“You know, Joe Rogan really is the Walter Cronkite of our generation,” my best friend told me last year, as we sat in his ’99 Chevy Silverado in a Sheetz parking lot at three a.m. After furrowing my brow in silent thought, I gave a noncommittal answer, knowing he would follow anything I said with a gushing riff about how just how talented Rogan really is.
Rogan fans tend to do that.
On his point, there is no argument. From stand-up comedian to television host to UFC color commentator, Rogan has been a success in every field he’s ever entered. But is he really comparable to legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite?
At a time when Americans had only three television channels, Cronkite helmed the CBS Evening News for nearly 20 years. With his calm voice, measured cadence, and apolitical attitude, he consistently polled as “the most trusted man in America.”
Initially I thought my friend was being generous, equating the gold standard in broadcast journalism with a simple DMT merchant. But I’ve since come around to the comparison.
In 2009, the same year as Cronkite’s death, Joe Rogan started his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience. On it, Rogan interviews comedians, UFC fighters, scientists, philosophers, celebrities, journalists, and, increasingly, candidates for president of the United States. From the 2020 Democratic field, he’s already spoken to Andrew Yang, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and, earlier this month, Senator Bernie Sanders.
Rogan’s hour-long conversation with Sanders began with them commiserating about the format of the 2020 primary debates. “You shouldn’t even call them a debate,” intoned the second highest polling Democratic candidate. “What they are is a reality TV show in which you have to come up with a sound bite and all that stuff. And it’s demeaning to the candidates, and its demeaning to the American people. You can’t explain the complexity of health care in America in 45 seconds. Nobody can.”
“But everyone is online today. I mean the entire country is essentially getting email and Facebook and all that jazz. Like, why bother doing it in this particular medium that has an inherent time constraint?” asked Rogan. “The ability to discuss things in long-form like you can do online, like you can do right here right now, you can’t get that on television.”
Rogan is right. Even long-form television interviews, given an hour time slot, are comprised of spliced together clips, all edited, with voiceovers interjecting commentary after the fact, featuring commercial interruptions every few minutes.
Meanwhile, episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience often run for two to three hours. These conversations are unedited, with ad reads only before and after they’re conducted. Even if Rogan or a guest has to leave to use bathroom, the record button stays on. It’s through this extended, personal interaction that Rogan is able to make guests comfortable and provide them with an opportunity to speak informally and at length.
Americans want more of what Rogan is offering, and the proof is in the pudding. For example, Bernie Sanders’ debate performance in June was watched by 18 million people on three separate television networks. He spoke for 11 minutes. At the July debate, Sanders was able to speak for over 17 and a half minutes. But that one, carried only by CNN, had a paltry viewership of only 8.7 million.
Meanwhile, Sanders’ 67-minute conversation with Rogan, where the senator spoke the vast majority of the time, has been viewed on YouTube over 9.3 million times. And that isn’t including podcast downloads: The Joe Rogan Experience has been the second most downloaded podcast on Apple for the past two years. While official numbers are not made public, it’s been hinted that Rogan gets over 100 million downloads a month. So where was Sanders’ time better spent?
A poll released in February 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review found that at least 50 percent of Americans had “hardly any confidence at all” in the press as an institution. After decades of malfeasance, mainstream news networks are no longer viewed as credible intermediaries of information. It’s no wonder more than 200,000 people have signed a petition asking the Commission on Presidential Debates to make Joe Rogan a moderator.
But besides format, the biggest way that Rogan diverges from the corporate press is his lack of an agenda. Now, he doesn’t pretend to be apolitical: he was a vocal supporter of Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns and endorsed Tulsi Gabbard earlier this year. But his own politics are presented as friendly disagreements rather than existential differences.
“It doesn’t occur to him to consider whether his contributions have value. He just speaks his mind. He just whips it out and drops it on the table,” reads a profile in The Atlantic. The author meant that as a negative, but it’s precisely what makes Rogan the fitting heir to the title of “most trusted man in America.” He’s not looking to necessarily inform or even entertain his viewers. He’s looking to have interesting conversations. And we love to watch them.
The numbers prove it: Joe Rogan is the last honest broker with broad appeal left in the United States. “And that’s the way it is.”
Hunter DeRensis is a reporter for The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.