The Media Today

Of platforms, publishers, and responsibility

February 4, 2022
Spotify logo displayed on a phone screen and headphones are seen in this illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on February 3, 2022. (Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via AP)

Last week, criticism of Spotify for hosting the Joe Rogan Experience—a popular podcast that has on multiple occasions aired misinformation about COVID-19, among other things—accelerated after music legend Neil Young chose to remove all of his work from the streaming service. “I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines—potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them,” Young wrote in a letter on his website. (The letter has since been removed.) A number of other artists—including fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, Nils Lofgren, and the other former members of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young—followed suit. Prince Harry, the Duke of York, and his wife Meghan Markle, also publicly shared their concerns about the service, which they have partnered with for a series of podcasts.

Throughout this process, Spotify’s position has remained steadfast, apologizing for any harm caused by Rogan’s podcast and pledging to add content warnings to episodes that discuss COVID-19, but also maintaining that it is a platform for content produced by figures such as Rogan and not a publisher that makes choices about what kinds of content to include in its service. Daniel Ek, co-founder and CEO of Spotify, wrote in a blog post that the company supports “creator expression,” and that there are plenty of artists and statements carried on the service that he disagrees with. “We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users,” he said. “In that role, it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor.”

Media watchers have been quick to point out that Spotify’s platform defense—at least as it pertains to Joe Rogan—is a real stretch. (Even some Spotify employees called it “a dubious assertion” according to the LA Times.) Rogan’s podcast isn’t available through YouTube Music or Amazon Music or any other such service. He has an exclusive contract with Spotify, a relationship the company paid $100 million for. In that sense, Spotify is his publisher. As Elizabeth Spiers, former editor of the New York Observer, pointed out, Spotify’s acquisition of the Joe Rogan Experience is a clear editorial choice the company has made, just as the New York Times or the Washington Post choose whom they give a column to. If a columnist decides to say something wrong or dangerous, responsibility for those statements lies with the paper.

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“I honestly don’t understand why Spotify is publicly twisting itself in knots over what to do about Joe Rogan’s habit of spreading covid disinformation,” Spiers wrote. “Spotify is paying Rogan to air his show on their platform exclusively [so] they are acting as a publisher. They can’t argue that they’re not invested in the specific content he’s producing, because they literally are.” Ryan Broderick made a similar point in his newsletter, Garbage Day: “Spotify doesn’t get to just put a content warning on Rogan’s episodes and treat him like they would any other podcast because he’s not any other podcast. He’s their podcast,” Broderick wrote. “This isn’t content moderation. It isn’t censorship. It’s an editorial choice. They paid $100 million to be Joe Rogan’s publisher.”

Will Oremus, who covers technology for the Washington Post, wrote that talking about platform rules in response to the avalanche of criticism about Rogan is “a category error.” The Spotify/Rogan situation, he argued, “is more analogous to the Atlantic hiring Kevin Williamson, the NYT publishing that Tom Cotton ‘Send in the Troops’ op-ed, or the New Yorker Festival hosting Steve Bannon than it is to issues of moderating misinfo on user-generated content sites”—in other words, nothing like Facebook or Twitter removing the accounts of Donald Trump or Alex Jones. Some might argue that Facebook helps sources of disinformation monetize their content through advertising, but it doesn’t pay any of them for exclusive access to that content. (According to Bloomberg, some Facebook staffers were upset that Spotify compared itself to them.)

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The social platform that comes closest to being in the same category as Spotify is Substack, which has come under fire for hosting newsletters that allegedly contain transphobic and other offensive views, and has previously used the same defense as Spotify—that it is a platform. But as Scott Nover, a writer for Quartz, pointed out, select newsletters are part of the company’s Substack Pro program, where it gives writers advances and other forms of financial support. Advances are not only contracts, Nover writes, “they are endorsements of the people deemed worthy enough to be offered one.” In the same sense, he writes, Spotify “is now responsible, in a moral sense, for what Rogan says and if listeners get physically hurt because of what he tells them.”

Here’s more on platforms and publishers:

