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Opening a Pandora’s box: The uneasy mix of music services and politics

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July 1, 2013: A screen displays the name of music streaming company Pandora on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shortly after the start of trading in New York. (reuters)

Is no place safe from politics?

I spend lots of time visiting opinion sites, newspaper sites, magazine sites and blogs, trafficking in all manner of political reporting, analysis, commentary, bloviation and snark.

But sometimes I just want to take a break and listen to music.

So it was with a sense of consternation that I learned that Pandora is plunging deeper into the politics business.

Pandora, which lets you create channels based on artists you like (I also enjoy Spotify), would seem to be all about the music.

But now its owners are opening a Pandora’s box, and inside is a steady stream of political ads.

The Wall Street Journal says Pandora users are targeted based on their musical tastes. Which I find seriously creepy.

“Pandora users who listen to country music more often live in Republican areas, while fans of jazz, reggae and electronic music are more commonly found in counties favoring Democrats, the company said. R&B listeners lean slightly to Democrats and Gospel and New Age listeners lean slightly to Republicans, Pandora said. Classic rockers like Bruce Springsteen and Hip Hop artists are harder to classify; they count fans in both parties.”

So even Pandora is stumped if you like Bruce, despite the fact that he backs Democrats and made a song mocking Chris Christie? As the Journal says, “some of the analysis seems simplistic.”

The music service was already betting on your political predilections based on Zip code. Last fall, Pandora began steering advertisers to people who listen to salsa and live in heavily Hispanic districts.

And yet the idea of being judged by which artists you like still sounds Big Brother-ish to me.

I get that free services like Pandora (which charges only for an ad-free premium model) need to generate revenue. Facebook has been doing the same sort of monitoring. Every company needs a business model to survive.

But good golly Miss Molly, this hits a jarring note.

Vanity Fair kills Gwyneth story

After months of chatter about a major Vanity Fair piece on Gwyneth Paltrow, the magazine has decided to pull the plug.

And the explanation by Editor Graydon Carter is as fascinating as the spiked story might have been.

The dustup began when the Hollywood actress decided she didn’t want to be “done” by the magazine, and urged her pals not to cooperate: “Vanity Fair is threatening to put me on the cover of their magazine without my participation,” she said. “I recommend you all never do this magazine again.”

This, says Carter, is when “things just went haywire. The New York Times inflated the story into a Vanity Fair-vs.-Hollywood slugfest. Magazines and Web sites tried both to anticipate what we had in our story and to best us. Web sites wrote of an ‘epic’ Gwyneth Paltrow ‘takedown’ that would retail all manner of misbehavior.”

When the story, by veteran contributing editor Vanessa Grigoriadis came in, it “was just what had been assigned—a reasoned, reported essay on the hate/love-fest that encircles Gwyneth Paltrow.”

So what was the problem? Carter, who’s had Paltrow over to his house for dinner, got what turned into a 20-minute call from her. She asked his advice about winning over her detractors.

And so, “the Gwyneth Paltrow saga had clearly just gotten away from us. My instinct was to continue to let it sit until people had forgotten about it, or at least until expectations had diminished. The fact is the Gwyneth Paltrow story, the one we ordered up, as delightfully written as it was, is not the one the anti-Gwynethites expect. That it has generated more mail and attention than many of the biggest stories we’ve ever published only makes the situation more complicated. The thing of it is, we really don’t publish ‘epic,’ out-of-the-blue ‘takedowns’ of individual public figures, unless they are in heated conflict with another public figure or unless their positions and their actions have a grievous effect on the lives of others. We’ll save our gunpowder for bigger stories. And so, sorry as we are to disappoint all those many people out there, for the time being we’ll leave it to another publication to roll out the ‘epic bombshells’ surrounding Gwyneth Paltrow.”

First, kudos to Carter for publishing such a detailed explanation. But consider what he’s saying: not that the piece is badly flawed, but that he can’t run it because all the media chatter has built up expectations for a bigger and more negative piece.

Now imagine if this was happening in the political realm, rather than in entertainment. The magazine is profiling a senator who refuses to cooperate. There is lots of media gossip about the piece. The senator, who knows the magazine’s editor socially, calls him, and the piece is killed. Wouldn’t there be an uproar?

Carter runs a great magazine, but this sure makes Hollywood seem like a cozy place.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.