With the Supreme Court on the brink of overturning Roe v. Wade, it’s a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the extent to which our democracy has lurched off the rails.
Three of the five anti-Roe justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and were confirmed by senators who represented far fewer Americans than those who voted against confirmation. Gorsuch occupies the stolen seat that should have gone to Merrick Garland. Barrett was rushed through at the last minute following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
This is not democracy. A few years ago, I laid it out at GBH News — and addressed the falsehood you’ll often hear that our system was designed to protect minority rights from majority rule. (The Bill of Rights is what protects the minority.) I hope you’ll give it a read. We are long overdue for a thorough-going update to our 18th-century constitution, which, quite simply, no longer works.
In what was surely the least surprising media news of the year, The New York Times announced Tuesday that executive editor Dean Baquet will be replaced by his deputy, Joe Kahn, this June, a few months before Baquet turns 66. The move is a clear indication that publisher A.G. Sulzberger and his family believe everything is just fine. And, in many ways, it is — the paper has a huge paying audience, great journalism and vibrant digital products.
But the political coverage is broken. Not all of it. The Times’ enterprise stories on politics grapple very well with the Republicans’ descent into insanity. But the day-to-day coverage treats the two parties as morally equivalent players rather than as a flawed but fundamentally normal Democratic Party and an insurrectionist, QAnon-poisoned Republican Party. With Kahn moving to the top of the masthead, it seems unlikely that anything is going to be done about that.
Four years ago, I wrote a piece for GBH News about what was wrong with the Times’ political coverage. Not much has changed. Kahn deserves a chance, of course, and the Times’ journalism is defined by far more than politics. Its coverage of the war in Ukraine has been nothing short of superb.
And congratulations to Boston Globe and Patriot Ledger alum Carolyn Ryan, who’s been named co-managing editor along with Marc Lacey.
Pam Johnston, general manager for news with GBH, has a deep background in local television in Boston at WLVI (Channel 56), and earlier at local stations in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Portland, Maine. At GBH, which is a public media company, she has a broad portfolio. She is responsible for local and regional news operations across all platforms, including radio, television and digital. She also supervises GBH’s contributions to two NPR programs, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”
Johnston joined GBH in 2012 as director of audience development for “Frontline,” the national investigative series, where she is credited with diversifying the audience and connecting them with long-form documentaries, virtual reality experiences and podcasts.
I have a Quick Take on a multimillion-dollar glitch in ad tech by Gannett, and Ellen Clegg reports on a union survey of workers at Tribune Publishing (now owned by Alden Global Capital) that reveals big gaps in pay equity.
Mike Deehan is leaving as GBH’s Statehouse reporter in order to launch the new Axios Boston newsletter later this year. Congratulations, Mike! You can sign up here. And here’s what I wrote for GBH News recently about Axios’ push into local.
COVID-19 has been the central reality of our lives for two years now. But the moment it became real is different for each of us.
For me, it was Wednesday, March 11, 2020. That was the day when Northeastern University, where I teach, announced it was shutting down; when fans were sent home in the midst of an NBA game after a player tested positive; and when then-President Donald Trump delivered a rambling, unnerving address that sent the Dow Jones futures tumbling.
So yes, that’s when we all began to take COVID-19 seriously. But we really had no idea of what was to come. I remember telling my students that I hoped we’d be back in person in a few weeks. Now here we are, two years later, and schools, workplaces, stores and the like are still not fully back to normal, though the situation is certainly far better than it once was.
The arc of our progression from hopefulness to humility can be traced in how Trump and President Joe Biden have spoken about the pandemic. Trump virtually never said an honest word when discussing COVID, telling us over and over during the final months of his presidency that it was no big deal.
Still, a statement he made on Feb. 27, 2020, stands out for its audacious mendacity. “It’s going to disappear,” he said. “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear. And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”
Well, the miracle failed to materialize. By Election Day, nearly 233,000 Americans had died of COVID-19, and we still had nothing to protect ourselves except masks and social distancing.
