I’m a Joe Rogan listener.
Wait! Before you click off and cancel me on various social media platforms (there’ll be time for that, trust me), let me dig the hole deeper. Not only am I a The Joe Rogan Experience (JRE) listener, but I’m also a longtime The Joe Rogan Experience listener. I’ve tuned into his podcast for about ten years, drawn in, during the pre-Spotify era, as a standup comedy fanatic. My first Rogan podcast foray featured my favorite comedian, tacky 70s thrift store suit connoisseur, unsolicited Popov Vodka endorser, and Joe’s former defunct later seasons of The Man Show co-host, Doug Stanhope, who appeared in tandem with his delightful, blue-haired wife, Vodka Juicebox musician Bingo Bingaman. From there, my Rogan listenership grew from the occasional click for a beloved comic to any time Rogan invited a guest that piqued my interest. And that happened more often than not. Through Rogan, I not only discovered some newfound comedic obsessions such as true minority who doesn’t fit into his own minority, Tim Dillon (another comic podcast I religiously follow), but I also, despite the podcast’s anti-intellectual reputation, learned about books that touch on my ghoulish sensibilities like Tom O’Neill’s essential CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.
I even like the controversial episodes—Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, Gavin McInnes—in fact, I like those best. Fascinated by extreme behavior and personalities, as well as exceptionally American grifts, I want the opportunity to witness these figures, who now almost exclusively exist on their own platforms, in a format that is neither altered by others’ analysis nor manipulated through their own brand’s bluster. This way I can see firsthand, for instance, how VICE co-founder, Proud Boys founder, and drunken clown Gavin McInnes is a perfect example of how the unique vein of ironic white male hipsterdom that I remember so vividly from my first years in NYC in the early 2000s easily slid into white supremacist domestic terror under the guise of having a laugh with the boys. Shocking, yet somehow fitting. While I know popular consensus has decided it’s wrong to platform these people, it also does a lot to demystify many of these characters that, like it or not, exert some influence in our culture. Let me see and decide that Alex Jones’s mental state is closer to a paranoid subway crazy—a state that explains some of his more, uh, mistaken assertions about crisis actors—but is also a captivating listen, at least partially explaining his appeal (along with America’s long flirtation with niche conspiracies), as he rambles about spider guns, DMT clockwork elves, and human-animal hybrids (though apparently, he wasn’t wrong about that one).
Yes, I see that vein popping in your collective foreheads. I know all the “problematic” views Joe has espoused on his podcast so don’t bother emailing me some supercut you found on Twitter as if I’m unaware (I’m a listener, remember?). I don’t mind hearing statements I disagree with even if it makes me think, as he’s admitted himself, he’s a “fucking moron.” I also know I’m not of the crowd that is supposed to like Joe Rogan. I’m not the myopic amalgamation of douchebag characteristics that have become the presumed Joe Rogan Experience listener in the eyes of the left-leaning general public, even though one would think around 11 million listeners an episode would be quite a wide-ranging audience. I’m not an angry white man. I’m not a bro. I’m not an incel. I mainly go on Reddit to get news about Lana Del Rey and read the covid long haulers subreddit in order to see if, maybe, there are any new medical breakthroughs or at least, someone with power that might acknowledge, with a modicum of seriousness, people who have become chronically ill after COVID.
