Is Joe Rogan A Public Health Menace Or A Modern Version Of Plato? An Investigation

Is Joe Rogan a firehose of garbage or a ray of light in a polarized media landscape? Here's what Australian journalist Josh Szeps recently said on the topic...

Joe Rogan became the number one podcaster in the world by interviewing freaks, funny people, and contrarians.

Though it started off interesting but fairly non-political (think: Bigfoot, aliens; ancient advanced civilisations), in recent years Rogan has come under fire for talking less about psychedelics and more about right-wing talk points.

Worse: sometimes he rehashes these talking points with confidence, before backtracking and calling himself a moron (and by extension, those who take him too seriously as even bigger morons…).

But is it a cop-out, or a fair reaction, from someone who is just creating dialogue for you to listen to?

Before we get into that, first, here’s a little context.

Rogan has got himself into hot water recently for continuing his “curious puppy” approach to dissenters during a pandemic. In the process, many argue, he has been irresponsible – giving a platform to people who are undermining public health.

Others, like Australian journalist Josh Szeps, take a slightly different view, questioning why we would hold Rogan – a comedian and UFC commenter – to the same journalistic standards as, say, The New York Times. Other supporters of Rogan say that people are smart enough to decide who’s off the rails for themselves, and enjoy the process of figuring it out (even if the price of that is that some people don’t ‘figure it out’ and fall down a wormhole of bad influence).

Image Credit: MMA Fighting

This debate over whether people can decide for themselves what is quality news, what is shooting the shit, what is a grey area (and what is totally f*cked up but still interesting to listen to, even if you don’t agree with it) was interestingly hashed out recently on The Briefing.

Szeps, who has spent more of his adult life working in America than Australia, recently appeared on The Briefing – an Australian daily news podcast – with Tom Tilley and Katrina Blowers, to give them an insight into why Americans are so perplexed by Australia’s response to COVID, and also to discuss his recent appearance on Rogan’s podcast, which went viral due to a to-and-fro they had on the topic of vaccines.

So: is Rogan is merely a curious puppy who shouldn’t be expected to clean up his own mess (and who is a saving grace in an era of polarization, and patronizing media outlets), or is he a calculated businessman who has veered into the right lane of politics (or simply has chosen to interview controversial figures, regardless of where they sit politically) in order to score a shitload of cash and who needs to be held to account? We can’t say for sure (and neither can Szeps, Tilley or Blowers). But we sure feel a little more enlightened after hearing their conversation.

The first topic they cover is the reputational bash on Australia which has occurred over the past six to eight months in America. Szeps claimed on The Briefing that this isn’t limited to opportunistic right-wing pundits but is felt throughout much of America (even his Obama-voting aunts and uncles). Why? In part, Szeps claimed, it’s “because of the misalignment of the way our [Australia’s] COVID experience mapped onto the American experience.”

“They had a very front-loaded crisis that then sort of just petered out into successive waves of somewhat normal infection. Not to say the infection rates aren’t very high over there but it’s become a backdrop to normal life.”

He added: “When Delta hit here [in Australia] and we had our big lockdowns over winter there was a lot of bafflement in America about why our police were being so strict… What I wasn’t expecting [with Joe Rogan] was any conversation about myocarditis and the side effects of vaccines. I wasn’t at all prepared for that but it was a three-hour conversation. These sorts of things come up and he mentioned something and I knew it was a right-wing talking point and I knew it was something he was concerned about. But the ‘Josh Szeps slaps down Joe Rogan’ moment that went viral was frankly a fluke.”

The Briefing host Tom Tilly then said: “So this is a classic case where you can misuse information to scare people about increased risks from the vaccine but not contextualise it properly and you were able to call him out on this. So I wonder – he doesn’t really have many arguments left about the vaccine so it was really interesting to hear you do that.”

Szeps responded: “Joe gets a lot of criticism for being an anti-vaxxer or a spreader of vaccine misinformation. My take on him is that he’s a comedian, he’s an ultimate fighting commentator, he’s just a nice bloke who sort of is interested in having conversations with people from all across the aisle and is interested in having conversations with people specifically who contradict conventional narratives or who question what everyone else believes. So in the context of vaccines there are skerricks of truth – he’s not a person who is pumping out vast quantities of knowingly false material.”

He added: “There actually is an issue with myocarditis. This rare heart condition that can come from taking vaccines, especially for younger males to such an extent that the EU I believe has just suspended Moderna specifically for under 40 males. My point was just that you can’t look at that data point in isolation – without also looking at all the other bad things that happen from catching COVID.”  

Video: Szeps calls out Rogan’s myocarditis claim live on air

In the above video, Szeps calls out Joe Rogan for claiming that vaccines have a higher risk of myocarditis than COVID itself for young men. Szeps claims you have an eight times higher risk of myocarditis from COVID itself than from the vaccine. The pair then look up a study that backs up Szeps, and contradicts Rogan.

The debate (on The Briefing) then turned to how much responsibility Rogan should take for repeating information without properly contextualising it (like he did in the above video), with co-host Blowers asking Szeps: “What interested me is I’ve heard this debate before and I’ve heard it debunked before. I would have thought that would have been put in front of him [Rogan] before, did that surprise you?” This is also something various people on Twitter have brought up too.

To this, Szeps responded: “I’m a bit conflicted to be honest Katrina about this idea that because you become popular all of a sudden you have to have the same standards of journalism as the highest journalistic institutions in the world. Joe is Joe. Joe got popular by being Joe. At what number of listeners is he suddenly forced to no longer be Joe but to suddenly become The New York Times.”

Joe Rogan for his part on Twitter, wrote: “That video is cringey, but it’s what happens when you stumble in a long-form podcast when you didn’t know a subject was going to come up and you wing it.”

