Joe Rogan Controversy: Spotify’s Response Craven

Joe Rogan performs at The Ice House Comedy Club in Pasadena, Calif., in 2015. (Michael Schwartz/WireImage)

Under pressure once again from the roving digital mob, the CEO of Spotify told his staff on Sunday that he was “sorry” for “the way The Joe Rogan Experience controversy continues to impact” and lamented that the ongoing “situation” had left them “feeling drained, frustrated and unheard.” “I do not believe that silencing Joe is the answer,” he continued, before stepping back from that line and confirming that Spotify would nevertheless have “clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed.” “One of the things I am thinking about,” he concluded, is “what additional steps we can take to further balance creator expression with user safety.” Then he promised $100 million for underrepresented voices.

What a missed opportunity to simply say “No.”

In truth, there is no “controversy” or “situation” here — at least not in the way that those words are traditionally used. Instead, there is a political power play. On the one hand, there is Spotify, which hosts Joe Rogan’s podcast because it is the most popular talk show in the world. On the other, there is a clique of vicious ideologues who believe they can bully the platform into making the show go away. By rights this should be an easy question to resolve, and yet, inexplicably, Rogan’s prospects look less promising by the day. Last week, the platform deleted more than 100 old episodes of Rogan’s show (apparently, they have become more offensive than they were when they were vetted and published in 2020), and, by acknowledging that it had “had conversations with Joe and his team about some of the content,” it ensured that Rogan’s critics will continue to scour his archives in search of material they want removed. Churchill’s famous line about appeasers and crocodiles is as apposite here as ever.

If Rogan is eventually forced out — or if he tires of the pressure and quits — his departure will represent an escalation of our speech wars from which it would be hard to discern a limiting principle, for to be offended by the existence of material one dislikes on Spotify is equivalent to being offended by the existence of material one dislikes in the Library of Alexandria or the British Museum. It is irrational, illiberal, selfish, and, for those who are predisposed toward outrage, inevitable. Spotify’s stated mission was to become a one-stop shop that compiles “all the music you’ll ever need.” Now, it is attempting the same trick with podcasts. How, one must ask, could it avoid hosting material that its customers or critics disdained?

Faced with the charges that they are undermining the pillars of free and open speech, Rogan’s opponents tend to mutter angrily about the dangers of “misinformation.” But, of course, even if “misinformation” were an easily identified category, there would remain little agreement as to what counts. Spotify hosts recordings of The Communist Manifesto — a book that has played an outsized role in the murder of millions upon millions of people. Should this be removed? What about podcasts run by journalists who praise the French Revolution? Susan Baker, of the Parents Music Resource Center, believed that a lot of the music that can now be found on Spotify contained “pervasive messages aimed at children which promote and glorify suicide, rape, sadomasochism, and so on.” Can that stay?

Others point to Rogan’s unusual position, noting that while Spotify’s library distributes as many podcasts as it can accrue, Rogan’s is an exclusive, Spotify-branded offering the company includes prominently in its marketing. But this is also true of President Barack Obama, a man whom tens of millions of Americans disliked and voted against, and who has opinions on, say, partial-birth abortion that are reviled by three-quarters of the country. In a free country such as ours, there is no obvious reason that Spotify’s relationship with Obama should prevent anyone from using its service to listen to the Rolling Stones. But this, of course, goes both ways.

If Joe Rogan and Spotify do come to part ways, it will not be because Joe Rogan changed, but because Spotify did. Spotify knew who Joe Rogan was when it paid for exclusive access to his open and freewheeling podcast, and it knows who he is now. Whether Spotify understands its own purpose — well, that is considerably less clear.

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