Feb 1, 2022

Your criticism, my response.

Your criticism, my response.

I'm responding to feedback from yesterday's Joe Rogan piece.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: Longer than usual.

We re-visit yesterday's Joe Rogan piece. Plus, a question about Ukraine and Russia, and an important story about fishing.

Joe Rogan holds up Michael Osterholm's book for his audience. Osterholm sits on Biden's Covid-19 advisory board. Screenshot: YouTube / PowerfulJRE
Joe Rogan holds up Michael Osterholm's book for his audience. Osterholm sits on Biden's Covid-19 advisory board. Screenshot: YouTube / PowerfulJRE


In yesterday's reader question about New Democrats, I described New Democrats as "more fiscally conservative than you may imagine a run-of-the-mill Republican to be." What I meant to write was that they are "more fiscally conservative, the way you might imagine a run-of-the-mill Republican to be." Not that they were more fiscally conservative than standard Republicans. Sorry for the confusion.

Quick hits.

  1. A senior U.S. diplomat accused Russia of trying to destabilize Ukraine during a U.N. Security Council meeting. The Kremlin responded by accusing Washington of stoking fears and tension. (The clash)
  2. President Trump's political organization reported $122 million in cash reserves as he considers a run for president in 2024. (The cash)
  3. Qatar reached a deal with the Taliban to resume chartered evacuations out of Kabul's airport. (The deal)
  4. The FDA fully approved the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine for people 18 and older, making it the second vaccine to receive full FDA approval. (The approval)
  5. A federal judge rejected a plea deal between prosecutors and Travis McMichael, one of the men convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery. The deal would have averted a federal hate crimes trial for McMichael, who is already facing life in prison. (The ruling)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Joe Rogan (again). In yesterday's newsletter, I wrote about the controversy surrounding Joe Rogan, Spotify, and some of the issues it raises about public discourse and censorship. Predictably, given this issue's resonance across the country, it drew a lot of responses. Some of those responses were measured: People writing in to raise points I had not discussed or thought about, pushing back on certain points I made or asking for more clarification.

Others were less measured: Some people wrote in letting me know they believed I was contributing to the deaths of Americans by taking Rogan's side, and informing me that they were now unsubscribing from Tangle (you can support our work by clicking here). Some of the responses, to my delight, were affirming: People telling me that I changed their mind or affirmed their beliefs, and giving me a thumbs up for doing what I do. Some people actually told me they subscribed after reading this edition of the newsletter.

All together, though, it turned into one of the more engaging and most responded-to editions of Tangle I've written in the last few months. Even among the Tangle team, there were strong disagreements and some robust debate about this before publication. It left me wishing I had more space to elaborate on some of the things people brought up. Then I remembered: I'm actually the boss. So if I want to do a second Rogan issue, I can. And then I decided I would. (I’m still getting used to working for myself — it’s really nice!)

Because I didn't want to put specific readers on the spot, and because many readers wrote in with similar points being made in different ways, and because many of you (like me) can be rather long winded in your writing, I decided to synthesize the main pushback I got and respond below.

In bold, you'll see some of the reactions I got from readers. Below that, you'll see my reply with more of my thoughts. Just a reminder: Yesterday, we covered and shared a wide range of opinions on this issue. In the past, I’ve shared entire editions made up entirely of reader feedback to my writing with no response from me. Today, I am sharing criticisms of my writing and then more of my opinion, one that diverges not just from folks on the left and right but also from the staff editing this very newsletter. Navigating these difficult conversations is, after all, what this whole project is all about.

Obviously, this is an important issue to me, or I wouldn't do an immediate follow-up (including criticism). But I also know there is a lot going on in the world right now and plenty else to cover, so some of you may be slightly annoyed by this back-to-back coverage. It felt important enough to me to follow up on – and we'll leave it alone for a bit after this is done, I promise.If you didn’t read yesterday’s newsletter, you should probably go do that now, though it’s not 100% necessary.