Tilly answered Szeps with: “I would argue that it’s when he does a massive deal with Spotify, and Spotify has a policy about misinformation and this is what this massive group of medical professionals [the group of 270 physicians and scientists that recently wrote an open letter to Spotify asking them to pull Rogan for spreading misinformation] are pointing out that his podcast isn’t even adhering to Spotify’s own policy. They just want Spotify to implement their own policy.”

Szeps countered: “Do we want to live in a world Tom where big mega-corporations get to decide what the correct point of view on critical issues is. And then all of us are required to take the point of view of 22-year-old software engineers riding skateboards in Silicon Valley who work for Twitter and Facebook and Spotify, and that world view is going to be the authoritative one, and if you dare question that with any alternative research you’re no longer allowed to have a platform? I’m not sure.”

Image via Reddit.

Tilly replied: “That’s a really good argument and you’re right – the sort of subcultures of certain companies could then dictate all kind of rules and stuff that we don’t want to sign up to… but I guess that debate has really been tested during the COVID era because it’s life and death, it’s not a hypothetical.”

Szeps then said: “I agree these are grey areas and if someone was a persistent and aggressive firehose of nonsense then at some point you would want them to appeal to basic standards of logic, decency and fact. But as I said earlier I think in this particular instance what you’ve got is someone who is interested in having conversations with dissenters – and in my case he just bumped up against someone who is not a dissenter on this particular question of vaccines.”

“What’s important for Aussies to understand when they think about these moments is the fundamental difference that’s going on between the world views of Australians and Americans here. I don’t want to speak on behalf of all Australians. I’ve been called an authoritarian bootlicker nazi, and so on, who is just an apologist for a fascist regime in Australia – many of these [comments] are from Australia so there’s definitely a minority of people here who think it’s totally ridiculous the extent to which the police have been enforcing arcane rules about contact tracing and isolation.”

“They think it’s ridiculous that any individual would be forcibly detained or incarcerated in a quarantine facility simply for being a close contact of someone with COVID, and they think that that’s gone off the deep end and all over the states from so many people would speak to me as if I just lost a loved one – my aunts and uncles who are solidly Obama voting anti-Trump people would hold my arm and look at me deeply in the eyes and say: ‘I’m so sorry about what you guys have been through. I can’t believe you’ve had to endure that level of government intrusion.'”

“In the US it is really fundamental to think that the government is basically broken and the government is basically antagonistic towards you and it’s sort of your duty to make sure you oppose government overreach at every step and the idea that government would – beyond what is absolutely critical to prevent a public health emergency – that once you’ve got reasonable rates of vaccination and reasonable hospital capacity and ICU bed capacity, the idea that the government would continue to nitpick and micromanage your life with QR codes and isolation and so on is anathema to Americans.”

“So I think it would be a mistake for example for us to characterise the American narrative about Australia as wholly similar to QAnon or capital rioters on January 6th of last year or something like that. It is a widespread general perception that at this point it’s ridiculous for places not just to be living with COVID.”

The Briefing then ended with Blowers saying, in regards to whether Rogan should be held to a high standard of fact-checking: “Yeah he’s not a journo, but he is purporting these statements as facts not opinion so therefore he should check them before he tells it to the whole world.”

Tilly then added that he reckons you should take responsibility (for your words) if what you’re saying can hurt people, while conceding Szeps made a good point about “who is enforcing the standards if it’s private companies.” 

Joe Rogan interviewing Josh Szeps. Image Credit: The Joe Rogan Experience

So, it appears Rogan isn’t quite a modern-day Plato (as some Redditors like to joke). He has his own dumb, ill-thought-through opinions which he sometimes has unwarranted confidence in (like all the rest of us who are not scientists and doctors and so on), which is perhaps why he resonates with so many people.

To his credit, he does keep an open mind to wildly different kinds of people, with profoundly different philosophies, and brings them to his listeners. But we shouldn’t be too quick to assume there isn’t some sort of filter – everyone, no matter how curious of a puppy they are, has some kind of bias. Also: sometimes he does stray into dangerous territory, and presents his opinions with more authority than they deserve (and only calling himself out for it after the fact).

We don’t know Szeps or Rogan personally, so we can’t really judge to what degree Rogan is telling his audience what they want to hear to make money (or the degree to which Szeps is incentivised to have a good relationship with Rogan because it might be good for his career). On the flip side: it could be argued it would be good for Szeps’ career to not come to Rogan’s defence as he has done.

One thing we can say is that Louis Theroux (one of the best ‘make up your mind for yourself’ journalists out there) currently follows Szeps on Twitter. So that makes us more inclined to trust Szeps’ judgement on Rogan. But who are we to talk? Listen to the podcast (see: the Aussie journalist who fact-checked the world’s biggest podcaster) for yourself and make up your own mind.

Another important point to remember when thinking about whether Joe Rogan is a force for good, or bad, is that – though Rogan’s rhetoric around mainstream media going to sh*t is certainly not based on nothing (the digital revolution has meant that even more objective, legacy outlets now have to elbow for space on your screen among a sea of bias and clickbait to get your attention, leading to what many see as a decline in standards) – the mainstream media isn’t one giant entity (not to mention it suits Rogan for people to distrust the mainstream news and listen to podcasts instead).

But some (or as the case may be, many) bad outlets shouldn’t give ‘journalism’ as a whole a bad name. In fact, there is a theory that the world’s gone mad precisely because of this loss of trust in institutions, lazy thinking, and because of the weaponisation of conspiracy theories.

A conspiracy theory behind a conspiracy theory. We wonder what Rogan would think of that…

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