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The Morning Dispatch: The Spotify-Rogan Snit
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The Morning Dispatch: The Spotify-Rogan Snit

Plus: The awkward dance Olympic corporate sponsors are doing ahead of the controversial Games in Beijing.

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Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • President Biden told reporters on Friday he will be moving some—but “not too many”—U.S. troops to Eastern Europe and NATO countries “in the near term” to counter potential Russian aggression. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also told reporters on Friday Russia has amassed enough troops to have the “capability” to seize Ukrainian cities, if President Vladimir Putin decides to go that route. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, sought to downplay the threat of an imminent invasion, saying Friday Ukrainians “don’t need this panic.”

  • The Wall Street Journal reported Friday the Biden administration is “finalizing” an economic sanctions package that would hit major Russian banks, prohibit the trade of Russian sovereign debt, and apply semiconductor export controls if Putin goes through with an invasion of Ukraine. Sanctions on Russia’s oil and natural gas exports—and disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT payment system—are reportedly “off the table” for now, but could be reconsidered at a later date.

  • North Korea conducted its seventh missile test of the month on Sunday, launching an intermediate-range, “Hwasong-12” ballistic missile into the sea for the first time since 2017. A senior White House official told reporters the administration plans to respond to the escalation in the coming days.

  • CNN reported Friday the Biden administration had informed Congress it will withhold $130 million in military aid from Egypt due to the African country’s refusal to address the State Department’s human-rights concerns. The State Department has not yet confirmed the news.

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that total compensation costs for employers increased 4 percent in 2021, as last year’s tight labor market drove workers’ wages and benefits up at the fastest annual pace since at least 2001.

  • The January 6 Select Committee announced Friday it had issued subpoenas to 14 people who claimed to be “alternate electors” for former President Donald Trump and submitted “bogus” slates of Electoral College votes in the wake of the 2020 election. 

  • A Pennsylvania state court ruled 3-2 on Friday that the state’s election law—which allowed no-excuse absentee voting and passed on a bipartisan basis in 2019—was unconstitutional. The ruling has been appealed to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.

  • A pre-print, non-peer reviewed study out of South Africa found that the COVID-19 beta variant virus was able to accumulate more than 20 additional mutations while incubating within a 22-year-old, HIV-positive woman for nine months. The authors said there is “no evidence” this specific variant spread into the general population, but warned additional variants could emerge in a similar fashion without widespread antiretroviral therapy for HIV-positive people.

  • Super Bowl LVI is set: The Los Angeles Rams will take on the Cincinnati Bengals in Los Angeles on February 13 after the two teams defeated the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, respectively.

Spotify and Joe Rogan Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World

(Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images.)

Last Tuesday, Neil Young—the 76-year-old singer-songwriter—briefly posted on his website a letter to his manager demanding Spotify remove all his songs from its popular music-streaming service. Why? “I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines—potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them,” he wrote, noting that Spotify accounts for 60 percent of his global streaming. “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”

“Rogan,” in this instance, refers to 54-year-old comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan, who signed a deal with Spotify worth more $100 million in May 2020. His “Joe Rogan Experience” show—which features hours-long conversations with guests ranging from family-friendly comedian Jim Gaffigan and CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta to conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and Alex Berenson—reportedly averages 11 million listens per episode, and became exclusive to Spotify last year.

The show exhibits an anti-establishment bent—Rogan endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president in 2020—and has picked up a cult-like following since it launched in 2009. The host has earned the trust of his fans, mostly younger men, by being both genuine and willing to have taboo conversations with figures shunned by the mainstream. Two such conversations—with prominent anti-vaccine advocates Dr. Peter McCullough and Dr. Robert Malone—have put the podcaster at the center of an international firestorm. After the Malone episode aired on December 31—featuring a host of misleading COVID-19 vaccine statements and Nazi Germany comparisons—a group of more than 250 scientists and healthcare professionals published an open letter calling on Spotify to implement a more stringent misinformation policy.

On Sunday—after Young’s music was taken down and the singer’s cause was joined by singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren, and podcaster Brené Brown—Spotify co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek published a blog post addressing the controversy, without calling out Rogan by name. “Personally, there are plenty of individuals and views on Spotify that I disagree with strongly,” he wrote. “It is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.”

Neither of the two Rogan episodes in question will be removed. But going forward, any podcast episode that includes a discussion about COVID-19 will include a content advisory that directs listeners to Spotify’s COVID-19 hub. And to increase transparency, the company also released its longstanding platform rules publicly for the first time: Content that dismisses COVID-19 as a hoax, encourages the consumption of bleach, suggests vaccines are “designed to cause death,” or tells listeners to purposely get infected with COVID-19 is in violation.