This is not a free speech issue. Why do you talk about this being censorious? As one reader put it, "My number 1 problem with this whole conversation, on both sides, is the use of the word 'censorship.' Consequences are not censorship. Economic choices are not censorship. It's capitalism, of all damn things."

I agree that this is not a free speech issue in the sense that this isn’t the government restraining speech. I'm less sure about whether it's an issue of censorship.

The obvious reality in today's climate is that a corporation like Spotify both proliferates independent, non-mainstream voices and has the power to silence them. Spotify is trying to corner the podcast market and has Joe Rogan under contract for $100 million. They own more than 25% of the podcast market, up from 20% last year. Presumably, Spotify took Rogan on their platform because they understood his content and the value of his audience (literally – as in, they'd make money off of them). To bring Rogan to Spotify and then, say, take down episodes of his show or try to force him to oblige their editorial standards strikes me as a betrayal of both Rogan and his fans. They knew what they were getting, and they should stand by him.

In other words: The binary outcomes here were that Spotify removes Rogan or Spotify doesn't. Given the open-mindedness of Rogan's podcast, the fact he has given a ton of airtime to "pro-vaccine" and mainstream Covid-19 guests and ideas, and the fact there is little evidence besides speculation that Rogan's audience has been vaccine hesitant or resistant, I think removing him for "misinformation" or "killing Americans" would be a net negative for the open discourse in the country. To me, that was clearly the worse outcome here.

All that being said: Yes, you are right. This is not a free speech issue because Rogan is not being silenced by the government. And, as I said in the newsletter, I respect anyone who decides to cancel their subscription to Spotify (or even Tangle) if they think they are genuinely supporting something harmful. That is a totally logical thing to do. I said yesterday that “Young has the right to use his platform and influence to change Spotify’s policies” just as other musicians do. But I would never say that the government has the right to influence Rogan or Spotify.

My points yesterday were both that a) I don't think Rogan's podcast is as harmful as it is being painted to be and b) I was glad to see that the calls to deplatform Rogan were losing, because I think overzealous responses to eliminate voices like Rogan's are becoming far too common. Given Spotify’s power, I think removing someone as popular as Rogan would have a chilling effect on the entire industry, making people think twice about questioning conventional wisdom on the air. And I think that is dangerous.

Scientists agree about the threat of Covid and the efficacy of vaccines. There are not "two sides" to this.

What seems really important to me here is that the Covid-19 pandemic is an incredibly contentious issue with a range of variance, even among experts. For example: Most experts believe the vaccines are a miracle of science and work extremely well to prevent death and serious illness. All the data back this up, and views to the contrary are fringe. I believe this, too, because it seems obvious. But some people who believe that (like me), also don’t think there should be vaccine mandates among ordinary citizens (I can understand health care workers). It's not just a debate about whether Covid-19 is dangerous or not, or whether the vaccines work, but precisely how to navigate it. For every measure to stop Covid there is a cost, and room to debate that cost.

What I love about Rogan's show — and trust me, I have my issues — is that he allows people the space to make their case and gives his listeners some leeway to decide for themselves, too. I like to think Tangle does the same. As I said in yesterday’s piece, Rogan has not just run a guest list of anti-vaxxers. He had Michael Osterholm on, who now sits on Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board and has the most mainstream pro-vaccine views there are. He had on Peter Hotez from Baylor College of Medicine and Nicholas Kristakis, a social scientist from Yale, both of whom have very mainstream views on the pandemic. And, most recently, he brought on Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, who is probably to “the left” of the mainstream views.

Now: Is the actual scientific consensus at the same ratio of Rogan’s guests? Of course not. It’s probably more like 100 to 1, not 5 to 3. But that is what makes Rogan’s show interesting: You get out of the mainstream.

Given how many things we as a society (and those experts as a group) have gotten wrong on Covid, I think it's a worthy exercise to let these forces compete with each other publicly. And I think the effort to silence them only makes those alternative and sometimes inaccurate opinions more alluring.

Dr. Robert Malone (who Rogan interviewed), is actually a fraud. And by flippantly referencing him as “one of the people who helped develop the mRNA vaccine,” you are doing exactly what health officials fear: giving legitimacy to someone spreading lies about the vaccines.

