(We all lose)

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The Least Productive Conversation

Today, I want to talk about a way that our media ecosystems can take even relatively boring exchanges and turn them into internet chum that helps basically nobody. The example I’ll use is last week’s (sigh) Joe Rogan/Dr. Sanjay Gupta podcast episode. Upfront, I want to note that I am generally exasperated that Joe Rogan’s podcast is a place that people monitor/discuss because it is an influential node in the American pandemic discourse. But here we are. I’m going to talk briefly about it and how the interview ricocheted around different media ecosystems.

For reasons I can barely justify, I spent Sunday morning listening to a good chunk of their 3-hour conversation and it is pretty much what you’d expect. Gupta comes in knowing that Rogan is going to push/goad/debate him on vaccines (especially for kids), the role of the press in Covid coverage, and unconventional (read: not FDA approved treatments). Rogan seems to respect that Gupta is game to sit down and isn’t hostile, which makes the whole thing a bit easier to listen to (though I still found it pretty exhausting). They start the whole thing with a long talk about how the science has changed on marijuana use.

I’ve read and reported a bit on vaccine persuasion and how to talk to people with more reactionary Covid views and, from what I can tell, Gupta is running the ‘how to talk to a vaccine skeptic’ playbook all interview. He does not talk down to or insult Rogan or other people who are skeptical of Covid vaccines. He tries to appeal to their autonomy by suggesting they ‘go look at this bit of data.’ Gupta repeatedly states that he respects people weighing the risks and rewards of vaccines. He uses a bunch of personal anecdotes of interactions with well-meaning unvaccinated people in his own life to try and signal he has little animus toward the unvaccinated as a group. If you are looking for a good model for how to have a conversation with skeptical people on the subject of vaccines, Gupta’s three-hour interview is probably a decent template.

Whether it’s vaccine skepticism or generalized conspiracy theorizing, one thing experts suggest (if you’re going to engage with somebody who has different, wrong beliefs) is to find small areas of agreement and, if appropriate, to make small concessions on tertiary points. This signals that you’re a reasonable, not overly ideologically rigid person. Gupta does this numerous times in the interview, like when Rogan brings up various anecdotes about adverse vaccine reactions in some teenagers. Gupta doesn’t push back or deny these anecdotal instances. Instead, he notes that it is sad and concerning if true and that, yes, adverse reactions are a thing that happens in the world and Gupta factors it into his risk/reward calculus (and still advocates for vaccination). Again, it’s all textbook ‘how to talk to a vaccine skeptic’ stuff.

The biggest example of one of Gupta’s concessions is the one that made headlines in the interview. Rogan brings up the way that Gupta’s network, CNN, covered Rogan’s Covid diagnosis, particularly Rogan’s admission that he took Ivermectin, the drug used to treat river blindness in humans that is also used, in a different setting, as a horse and animal de-wormer. Rogan confronts Gupta about CNN’s coverage with the leading question of, “Do you think that’s a problem, that your news network lies?” Gupta, for his part, tries to slow the conversation down but Rogan is looking to pin him down on a yes or no answer.

Gupta, I think, handles the situation pretty well and, notes that, yes, CNN shouldn’t have said Rogan was taking horse de-wormer, they should have been very clear he was taking the human form of the medicine (which is not approved for Covid treatments). You can watch/read a short transcript of the exchange here but here’s a smaller snippet:

Joe Rogan: (02:44)
Before we get to that, does it bother you that the news network you work for out and out lied? Just outright lied about me taking horse de-wormer.

Sanjay Gupta: (02:55)
They shouldn’t have said that.

Joe Rogan: (02:56)
Why did they do that?

Sanjay Gupta: (02:57)
I don’t know.

Joe Rogan: (02:58)
You didn’t ask? You’re the medical guy over there.

Sanjay Gupta: (03:01)
I didn’t ask. I should have asked before coming on your podcast.

Joe Rogan: (03:02)
But they did it with such glee.

Sanjay Gupta: (03:03)
No, Joe.

