Long gone are the days of P.J. O’Rourke and Tom Wolfe.
Rolling Stone magazine, once home to serious and seriously fun journalism, has lost its edge. Its grip on music and pop culture began to slip in the early ’90s when hip-hop muscled aside rock to become the nation’s dominant pop sound. The independent spirit of the mag’s political reporting quickly followed suit, with its national affairs coverage degenerating into a reliable source for dull Democratic hackery and Bush-bashing.
Once upon a time, the ideological winds of Rolling Stone were as unpredictable as a Keith Moon interview. Founder and publisher Jann (pronounced “yawn,” it so happens) Wenner actually even used this as a selling point. In a 1985 campaign to improve the magazine’s ad sales, which weren’t keeping pace with its growing circulation, Rolling Stone proudly disclosed market research on its readership. The ads, which had been created by the Fallon, McElligott, and Rice agency and remain to this day famous in the advertising business, juxtaposed the “perception” of Rolling Stone readers with “reality.” Perceived as a psychedelic hippie driving around in a peace-sign VW bus, the typical Rolling Stone reader was in fact a well-dressed yuppie. And politically, he was not what you’d expect. “Perception,” the ad read, “He’d vote for McGovern. Reality: He voted for Reagan in 1984.”
Rolling Stone may have been leftish, with Federal Reserve scourge William Greider as its national affairs editor, but its readers were something else. This revelation led directly to the hiring of the great conservative humorist P.J. O’Rourke.
The biweekly continues to name-check O’Rourke and other luminaries from that time, such as Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Loder, on its masthead, but these writers have been absent from the magazine for years. Thompson’s imaginary alter ego “Raoul Duke” still resides in name as sports editor, but the most rebellious spirit to recently cross Rolling Stone ‘s pages was disgraced New Republic writer Stephen Glass. The confirmed, multiple-count fabricator (cum full-time contrition huckster) wrote a piece on Canada’s drug laws for the September 4, 2003 issue. Two editors and one spokeswoman all refused repeated requests to discuss who commissioned the piece and why, except to say that because the article did not appear in the national affairs section proper, it had to have been commissioned by Jann Wenner himself.
Needless to say, Wenner has never shared his readers’ right-aisle sympathies, and lately, he’s become something of a Democratic stalwart. From March 1999 through September 2003, Wenner gave $17,750 in individual contributions to Democratic candidates. On March 10 th 2000, Wenner contributed $20,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. That June, he donated $10,000 to the New York Senate 2000 committee, which helped fund Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign. Finally, in 1999, Wenner contributed the maximum $2,000 individual limit to Al Gore’s presidential campaign. A year later, Wenner personally wrote Rolling Stone ‘s endorsement of Gore’s candidacy in a cover story most memorable for giving rise to gossip about the rock-star crotch bulge in Gore’s photo.
Thus opened the current era of political coverage in Rolling Stone . And lately, the magazine’s national affairs section has consisted of puff profiles of Democratic presidential candidates and anti-Republican screeds with titles such as “House of Bush: Why does the president serve up so many secrets and lies?” and “Bush’s Crimes Against the Environment.”
At the wheel is Eric Bates, a Mother Jones transplant who has fronted Rolling Stone ‘s political coverage since last year. By the internal fiction of the magazine’s title system, Hunter S. Thompson still receives credit as editor of the national affairs desk. But it is Bates who’s in charge of the magazine’s political coverage.
A Year To Forget
George Bush is simultaneously a lying, evil genius and a village idiot who inherited the presidency through Saudi royal connections and whose environmental policies are to blame for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sure, it may sound outlandish to even some of the harshest Bush critics, but it’s all there in the past twelve months of Rolling Stone .
Michael Moore opens his “George of Arabia” commentary in the October 30 issue with a disclaimer: “I’m not into conspiracies, except the ones that are true.” It’s a serviceable motto for the magazine’s recent direction, one that places him right at home with the worldview of Bates.