Best I can tell, Dr. Malone is a former researcher with an ax to grind who did play some role — however small — in developing mRNA vaccines. He claims he helped come up with the idea for mRNA vaccines, and there is some evidence to support his involvement in early research. He has also said, explicitly, “I did not develop mRNA COVID vaccines and I never was involved in developing a human mRNA vaccine.”

​​This Washington Post article has a good round-up both of Malone’s contributions to the field and his monster red flags: Namely, that he has threatened other researchers, he has fallen for obviously doctored fake videos, shared studies that have been retracted, and has left a trail of former colleagues who all think he’s gone a bit off his rocker. I don’t think Malone is actually the person you should be listening to about the pandemic. Even his own views are erratic: Malone himself is vaccinated. He has also told the Associated Press (in August) that he thought everyone else should get vaccinated, too.

As Malone’s following grew, though, and each skeptical tweet drew in new supporters, his views became more extreme. If anyone is profiting off of spreading this kind of misinformation, it is probably someone like Malone — not Rogan. But, again, Malone’s “credentials” are not nothing. He does have experience in the field and I don’t fault Rogan for interviewing him. I certainly don’t think interviewing him is a crime worth punishing by deplatforming Rogan or removing the episodes entirely (which would only martyr Malone and draw more interest in them, as this entire controversy undoubtedly has already).

"You don't get to scream 'fire' in a crowded theater"

I think the idea that this is what Rogan is doing is a huge stretch.

All throughout history, and especially in the modern sciences, our conception of what is "true" has evolved — sometimes in a matter of a generation. I'm actually in the middle of reading Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything right now, which has some astounding historical bits about scientists who were ostracized in, say, the early 1900s for beliefs that are now commonplace (like how deep the ocean is). In the 1960s, some infectious disease experts thought we were on the verge of beating all viruses thanks to penicillin. That was 60 years ago. For decades, U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart was purported to have said “It’s time to close the books on infectious diseases, declare the war against pestilence won, and shift national resources to such chronic problems as cancer and heart disease.”

Only recently did a reporter uncover that this quote was actually fabricated. The misleading optimism of those experts in the 60s and urban legend of Stewart’s quote (which was only recently debunked) are just a few examples of how what we “know” about the sciences can change in a matter of years.

Even in the short span of this pandemic, we've gone from believing Covid could spread on surfaces, that the vaccines prevented transmission, that cloth masks were effective, and that the virus had zoonotic origins, to being basically certain that we don't know any of those things for sure. In fact, we know the first two are not at all what we thought, the CDC just made it clear they believe cloth masks are a touch above useless, and the origins of Covid are anything but settled (not even six months ago you could have been de-platformed for saying that, which is precisely my point).

The idea that we have the hubris to believe what is a sure thing now will be a sure thing in 5 or 10 or 100 years is striking to me. This morning, I asked on Twitter, “What things did we believe 20 years ago that are no longer true?” Just the sheer number of eligible responses was illuminating.

Put differently: We're almost certainly wrong today about at least one or two big things we believe about Covid, and the only way we're going to figure that out (in my opinion) is by allowing some open inquiry into those hot button topics. I don't think Joe Rogan and Dr. Malone are going to solve those mysteries – experts in the field researching these topics with the benefit of time will solve them. But despite all that, I still think Joe Rogan's style of open inquiry and his willingness to hear out the fringe is a net benefit for our own understanding of the world around us. And I think any student of history would understand we've seen that play out over and over and over again.

Spotify is worth boycotting for plenty of reasons.

Sure. Spotify has a bad rap for under-compensating the musicians whose songs they stream and for trying to monopolize the audio market. If that's why you want to boycott Spotify, again, I commend anyone for putting their dollar where their morals are.

But... that's not the issue at hand. The question is primarily whether Spotify should fold and "cancel" Joe Rogan. The secondary questions are whether Rogan is dangerous enough to justify such an action, whether Spotify's incentive to profit off Rogan is influencing their decision, whether Neil Young is right to do what he's doing, and whether people should unsubscribe from Spotify to send them a message.