Because in addition to being a Joe Rogan listener, I also have been dealing with Long COVID for almost two years. While I don’t usually discuss it, finding these conversations to be frustrating, quite boring, and way more trouble than they’re worth, I’ve experienced and continue to experience a revolving door of symptoms after I was infected by mild COVID in those early, mobile morgue days of March 2020. This includes crushing fatigue, an excruciatingly physical experience that is unfairly distorted by that simplistic word, muscle pain that isn’t relieved by OTC meds (but is aided by CBD…again…Joe Rogan listener), and cognitive issues that have required me to slow down and completely reconfigure the way I write. Some days I feel fine; other days I need to crawl back in bed at 10 AM in abject discomfort. And since everyone wants to (rudely) ask, including, I’m sure, Rogan himself: No, I didn’t have any preexisting conditions and ran over thirty miles a week, a regiment I have been building myself up to ever since I first recovered from acute COVID and couldn’t run more than two blocks. And no, just like for other similarly largely ignored chronic illnesses like ME/CFS, there really aren’t any compellingly effective treatments. Pacing…great, thanks…
All of which is to say, I pay extremely close attention to and have a stake in how we talk about COVID and what we demand from healthcare providers and public health officials. Because of this, I have felt incredibly frustrated and awed at the short-sightedness as Joe Rogan has become, in the last few weeks, the predominant symbol for COVID misinformation that must be silenced for our collective safety as if he’s a Jim Jones-like leader of an anti-vaxxer death cult leading people to vats of Ivermectin. My social media feeds are now filled with self-congratulatory posts about canceling Spotify accounts and support for musicians like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell who pulled their catalogs from the streaming platform in protest (yes, this also serves as a disclaimer that our playlists with remain on Spotify). Though Joe’s COVID fixation is certainly not beyond critique (I’ll get to that), this outrage sets him up to be a useful straw man, diverting attention from two years (and counting) of deficient, confused, confusing, and sometimes intentionally misleading public policy surrounding COVID that has done nothing but encourage skepticism and mistrust in our healthcare system. The same skepticism and mistrust in our healthcare system responsible for leading people to, say, reject vaccines for fringe treatments and gravitate towards alternative and invalid sources of information.
It’s daunting to try to provide a quick recap of the recent Spotify/Rogan COVID misinformation controversy because it feels nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly when it began. Since the advent of the various COVID vaccines, Rogan has been under fire for, among other things, saying young, healthy people may not need to be vaccinated, obsessing over vaccine-related illnesses, equating mRNA vaccines with “gene therapy,” and exhaustively hyping Ivermectin, including revealing he took the drug with a plethora of other treatments when he got COVID. While soundbites have circulated both in the form of furious tweets and articles, the controversy didn’t explode until December 2021 when Rogan invited two doctors—Dr. Peter McCullough and Dr. Robert Malone—onto the podcast, both of whom have, shall we say, unpopular and unconventional views about COVID, vaccines, and other treatments. This sparked an outcry, notably from a group of nearly 300 doctors and scientists from “the global scientific and medical communities” who penned an open letter to Spotify. The letter demands that Spotify, which signed a much-referenced $100 million deal with Rogan for the podcast, “take action against the mass-misinformation events which continue to occur on its platform,” asserting that “Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals.”
Subsequently and perhaps independently, Neil Young, who has complained about and removed some of his music from Spotify in the past (and I’m guessing wasn’t too disappointed by this convenient out), gave the streaming platform an ultimatum on a now-deleted letter on his website: “I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform…They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.” Well, you can probably guess how that turned out given the contrast between Young’s about 6 million listeners a month and Joe’s 11 million an episode. Why was Young so miffed? “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.” Now, Young certainly has every right to pull his music. However, it is a bit rich given it doesn’t take too much digging to find some of Young’s own unsavory medical views. This includes an eyebrow-raising homophobic rant in Melody Maker in 1985, sparked, presumably, by the spread of HIV/AIDS: “You go to a supermarket, and you see a f—ggot behind the f—kin’ cash register; you don’t want him to handle your potatoes.” Yikes.
