Podcaster Joe Rogan said he would “probably” vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Sanders campaign touted that as an endorsement, and the media blew up. The whole affair shows how poorly the political class understands Rogan, and how ill-prepared it is to confront brewing changes in the media landscape.
Some on the left groused about Sanders accepting an endorsement from Rogan, an ideologically homeless critic of political correctness who’s veered at times into what they would call “problematic” territory. While it’s telling that so many stakeholders in the Democratic Party harbor disdain for Rogan, there’s something much more interesting going on here.
The appeal of podcasts like Rogan’s, which is basically the podcast, is their rejection of the conventions that dictate political discussion in most public forums. The conversations that unfold on Rogan’s show are kind of like the conversations that unfold among friends.
He’s not a politician, and he’s beyond the reach of “cancel culture,” so Rogan is free to riff without fear of destroying his career or upsetting donors and special interests. Increasingly, this is what consumers of political media seem to want. (With the pressures professional talkers face not to cross any PC boundaries, can you blame audiences for craving candor?)
The Sanders campaign was absolutely savvy to package Rogan’s quote as an endorsement, and to accept his support. But was it actually an endorsement, as many media outlets and political professionals described it? In context, it was a tentative, off-the-cuff “probably”—and that’s what brings us to a critical point about Rogan. Here’s the video from Sanders’ campaign.
“I think I'll probably vote for Bernie… He’s been insanely consistent his entire life. He’s basically been saying the same thing, been for the same thing his whole life. And that in and of itself is a very powerful structure to operate from.” -Joe Rogan pic.twitter.com/fuQP0KwGGI
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 23, 2020
Rogan, I suppose, technically “endorsed” Sanders by predicting the senator would get his vote. But consider what Rogan actually said, in full context, more than 30 minutes into a two-and-a-half hour podcast conversation with New York Times editor Bari Weiss. The pair was in the midst of a winding discussion about the Democratic primary.
“Who are you going to vote for in the primary?” Weiss asked.
“I think… I think I’ll probably vote for Bernie,” replied a hesitant Rogan, proceeding immediately to say: “I think Bernie and Tulsi together would be a f-cking devastating combination. I really do. I don’t know if they’d ever work out together. I don’t know if that’s possible. But I think them together might work.”
The footage of Rogan lauding Sanders for his “consisten[cy],” used by the senator’s campaign in his endorsement video, was actually cut from minutes earlier in the conversation, which featured Rogan heaping equal praise on Tulsi Gabbard. In context, Rogan’s “I’ll probably vote for Bernie” was clearly a casual, in-the-moment judgment call, the best answer he had to Weiss’s question at the time, but hardly definitive.
CNN didn’t even bother to check whether the Sanders campaign edited the video, informing readers Rogan said, “I think I’ll probably vote for Bernie. Him as a human being, when I was hanging out with him, I believe in him, I like him, I like him a lot,” because that’s how it occurred in the ad. In fact, everything after “vote for Bernie” was said minutes later in the podcast. That’s a big, misleading mistake for a major news organization.
The Sanders campaign spliced together audio from different parts of the discussion to make it sound as though Rogan issued a more forceful and decisive endorsement of the candidate than he really did. Again, that was a savvy move. But the media bought their spin, treating Rogan’s hesitant “probably” as a formal endorsement, simply because the campaign effectively packaged it as one. CNN and other top outlets didn’t even bother to check the actual footage, instead taking a campaign ad at face value.
The political class’s (Sanders campaign excluded) treatment of an off-the-cuff “probably” as an endorsement was not just about clicks and primary jockeying. It was rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding about podcasts, YouTube, and other formats, which is that consumers enjoy them precisely because hosts and guests feel free to speak candidly in long-form conversations without being boxed in by soundbite culture.
Some have suggested the mainstream media is jealous of Rogan’s massive audience. I think that’s incorrect. I don’t think they understand Rogan’s audience enough to appreciate just how massive it is.
Important political conversations are increasingly taking place in casual spaces that lack the conventions political professionals expect and understand. They should endeavor to catch up, lest our politics become even more confusing than they are already.