Jan 31, 2022

Joe Rogan and Spotify.

Joe Rogan and Spotify.

Musicians are boycotting the podcasting mega-star.

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: 13 minutes.

The Joe Rogan, Spotify and Neil Young controversy. Plus, a question about Democratic coalitions.

Image: Flickr
Image: Flickr

CRT piece.

On Friday, I published a subscribers-only follow-up to some of my writing on Critical Race Theory. It generated a huge response both in my inbox and on social media, so I figured I'd plug it one more time and encourage anyone who is interested in getting more Tangle content to subscribe and give it a read. You can find it here.


Quick hits.

  1. The House and Senate returned from recess today to a full plate of issues: A Supreme Court opening, the Russia-Ukraine tension, 18 days of government funding remaining, and President Biden's stalled legislation.
  2. The United Nations Security Council is going to meet today to discuss Russia's military build up along the Ukraine border. (The meeting)
  3. In a speech over the weekend, former President Trump floated the idea of pardoning some January 6 defendants if he wins the 2024 presidential race. (The speech)
  4. New York's latest redistricting map, which is heavily gerrymandered, could give Democrats a three-seat gain in the House. (The map)
  5. North Korea test-launched a ballistic missile that could reach Guam on Sunday, its seventh missile test this month and one of its boldest in years. (The tests)

Today's topic.

Joe Rogan. Rogan signed a $100 million podcast deal with Spotify in 2020, the largest in the industry's history. His show is famous for its long, meandering conversations with everyone from sitting members of Congress and Elon Musk to folks like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Rogan has repeatedly been the subject of controversy for allowing his guests to speak freely — often without being challenged — about hot button issues. When Rogan was diagnosed with Covid-19, he set off a whole news cycle of controversy by sharing all the ways he was trying to treat it, including with Ivermectin.

Last week, the podcasting mega-star became the center of conversation after momentum grew on Spotify to boycott Rogan's show. It started when rockstar Neil Young demanded his music be removed by Spotify if Rogan remained on the platform, citing Covid-19 misinformation that has been spread on Rogan's show. “They can have [Joe] Rogan or Young. Not both," Young said.

Spotify complied with Young’s request, removing his music and saying they regretted his decision. But other singers and podcasters have started to make similar demands, including Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band member Nils Lofgren. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who also have a podcast deal with Spotify, shared their "concerns" over the weekend. Hundreds of medical professionals signed a letter urging Spotify to crack down on Rogan’s podcast. U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy was asked about Rogan on MSNBC, and responded by saying the government needed to root out misformation like the kind being spread on Rogan's show. Other Spotify users also started sharing posts on social media announcing they had canceled their accounts and urging others to follow suit.

Over the weekend, Spotify CEO Dan Ek responded by publishing a press release sharing their long standing Platform Rules and announcing that they would start labeling any podcast that discussed Covid-19 with a link to their "Covid-19 hub." But the organization also reaffirmed its commitment to their creators' freedom of expression.

The entire controversy has set off a debate about censorship, Rogan's show, and how to handle controversial content like the kind that appears on his show. Below, we'll take a look at some arguments from the right and left, then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • The right supports Rogan, saying he should be free to interview whoever he wants.
  • Many criticize the left for being increasingly censorious.
  • Some cheer Spotify for supporting Rogan through the controversy.

In City Journal, Zaid Jilani said "the censors didn't win."

"If you doubt that 'censor' is an appropriate word to describe those pressuring Spotify to dump Rogan, consider this: the platform is the world’s largest streaming service, with a whopping 31 percent market share in the second quarter of 2021," he wrote. "When a private corporation controls such a large portion of an information ecosystem, its content decisions are more than mere acts of moderation; it is laying out the boundaries of the discourse itself. That’s precisely why Young believed that Rogan’s views shouldn’t have a platform.

"Young’s transformation from countercultural champion of freedom of speech to corporate censorship advocate and defender of the public-health bureaucracy didn’t occur in a vacuum," Jalani wrote. "Progressives have become increasingly censorious over the past few years. A majority of Democrats now believe that both private tech companies and the U.S. government should ‘take steps to restrict false info online.’ Many on the left were once militant in their support for free expression, believing that misinformed, even offensive, viewpoints were as worthy of airing as any other speech... This viewpoint bears little resemblance to that of the activists of the modern Left, who are now quick to label expressions they disapprove of as 'misinformation' or 'hate speech' to justify censoring it."