I realize that reading this is exhausting. Rogan is clearly quite upset that CNN did not specify and respect the type of Ivermectin he was taking and instead lumped him in with the people who were going to feed and livestock stores and taking the non-human version of the drug instead of getting the (free and effective!) Covid vaccine. Gupta, in his attempt to try and have a civil and maybe even productive conversation with an influential broadcaster who is also a vaccine skeptic, makes the (pretty minor, tbh) concession that, yes, CNN could have done a better job clarifying the type of Ivermectin he was taking. He did not agree, as Rogan suggested, that the CNN anchors were gleefully mocking him.

This is to say that…there’s really not much that is shocking in this conversation. Rogan comes at the interview with the same opinions he’s been loudly voicing to millions every day. Gupta does not waver on the accepted science. He does, however, come at the conversation from a place of humility and does a lot of listening. I have zero clue if an interview like this could sway some listeners (part of me thinks no but what do I know?!) but if certain Roganites can be persuaded, this interview might have had the highest chance for success, thanks to Gupta’s tactics, which I think were earnest.

Again, I’m not sure at this moment in the pandemic, that we need this conversation with these particular dudes (Zeynep Tufekci has a great piece in the Times that looks at how the unvaccinated “may not be who you think” and I think it is way more worth your time). But, given that people are always yelling about how we can’t have civil conversations on hot button issues, this is mostly an example of one (despite it being kind of exhausting!)

But once Gupta tweeted the appearance, the anodyne conversation quickly and expectedly turned into culture war fodder, beginning with Gupta’s tweet:

Gupta doesn’t do himself any favors here with the self-aggrandizing ‘lion’s den’ and the ‘my friends told me not to do it’ schtick. Honestly, it’s extremely reminiscent of the Rogan/IDW ‘This is the dangerous conversation they don’t want us to have’ variety. Again: this was a pretty tame conversation! What’s important is that the tweet and the interview were immediately seized upon by online opportunists:

The exchange where Gupta concedes that, yes, CNN could have framed Rogan’s medicinal choices more clearly/fairly became ‘IRREFUTABLE EVIDENCE OF SCANDALOUS JOURNALISTIC CORRUPTION BY THE LIARS AT CNN.’

Of course, that’s not what this is at all. This is a doctor, who is also a cable news pundit, conceding that the network could have been more generous to the podcast host, despite the fact that the medicine he’s taking in lieu of the free and extremely effective vaccine is not proven to effectively treat the virus the podcast host caught.

But once this segment blew up in right-wing and mainstream media critic circles, CNN anchor Don Lemon confronted Gupta about it as well on his show. Lemon wanted to push back on Rogan’s critique and Gupta’s comments. “[Rogan] did say something about CNN and lying that I don’t think is correct,” Lemon said to Gupta. “Ivermectin is a drug that is commonly used as a horse de-wormer so it is not a lie to say that the drug is a horse de-wormer. I think that’s important. And it is not approved for Covid.”

Gupta nods along and agrees. He’s trying to thread a needle here — he likely meant it when he conceded that CNN was framing Rogan’s treatment incorrectly, but it’s also clear that Rogan’s treatment is obviously not advisable given the FREE AND EFFECTIVE AND WIDELY AVAILABLE (in the U.S.) vaccines.

Of course, this Lemon/Gupta segment itself also became grist for the right wing/MSM criticism outrage mill. Gupta was accused of backsliding and bending the knee to CNN. He was also accused of being two-faced, saying one thing to Rogan and one thing to Lemon. None of this is true.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m equating Rogan’s vaccine views or his platforming of wrong people like Berenson with CNN’s annoying and disingenuous dunking. What I’m trying to get at is that the conversation this whole thing devolved into is so far afield of the kind of important conversations we could/should be having about vaccination and the pandemic as to be a massive waste of nearly everyone’s time. Ironically enough, the online media aggregations of the exchange very easily could have undermined the original point of Gupta’s decision to sit down with Rogan. If a skeptical person more inclined to Rogan’s views was swayed gently by Gupta’s interview, there’s a chance the second and third-day coverage gave them the excuse they needed to retreat to their priors.

