In the mid-2000s, I was an avid fan of mixed martial arts. My friends and I would pool our money to order the pay-per-view events of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the combat sport’s largest promoter. One of the fixtures of UFC broadcasts was — and remains — the color commentary of Joe Rogan.
Most people of that era would have been more likely to recognize Rogan as the host of Fear Factor, a hokey NBC gameshow in which contestants attempted to withstand such challenges as being covered in live insects or dropped into deep water while trapped in a car. But my buddies and I were more impressed with his UFC broadcast work. He was knowledgeable about the sport and infectiously enthusiastic, to the degree that we wondered whether he was coked out of his mind.
When the camera panned to Rogan in pre-fight interviews, he was often drenched in sweat, shouting hurriedly about the violence to come. What’s more, he looked the part. With his shaved head and heavily tattooed arms, Rogan was built like one of the fighters. He even occasionally sported a pair of black eyes, the result of his own advanced training in martial arts. All of this made for a strangely compelling package.
No one back then, neither gameshow viewer nor fight fan, could have predicted the eventual scope of Rogan’s influence. His podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience, pulls in an audience of 11 million per episode. By comparison, Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson Tonight draws 3.2 million viewers — a smash hit by conventional standards.
In short, Rogan is dominating legacy media.
This achievement is all the more impressive because since 2020 Rogan’s podcast has been exclusively available on Spotify, a streaming service better known for its extensive catalogue of music. Rogan reportedly made off with $100 million in this deal. In his freewheeling podcast, he turns his manic enthusiasm onto an array of guests on topics ranging from philosophy to psychedelic drugs, from self help to the supernatural, and from politics to the pandemic.
Those last two subjects are how Rogan ran afoul of classic rocker Neil Young. Rogan, the establishment has decided, is a purveyor of the dreaded misinformation because he has hosted guests who break with conventional thinking on Covid-19. Young, a former countercultural icon who once admonished his listeners to “keep on rockin’ in the free world,” has demanded that Spotify either cancel its deal with Rogan or remove his music. Soon, Joni Mitchell joined Young’s protest. Other artists are following. Still, it doesn’t take an accounting genius to guess how this went. Rogan brings more listeners per episode than do Young and Mitchell tunes combined in a month. And Rogan records at least four episodes weekly!
The controversy is interesting not so much because of the particular views that Rogan platformed, but because of what it says about our cultural moment. Zaid Jilani, a thoughtful young writer on the left, tweeted, “It’s interesting seeing so many conservatives rally around Joe Rogan when he’s probably more liberal than 90% of Americans. Agnostic dude who loves drug legalization, Bernie Sanders, thinks the CIA is awful, etc.” Jilani went on to point out that Rogan has also frequently hosted guests who have put forth other misinformation with no public outcry.
But the right doesn’t care about Rogan’s political orientation. Conservatives are making a defense of free speech of the sort that was once the domain of the left. The ’60s radicals who occupied college administration halls have become today’s tenured professors. The classic rockers who once sang out against the establishment now stand up for pharmaceutical companies. Hell, they license their songs to pharmaceutical commercials. I resisted the hacky temptation to open this piece by quoting Young’s song “Old Man.” It would have been too on the nose. Still, the once youthful members of a cultural insurgency have lived long enough to become unable to countenance the thought that someone, somewhere is saying something dangerous.
The young left is becoming even more rigid than the old. David Leonhardt of the New York Times noted that according to Kaiser Family Foundation data, “young Democrats are more worried about getting sick from Covid than old Democrats, even though the science says the opposite should be true.” He extends too much credit in assuming they actually care about “science.” Science is a process for obtaining and refining information about the natural world. Sensibly applied, it should tell you things like you don’t have to wear masks outdoors, or that children ought to be in school since the risk to them is much lower than to adults. Applied as a civic religion, it leads to huddling into confined plywood boxes on the sidewalks of restaurants so as to avoid the risk of being inside.
Ultimately, this is about who is allowed to be unreasonable. Walk around wearing three masks and a face shield despite having been triple vaccinated? Keep kids at home at the whim of teachers’ unions? All well and good. But if you advocate for a treatment that is under clinical trials in other developed nations, as Rogan has, you’re dinged for spreading misinformation.
This double standard has not been lost on the podcaster. In a video addressing the controversy, Rogan pointed out that “many of the things we thought of as ‘misinformation’ just a short while ago are now accepted as fact. Eight months ago, if you said if you get vaccinated you can still catch Covid and you can still spread Covid, you’d be banned from social media. Now that’s openly and repeatedly stated on CNN.”
Rogan also offered that he is a longtime Neil Young fan with no hard feelings over the flap, embraced Spotify’s decision to place a disclaimer on episodes in which controversial Covid views are discussed, and pledged to host balancing viewpoints while exercising more care in his own research. These are seemingly the actions of a man who is, as he claims, interested in facilitating interesting conversations.
It is true that some might take bum medical advice from a podcast that also discusses UFOs and Bigfoot. But then some might also decide to stick a fork in an electrical socket. Life will never be free of risk, but that is no excuse to suppress the flow of ideas. Especially if you are a certain public health-preoccupied rocker who once had to have a special effects team remove an errant cocaine rock from your nostrils.
Bill Zeiser is editor of RealClearPolicy.