Asked to explain his section’s shift from a viewpoint sympathetic to Democrats to its current far-left radical stance, Bates responds: “I think it’s different because you’ve got a president in office who didn’t win the majority of the vote. There’s [also] a sense that Bush has mobilized the country in a violent way.”
At first glance, one could be forgiven for mistaking the layout of the magazine’s online national affairs section for the homepage of Win Without War. Directly below the fold of the current issue’s lead news story is something called “Yes, Bush actually said this.” It’s a feature that criticizes selective comments made by the president, rather similar to Slate ‘s “Bushisms.” The most recent entry reads: “Oftentimes, we live in a processed world ‘you know, people focus on the process and not results.” Hilarious, no?
Next, Bates posts a “Get Involved” section which directs readers to the following websites: Moveon.org, The Sierra Club, DNC.org, Greenpeace, The Human Rights Campaign, Al Franken’s homepage, the National Resources Defense Council, DrugPolicy.org, and the NRA Blacklist. At least, one might say, they’re open about their political leanings. Not mentioned, however, is Rolling Stone ‘s direct relationship to some of these groups through advocacy pieces passed off as real journalism.
In the December 11 issue, Robert Kennedy Jr. of the National Resources Defense Council and the newly formed liberal radio network Air America, writes Bush’s environmental policies have led directly to terrorist attacks on America: “The deadly addiction to fossil fuels that White House policies encourage has squandered our treasury, entangled us in foreign wars, diminished our international prestige, made us a target for terrorist attacks,” and worse. Kennedy goes on to accuse the administration of fabricating evidence to support the thinning of old growth forests to prevent large scale forest fires that have plagued the western United States over the past several years. What he doesn’t mention is that this same policy originated with, and continues to be advocated by, liberal environmental groups.
In a piece from the January 22 issue titled “House of Bush: Why does the president serve up so many secrets and lies?,” Bates interviews “Republican strategist” Kevin Phillips. Phillips accuses the Bush family of harboring monarchical ambitions and using secret and illegal means to keep the White House in the Bush family. After Phillips is identified as a “former Republican strategist” and a “lifelong Republican,” he is revealed in the interview to be a registered independent with an anti-Bush book on the market, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush .
Rolling Stone ‘s relationships with preferred political allies gets quite cozy. In the “Get Involved” section on its website, Rolling Stoneprovided links to the winning submissions to MoveOn.org’s contest for anti-Bush attack ads. In addition to this publicity favor, Rolling Stone has lavished MoveOn.org with sweetheart news coverage. In the February 10 issue, MoveOn.org’s success in fundraising and outreach efforts is reported in loving detail.
When Bates is asked about the prevalence of anti-Bush sentiment, he says, “Surely, our writers come to the table with a strong point of view.” But he denies any overt bias towards Democratic candidates or causes.
Over the past year, Rolling Stone has run a profile of every Democratic presidential candidate, including Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton. In a January interview with CNN, Bates claimed that the magazine has also conducted interviews with every major Republican candidate over the last several elections. A search through the Rolling Stone ‘s archives reveals this to be rather misleading. In fact, there is no evidence in the entirety of the magazine’s history of even a single interview with a major Republican presidential candidate.
Bates confirmed the magazine will run another feature on Kerry before the election. When asked if they will request a similar interview with President Bush, Bates admits, “It hasn’t been discussed. Honestly, that’s the first I’ve even thought of it.”
No one expects Rolling Stone to portray Republicans in a positive light. After all, the magazine’s primary concern is pop music and pop culture – not exactly the bedrock of conservatism. But it’s not unreasonable to expect an occasional breath of fairness, or at least some variety, in a mainstream magazine’s treatment of political issues. If not for its Republican subscribers or out of respect for the intelligence of other readers, then simply for the sake of having better writing to publish, Rolling Stone should exit the screaming section of the far left bleachers – and quick.
Eric Pfeiffer is a staff writer for National Journal’s “The Hotline.”