If Trump’s optimism in the early days of the pandemic proved illusory, there were reasons to be hopeful a year later. Effective vaccines began coming online, and tens of millions of Americans rushed to get the shots. By the Fourth of July, President Joe Biden was cautiously hailing the return to something like normal.
“Don’t get me wrong, COVID-19 has not been vanquished,” he said. “We all know powerful variants have emerged, like the delta variant, but the best defense against these variants is to get vaccinated.” He added: “So, today, while the virus hasn’t been vanquished, we know this: It no longer controls our lives. It no longer paralyzes our nation. And it’s within our power to make sure it never does again.”
We all know what happened next. Delta proved to be far more contagious than the earlier forms of COVID-19. Combined with the maddening, inexplicable refusal among many Americans — disproportionately Trump supporters — to get vaccinated or even wear masks, we experienced a horrifying fall infection rate surge. And then it started to abate.
Until it didn’t.
We were riding home from a Thanksgiving visit with family when I saw a story on my phone about yet another COVID-19 variant, this one out of South Africa. Dubbed omicron, the variant proved to be wildly more contagious than delta, although it seemed to have welcome characteristics as well, such as causing milder illness. Still, omicron ripped through the population, even striking those who had been “triple-vaxxed,” though the rate of severe illness and death among that group was blessedly low.
So here we are again. Two years into the pandemic, we are older, sadder and wiser. The omicron surge has faded as rapidly as it began. But, as I write, some 959,000 Americans have now died of COVID, and the virus seems likely to be with us for years to come. A year ago, we might have exhaled in delight at the prospect of vaccinating our way out of all this. Now we’re just holding our breath.
“We will continue to combat the virus as we do other diseases. And because this is a virus that mutates and spreads, we will stay on guard,” Biden said cautiously in his State of the Union address last week. He added: “I cannot promise a new variant won’t come. But I can promise you we’ll do everything within our power to be ready if it does.”
That’s a long way from saying, as Trump did, that COVID-19 will miraculously “disappear.” It’s also a dialing back of the optimism Biden expressed last summer. But it’s realistic.
Unfortunately, the ongoing stresses caused by COVID-19 come amid other disorienting events. The economy is growing rapidly, but inflation is eating up wage gains. Political strife continues, with a sizable portion of the electorate claiming to believe Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen from him. The planet is still warming.
Looming over all of this is the terrible war being waged by Russia against Ukraine. We feel helpless as increasingly horrific images are beamed onto our televisions and digital devices.
Existence feels fragile. Looking back, it seems as though COVID-19 ushered in a new age of uncertainty. I hope we get through this together.
A Rhode Island law that was the subject of a 2021 GBH News Muzzle Award has been struck down by that state’s Supreme Court.
The Associated Press reports that Rhode Island’s “civil death” law, under which anyone serving a life sentence was regarded as dead with respect to having access to the justice system, “deprives those persons imprisoned at the ACI for life of their right to bring civil actions in our state courts.” (The ACI is the Adult Correctional Institutions.) The bizarre law stated:
Every person imprisoned in the adult correctional institutions for life shall, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of matrimony and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction.
Last July I awarded a New England Muzzle to Rhode Island’s attorney general, Peter Neronha, a Democrat, for his overzealous defense of a law that didn’t exist in any other state. Among other things, Neronha argued that life in prison — or, for that matter, the death penalty — are more severe punishments than civil death yet pose no constitutional issues.
In fact, as the Rhode Island ACLU pointed out, there are punishments that many would regard as worse than life in prison, or even death. As the ACLU’s state executive director, Steven Brown, explained, civil death means that “an inmate … serving a life sentence could be waterboarded, beaten mercilessly by guards, or held in a cell and denied all food and water, but have no access to our state courts to challenge these egregious violations of his constitutional rights.”
In a press release, the Rhode Island ACLU hailed Wednesday’s decision as “an important victory for the principle that the courts should be open to all for redress.”