WHY AM I WRITING ABOUT THIS AT ALL? Honestly, I questioned that myself while blogging this out! But I think this is a relatively tidy example of how our media delivery systems are caught in a churn loop that degrades almost any conversation. Was the Rogan/Gupta interview going to change a lot of minds? I have no idea…I mean, Rogan had Alex Berenson, “the pandemic’s wrongest man,” on the day before, so one could make a solid case the damage is already done.

What this dumb sequence demonstrates, then, is that none of these media entities (except maybe Gupta) really wants the big, civil, polarization-free vaccine conversation. Rogan is trying to nail CNN in the exchange via Gupta. In fact, there are numerous places in those few minutes where Gupta asks Rogan if they can back up, and Rogan says no. He is personally frustrated and wants to dunk on the network.

And CNN, for its part, obviously wanted to dunk on Rogan in their coverage of his Covid diagnosis. The horse de-wormer angle is sensational and more likely to engage viewers. It also has the aspect of being true — Americans were out there trying to take horse medicine. And, given that THERE IS A WIDELY AVAILABLE AND SAFE AND EFFECTIVE VACCINE this clearly made people at CNN feel like they were losing their minds. And, because thousands of Americans were dying each day of Covid at the time, perhaps they felt like dunking, too. Does it excuse the conflation of human Ivermectin with horse Ivermectin? I don’t know? Does it matter? (Clearly it does to Rogan).

At times, the horse de-wormer emphasis has felt counterproductive from a messaging standpoint but also I very much understand the impulse! It’s a pandemic and not taking the WIDELY AVAILABLE AND SAFE AND EFFECTIVE VACCINE and getting people sick and killed and prolonging this nightmare is also unconscionable and selfish and perhaps worthy of public scorn. But Lemon and CNN also don’t really seem interested in having the honest conversation about that. They’d like to take the journalistic high ground instead of admitting that, editorially and scientifically, they think taking Ivermectin makes you fair game for a dunk, especially if you’re a very popular public figure. It’s this default response of ‘we’re just reporting the captial-T truth, here’ that rubs plenty of people (not just the anti-MSM types) the wrong way.

And then, of course, there’s the right-wing media aggregation and tweet ecosystem that strip-mined the conversation for the least productive, most reductive, and mostly exaggerated conclusions from the conversation. If you know that Gupta and Rogan talked last week, you probably did not listen to a word of the exchange. But you probably have some strong-ish feeling about it, and why it was bad/completely validating your priors. That’s because dozens of content humans (some from big news networks like Fox News and some from small Twitter accounts and websites) knew they could use it to drive engagement.

Maybe none of this matters. I feel like, by writing a lot of words about a podcast exchange I didn’t particularly want to listen to, I may be seen as venerating Rogan or bashing CNN or simply just perpetuating an outrage cycle myself. But I think that’s all beside the point — this same content cycle plays out all the time, and not just on Twitter.

On Saturday, 1,570 people died of Covid in the U.S. In total, almost 725,000 Americans have died from Covid. And yet this whole mess of garbage is still indicative of how big segments of mass media are still framing Covid news and conversations. Is there good, informative news/analysis/coverage out there? Yes. Plenty. But this is the cynical crap that infects and undermines all the great work and conversations. It’s devoid of nuance and obsessed with points scoring and ragebait to the point that it takes anodyne concessions by public figures as ‘EMBARRASSING OWNAGE.’ It’s the kind of media that suffocates nuance, venerates self-assuredness, and equates self-reflection and principled concessions with weakness. It’s the type of information loop that you’d design if you wanted to make sure nobody ever feels like it’s safe to change their mind.

You don’t have to care at all about the players here (I did not choose sympathetic ones lol) or this particular example to dislike what it portends about the way that many of our information distribution systems incentivize us to talk to each other. There’s nothing too deep about any of this. In fact, the whole debacle I just outlined has been stripped of any depth whatsoever, to the extent that talking about it makes me feel shallow! But that’s also one of the vexxing things about so much of our culture warring — the shallow shit can also run pretty deep and we can feel its stupid effects in unexpected places.