Medical Misinformation Goes Unchecked on Radio and Podcasts

Tiffany Hsu and Marc Tracy, New York Times:

Marc Bernier, a talk radio host in Daytona Beach, Fla., whose show is available for download or streaming on iHeart’s and Apple’s digital platforms, was among the talk radio hosts who died of Covid-19 complications after expressing anti-vaccination views on their programs. The deaths made national news and set off a cascade of commentary on social media. What drew less attention was the industry that helped give them an audience.


Jimmy DeYoung Sr., whose program was available on iHeart, Apple and Spotify, died of Covid-19 complications after making his show a venue for false or misleading statements about vaccines. One of his frequent guests was Sam Rohrer, a former Pennsylvania state representative who likened the promotion of Covid-19 vaccines to Nazi tactics and made a sweeping false statement. “This is not a vaccine, by definition,” Mr. Rohrer said on an April episode. “It is a permanent altering of my immune system, which God created to handle the kinds of things that are coming that way.” Mr. DeYoung thanked his guest for his “insight.” Mr. DeYoung died four months later.

Hsu and Tracy report that iHeart, Apple, and Spotify have rules for podcasters that, if enforced, would require the removal of lies like the ones broadcast by these hosts. But the FCC, which regulates public airwaves, cannot intervene because it is a government agency and would, therefore, be violating the First Amendment. The message of this article seems to be that podcast directories ought to do a better job of moderating their platforms because they are able to.

Let me set aside the technical requirements of doing so, and focus on the theory alone, because I think it strays into uncomfortable territory. For one, many of the hosts profiled in this piece are not podcast hosts — they are syndicated radio hosts who happen to also distribute their shows in podcast form. The biggest problem with these jackasses is how they exploit their platform to miseducate audiences. This has been an AM radio trope for decades. Is anyone surprised the same people continue to spread dumb contrarianism?

My view of podcasts differs subtly from my enthusiasm for moderation by Facebook or Twitter or YouTube of users’ posts. Social media posts are mostly written by a public that is ill prepared for celebrity. Many of the most popular podcasts, on the other hand, are from professional broadcasters who should be tempered by editors and management. I think it is funny that iHeart has a theoretical higher standard for what its hosts say in podcast form compared to radio. Apple and Spotify, meanwhile, have no mandate to carry these shows as podcasts, but it seems ridiculous for it to be left to either company to moderate what radio hosts say.