Since Young’s music went into the black (*rim shot*), a growing list of artists have demanded the removal of their work from the platform, including all of Young’s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young bandmates, Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren, and Joni Mitchell, who I can’t imagine knows who Joe Rogan even is, but wrote on her website: “I’ve decided to remove all my music from Spotify. Irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives. I stand in solidarity with Neil Young and the global scientific and medical communities on this issue.” While I admire Joni, she also doesn’t have an exactly…*ahem*…uncomplicated past, including a startling propensity for donning blackface. (I refuse to post the pic, but if you want to see, here it is!). In addition to musicians, other podcasters joined in as well, such as Donald Trump’s least favorite niece, Mary Trump, and writer Roxane Gay who penned an editorial in The New York Times that attempts to thread a pretty small needle, explaining why she decided to take a stand against Joe, as well as previously Milo Yiannopoulos, but not her main publisher HarperCollins, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. Soon-to-be Spotify podcasters Prince Harry and Meghan Markle allegedly also expressed their concern and even White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who you may remember as the redhead whose enraging scoffing about free at-home COVID tests eventually led the Biden administration to cave in to pressure and send Americans free rapid tests, weighed in, saying that while the White House supports Spotify’s idea to add disclaimers on content related to COVID, “there is more that can be done.”
Many Spotify subscribers have also followed suit, canceling their Spotify premium accounts, bragging about it over social media platforms, and ironically proudly declaring their newly chosen, deeply unethical corporate streaming platforms. Where are they going? Users are heading to platforms like Pandora, where they can enjoy the completely unproblematic views of Tucker Carlson! “The home of Neil Young” Apple Music is also a favored option, if users can willfully ignore reported accounts of Apple hiring suppliers who use child labor and slave labor, inhumane conditions Foxconn factories, which assemble the iPhone, in India and China, and suicides at Foxconn’s Longhua plant. Woke! Lastly, if that ghastly history makes you a little queasy, there’s always Amazon. I’m sure they treat their workers well! They want to piss in those water bottles and never see their families!
Listen, I’m not going to defend Rogan’s COVID views (and don’t you dare frame this essay as a defense). A lot of his ideas around COVID are stupid, blatantly wrong, and easily refuted, as seen in a recent JRE episode with Josh Zepps who proved there was more of a risk of myocarditis with COVID than the vaccines. And I’m as annoyed as anyone whenever Rogan dons his Dr. Joe, COVID expert, lab coat. In fact, I’ve listened to the podcast significantly less in the past year because of his COVID bullshit. I tune into podcasts as an escape, not to hear endless banter about vaccines. I’m not alone if either this meme found on the Joe Rogan subreddit is valid evidence:
I also know that the contextualization of Joe Rogan as the most dangerous preeminent figurehead of COVID quackery, leading helpless Americans blindly to their deaths, isn’t quite fair. First, Joe has invited guests on his show that are more in line with scientifically and medically accepted COVID protocols like Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Dr. Rhonda Patrick, who both argued for the efficacy of vaccines. Secondly, we should give his audience, of which I am one, more credit, particularly since Joe is inviting diverging views on his show and, as he’s promised in his recent Instagram video commenting on the controversy, intends to do so more frequently. I would also go so far as to assert that most listeners are not blind followers and we all have the capacity to take in multiple opinions or simply, turn the show off.
It’s also fairly easy to dismiss Joe’s personal COVID musings. He’s admitted himself: “I’m not a respected source of information, even for me.” Is this an abdication of responsibility since he does have such an enormous platform? Undoubtedly. Yet, I also think we should listen to people when they tell you who they are. Joe is the guy sniffing smelling salts with fellow comedians Mark Normand, Shane Gillis, and Ari Shaffir, filming videos of ants in his Austin backyard, posting sauna photographs where he resembles a hot dog, and waxing poetic about igniting “some ancient genetic memories” when grilling elk meat.
