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Opinion CNN defends Joe Rogan treatment in fiery statement

Podcaster Joe Rogan in 2015. (Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)

Podcaster Joe Rogan’s three-hour interview with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta last week was an amicable affair, though it got a bit tense when the topic turned to the network’s coverage of Rogan’s recent bout with covid. “It’s a lie. It’s a lie on a news network and it’s a lie … that they’re conscious of. This is not a mistake,” said Rogan.

That’s quite a claim to make straight to the face of CNN’s chief medical correspondent. At issue is Rogan’s Sept. 1 disclosure that he’d gotten covid and had addressed the situation with a “kitchen sink” of medications that included ivermectin, a drug used for “paralyzing and killing parasites.” Rogan said that he got his ivermectin via a prescription from his doctor.

Ivermectin was discovered in the late 1970s and got its start as a veterinary drug. Its versatility, however, escaped the barnyard. “Ivermectin proved to be even more of a ‘Wonder drug’ in human health, improving the nutrition, general health and wellbeing of billions of people worldwide ever since it was first used to treat Onchocerciasis [river blindness] in humans in 1988,” noted Satoshi Omura (who discovered ivermectin) and co-author Andy Crump in a 2011 paper.

So there’s an animal application and human application for ivermectin. What separates the two? A lot, as it turns out. An ivermectin dose for horses can be as high as 1,200 milligrams, according to Scott Phillips of the Washington Poison Center in Seattle. “It’s really the dose that makes the poison,” says Phillips — even too much tap water or salt can be poisonous.

With those considerations in mind, consider how CNN framed Rogan’s use of ivermectin.

*On Sept. 1, CNN host Erin Burnett said: “Controversial podcast host Joe Rogan, who’s railed against vaccine requirements, says he has covid and took a drug intended for livestock.” She articulated similar descriptions two additional times before interviewing a doctor and noting that the drug is prescribed for people as well.

*The same day, CNN host Anderson Cooper said, “One of those drugs he mentioned, ivermectin, is something more often used to deworm horses.” On that same show, CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter said, “When you have a horse deworming medication that’s discouraged by the government that actually causes some people in this crazy environment we’re in to actually want to try it. That’s the upside down where we’re in with figures like Joe Rogan.” Leana S. Wen — also a Post contributing columnist — later added the critical context that the drug “is used in humans for things like parasites and scabies.”

*Also that day, host Don Lemon said, “The United States is now averaging 160,455 new covid-19 cases every day, including controversial podcast host Joe Rogan saying that he tested positive for covid and that he says he is taking several medications including a drug meant for deworming livestock.”

*On Sept. 3, CNN political commentator Bakari Sellers said, “I think the unfortunate part about all of this is you have individuals like Joe Rogan, for example, who don’t want to take an experimental vaccine but will take horse dewormer.”

*And on Sept. 4, anchor Jim Acosta played Rogan’s disclosure video and said, “In case you missed it, Rogan said ivermectin. Yes, that’s the deworming medicine made to kill parasites in farm animals and, weirdly, is being promoted by right-wing media figures and even some politicians as a covid treatment.”

There’s a reason for reciting these transcripts. They turn up a consistent formulation from multiple CNN voices that surely wasn’t a sober recitation of the facts. By highlighting that ivermectin is a horse dewormer, and downplaying that ivermectin has important uses for people, CNN facilitates a certain assumption among its viewers. Namely, that Rogan had been haunting the aisles of Tractor Supply.

After hearing Rogan’s concerns about how CNN cast the issue, Gupta said, “They shouldn’t have said that.”

Given that a prominent CNN personality agreed with a strong critique of his own colleagues, we placed the matter before the network’s PR department. They issued this statement:

The heart of this debate has been purposely confused and ultimately lost. It’s never been about livestock versus human dosage of Ivermectin. The issue is that a powerful voice in the media, who by example and through his platform, sowed doubt in the proven and approved science of vaccines while promoting the use of an unproven treatment for covid-19 — a drug developed to ward off parasites in farm animals. The only thing CNN did wrong here was bruise the ego of a popular podcaster who pushed dangerous conspiracy theories and risked the lives of millions of people in doing so.

That’s quite the statement, and it makes some good points. Though ivermectin is used for scabies and river blindness and the like, the Food and Drug Administration advises against its use for covid, saying that existing data “do not show ivermectin is effective against COVID-19.” Doctors have been prescribing it for covid in any case, and some people have sought the drug from veterinary suppliers. “As long as the drug is approved for some humans, it seems to me irrelevant that it’s approved for animals, except that this is the way that people have gone about procuring the drug and in so doing have put themselves at risk,” says Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a former FDA associate commissioner. The FDA tweeted:

CNN is also right that Rogan has made dismissive remarks about coronavirus vaccines. And touting ivermectin as a response to covid is incredibly irresponsible.

Yet CNN’s statement sounds more like the work of an advocacy group than a journalism outfit. The “issue,” actually, begins and ends with the integrity of CNN’s content. If we take Rogan’s prescription claim at face value — and CNN hasn’t challenged it — then the network’s coverage was slanted in some cases and straight-up incorrect in others. “[I]f you’re prescribed the FDA human version [of ivermectin] then you’re not taking a horse pill,” notes Phillips in an email.

So in this instance, you don’t have to endorse Rogan to abhor CNN’s coverage of this topic. Here’s a network, after all, that prides itself on impeccable factual hygiene, a place where there’s no conceptual hair too fine to split, no political statement too sprawling to flyspeck. It’s tough living by your own standards. If CNN wants to describe ivermectin in a way that doesn’t slime the people who take it, the Guardian provides a fine template: “a drug used against parasites in humans and livestock.”