The dichotomy at the heart of any State of the Union address was on full display Tuesday night. The president’s annual message to Congress is a major news event. Yet it is fundamentally a political exercise.
So when serious news from the outside world intrudes, cognitive dissonance ensues. That was surely the case during President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union as well as in the subsequent coverage.
How did the pundits handle it? For the most part, they treated it as two speeches — a sober, even stirring call to support the Ukrainian people as they fight desperately to hold off an unprovoked invasion by Russian forces, and a domestic-policy address aimed at shoring up Biden’s miserable poll numbers.
“It was as inspiring as any section of a State of the Union, in large part because it was about something bigger and more compelling than politics as usual,” wrote Washington post columnist Jennifer Rubin of Biden’s opening, which focused on Ukraine. “Moreover, it was a rare display of bipartisanship, and a reminder that in facing external threats we can rise to the occasion…. From there on out, bipartisanship receded.”
The real-news-versus-politics divide was particularly acute in the way the war in Ukraine and the State of the Union address were played on the front pages of our three leading newspapers. The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal all led with Ukraine. The Journal didn’t even place Biden’s address above the fold.
Originality was hard to find in my post-speech scan of the coverage. One exception was Ezra Klein of the Times, who noted that Biden did little — nothing, really — to prepare Americans for the economic effects of the tough sanctions that he and other Western leaders have imposed on the Putin regime.
“For all Biden’s resolve on Tuesday night, he did not try to prepare Americans to sacrifice on behalf of Ukrainians in the coming months, if only by paying higher prices at the pump,” Klein wrote. “Instead, he said, ‘my top priority is getting prices under control.’ That’s the tension Putin is exploiting.”
Divisions on the right were apparent in both the House chamber and in the subsequent commentary. During Biden’s speech, far-right Reps. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene disgraced themselves by interrupting the president just as he was about to invoke the memory of his late son, Beau Biden, whose death from brain cancer may have been related to his exposure to toxic fumes while he was serving in the military.
Writing for the ultraconservative PJ Media site, Matt Margolis made the same point somewhat more artfully, criticizing Biden for talking about his dead son rather than the 13 American soldiers who were killed by terrorists during last summer’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. There was, Margolis said, “not a single word about the withdrawal” in Biden’s speech. “Not a single word to honor those who died because of his incompetence.”
At National Review, a more mainstream conservative publication, Dan McLaughlin praised Biden on Ukraine but dismissed the rest of his address, writing, “You could tell the pandemic is really and truly over when we saw a return to Democrats demonizing the pharma companies that gave us life-saving vaccines.”
McLaughlin also attempted to turn the Big Lie on its head, taking Biden to task for speaking out against voter-suppression efforts fueled by pro-Trump Republicans who dare not question the former president’s false assertions that he actually won the 2020 election. “This is hardly the first time Biden has cast doubt on the legitimacy of our elections,” McLaughlin wrote in a truly mind-bending line.
Meanwhile, Jonathan V. Last, writing for The Bulwark, a Never Trump conservative site, summarized the moment in a pre-speech assessment beneath a headline that read “The West Is Winning, Russia Is Losing, and Biden Is Doing a Good Job.”
Although Biden noticeably did not move to the center, doubling down on popular but stalled-out ideas such as a $15 minimum wage, child-care assistance and controls on drug prices, he nevertheless invoked the moderate, unifying appeal that carried him to victory over Trump.
David A. Graham of The Atlantic wrote that “rather than try to convince Americans not to believe what they’re feeling, or claim credit for things they don’t see, Biden offered them a promise that things are about to get better. To make the case, he tacked toward the middle — with a few pointed detours — delivering a speech that hews closer to the ‘popularist’ movement in the Democratic Party than to its more progressive contingent.”
“Popularism,” in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the idea that the Democrats should de-emphasize the more divisive aspects of their agenda in favor of those with broad support. Examples offered by Graham were Biden’s calls for more police funding and keeping kids in school during COVID-19 surges.