Rogan, in a video message released last night, sounded receptive to the changes, saying that he agrees with disclaimers making clear some of his more controversial guests are in the distinct minority of medical experts. Noting that he’s had more mainstream public health officials like Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Dr. Michael Osterholm, and Dr. Peter Hotez on the show, Rogan also admitted he could be better about scheduling those episodes to air right after the ones featuring anti-vaccine advocates. (Osterholm and Hotez joined Rogan in March and April 2020, while the Gupta episode aired in October 2021. Hotez has petitioned Rogan to have him back on the show to talk about vaccine hesitancy, to no avail.)

“I do not know if [McCullough and Malone] are right,” Rogan said yesterday. “I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist. I’m just a person who sits down and talks with people and has conversations with them. Do I get things wrong? Absolutely, I get things wrong. But I try to correct them.” Rogan—who has said the COVID-19 vaccines are “safe” and that vulnerable people should take them—similarly backtracked last April after he came under fire for suggesting young, healthy people should not: “I’m not a doctor, I’m a f—ing moron. … I’m not a respected source of information.”

The saga opened yet another chapter in our ever-present free speech v. misinformation debate. Thousands of social media users claim to have ended their Spotify subscriptions over the flap—Spotify competitors Apple Music, Amazon Music, and SiriusXM have playfully egged them on—and it’s thrust the Swedish music streamer into content moderation discussions typically reserved for social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, who have struggled mightily to implement fair and transparent content moderation policies. (A key difference, it should be noted, is that Spotify doesn’t just host Rogan’s content—it actively pays tens of millions of dollars to be the exclusive distributor and promoter of it.)

But Young—who has threatened to pull his music from Spotify in the past over its streaming sound quality—is adamant he’s not trying to censor anybody. “I support free speech,” he wrote on Friday. “Private companies have the right to choose what they profit from, just as I can choose not to have my music support a platform that disseminates harmful information.” If more musicians—already frustrated with Spotify’s business model—join Young’s campaign, it could change the streamer’s calculus.

But Spotify has thus far stood by Rogan—who maintained yesterday he’s a “huge Neil Young fan” and not mad at the musician—for obvious reasons: The company made an enormous investment in him two years ago as it was expanding into the podcast space, and Rogan’s popularity has certainly contributed to Spotify reportedly surpassing Apple last year as the largest podcast distributor in the U.S.

And if Spotify does abandon ship? As The Verge noted last fall, Rogan’s exclusivity deal is likely limiting his reach. Were he unshackled, Rogan would just take his millions of fans—and millions of dollars—and set up his show somewhere else, where listeners probably wouldn’t be directed to a COVID-19 hub or hear vaccine content advisories at all.

The Coca-Cola Ad You’ve Never Seen

The Winter Olympics begin in four days, but we wouldn’t blame you for not knowing that. Typically, the Games bring with them a cacophony of PR campaigns and marketing blitzes aimed at boosting viewership; an effort on the part of sponsors to make good on their sizable investments.

But those sponsors have been remarkably quiet this year—and it’s not too difficult to understand why. In a piece for the site, Andrew looks at the corporate complications that arise when the International Olympics Committee refuses to move the Games from a country actively perpetrating a genocide.

Coca-Cola, one of those Olympic sponsors, is running advertisements ahead of the Games—but only in China.

Like many other Olympic sponsors pressing the brakes on their domestic advertising this year, Coca-Cola is keeping silent on its reasons for letting its nine-figure Olympic sponsorship deal go to waste in the English-speaking world. (The company did not respond to a request for comment for this piece, nor has it opened up on the subject to other outlets.)

Explicit or not, the strategy is hard to mistake: The Beijing Olympics are shaping up to be a public-relations disaster for companies trying to straddle both U.S. and Chinese markets. The human rights abuses the Chinese government is perpetrating toward the predominantly Muslim Uyghur people, which the U.S. last year termed a genocide and Human Rights Watch has labeled crimes against humanity, hang as a pall over the Games. The U.S. and several other Western countries have opted for a diplomatic boycott.

Ordinarily, the Olympics are as bankable a cash cow for brands as any other sporting event—more so, when you consider the event’s peerless visibility around the globe. 

From Albania to Zimbabwe, the Games are synonymous with traits any brand would love to be associated with: youth, vigor, beauty, endurance, excellence. Thus the monster payouts to secure exclusive licensing rights.

“The Olympics is the best opportunity for them to connect on a world stage with a very large audience, especially for these multinational corporations,” Dr. James Blair, who teaches sports marketing at Eastern Kentucky University, told The Dispatch. “They’ve got these very large brands, and for them to be able to connect with and be associated with the Olympics, which is considered the most premium prestige sporting event in the world, also raises their profile and keeps other brands from attaining that image.”