However, if we do—and we should—take his views seriously, he’s more of a vaccine skeptic than a full-on tinfoil hat-wearing QAnon anti-vaxxer as he’s been portrayed (he’s not even right-wing considering he keeps gushing over how much he respects the Obamas). It’s not as if Joe is screaming at people in line for vaccines and calling for the execution of Dr. Anthony Fauci like the late QAnon broadcast star Cirsten Weldon, who recently died of COVID. He’s also not profiting off of COVID snake oil like disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker or the now-late FROG News Podcast Network’s Douglas Kuzma who appeared in his final broadcast, before dying of COVID, covered in LifeWave X39™ patches, a favored product on the far-right network. Those absolutist views on vaccines are certainly much more damaging and deadly to their listeners than Rogan asking questions to doctors like Dr. Malone who, quite frankly, came off as a complete kook. It’s also not as if Rogan has been entirely wrong about COVID treatments either. He’s advocated heavily for more early interventions, which are inarguably beneficial. The only issue here is that access to good healthcare and quick and quality testing is so shoddy in this country that there is little chance for most people to be diagnosed with COVID quick enough for antiretroviral drugs’ peak efficacy.
Understandably, most criticism of the Spotify outrage has focused on censorship, specifically the type of corporate deplatforming form of censorship that tends to circulate from the Left. All of which is fair. The state of the country is troubling when both sides of the aisle want to shut down any opinion that diverts from their own, whether it is Critical Race Theory or The Joe Rogan Experience. And each side’s constant arguments about how their censorship is not censorship is a stunning exercise in cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately, though, I don’t see these Culture Wars-esque moral outrages disappearing any time soon, whether that’s due to the dopamine hits that social media users receive when getting all those righteous retweets, the media needing to fuel a controversy for reads and ratings, or a midterm election strategy.
Other critical analyses, mainly from the Intellectual Dark Web/Substack set like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi, both of whom have appeared on JRE, have used the Rogan controversy as an example of how people are turning to independent platforms like Joe Rogan and, you know, them. In his “The Pressure Campaign on Spotify to Remove Joe Rogan Reveals the Religion of Liberals: Censorship,” Greenwald writes, “As both Rogan’s success and collapsing faith and interest in traditional corporate media outlets prove, there is a growing hunger for discourse that is liberated from the tight controls of liberal media corporations and their petulant, herd-like employees.” Maybe. Except given the sheer amount of attention paid to the platforms Greenwald himself uses in his article, this is much more about his own participation in independent media than the wider implications of the Rogan controversy. Plenty of Rogan listeners likely get their news from other sources. Plus, it’s not as if Americans conflating entertainment with news is anything new. In the early 2000s, there were copious pearl-clutching reports of young people getting their news mainly from The Daily Show. Though this may have had something to do with the media misleading us into a war in Iraq…
Clearly, there is a discussion to be had about journalistic ethics. Researching for this essay, for instance, I was flummoxed by the sheer amount of articles referring to Ivermectin, a drug for humans effective against a wide range of parasites, as a horse dewormer. This includes Roxane Gay’s recent New York TImes editorial, which ironically reads: “And misinformation has helped prolong the COVID-19 pandemic and encouraged people to do dangerous things such as injecting bleach or taking Ivermectin, a horse deworming paste.” Sure, some morons on wingnut Facebook groups purchased horse paste at tractor supply stores rather than see a doctor (probably because none of them have health insurance), but that doesn’t mean the medication itself is for horses. That’s like saying Prozac is a dog antidepressant. Even the FDA’s site that discourages the use of Ivermectin to treat COVID bafflingly includes a stock photo of a veterinarian caressing a horse, which might only encourage people to find the meds at a feed store. This bears the question: Whose misinformation do we allow? And why?
That kind of bad faith messaging from the government is precisely why some Americans don’t trust our government or healthcare system. Joe Rogan’s galaxy-brained COVID theorizing doesn’t come close to the damage created by our own government in fostering skepticism in parts of the American public, not to mention the decades upon decades (upon decades) of medical mistreatment of certain populations, particularly Black Americans. And they have every right to be skeptical! It’s hard to have faith in the medical community when our own broken healthcare system has left most Americans to fend for themselves during a global pandemic.
