On Tuesday, New York Times CEO Meredith Levien made the kind of big statement about the state of the media — and really, society as a whole and democracy as it has come to operate — that you hope to hear from a media executive. Not because it’s necessarily right or optimistic, but because it draws a pretty clear line between Us and Them. “The internet has failed us as a society in a lot of ways around information that gets you to understanding, or to engage in a productive and fruitful way with the world,” she said in an interview with Scott Galloway at the Pivot MIA conference being co-hosted by Galloway and Kara Swisher this week in Miami.
Levien had been asked by Galloway about the Times winning in court against Sarah Palin’s libel lawsuit hours earlier. He quizzed her about the difference between the Times’ 2017 editorial that falsely linked Palin to the assassination attempt on Gabby Giffords to the slurry of libelous charges that anyone can find on sites like Twitter and Facebook.
“It’s a moment for institutions that can sort of uphold the requirements of a relationship with individuals and with a society to help them get on the journey to truth,” she said. “I don’t believe that’s what platforms do. They make software for anyone to be able to publish content, which is a totally different thing.”
Platforms is the key word. Palin went to trial right around the time when Spotify — a competitor to the Times that produces its own in-house podcasts — doubled down on backing its biggest talking head, Joe Rogan, after a boycott over him airing false information about COVID vaccines. Levien’s counterpart at the Swedish company, Daniel Ek, took a different tack, essentially saying that they have no responsibility to make sure the information that they distribute is factually correct.
Last month, the Times bought the Athletic, which has about 1.2 million subscribers, for $550 million. After that, it bought Wordle for the money left over in its couch cushions. The Times is so big that, in the early months of the pandemic, it had more subscribers in California than either of the state’s two biggest newspapers. Levien reminded Galloway that the Times recently upped its targets from 10 million subscriptions, which it surpassed with the Athletic acquisition, to 15 million subscribers — the kind of growth that you’d think would only come along if Donald Trump became president again.