Glenn Greenwald, often a champion of progressive values, excoriated American liberals who are now "obsessed" with censoring their opposition.

"For years, their preferred censorship tactic was to expand and distort the concept of 'hate speech' to mean 'views that make us uncomfortable,' and then demand that such 'hateful' views be prohibited on that basis," Greenwald wrote. "For that reason, it is now common to hear Democrats assert, falsely, that the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech does not protect 'hate speech.' Their political culture has long inculcated them to believe that they can comfortably silence whatever views they arbitrarily place into this category without being guilty of censorship.

"Constitutional illiteracy to the side, the 'hate speech' framework for justifying censorship is now insufficient because liberals are eager to silence a much broader range of voices than those they can credibly accuse of being hateful," he wrote. "That is why the newest, and now most popular, censorship framework is to claim that their targets are guilty of spreading 'misinformation' or 'disinformation.' These terms, by design, have no clear or concise meaning. Like the term 'terrorism,' it is their elasticity that makes them so useful."

David Harsanyi reacted to U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy's comments about the need to root out misinformation.

"Government officials have no role in dictating speech," Harsanyi wrote. "In fact, they have a duty not to. Murthy’s comments wouldn’t be as grating if it weren’t so obvious that the Biden administration has been pressuring Big Tech companies, who oversee huge swaths of our daily digital interactions, to limit speech. Last summer, Jen Psaki causally informed the press that the White House was 'flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.' Can you imagine the reaction from the press if it learned that the Trump White House had been keeping a list of speech crimes?

"I believe that tech companies should enjoy unencumbered free-association rights," Harsanyi said. "But that position becomes difficult to sustain if corporations that spend tens of millions every year in rent-seeking and lobbying for favorable regulations simply take orders from the government on speech codes."


What the left is saying.

  • The left generally supports Young, hoping that his pressure campaign succeeds.
  • Many say Spotify should have seen this coming.
  • Others suggest Rogan's content is so dangerous it's worth censoring.

In CNN, Jill Filipovic said Young is "taking a stand against vaccine misinformation."

"On the show, Rogan and guests identified as experts have said that vaccination isn't necessary for the young and healthy (they are); that ivermectin is an effective treatment for Covid (it isn't, and using it in large doses poses serious potential health risks); and that people who have Covid face health risks from getting vaccinated (they don't). Rogan's misinformation campaign, which reaches millions of listeners, has been so dangerous that hundreds of public health officials have signed an open letter asking Spotify to intervene," Filipovic said.

"I typically err on the side of less censorship and more leeway and speech -- even for bad or hateful speech," Filipovic said. "The Rogan / Spotify situation, though, is less akin to a freewheeling public square than, say, Twitter; there is a business relationship more akin to a traditional media house and its star talent. Rogan isn't a random person on the internet; he's a host imbued with the authority of the company that pays for his show. He should be given room to discuss what he wants, even if that offends people who disagree with him politically. But the company should draw the line at dangerous life-threatening conspiracy theories and the kind of misinformation that could result in unnecessary illness and death."

Alex Shephard said Spotify is getting the full Joe Rogan experience.

"Young, a polio survivor, is at odds with what is Spotify’s most important exclusive podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, which has increasingly come under heavy criticism for spreading misinformation about Covid-19 and, in particular, vaccines," he wrote. "Spotify should have known what it was getting when it signed Joe Rogan to a multiyear, $100 million exclusive contract in May 2020. By that point, Rogan had already established a reputation for transphobia and Islamophobia, had compared a Black neighborhood to Planet of the Apes, and hosted, among others, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos.

"But Rogan’s comments on Covid-19 have been particularly controversial," Shephard added. "Last spring, Rogan suggested that young, healthy people should not get the vaccine, telling one listener, “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 himself contracted the virus in the spring, he claimed he was treating himself with ivermectin, a drug that has become particularly popular among those looking for alternatives to vaccines despite the fact that no health authorities in the United States have approved its use. Late last year, he also hosted Dr. Robert Malone, who has repeatedly spread conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccine."

Eamonn Forde wrote in The Guardian that Spotify has lost its way from its "roots in liberal Sweden."