Should Spotify fold and "cancel" Joe Rogan? My answer is a hard no. Is Rogan dangerous enough that he justifies such an action? No, again. Does Spotify have financial incentives to keep Rogan unencumbered? Of course. Was Young right to do what he's doing? If he believes Rogan is a serious threat, then yes. It's a rational thing to do. Young is also a polio survivor, a horrifying illness that has been virtually eradicated thanks to vaccines, and I imagine his heart is in this big time. Again: I respect him for having that moral clarity. I just think he’s overstating the threat Rogan’s show poses and I think he’s making an opponent out of someone who is genuinely inquisitive and open-minded. Again: Rogan’s show isn’t about getting authoritative voices on big issues, it’s about a dude sitting in a room talking to famous people and experts like they’re his friends. That’s why some people tune in to both Elon Musk and Alex Jones.

As for what you should do, I think the same logic applies to you and Young. If you think Rogan is the threat others seem to think he is, and you’ve actually spent time listening to his podcast (this is important to me), and you still feel like you can’t support Spotify… then yeah, sure. Unsubscribe. Plenty of Spotify users and musicians clearly have beefs that go beyond Rogan — it’s more about Spotify’s business practices in general — and if that’s their cause, that’s their cause. It’s not censorship to cancel your subscription.

Republicans are the ones who censor. They're also the ones who support monopolies like Spotify and allow them to exist.

I got this one from a lot of people. And, I have to say, it's a bit dispiriting. I literally promoted an entire article I wrote about Republican censorship at the top of yesterday's edition. I've interviewed people like Matt Stoller in Tangle and criticized Republicans for advocating changes to things like Section 230.

I also laid off the left even though I could have easily laid into them. Increasingly, the response to bad actors today is to silence, deplatform, get them fired, or usher in existing power structures (like the government or major social media platforms) to target them. I think this latest push against Rogan, which is almost exclusively gaining traction on the left, falls into this larger umbrella of policing language. I don't like it. But I also understand the trauma of the pandemic and that many people are well-intentioned here, so I’m not trying to demonize folks on either side of this particular debate.

In short: Just because Republicans are wrong in other places doesn't mean they are wrong here. Hypocritical? Maybe. But the only way Tangle can function without documenting a tit-for-tat that goes back to the founding of the Constitution is by talking specifically about the issues at hand and adding context where it's possible.

There is a profit motive in sensationalism and misinformation like the kind being peddled on Rogan's show. He makes money by questioning established science, and so does Spotify.

Of course. But tackling this question also requires the larger context of how Rogan’s show evolved. This isn’t a longtime reporter who decided to go work at a fringe news outlet and peddle lies that he understood would generate traffic and ad revenue. This is a comedian who basically fell face first into hosting the most popular podcast on the planet.

Rogan’s show, from the time he made basically no money until the time he was bought by Spotify for $100 million, has been the same basic thing: He sits down with people he thinks are interesting, opens a bottle of booze, and talks to them until they shut up. As far as business models go, I think it’s actually pretty pure. He’s not setting up scenarios like Howard Stern or blaring out misleading headlines like many news outlets do. He’s just talking to people.

One thing I want to put in bold: You should really go listen to Rogan’s podcast. I’m serious. If you’re thinking about canceling your Spotify subscription or getting upset about some of this stuff — listen to an episode or two. And just see how it compares to what you’re reading. I think that is the fairest way to approach a decision like this.

Rogan’s anti-vax stance is almost certainly killing people. Being responsible with your platform is part of the job, and if you aren’t, you can lose your platform.

I really don’t know that Rogan is anti-vax. This entire thing started when, in April, Rogan said that he wouldn’t suggest the vaccine to a healthy 21-year-old. "If you're a healthy person, and you're exercising all the time, and you're young, and you're eating well...like, I don't think you need to worry about this."  

