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The danger of Joe Rogan’s mammoth footprint

<h6>Sierra Stern / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sierra Stern / The Daily Princetonian

Comedy has become a dominant genre in the podcasting field, and one with a low barrier of entry, prompting many actors, comedians, and YouTubers to extend into the industry. The field, according to a Media Monitors Podcast Listener survey, has 23 shows in the Top 100 podcasts, and three in the Top 25. But when comedy transforms — when it combines elements from other fields like politics and cultural commentary to become something more — the parameters which once guided it must change.

Joe Rogan’s podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” is proof of this. After launching the show in 2009, Rogan has built an enormously popular brand by rejecting podcasting and also more general media norms. He’s chosen an hours-long, free-form, informal interviewing style in a soundbite-driven media environment. He interviews academics, athletes, politicians, and comedians — not necessarily the hottest, most newsworthy individuals. And as of 2019, he had 190 million downloads monthly. In comparison, the most watched television channel this past summer, Fox News, averaged 3.5 million viewers per night, or roughly 100 million viewers per month.

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As a field, non-journalistic podcasting — that is, podcasts not produced by organizations like NPR or The New York Times — has enjoyed the benefits of these large, dedicated listenerships without the explicit responsibilities of maintaining standards of factual accuracy. The primary goal of these kinds of podcasts isn’t news: it’s entertainment. But as podcasts like Rogan’s juggernaut grow increasingly political, while maintaining passionate fanbases, the weight of their previously purely entertainment-based decisions has drastically changed.

With any huge audience comes the responsibility to tell the truth, but Rogan has fallen short of that standard. Last year, he invited Alex Jones on to spew conspiracy after conspiracy for nearly five hours. Then, on a podcast published on Sept. 17, Joe Rogan erroneously made the claim that in Portland, “they’ve arrested left-wing people for lighting these forest fires — you know, air-quote ‘activists.’” The next day, he issued a responsible apology admitting that he was “duped” into believing and asserting this misinformation.

Rogan’s error is not one worthy of cancellation or the threat of boycott because he generally does hold himself to a high standard and has described himself as his own harshest critic. But it does raise the question: should he be held to a higher factual standard?

The answer, simply, is yes. While Rogan has achieved such a meteoric rise on a unique style of content and a lax yet still responsible direction of content, by the simple fact of his audience being as large as it is, he must employ stricter editorial decision-making. He has to think twice about content he might not have thought twice about in the past. As he continues to interview guests relating to politics while simultaneously operating in a society that becomes more political day by day, Rogan must act in awe of his giant cultural footprint more so than ever and must adjust his style and direction accordingly.

Just how many people listened to his initial false claim about there being far left  arsonists starting forest fires in Portland — a claim which the FBI debunked — and also heard his apology is hard to say. On Instagram, for example, the apology video garnered about 3.4 million views. On Twitter, Rogan tweeted to his 6.6 million followers a two-part apology that amassed more than 141,000 likes. The original podcast got 2.5 million views on YouTube, not including downloads or listens on podcasting apps.

Despite holding himself to a relatively high informal standard of fact-checking, often reminding his audience that he feels unqualified to be giving political commentary, and self-correcting his points live, Rogan must do more. Precisely because his fans believe almost every word he says, his ability to unintentionally deceive a massive audience is huge.

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I’m not expecting a 100 percent success rate. Media organizations and other journalistic enterprises are tasked with the same duty of reporting the truth, but of course they fail at times, too. We live in a period where skepticism and cynicism of the media has increased — largely for the better — so mistakes, as egregious as they are, are more expected (in defense of the media, though, corrections do go hand in hand with these human errors). But as the field of non-journalistic podcasting expands, it must begin thinking of itself as a platform of information and must base itself in truth. Viewers should employ that same skepticism, perhaps even more so. Like media of all forms, including here at The Daily Princetonian, podcasters have an obligation to their listeners to tell the truth.

When forums for entertainment become outlets of information — the kind of information necessary for political discourse and democratic society — original intent ceases to be relevant, or at least cedes being priority number one. At that point, one’s intent must transform directly because of the increase in size and scope. Rogan should not be faulted for becoming one of the top podcasters in the country, but with great power comes great responsibility. He has the opportunity to set the standard and the precedent for how casual podcasts — or any casual but widely consumed form of media, for that matter — must alter their style for the sake of communicating truth to the people.

Arman Badrei is a junior from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at abadrei@princeton.edu.

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