According to a snap poll conducted by CBS News, the speech was popular with those who were watching, with 78% saying they approved of his speech and just 22% disapproving. But, CBS cautioned, “As we’ve seen with previous presidents’ State of the Union speeches, those who watched tonight are more likely to be from the president’s own political party, boosting approval of the speech.”
In other words, whatever political benefit Biden receives from his address is likely to be short-lived. His popularity — and, thus, the Democratic Party’s prospects in the upcoming midterm elections — are likely to be grounded in matters that are largely beyond his control, such as the outcome of the war in Ukraine, the ongoing battle against COVID and the persistence of inflation in an otherwise strong economy.
For one night, though, the stage was his. It’s fair to say that he made the most of it.
To the extent that fading right-wing icon Sarah Palin had any strategy in pursuing her deeply flawed libel suit against The New York Times, it was this: to force a reconsideration of protections for the press that had stood for nearly 60 years, thus exacting vengeance against her tormenters in what she once infamously labeled “the lamestream media.”
It’s at least theoretically possible that could still happen. But the devastating manner in which she lost has made it less likely, not more, that the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually take her up on her invitation to weaken or overturn its landmark New York Times v. Sullivan decision.
First came U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff’s move on Monday to throw out the case and rule in the Times’ favor.
Rakoff was troubled by the 2017 Times editorial at the heart of the case, which claimed — falsely — that Jared Loughner, who shot then-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and killed six others in 2011, had been incited by a map put together by Palin’s political action committee that depicted gunsights over Giffords’ district and those of 19 other Democrats.
“I don’t mean to be misunderstood,” Rakoff said. “I think this is an example of very unfortunate editorializing on the part of the Times.” But Palin’s lawyers did not present any evidence that the error was anything other than a sloppy mistake by then-editorial page editor James Bennet, who was contrite and apologetic during his testimony.
Rakoff did not inform the jurors of his ruling, instead allowing them to move ahead with their deliberations in order to assemble a more complete record for the inevitable appeals. That only added to Palin’s humiliation, as all nine jurors voted against her when they announced their verdict on Tuesday.
“Your job was to decide the facts, my job is to decide the law,” Rakoff said. “As it turns out, they were in agreement in this case.”
Press advocates had worried that the case could substantially weaken Times v. Sullivan, a 1964 court ruling that public officials cannot win a libel suit unless they are able to show that a false, defamatory story about them was published or broadcast with “actual malice” — that is, with the knowledge that it was false, or with reckless disregard for the truth. That protection was later extended to public figures.
Palin is all of the above — a former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate who transformed herself into an all-purpose celebrity. A ruling in her favor would have rendered the actual-malice standard meaningless.
There are, of course, those who have railed against Times v. Sullivan for years. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Donald Trump vowed he would “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”
And as I’ve written previously, two Supreme Court justices, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, have said they would like to revisit Times v. Sullivan. But though Thomas appears ready to overturn the decision in its entirety and return libel law to the states, Gorsuch has indicated he would take a more subtle approach. Because the Palin verdicts are so clear-cut, it may be difficult for the justices to use them as a reason to sink their fangs into the Sullivan decision.
Rakoff’s unusual two-part approach presents an additional obstacle to Palin’s hopes for winning on appeal. As David Folkenflik reported for NPR, if an appeals court were to set aside Rakoff’s verdict, the jury’s verdict would still be in effect.
Finally, the case helped demonstrate the importance of First Amendment protections even for bad journalism — which the Times’ editorial surely was. Bennet inserted language into an editorial — “the link to political incitement was clear” — that was patently false and defamatory. There was no connection between Palin’s map and the shooting of Gabby Giffords and others. (Although it would not be surprising to learn that the jury considered the fact that Palin really did publish that grossly irresponsible map.)
But the media must have the freedom to report on matters of public importance without being subjected to crippling lawsuits because of inadvertent mistakes. As Justice William Brennan wrote in the Sullivan decision, “erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and … it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the ‘breathing space’ that they ‘need … to survive.’”