But those exclusive contracts, it turns out, can be a double-edged sword. Any company without a preexisting Olympics relationship might look at the controversy surrounding the Beijing games and decide simply to save its advertising dollars for better days—the 2024 Paris Games aren’t far away! For the sponsors, though, even beyond the sunk cost of the exclusivity rights themselves, there’s no way simply to slink out of the spotlight. They can’t remove themselves from the political question, because either remaining a part of or ducking out of the Olympics would be to make a political statement.

The result? The awkward two-step we’re seeing now.

They’ve determined that the financially optimal play is to keep partnering with the Beijing Olympics, but to do so with as little of the miasma surrounding these particular Games as possible sticking to their clothes afterward. It may be the world’s first example of companies devising their marketing strategy around trying to ensure people think of them as little as possible.

Worth Your Time

  • Two New York City police officers, Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora, were shot and killed on January 21 while responding to a domestic disturbance call in Harlem. Rivera’s funeral was Friday, and you should take ten minutes to watch the eulogy his widow, Dominique Luzuriaga, delivered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral—and then read Maureen Dowd’s New York Times column on the tragedy. “​​We don’t hear much about good cops these days. Their stories get lost amid the scalding episodes with trigger-happy, racist and sadistic cops. The good ones get tarred with the same brush, even though the last person who wants to get in a squad car with a bad cop is a good cop,” she writes. “[Rivera, 22,] epitomized what we want in an officer—full of compassion and joy, with an infectious smile. His older brother, Jeffrey, remembered Tata, as his family called him, stripping down to his tighty-whities as a child to do Latin dances. Rivera was the mirror opposite of the brutal Derek Chauvin. As Jeffrey recalled, ‘My brother was afraid of heights, he was afraid of rats, he was afraid of dogs.’ But he ‘was not afraid to die to wear that uniform.’”

  • Sonny Bunch’s take on the Rogan/Young spat—getting at the tension between freedom of association and social cohesion—is worth reading. Neil Young is, of course, free to disassociate from anyone or anything he disagrees with, and Spotify, of course, is free to pick Rogan over Young if that’s what makes the most financial sense. “But I do worry about the continued fragmentation of society that attends the idea that everyone sharing a cultural space must align ideologically to coexist,” Bunch writes. “What concerns me most about all this is the siloing of society into warring tribes.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Steve took over hosting duties on Friday’s Dispatch Podcast, asking questions of Sarah, Gregg Nunziata, and John McCormack about Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement and the coming Supreme Court nomination process. Now that Breyer’s move is official, what’s happening behind the scenes at the White House and on the Senate Judiciary Committee?

  • In the latest Uphill (🔒), Haley dives into House Democrats’ COMPETES Act, legislation aimed at boosting the United States’ competitiveness vis-à-vis China. “Any final bill reconciled between the two chambers will look different than the House Democratic package,” she notes. “Some components were already defeated in the Senate, and others are controversial among Republicans and the business community.”

  • Jonah’s Friday G-File touches on the Joe Rogan/Neil Young brouhaha to make a larger point about nationalization. “Facebook itself, Twitter, and all other social media platforms are forces of nationalization,” he argues. “What the hell is all this ‘Meta’ and ‘augmented reality’ crap if not a rejection of the idea that physical space—literally where you live—is an inconvenient barrier to be overcome?”

  • In his Sunday French Press, David explores why many good Christians feel a sense of attachment to flawed—or even corrupt—leaders. “We often fail to distinguish between God’s love and mercy for us and God’s approval or favor or endorsement of the man or woman who built the institution or delivered the message,” he writes. “It’s very easy to attribute to man what comes from God—or to place loyalty to any particular man as a special instrument of God.”

  • In a piece published over the weekend, Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso and Southern Baptist Pastor Alan Cross take on “great replacement theory,” the idea—increasingly popular on the nationalist right—that welcoming immigrants is a nefarious plot to diminish white people’s political and cultural power. “While national immigration policy is complicated and our government has a job to do in both securing the border and enforcing the rule of law, we also must reject any kind of demonizing fear-based rhetoric concerning our immigrant neighbors,” they write.

Let Us Know

A chicken-or-egg question: Do you think anti-vaccine sentiment is as prevalent as it is because a handful of high-profile influencers have been spreading it for months, or have those handful of high-profile influencers spread anti-vaccine sentiment for months because there’s an existing market for it?

Put another way, would Spotify kicking Rogan off its streaming platform actually do anything to tamp down vaccine hesitancy?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).