"We can date the shift to April 2018, when the company launched its direct listing on the New York stock exchange – and Manhattan, rather than Stockholm, became the company’s geographical and cultural epicenter," Forde wrote. "This was the moment Spotify became more Wall Street, and less Stortorget. Spotify has a history of making bad decisions. There was an ugly and public war with Taylor Swift in 2014 over its royalty rates. Then there was its bungled 'hate content and hateful conduct' policy in 2018, which was seen to remove a disproportionate amount of content by Black artists. But in those instances, Spotify eventually softened its stance. This tendency to conciliation has collapsed as the company recalibrates its ethical and ideological viewpoints to be much more American: naked capitalism, regardless of the negative consequences, seems now to triumph internally at the company over all."


My take.

I should start by making a brief journalistic disclosure: Tangle’s podcast is currently hosted on Anchor, which is a podcast distribution platform owned by Spotify. While our newsletter and website are totally ad-free, we have experimented with ads on the podcast, including one promoting Anchor, which is a fantastic tool. Though the ad makes me a paltry $10 to $20 an episode (meaning we're currently losing money on the podcast — subscribe to support us!), it seems worth acknowledging this before I say what I'm about to say, which is that I support Spotify 100%.

I know there are a lot of problematic things about Joe Rogan. I've listened to his show probably 20 or 30 times and usually tune in when he has guests I'm curious about (especially the UFO episodes). And there are regularly moments where I cringe or squirm or sigh or wish he'd challenge the people he’s interviewing a bit more than he does. But guess what? A lot of people say that about my podcasts, too. And squirming, being made uncomfortable, getting frustrated — those are all feelings you get when you're being brought out of your comfort zone and confronted with ideas you may not like. And that's perfectly okay.

The irony of this issue exists in every direction. Rogan, for starters, is not a "right-wing" anything. He's said on his show repeatedly that he's never voted for a Republican, is socially liberal, but refuses to be put into a political box. At various times he's expressed his pro-Bernie, anti-war, pro-health-care-for-all ideas. He is, like me and many millions of Americans, a complex person with little or no political party affiliation. But if anything, he's left of center on the spectrum — and, with his massive platform, could be a valuable ally to many of his critics if they wanted him to be.

It's also ironic to see audiophiles saying they are going to ditch Spotify for allowing Rogan free rein in favor of Apple, a company that has repeatedly been caught using slave labor to produce its products (and lobbies against bills trying to ban slave labor). I suppose that is some kind of moral high ground? It's ironic, too, that Neil Young — once a censored champion of free speech himself — is now encouraging censorious behavior. Even cringier is the folks who saw Neil Young make little or no impact then suggest that stars like Taylor Swift sabotage their own careers by threatening to leave Spotify if they don't shut Rogan down.

Podcast users are free to pressure Spotify however they see fit, and there is an obvious incentive for Spotify — who paid Rogan $100 million — to protect their star podcaster. But Rogan’s show is far more balanced (and less dangerous) than his opponents are framing it, and Spotify’s decision to slap labels on Covid-19 content and share its publishing platform rules seems like a perfectly good middle ground to protect Rogan and give the people coming for him a small win.

The obvious lesson Rogan should have taught everyone by now is that the American spirit favors someone who allows open discussion and gets things wrong over someone who is right but talks over everyone else. Most of us have the classic knee jerk, reflexive annoyance to the "know-it-all" in the room, and right now that know-it-all is the musicians, corporate media and medical experts coming for Rogan's head because he allows people to say what they want on his massively popular show. When I watch CNN segments framing Rogan as a threat to the nation who is killing Americans because he interviewed one of the people who helped develop the mRNA vaccines, it makes me root for Rogan.

Of course, Rogan is actually a pretty fair guy about all this. It's not like he just runs clownish characters like Alex Jones through his show every week. He recently had CNN's chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta on to discuss Covid. Gupta’s views are a perfect encapsulation of the people fighting Rogan now. He had a guest who sits on Biden's Covid-19 team. He's had vaccine advocates, including those who have fact-checked him in real time on his show. He has apologized repeatedly when he's gotten things wrong or felt like he let an important falsehood go unchecked, something many political influencers, politicians and television hosts rarely do.

In fact, Rogan even addressed this latest controversy with a video he released Monday morning.