  • Not a vacuum: Author Roxanne Gay has decided to take her podcast off Spotify because of its support for Rogan. Gay said she believes we should be “exposed to a multitude of interesting ideas and perspectives, including those that challenge our most fiercely held beliefs,” but that harmful misinformation is different. “The platforms allowing this misinformation to flourish and intensify consistently abdicate their responsibility to curate effectively. Instead, they offer tepid, ambiguous, and ineffective policies,” Gay wrote.
  • Platforming Doritos: Author Kat Rosenfield argued on Twitter that the Spotify/Rogan thing is “a case of displaced aggression—it’s like if a bunch of nutritionists got mad at ShopRite for stocking Doritos because it’s ‘platforming junk food.’ You’re not really mad at ShopRite, you’re mad that you can’t make people not like junk.” Broderick, however, responded in his newsletter that this analogy would only work if a supermarket chain “announced they were the exclusive provider of Doritos, put Doritos at the front of the store [and] allowed Doritos to put any non-FDA-approved ingredient they wanted in their bags.”
  • Suffering? Good: Alec Ross at the New Yorker says it’s good to “see Spotify suffer,” and that there are lots of other reasons to dislike the service apart from its platforming of Joe Rogan or medical misinformation. He says the company has fostered a music-distribution model that is “singularly hostile to the interests of working musicians. It pays out, on average, an estimated four-tenths of a cent per stream, meaning that a thousand streams nets around four dollars. That arrangement has reaped huge profits for major labels and for superstars while decimating smaller-scale musical incomes.”
  • Another brick: The Joe Rogan controversy “is what happens when you put podcasts behind a wall,” writes Ashley Carman in The Verge. “Spotify didn’t discover Joe Rogan, and Joe Rogan didn’t create Spotify, but their union portends the future of a closed podcasting ecosystem.” When Rogan’s podcast appeared on multiple platforms and was available through RSS feeds, she argues, each platform could make its own decisions about which episodes to carry or not to carry, and fans could find it wherever they wished. But by owning him exclusively, Spotify has taken on all of the responsibility alone.


Other notable stories:

  • Departing CNN president Jeff Zucker said in a memo to staff that his relationship with Allison Gollust, a senior CNN colleague, began in the past two years, but a Rolling Stone article says this is “off by more than two decades,” and that both Zucker and Gollust “repeatedly lied about their relationship.” According to the magazine’s sources, “Zucker became romantically entangled with Gollust back in 1996, when she was a trainee in NBC’s corporate communications group and he was the married executive producer of The Today Show,” Rolling Stone reports. One told the magazine, “It was the worst-kept secret, but Jeff was seen as untouchable.” Jon Allsop wrote about Zucker yesterday for CJR.
  • A libel lawsuit launched by Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska, against the New York Times opened in a New York courtroom on Thursday. “What am I trying to accomplish? Justice, for people who expect the truth in the media,” Palin reportedly told journalists as she entered the courthouse. The Washington Post noted that an attorney representing the Times “tried to turn down the temperature of the debate” in his opening statement by “casting the matter as a simple error in presentation that the paper’s editors moved as quickly as possible to correct.” 
  • On Thursday, Deutsche Welle, the German broadcaster, reported that the Russian government is closing down the Moscow bureau and revoking its employees’ accreditations in the country. The move appears to be in retaliation for a German regulator’s ban on programming by Russian state broadcaster RT. However, Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said in an emailed statement sent to CJR that retaliatory measures against DW were not surprising, but that RT’s German unit “had far more influence in Germany than DW has in Russia,” and therefore Moscow is likely to be “on the losing end of this attempt at ‘tit-for-tat’ diplomacy.”
  • A bill aimed at giving US news publishers the power to bargain with Google and Facebook and force them to pay for content, similar to legislation in Australia, has raised concerns that large publishers would be the ones to benefit, The Hill reports after a hearing on Wednesday. “News giants with the greatest leverage would dominate the negotiations and small outlets with diverse or dissenting voices would be unheard if not hurt,” a group of entities opposed to the bill wrote in a public letter. Signatories included the Wikimedia Foundation, Public Knowledge, Fight For the Future, and Free Press Action. Josh Benton, of the Nieman Journalism Lab, also argued Australia’s law is “bad media policy.”
  • Sammy Roth, energy correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, writes for CJR about how “getting personal about climate change” made him a better reporter. After he included an opinion about the future of the climate crisis in a newsletter, he thought: “There was a time when I would have worried about words like these undermining my credibility as a journalist. Here I was expressing my own fears, and my own desire for climate solutions. Wouldn’t that make me look biased?” After eight years of writing about energy, Roth says he has “come to see my responsibilities in a different light.”
  • In media-jobs news, David Sirota, an author and journalist who now runs a newsletter publisher called The Daily Poster, said in a news release emailed to subscribers that the publication is changing its name to The Lever, and that he has hired Matthew Cunningham-Cook as a reporter and Aditi Ramaswami as an associate editor. Sirota said he plans to make a number of other hires, including a senior reporter, a podcast and event producer, and an audience engagement manager.
  • The Austin American-Statesman has removed the monthly article limit for non-subscribers, Manny Garcia, the paper’s executive editor, announced in a statement published on the Statesman‘s website. Readers who hadn’t signed up for a monthly subscription were previously limited to only a few articles in a thirty-day period. Garcia said the paper will rely on subscriber-only articles to convert readers into subscribers. “Subscriber-only stories have led far more people to sign up as subscribers than the monthly limits on our other work,” he said.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.