So Times v. Sullivan lives — for now. Whether Palin’s lawyers will somehow be able to transform their resounding defeat into a winner on appeal remains to be seen. But a federal judge and a jury of Palin’s peers saw through her bogus complaint. For now, that’s enough.
Cable news is a disgrace, especially during prime time. From 8 to 11 p.m. every Monday through Friday, the three outlets offer nothing but opinionated talk shows, CNN and MSNBC from the left, Fox News from the conspiratorial far right. It is a wasted opportunity.
But now CNN, the original cable news station — the one whose middle name is “news” — has a chance to reinvent itself. Last week CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker resigned after company officials learned he was involved romantically with his second-in-command, executive vice president Allison Gollust, who remains at CNN, at least for now.
It seems likely that there’s more to it. By the end of last week, Tatiana Siegel was reporting in Rolling Stone that Zucker and Gollust may have been advising Andrew Cuomo at the same time that the then-New York governor was appearing on Chris Cuomo’s CNN show. More to come, no doubt.
But whatever the reason, now is the perfect time for CNN to try something new. What Zucker was doing certainly wasn’t working. The man who foisted Donald Trump upon the media and political world, first with “The Apprentice” and later with hours upon hours of free air time during the 2016 presidential campaign, presided over a collapse in the ratings as soon as Trump left the White House. So what’s next?
Over the weekend, I asked my followers on social media and got some great responses. CNN employs boatloads of first-rate journalists. Why not let them shine? You’re probably not going to see CNN or its incoming owner, the Discovery network, actually try any of these ideas. And I’ll admit that there’s a retro quality to some of them. My defense is that they hark back to a time when CNN was good. And so it could be again.
Let’s get after it, as Chris Cuomo liked to say.
1. Launch a prime-time newscast. Did you ever realize that there isn’t a single newscast on any of the three cable “news” channels? It’s a pretty incredible omission. An insider once told me that it wouldn’t work because people are immersed in news all day on their phones and their laptops, and they want to watch people talk about it once evening comes along. Well, I don’t buy it.
As recently as 20 years ago, CNN offered a nightly prime-time newscast anchored by Aaron Brown, and MSNBC had one helmed by Brian Williams. Granted, that was before social media, but there’s no reason it can’t work again. The network’s three nightly newscasts all have higher ratings than cable news. Why not go with a solid hour of national and international news on CNN, serious but with more reporting, fewer talking heads and higher production values than the excellent but low-budget “PBS NewsHour”?
Who would anchor the CNN nightly newscast? My choice would be Audie Cornish, who recently left NPR to join CNN+, the digital streaming service that is scheduled to be unveiled this spring. CNN+ may be the future (or not), but the cable channel is the present. Let’s face it: Cable news appeals to older viewers who have no intention of cutting the cord and going with a streaming service. Why not leverage that with something they might actually watch? I’d slot the newscast for 8 p.m.
2. Bring back Larry King. Well, OK, the mainstay of 9 p.m. is no longer available, having died a year ago at the age of 87. And though King had his quirky charms, CNN could certainly find a host who’s better informed and more engaged. I’d suggest Anderson Cooper, one of the smartest and most versatile people at the network. Who better to talk with newsmakers, entertainers, authors and the like?
And by “talk with,” I mean “have a conversation.” When CNN put King out to pasture, they replaced him with Piers Morgan, a noxious Brit who held down the post for a few years in the early 2010s. It didn’t work, and eventually CNN put Chris Cuomo in that time slot as the host of a not-very-good political talk show. An interview program hosted by Cooper would be an ideal replacement.
3. Embrace the world. After a newscast at 8 and an interview show at 9, how about an international report at 10? CNN first earned the respect of viewers with its coverage of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Even today, CNN International wins kudos for its quality and depth. Yet U.S. viewers rarely get to see any of that coverage.
