The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I’m disgusted by Joe Rogan’s weak apology. My former colleague’s death at 47 makes it worse.

People are dying because of covid misinformation that Spotify packages as glib podcast fodder.

Miguel Rodriguez, right, a longtime sports reporter for the Buffalo News who died of covid last week, seen here at a high school basketball game with fellow reporter Marquel Slaughter in 2019. (Harry Scull/The Buffalo News)

Under fire for spreading covid misinformation on his hugely popular podcast, Joe Rogan recently offered something that’s being described, in some quarters, as an apology.

In a 10-minute Instagram video, the erstwhile TV comic turned professional provocateur told his employers at Spotify that he was sorry for causing them trouble. Rogan also assured Neil Young that he was still a fan, even after the rock legend yanked his music off the streaming service in protest, leading a number of other musicians to do the same. And Rogan acknowledged that he gets stuff wrong sometimes and will try to provide more balance in the future.

But to everyone else, he offered the worst kind of non-apology: “If I pissed you off, I’m sorry.”

What I didn’t hear from Rogan was any remorse that he might have done harm when he held forth about his own bogus belief that healthy young people don’t need to get vaccinated, or when he failed to challenge a guest who promised that the drug ivermectin would extinguish the virus altogether or when he allowed another guest to spout theories about how Americans are essentially being hypnotized about covid by the media, and comparing the situation to Nazi Germany.

The coronavirus misinformation on Joe Rogan’s show, explained

He didn’t address the 270 medical professionals whose powerful open letter warned, about one of Rogan’s episodes, that “mass-misinformation events of this scale have extraordinarily dangerous ramifications.”

Worse, I heard no apologies to the people who took to heart what they heard, endangering themselves or their loved ones.

To my ears, Rogan sounded glib, narcissistic and clueless. And Spotify — the platform that enables him by insisting it would be wrong to restrain what he does on his podcast — is even worse. Its failure to take any meaningful responsibility, other than adding a few disclaimers, is all too reminiscent of the way Facebook, for years, has dodged accountability for spreading so many harmful lies.

Rogan’s non-apology made me furious. Probably because I’ve been spending a lot of time this week thinking about Miguel Rodriguez, a former colleague of mine, who died of covid last week.

Miggy, as everyone called him, was only 47 — a beloved and well-respected reporter at the Buffalo News, where he covered high school sports. As one News colleague wrote this week, he was a ubiquitous community presence, with a “booming laugh that would fill a room — even when that room was a high school gymnasium.”

He was overweight and asthmatic; in other words, very much at risk. And he was unvaccinated.

I don’t know for sure whether getting vaccination and booster shots would have saved Miggy’s life. And I have no idea whether he had ever listened to Joe Rogan’s podcast, or what his precise reasons were for not being vaccinated.

But I have talked to many of his co-workers and friends over the past week, briefly to his mother, and, at some length, to his father. What I’ve gleaned is that friends had been pushing him to get vaccinated for months but that he and his family hadn’t been convinced that it was wise or necessary.

“We were skeptical about the vaccine because it was so new,” his father, John Davidson, told me. Now, given all that has happened and particularly because of his son’s preexisting conditions, he believes that was wrong. Miguel had been thinking seriously about getting an initial shot when he got sick in late December, his father said.

Miggy lived with his parents and was devoted to his much younger sister, who is developmentally disabled. Davidson got choked up when he talked about the winter’s day when paramedics arrived to take his son to the hospital. In severe distress himself, Miggy was most concerned about not letting the cold air from the open door cause his sister to catch a chill.

What followed was an all-too-familiar chain of events: several weeks in intensive care, intubation, a tracheotomy. Despite some apparent improvement toward the end, Miggy didn’t make it.

For Spotify and Joe Rogan, everything seems to have settled down. Their reported $100 million contract is secure and the company’s chief executive sounded unworried about the recent ups and downs of the stock price, speaking comfortingly about “learning opportunities.” Rogan’s brand, of course, is undoubtedly bigger than ever.

Spotify’s Joe Rogan problem highlights its rocky transition from music streamer to media producer

But as of Friday, almost 900,000 Americans had died of covid, leaving millions of family members and friends bereft. Many of these deaths could have been prevented if it weren’t for the rampant misinformation that has discouraged so many from getting vaccines and taking other steps to protect themselves.

Imagine if Rogan were to use his incredibly powerful voice — he has some 11 million listeners per episode — to talk productively about all of this, to counter some of the destructive bilge instead of adding to it.

Imagine if Spotify recognized that a platform is essentially a publisher, and that media organizations of all kinds constantly have to make decisions about what’s appropriate to put on the air, in their pages or on their websites.

Imagine if its leadership chose not to shrug off their responsibility about promulgating dangerous and false content while making lofty-sounding noises about avoiding censorship.

One thing that requires no imagination is that Miguel’s funeral is Tuesday morning. His younger sister misses him, her father told me, and doesn’t yet realize that her big brother is never coming back.

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