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Opinion What the Neil Young-Spotify moment teaches us

Neil Young's actions have spurred Spotify to add content advisories to podcasts such as Joe Rogan's that might discuss the coronavirus. (AP)

An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Nils Lofgren worked with Neil Young on his “Harvest” album. This version has been updated.

The rift between popular podcaster Joe Rogan and aging rocker Neil Young provided one of those moments when late-night comics perk up and joke-writers start scribbling.

Two counterculture icons representing wildly different demographics — one a Grammy-winning artist and the other a former host of “Fear Factor” and commentator for the Ultimate Fighting Championship — have been going toe-to-toe over, of all things, covid-19 and the vaccine debate.

Young is pro-science, basically, and Rogan is pro-Rogan. Because Rogan disseminates misinformation about covid, Young threatened to remove his catalogue of songs from Spotify, which streams them both, and wrote online: “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”

Just so you know, I instantly sided with Young because I agree with his principled stand but mainly because: “Cowgirl in the Sand.”

Now that other musicians have also pulled their music from Spotify in solidarity with Young, the joke has become rather more serious. Another personal favorite, Joni Mitchell, has pulled her music from Spotify, as has Nils Lofgren, who is a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

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Needless to say, Rogan isn’t going anywhere, and Spotify has made some public relations — well, let’s call them adjustments. From now on, when Rogan talks about covid, Spotify will offer a warning label of sorts. And Rogan says he’ll try to be more balanced in the future. It surely helps that Rogan recently signed a deal with Spotify for a tidy $100 million. It’s all about the money, you see.

While his fans shrug and say, so what, Rogan must be beaming. Contrition doesn’t become him. People who had never heard of Rogan before are likely tuning in; people who already loved him aren’t losing sleep over music they probably don’t listen to. Fans tune in for his blunt talk and his jokes and may or may not infer much from his rants about covid.

Ranting isn’t against the law (yet). And, anyway, listeners wouldn’t necessarily change their minds based on a comic’s opinion about something as serious as a pandemic. Right?

He’s entertainment — in the same way Rush Limbaugh was, and Dan Bongino and Tucker Carlson are today. Remember, Fox News’s own lawyers successfully defended Carlson against charges of slander by basically saying the anchor doesn’t deal in “actual facts” and that viewers shouldn’t take him seriously. What a plug! The same might be said about Rogan, who at least doesn’t pretend to be a journalist. (Carlson once was an A journalist and nobody knows where that guy went.)

I love a noble stand as much as the next Irish gal and appreciate the one Young and his like have taken. But the Rogan/Young affair raises important questions that will be with us for as long as freedom of expression exists. Should opinions be censored — ever? Whatever happened, as Mitchell put it, to Both Sides Now?

We generally honor the familiar exception: You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater (for no reason at all) because people might panic, stampede and get crushed to death. The risk of dire consequences is deemed greater than the right to say anything, anytime, anywhere.

But what if you’re advancing misinformation during a pandemic that could conceivably put people’s lives at risk? Aren’t these two scenarios comparable? And if not, what should be done to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of bad information?

Great question, KP. No idea. Probably nothing. Take a stand. Make noise. Be a better messenger. Listen to Young and Mitchell and tune out Rogan.

In a more perfect world, there would be just one set of objective facts and one message to achieve the best health results possible. But we’ve become a nation of conspiracists and disbelievers. We’re in a world war of information across multiple media platforms and the winners often appear to be those who would feed superstition and starve the truth.

Bottom line: Rogan is free to express his beliefs and to interview whomever he chooses, such as infectious-disease specialist Robert Malone, who shares his skepticism. If a virologist who long ago worked on the technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as Malone did, has his doubts, why wouldn’t people be interested in hearing what he has to say? There are reasons, but none that would prohibit his speech.

Besides, when people have determined that they can’t trust the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or our nation’s designated expert, Anthony S. Fauci, we are in uncharted territory. Luckily, we aren’t all comedians willing to risk lives for a laugh. But we risk everything when we begin controlling what one is allowed to say in the village square.

If what Shakespeare wrote was right and the “truth will out,” one can only hope it hurries up and shows its face.