Now, I realize that international news almost certainly would not be a ratings winner. But CNN’s numbers are already below water. Maybe Zucker’s replacements could figure out a way to slip past MSNBC, but are they really going to challenge Fox? Probably not. The alternative is to embrace quality in the hopes of attracting a prestige audience that will prove enticing to high-end advertisers. Capping the evening with an hour of well-reported international news is just the way to do that.
My first choice as anchor would be Christiane Amanpour, assuming her health would allow it. She’s got the history with CNN — she still holds the title of chief international anchor — and continues to be well liked by viewers.
4. Not so boldly into the future. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but CNN+ looks like a looming disaster. I simply can’t picture why anyone, even a cord-cutter, would pay for a streaming service so they can watch Chris Wallace.
Yet CNN is already sitting on a significant digital asset — CNN.com, the top-ranked news website. According to recent figures from Comscore, CNN.com and its apps attracted 143 million unique visitors a month in 2021, putting CNN Digital way ahead of The New York Times (89 million), FoxNews.com and NBCNews.com (about 87 million each) and The Washington Post (82 million).
The danger with CNN+ is that not only will it fail to sign up cable cord-cutters, but that it will harm CNN Digital as well.
CNN Digital isn’t just successful — it’s good, one of the best free national and international news sources available. I’d merge CNN+ into CNN Digital, offering all video programming free to users with a cable TV log-in (as is currently the case) while charging an extra fee to non-cable subscribers who want to watch video. The cable providers will go nuts, but they’re doomed in the long run anyway.
And keep the non-video news free for everyone.
5. Offer some specialized programming. This is a bit of a catch-all. My followers made a lot of good suggestions for shows that might appear weekly or occasionally. Several suggested a program rounding up local news from around the country — a tough sell, but possibly worth doing if it can be demonstrated how it’s broadly relevant. An investigative hour coproduced with the nonprofit news organization ProPublica. The return of “Crossfire” (sorry, but no).
I might want to turn the Friday edition of the Anderson Cooper interview show I’ve suggested into a political roundtable, edgier than PBS’s “Washington Week” but smarter than what’s currently on CNN. No shouting and no Trumpers allowed — although intelligent conservatives would certainly be welcome.
Several people weighed in with suggestions for changes in CNN’s tone and emphasis, which would also be welcome. For instance, Alex Howard, director of the Digital Democracy Project, called for the network to improve its culture, focus on hard news, original reporting and expert analysis, and examine ethics more closely when covering government and corporations.
Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark School of Journalism, concluded several ideas about how to improve CNN’s offering with this: “In short, throw the damned deck chairs overboard and ask: Why are we here? What value to we bring to society? Use it as an opportunity to start over.”
The opportunity to start over doesn’t come around very often. CNN’s executives now find themselves with a blank slate. Here’s hoping against hope that they make the best of it.
No sooner had Neil Young announced he was pulling his music off Spotify because of vaccine falsehoods on Joe Rogan’s podcast than we began to learn about other dicey content on the service.
Will Dunn had a list at The New Statesman. Among them: Steven Crowder, who’s been accused of racism and homophobia; Hearts of Oak, which has featured anti-Muslim interviews; and Taake, a Norwegian black metal band whose front man appeared on stage in Germany with a swastika on his chest.
“This is the great problem of the platform economy,” Dunn wrote. “In traditional broadcasting the platform publishes a small amount of material to a large audience, taking responsibility for its quality. In the platform economy, a vast amount of material is published — there are almost three million podcasts on Spotify — and the market for attention decides who wins.”
Well, no. In fact, Dunn’s article illustrates a significant misunderstanding that has permeated the furor over Spotify. And it underscores the sad reality that podcasting, like the open web in general, is being eclipsed by business interests focused on dollars rather than democratic discourse.
Most material on Spotify and competing services can be considered third-party content, no different from what’s posted on Facebook and Twitter. Podcasts are distributed to all the major platforms. You’ll find Crowder and Hearts of Oak at Apple Podcasts, for instance, and Taake is available on Apple Music. I may not like what they say, but they’re free to say it.