When Rogan said “I don’t think you need to worry about this,” he meant dying. Not the Covid-19 outbreak. When the sky fell after those comments, Rogan went on his show and clarified: "I'm not an anti-vax person," Rogan said. "I believe they're safe and encourage many people to take them." When he responded to the criticism of his comments, he said the argument people should get vaccinated for those around them made sense, but was “a different argument.” Then he reminded his listeners: “I’m not a doctor. I’m not a respected source of information, even for me.”

I know some anti-vaxxers and I’ve interacted with a lot of them online and through my work. That is not really the stuff of someone trying to dissuade people from being vaccinated. Given that 85% of Americans 12 and up already have at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, I really think the degree to which Rogan is impacting this is being outrageously overstated.

All of that being said: I do think Rogan needs to be responsible with his platform. If I had to levy one major criticism against him, it’s that he often seems to just go along with whatever his guests are saying in order to generate an amicable conversation. I’ve heard Rogan contradict his own views from show to show, which tells me that he is regularly just playing nice to get people talking. I think that is a smart way to conduct an interview and get people to open up, but it can become a problem when you don’t do any research about them or challenge any of the views espoused on your show.

One thing Rogan pledged to do in his video he released yesterday was to start having people with opposing views in back-to-back episodes and close to each other. I think this would be a great strategy for his show, and add some serious value. If you zoom out and look at this from 30,000 feet, that would mean: Spotify refused to “censor” Rogan, but also updated its rules to slap Covid-19 labels with links to more information on any podcast discussing the pandemic. Rogan pledged to bring more balance to his show, and seems to take the criticisms to heart. This seems like a positive outcome to me overall.

Okay: That’s going to be it for Joe Rogan, Spotify and Neil Young for a bit. If you want to engage more, you can always reply to the newsletter and write in.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I know you don't like to make political guesses, but... do you actually think Russia is going to invade Ukraine? Or is this just all bluster and media hype?

— Tim, San Jose, California

Tangle: It's definitely not just bluster and media hype. I have no idea if they are actually going to invade. If I did, I'd probably have a different job. But absent the rhetoric and sensational media coverage and all the rest, I try to just look at the actions: Russia is amassing 100,000 soldiers on the border. Ukraine is preparing for war by training civilians. These aren't exercises for the sake of making New York Times cover stories — they're acting this way out of legitimate preparation.

Whatever Putin does next may not be what we expect. Will he invade with boots on the ground and combat? Or will he take a different warfare approach, like cyber attacks or blockades of ports of entry into Ukraine? I really don't know. Maybe even he doesn't know — every move he's made up to now has had an element of improvisation.What I've said before is also worth reiterating: Russia is already there. In Donbas, Russian and Ukrainian troops are already in a kind of trench warfare that has killed thousands. The war is on now. The real question is whether Putin escalates it and drags a bunch of other countries into it, too.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, an estimated $2.4 billion worth of seafood captured through illegal or unregulated manners was imported into the U.S. in 2019. That represents 13% of all imports of fish caught in the ocean. The fishing operations are evading the monitoring system put in place by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which covers 40% of the nation's total imports of fish caught in the ocean. Experts worry that seafood products contributing to overfishing are being mislabeled to consumers. “Illegal fishing can have absolutely devastating and cascading impacts on both the environment and local economies” Maria Valentine, an illegal-fishing expert at Oceana, told The Wall Street Journal. “Seafood fraud and mislabeling could cause serious economic and health problems [for consumers]”. The U.S. is the world's largest seafood importer, purchasing 85% of its seafood from overseas.

Have a nice day.

When was the last time you heard some good news about whales? According to a new report out of Hawaii, humpback whales are "everywhere." 278 whale sightings were reported across four islands between 9am and 9:15am during the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Ocean Count and the Great Whale Count by Pacific Whale Foundation on Maui (which is apparently a thing). It was the highest number of sightings of any time period throughout the day's survey, one of the longest running community science projects. The Ocean Count is supported by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and offers an optimistic look at how humpback whale populations continue to recover. The Star Advertiser has the news.

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