“I do not know if they’re right,” he says about his guests, many of whom come on his show with strong credentials. “I don’t know because 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. Do I get things wrong? Absolutely. I get things wrong, but I try to correct them whenever I get something wrong. I try to correct it because I’m interested in telling the truth. I’m interested in finding out what the truth is, and I’m interested in having interesting conversations with people that have differing opinions. I’m not interested in only talking to people that have one perspective.”

How simple is that? It's why his show gets an average of 11 million listens every time he posts an episode. Substack, the independent newsletter platform where Tangle started, also waded into the discourse by publishing its own defense of free speech and why it does not censor its writers, including those making money off “Covid-19 disinformation.” The headline said it all: “Society has a trust problem. More censorship will only make it worse." Substack's Vice President of Communications Lulu Cheng Meservey was more direct on Twitter: “If everyone who has ever been wrong about this pandemic were silenced, there would be no one left talking about it at all.”

Again: it seems that simple to me, too.

Young has a right to use his platform and influence to change Spotify's policies. Just as the other musicians do. I’d be impressed if they can successfully muscle Spotify into any more action. But for now, I'm glad they’re losing and, however much some of Rogan's content makes me want to pull my hair out, I'm glad Spotify is sticking by him and standing up for open discourse. One thing seems obvious to me, though: the longer this fight goes on, the more popular Rogan's show will become.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Is there a difference between The New Democrat Coalition and Third Way Democrats? If so, how do they differ? Where do Blue Dogs fit in? Also, is there a difference between a moderate and a centrist?

— Dave, Wheeling, Illinois

Tangle: The fundamental difference is what they are. The New Democrat Coalition is the largest House Democratic caucus that was formed on ideological grounds. I think they're best described as "pro-business" — or more fiscally conservative than you may imagine a run-of-the-mill Republican to be. Their most popular members are folks like Reps. Val Demings, Adam Schiff, Seth Moulton, Elissa Slotkin and Joaquin Castro. A caucus is a group of members of Congress who tend to craft legislation and vote together.

As for Third Way, it depends which Third Way you're talking about. There is the Third Way nonprofit think tank. They are absolutely associated with some politicians, including Joe Biden (who is featured prominently on their website), but their ideals are more center-left across the board (almost certainly left of The New Democrat Coalition on some economic issues). Third Way politics is essentially a fancy way of saying centrism.

Blue Dog Democrats, meanwhile, are more conservative than The New Democrat Coalition and also smaller. They are Manchin-esque Democrats who typically serve in red states. But some Blue Dog Democrats are also in The New Democrat Coalition, a good sign there isn't that much space between them.

As for moderate and centrist: I define moderate politics as someone who generally operates near the center and has an allergy to far-left or far-right stances. Centrism, to me, is actually itself a strongly held ideology that is defined by carving out a specific middle-ground between the right and left. Many moderates abhor centrism because it boxes people into ideologies the same way being a party loyalist does. I would consider myself a moderate, but not a centrist.

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.

The U.S. border is now drawing an increased number of migrants from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, India and other further-away nations than what is typical. For decades, migrant crossings from northern Mexico are typically dominated by immigrants from Mexico or the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador). But last month, the combined number of migrants from the Northern Triangle was less than the migrants from other countries in South America and across the Atlantic Ocean. More than 2,000 Russians and 300 Ukrainians were apprehended, and 800 people from India were found crossing into Yuma, Arizona. Border officials say the change in demographics reflects a changing strategy for smugglers. Axios has more.


Numbers.

  • 6 million. The number of monthly listeners Neil Young has on Spotify.
  • 60%. The percentage of Young's worldwide streaming income he may lose by taking his music off of Spotify.
  • $150 million. The amount of money the firm Hipgnosis Songs Fund paid for a 50% stake in Young's music rights last year.
  • 24%. The growth of Spotify's subscriber base in 2020.
  • 20,000. The number of podcast episodes related to Covid-19 Spotify says it has taken down since the beginning of the pandemic.

Have a nice day.

From restaurants to ride sharing, Americans are tipping a lot more now than they did before the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, people tipped on 63% of credit card transactions where that was optional. Today, that number is up to 66%. Tipping has grown most in areas where it happens remotely: "The percentage of remote transactions in which the consumer tipped (when the chance was offered) has soared from about 46% before the pandemic to about 86% now," Nathan Bomey reports.


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