You don’t have to search too hard to find examples of faulty information promoted by our own government. This began early on during the pandemic when Dr. Fauci asserted in a March 2020 interview with 60 Minutes, “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” He even discouraged mask use because “there are unintended consequences—people keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.” Whoops! Though much of the backpedaling around this comment rests on this interview predating updated CDC policy, we know now that one of the main motivations for Fauci’s statements was concern that requiring masks would lead to a toilet paper-like hoarding frenzy, depriving medical workers of much-needed protective equipment. And you know what, that concern is valid; Americans love shopping sprees!. However, had I been told that even a makeshift mask was recommended, I likely would not have been infected with COVID that same month. It’s hard not to take that personally, Tony. Even if we brush it off as an early mistake, the flip-flopping on mask recommendations, from mask mandates to the CDC lifting the mandates after pervasive vaccinations to more mask mandates, has continued throughout the pandemic, becoming utterly confusing and unintentionally undermining confidence in the vaccines. And this isn’t even getting into the confusion about what kinds of masks work.
More recently, the Omicron surge allowed the American public to experience some major whiplash as Democrats switched over to Republican talking points in order to keep the economy stabilized as cases skyrocketed terrifyingly. Those of us with Long COVID perhaps got to see the willful omissions in our public health messaging with a little more clarity than others. This included Dr. Fauci, newly media-trained CDC Director Walensky, elected officials, and a plethora of teevee doctors repeating that while most everyone will likely get COVID with the high contagiousness of the new strain, the vaccinated and boosted shouldn’t fear since studies from South Africa indicated the cases were fairly mild. Except I, and many others, have been unwell for years after a “mild” case of COVID (mild here meaning not hospitalized). They also encouraged a focus on the rate of hospitalization rather than counting cases of COVID. Some even suggested reporting the division between hospitalization “with” COVID and hospitalization “due to” COVID, a distinction that Elon Musk suggested earlier and was criticized for on—what else—The Joe Rogan Experience. In addition, the CDC, after reported heavy lobbying from the airline industry, cut isolation and quarantine requirements down to 5 days out of fear of staffing shortages, which also had the perhaps unintended consequence of making workplaces assume that recovery only takes 5 days. No need for more sick leave!
The Omicron-era messaging managed to also erase Long COVID from the narrative altogether. Only a few months after Joe Biden declared Long COVID a (maybe) disability, suddenly, despite the wall-to-wall coverage on Omicron, Long COVID was barely uttered by public health officials, with the exception of one local interview with Dr. Fauci on NY1. Why? Because Long COVID is inconvenient when the motivation is to keep people working as much as possible during a pandemic. It’s easier to gaslight the American people about what mild COVID means if you’re going to ask them to essentially put themselves in harm’s way for business. And look, I’m not necessarily for lockdowns or other stringent COVID measures either, but I do believe the public should be informed of all the risks when being exposed to COVID for capitalism’s sake. This includes, beyond death, becoming chronically ill, potentially disabled, and even, not being able to work—the effects of which we may eventually (if we aren’t already) see on the economy. Oh yeah, and if you get sick, better hope you have a good healthcare provider or one at all, which most Americans don’t.
Taken in this context, Joe Rogan is not the problem; our entire system of public health and healthcare is. This makes the flurry of anti-Rogan outrage just another example of the current, particularly grating liberal impulse to fixate on, in comparison, small and insignificant cultural issues than larger systemic and structural problems, ones that quite often are at the root of these cultural battles. And I get it–it’s easy and a lot more popular to rail against the meathead podcaster/comedian/UFC commentator than it is to confront the seemingly insurmountable problems in public health policy. But, imagine if the same influential musicians, podcasters, and writers who spent the past few weeks ripping their music off of Spotify and loudly taking a stand against Joe Rogan instead demanded adequate healthcare for people with Long COVID, rather than the same chronically ill people and more recently, Representative Ayanna Pressley shouting into the void. Or simply, what if they—and we—demanded better healthcare for all Americans, which would undoubtedly cut down on the rampant conspiracy theories, misinformation, and maybe, horse dewormer sales.