Starting last April, though, Spotify and Apple announced they were going to start signing celebrity podcasters to exclusive deals. Rogan reportedly got $100 million and is immensely popular — certainly more popular these days than Young and the other musicians who’ve joined him, including (so far) Joni Mitchell and Nils Lofgren.
In other words, Spotify now embraces two entirely different business models. On the one hand, it’s a neutral platform for most podcasters as well as independent musicians who upload their music to the service. On the other, it’s a broadcaster, as fully responsible for Rogan’s content as Fox News is for Tucker Carlson. That’s just as true for Spotify’s less controversial fare, such as “Renegades,” an exclusive podcast featuring Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama.
The difference has significant implications for free speech. It would be absurd for Young to demand that Spotify remove every bit of third-party content he finds offensive as the price for keeping “Like a Hurricane” in rotation. But it’s perfectly reasonable for Young to decide he doesn’t want to be associated with a company that pays and actively promotes a host who’s indulging in dangerous vaccine nonsense.
Even so, Young et al. have been accused in some quarters of failing to respect Rogan’s free-speech rights. For instance, Zaid Jilani, writing at City Journal, sneered at “Young’s transformation from countercultural champion of freedom of speech to corporate censorship advocate and defender of the public-health bureaucracy.” That’s an absurd argument because it suggests that Young shouldn’t exercise his own free-speech rights. He’s free to stay on Spotify or leave, and he’s chosen to leave.
“I support free speech. I have never been in favor of censorship,” Young said in a statement on his website. “Private companies have the right to choose what they profit from, just as I can choose not to have my music support a platform that disseminates harmful information.”
That’s a refreshingly tolerant attitude toward free speech given the frightening wave of repression taking place in the broader culture — from the banning of LGBTQ books and “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, to legislation being debated among New Hampshire lawmakers to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory, and to empower snitches who are eager to turn in teachers.
Then again, Young has also made it clear that he’d come back if Spotify got rid of Rogan’s program. Do Young and Mitchell, years past their heyday, really exercise that kind of clout? I think the answer to that is maybe. They’re still popular, especially with older listeners. Some other musicians with a profile higher than Lofgren’s may join them, though few own the rights to their recordings. (Bob Dylan and Springsteen are among the artists who’ve sold their catalogs recently.)
But the real economic challenge Young and his compatriots pose is to the idea of Spotify as the infinite jukebox. If you are a paying customer, you expect to be able to find anything you want, no matter how obscure. I wouldn’t pay for a service without Neil Young. (Yes, I am old.) And though I’m not a Joni Mitchell fan, I recently listened to five of her classic albums — on Spotify.
Besides, a sudden wave of negative publicity can bring a company under scrutiny in ways it had previously escaped. As I’ve been discussing the issue over the past few days on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve learned that Apple Music pays musicians double what Spotify pays. It’s still inadequate, and some smaller services like Tidal do better. But for a mainstream service with access to just about everything you’d ever want to listen to, Apple might be a superior choice. And that’s where I’m moving.
It remains to be seen how much harm the Rogan episode will do to Spotify. He and the company have both issued statements promising to improve their behavior, but there are no signs that they’re going to back down. And though there was some excitement last week over Spotify’s slide in the stock market, it was actually up 13.5% on Monday. (I’m finishing this early Tuesday afternoon, and the price is more or less flat.)
The original sin was Spotify and Apple’s move last year to try to turn podcasting into a walled garden for their economic benefit. Before that, podcasting was wide open. Whether a show was entirely a volunteer effort or supported by advertising, you could listen to it on any platform. Now, like the video-streaming services, you are forced to choose platforms based on which one has your favorite programs.
Spotify is now reaping what it has sown. Rogan has survived, at least for now. In the days ahead, we’ll learn what matters more to company executives — offering a one-stop platform for all the music and podcasts you want to listen to, or leaning on the drawing power of a few stars.
The answer, needless to say, will come down to which approach brings in more money.