Rogan’s measured response to the recent controversy over Spotify and Covid misinformation revealed exactly what’s wrong with his platform.
After a week-long controversy around his podcast, involving rather bizarrely a boycott of Spotify from Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, comedian and mega-podcaster Joe Rogan has finally responded. Amid calls against Spotify to take action against his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, over some episodes in which he was accused of helping peddle misinformation around COVID-19, Rogan posted a video on Instagram in response, saying that he just wanted to have “interesting conversations.”
Across the nearly ten minutes, Rogan appears, in fact, relatively level-headed, calm, and even slightly sympathetic at some points to the criticism that has largely circled around two recent episodes. The episodes featured prominent “highly credentialed, very intelligent, very accomplished” doctors who made multiple inaccurate and misleading claims about the experimental and ineffective nature of the vaccine, how the pandemic was planned, and more.
“I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist. I’m just a person who sits down and talks to people and has conversations with them,” Rogan said. “Do I get things wrong? Absolutely. I get things wrong. But I try to correct them.” In the eye of a highly politicized and polarizing controversy, Rogan calmly and earnestly claimed innocence — he even agreed with Spotify’s response to include disclaimers on some episodes and to try to “balance out these controversial viewpoints” with guests who have opposing viewpoints. Yet it is in fact this very stance-less position that he persistently embodies — a shrugging, empty vessel that has become a platform for dubious claims — that makes him particularly dangerous.
The truth is that Rogan is indeed motivated not by intentional polarization, but by his genuine curiosity — the problem is that he’s utterly empty-headed in his pursuit (COVID misinformation, not only from his guests, but from himself, has been a consistent issue). The only major thing that Rogan takes direct issue with in his video response is how the controversy has circled around the word “misinformation” and how “many of the things that eight months ago would have been considered misinformation are now accepted as fact,” such as claims around whether vaccination would still allow you to catch and spread Covid. His implication is that pondering unsubstantiated claims isn’t misinformation because those theories could very well end up being true. But that trajectory is simply the case, of course, because we didn’t know enough to make such claims eight months ago, and now, many months after mass vaccination and new scientific understandings that have naturally come as a result, we do.
Regardless, Rogan’s inclination toward having guests with “differing opinions” — an ostensibly noble cause, in theory, that his supporters, sick of an entrenched, biased media ecosystem, always rally around in his defense — lies in his simple desire to have interesting conversations. Here’s the thing: we are now entering year three of the pandemic, still not having seen a legitimate end in sight. We are far past the point of there being anything interesting or useful about differing opinions and theorizing about fundamental realities about stopping the spread of COVID-19, such as the efficacy of vaccines and masks. We are far past the point of treating debates around foundational truths of the pandemic as even “entertaining,” conspiracy-minded talk when you’re blasted on the couch with your friend.
We are far past the point of there being anything interesting or useful about differing opinions and theorizing about fundamental realities about stopping the spread of COVID-19, such as the efficacy of vaccines and masks.
That is, after all, what the podcast started as. Rogan himself acknowledges in the video that the Joe Rogan Experience started out as him essentially shooting the shit with his friends, and things just happened to blow up from there. And it has retained this carefree, unregulated ethos: “These podcasts are very strange because they’re just conversations,” Rogan says in his video. “And oftentimes I have no idea what I’m going to talk about until I sit down and talk to people. And that’s why some of my ideas are not that prepared or fleshed out, because I’m literally having them in real-time. But I do my best and they’re just conversations, and I think that’s also the appeal of the show.”
That is fine and all for a podcast — this sort of looseness is one of the defining tenets of the medium that has accounted for its rise in the past several years. But it becomes an issue if your other objective of the show, of having a diversity of opinions, involves people who, as Rogan notes himself ironically in his support of Spotify’s disclaimer idea, promote theories that “are contrary to the opinions of the consensus of experts.” Rogan’s candid, unprepared appeal, while welcoming highly controversial people peddling questionable information and not actually moderating or offering any real pushback, opinion, or research, is not in fact him being a “good interviewer” (as many tout him for being) and facilitating diverse and thoughtful discussion; it just means he’s passively providing a megaphone to the worst ideas of, at times, dangerous guests.
It is in a way a baffling conundrum: Rogan has built an empire on being a shrugging, entertaining idiot with unstructured, meandering conversations you have when you’re high with friends, but he’s wholly unequipped with the responsibility that he has with the credentialed people who now regularly visit to actually legitimize some of those stoned theories. And to be clear, regardless of the show’s initial aim, he does have a responsibility with an audience of his size — he acknowledges this himself. “It’s a strange responsibility to have this many views and listeners,” Rogan says toward the end.
He claims he will now “do my best to make sure that I’ve researched these topics, the controversial ones in particular, and have all the pertinent facts at hand before I discuss them. I’m not trying to promote misinformation, I’m not trying to be controversial. I’ve never tried to do anything other than just try to talk to people and have interesting conversations. I didn’t plan it.” Everything Rogan has said might be honest and well-intentioned — but it’s about time he started planning.