So much of the debate over Rogan and misinformation is people saying things that are true but incomplete.
What Jon Stewart said this week is true. Today’s “misinformation” can be tomorrow’s conventional wisdom. And being too hasty to dismiss contrarian perspectives as “misinformation” can have pernicious outcomes, including a very high body count.
But it’s incomplete. If we can’t label anything “misinformation” because the conventional wisdom on any subject could theoretically change at any time then we’re knocking on the door of dispensing with truth entirely. There’s no settled truth, there’s only today’s conventional wisdom. All perspectives, however kooky, are worthy of being amplified to millions because each could conceivably be proven true tomorrow.
Either you believe there’s such a thing as truth or you don’t.
For instance, like Rogan, I believe it’s an immutable truth that no one should listen to Brian Stelter or Don Lemon.
Joe Rogan: ‘Nobody Listens To’ Brian Stelter And Don Lemon As ‘The Voice Of Reason’ pic.twitter.com/e15O1b615Q
— Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) February 11, 2022
It’s also true that Stelter’s and Lemon’s network smeared Rogan about the form of ivermectin he took after catching COVID. And it’s very likely true that the monoclonal antibodies he received helped him recover more quickly. There’s plenty of scientific data to prove that those drugs are effective.
But you can also see Rogan tiptoe towards misinformation in that clip when he notes that those antibody treatments were yanked from the market by the FDA even though they still work on Delta, which is true — but incomplete.
They do work on Delta, but according to the latest CDC data, Delta isn’t circulating at all anymore. One hundred percent of COVID cases in the U.S. for the most recent week for which we have data were caused by Omicron:
The FDA yanked the antibody treatments because they do little against Omicron but sometimes cause side effects, i.e. they risk doing more harm than good now that Omicron dominates in the U.S. Continuing to make them available might also backfire by inadvertently leading people to opt for them over superior treatments that remain effective against the new variant, like Pfizer’s miracle pill.
But never mind that. Rogan’s point about the failures of big media is also true but incomplete. There’s no truth conservatives know better than that the media plays favorites, marginalizing some viewpoints while promoting others to advance a liberal agenda. He’s also right that CNN shifting away from its current newsy opinion model and back towards just-the-facts news reporting would help rebuild the network’s credibility, which would mean fewer people seeking out “alternative news sources” like Rogan’s show.
Even the guy who’ll soon own CNN (or at least a major stake in it) appears to agree.
But even though it’s true that trust in major media is collapsing, it’s incomplete as an explanation for why people like Rogan have built a big audience. Thought experiment: If you were tasked with choosing someone to be CNN’s new just-the-facts anchor on COVID news and you could choose anyone in the world, whom would you choose? You’re looking for maximum credibility and therefore maximum authority, sufficient to convince some meaningful share of the vaccine skeptics among Joe Rogan’s audience that the vaccines are good. You don’t need to choose someone active in the news business either. It can be anyone. Whom would you pick?
I can’t think of a person who would make a real dent. (Although lots of people could clear the Stelter/Lemon bar.) That’s because cause and effect on audience fragmentation in our era isn’t as simple as “mainstream media squandered its credibility, ergo disaffected viewers seek out fringier news sources.” There’s such an immense variety of media now, in so many different formats, that people can and do “shop” for sources that’ll tell them what they want to hear regardless of what’s happening in big media. If you’re an anti-vaxxer or at least leery of getting vaccinated because the vaccines are new or whatever, you don’t need to have any feelings whatsoever about Brian Stelter to google “are the vaccines dangerous?” and let those search results take you down the rabbit hole to someone who’ll assure you that your instincts are right.
And even if you’re open-minded and willing to consider contrary viewpoints, that raises the question, “Which contrary viewpoints?” There are so many of them to sift through in an age when literally everyone has a social media platform. Steven Shapin, who teaches the history of science, put it this way in an interview with Yair Rosenberg:
So part of the science that’s relevant in this situation is the science of credibility: how credibility is established, how people come to know things. One of the things I think that people mean by following the science is, “Look, there’s this guy, Fauci; he knows what he’s talking about, believe him. Look, there’s this guy, Trump; he doesn’t know what he’s talking about; don’t believe him.” The problem we have today is a radical splintering in sources that speak about the world. In a sense, we’ve always had this, but now we’ve got such a diversity of voices that we’re asking laypeople to decide between Joe Rogan and Trump and Fauci, and determine who is speaking the truth about the virus. It’s a hard thing to do!
Shapin makes this shrewd point too about credibility. You could have the most authoritative person in the world reading COVID facts dispassionately on CNN and many people will still gravitate to Joe Rogan:
There’s also an interesting relationship between Joe Rogan and Donald Trump on the one hand and—if you want a historical example—Galileo. One of the things that we’re taught in school is the idea of speaking truth to power. And that’s what we’re told Galileo does. He’s a lone voice. We like the idea of the lone genius. Okay, I think that idea is wrong. I think it’s misguided. But the idea of the lone genius of iconoclasm, of skepticism, is so powerfully attached in the public mind to science. And so in the public mind, the voice that speaks up and asks, “What about hydroxychloroquine?” or says, “This is all a Chinese plot,” attaches to this idea of the lone voice standing against the orthodoxy, while scientific orthodoxy and consensus get cast as conspiracy. In other words, we’re in the world of the Zionist plot.
The hypothetical authoritative CNN anchor reading “the establishment’s” data about the vaccines would be the polar opposite of the iconoclastic lone wolf whom Shapin describes. Even in the clip above, you can detect notes of conspiratorial thinking in Rogan’s spiel wondering why the antibody treatments have been temporarily discontinued, as if there must be a less savory explanation for that decision than the one I gave. To put it simply, some people will prefer Rogan’s takes on vaccination and COVID treatments precisely because he’s not on CNN. What Brian Stelter and Don Lemon might be saying or doing is beside the point.
But yeah, having big media do better would help a lot with America’s misinformation problem. Rogan not doing credulous three-hour interviews with anti-vaxxers would help a little too.