authority in the Justices, may be easily swayed by the implication that the Supreme Court supports Grokster, so Grokster must be right. Furthermore, because the article is focused on the possibly sad future of innovation, which is essentially Grokster’s argument, there is a bit more time spent explaining this side of the issue, along with a brief mention of the technology industries and civil liberties organizations backing the defendants. She explains many nuances of their arguments using words with positive connotations: “âÂ?¦[They] depicted file sharing as a useful, if not vital, means of expanding knowledge through the inexpensive transmission and Internet archiving of lawful material in the public domain.” (C2) Words like “useful,” “vital,” “inexpensive,” and “lawful,” all implicitly support the defendants. Lastly, the single picture accompanying the article is that that of protestors outside the Supreme Court with signs saying, “Hands off my iPod,” and “Pro America Innovation America!” – obviously supporters of the defendants.

It is now clear that both the television and newspaper examples show bias in the news, along with not entirely thorough overviews of the issue. Television seems more biased than the newspaper, but it is largely due to the short time allotted per story and the need for drama and strong visuals. Television news must run stories which can be represented by strong visuals and can be compacted into short, easy to understand segments. And while the newspaper gives a more thorough run-through of the story, it must be concluded that no medium really presents issues in their entirety, nor do they help viewers and readers understand how the issue is relevant to their lives or its significance in the world. The biggest problem however, is that the manner in which the stories are presented make them appear legitimate and thorough, due to their methodical approach, when in fact they are biased and neglect many important facts. Therefore, viewers/readers believe they are taking in important and accurate information, when in fact, they are not.

In addition, only one major United States broadcasting network, CBS, offered reports on the case. Other major news stations like MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News, did not even mention the case on their headline news shows. Instead, articles detailing the case can be found on their web sites, but not as part of the headline or major news sections. Also, while most major papers did in fact report on the case, most featured editorials and not objective news reports. Those major papers which did feature objective reports, specifically USAToday, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times, did not present all the implications or speculations about the case. The only way one could learn about all the possible implications of this case was to search in less mainstream publications, most of which, also lacked information about all the implications of the case. Instead, they featured the implications most concerning their publication type and audience. For instance, Broadcasting & Cable Magazine featured an article about what the case would mean for competition between internet and television in the entertainment field.
It ultimately seems that the problem lies in the media’s perception of the importance of the case. On March 29, 2005, Terri Schiavo was headline news, and the only headline news. To the media, especially television news networks, this was the most dramatic and appealing story on that day. A Supreme Court case on file-sharing is not nearly as eventful or emotion-filled as a battle over a dying woman. Ultimately, this meant that the only way one would have heard about the Grokster case on March 29, was if they read the paper. And even if one found it in the paper, he might only come across an editorial, and not be fully informed of the case at hand. It seems that even some of the major papers could not find the case news-worthy enough for an actual article. Of course the ultimate problem is money. Television networks especially, need viewers if they are to be successful and also if they are to attract advertisers. The only way of doing so is running only the stories they feel will attract viewers, which most often contain the most drama and conflict.

The media must be able to distinguish that the file-sharing issue is one that touches a huge portion of America. It is also important that it realizes the discrepancies between reporting the actual facts of the Supreme Court case, along with each side’s argument, rather than reporting a reporter’s opinion. Also, while reporting the views of those involved (i.e. songwriters, music executives, Grokster and MGM executives, file-sharers themselves) can be useful additions to a report, that is all they should be – additions. It is most important to examine the facts of the case and its implications for all sides of the issue, rather than a few.

Ultimately, there is no way to guarantee the end of media bias, due to the nature of humans and the constraints all media put on the news. Even if television was government regulated for instance, the dominant party at the time could find ways to bias the news, even inadvertently. The nature of television is to air a program within a certain amount of time, and since a news program must attempt to air all the news, it must significantly compact what is reported. There is no way around it, even if government regulated.

Newspapers by contrast, are much more useful for obtaining most of the facts of a case and presenting their significance. However, editors and writers are human and therefore cannot be fully objective. The only solution is for consumers to want to be well informed and seek out the news of the day from multiple sources, so as to obtain new bits of information and arguments from each.

In conclusion, the overall problems with the media are lack of thoroughness and bias. In television, lack of thoroughness is due to time constraints and a desire to keep the audience’s attention; while in the newspaper, it is due to editor cuts, the amount of room for the article, and/or neglect by the writer. It may easily lead to bias also, since it means that pieces of information are missing which may change the entire message of the coverage. In television, bias is also due to the need to attract and keep viewers’ attention with visuals and drama. The coverage constantly exaggerates sympathetic people and circumstances, making it inaccurate. This also means that it the more sympathetic party in the story gets more attention and exaggeration than do other sides. In the newspaper, bias is largely due to the reporters themselves or the editors, who are human and therefore never purely objective. Overall, neither medium entirely discusses the issues or informs readers/viewers of its implications. And while both appear legitimate and thorough, they are not, and therefore trick the consumer into believing they are well-informed. Furthermore, there is no good solution to ending media bias, except for consumers to form a thorough approach to learning the news, through varied media types.

Works Cited

1. Greenhouse, Linda. “Lively Debate as Justices Take on File Sharing.” The New York Times 30 Mar. 2005, National ed.: C1-C2.

2. Hilden, Julie. “File sharing goes before Supreme Court.” FindLaw on CNN 16 Feb. 2005, National ed. 14 Apr. 2005 .

3. “Internet Downloading.” 29 Mar. 2005. Online video clip. CBS Evening News. RealPlayer. 14 April 2005. .

4. “MarketWatch”. 29 Mar. 2005. Online Sound Clip. CBS MarketWatch. RealPlayer. 29 Mar. 2005.

5. Shanker, Murali. “File Sharing.” EduWiki. 24 Mar. 2004. Kent State University. 31 Mar. 2005 .

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