Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 2001/ 29 Kislev, 5762


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Consumer Reports

Wenner: Same old song -- ROLLING STONE founder Jann Wenner is a pathetic piece of work. Briefly, on the plus side: As a young man, he was an audacious entrepreneur who recognized that his hero-worship of rock deities might lead to a lifestyle/vocation more substantial and remunerative than merely attending Grateful Dead concerts and smoking dope while protesting the Vietnam War. Although RS had a few predecessors-most notably Paul Williams' Crawdaddy!-Wenner was the Hugh Hefner of the baby boomers, the first hippie to combine flower power with business. As a result, his magazine was, after a shaky couple of years, an astonishing success, every bit as influential in its appeal to a particular demographic as The New Yorker, Playboy or Esquire. The biweekly, modestly launched in 1967, largely defined the "New Journalism" of the early 70s and was the print vehicle of record for the counterculture.

Once Wenner moved Rolling Stone from San Francisco to Manhattan in 1977, and brown-nosed his way to 10021 social acceptance, the product steadily went downhill. The archetypal boomer, Wenner indulged in all the excesses and fads (although in a grander style) that have pockmarked-and sometimes shattered-the lives of many Americans who came of age in the 60s. Lots of drugs, drinking, Studio 54 snort & gab late nights, self-help groups, a switch from "off the pigs" politics to the Democratic mainstream, back-to-nature forays, an embrace of the 80s "greed is good" mythology and an enthusiastic embrace of candidate Bill Clinton in 1992.

(Although the future president undoubtedly never forgot that his shameless groupie endorsed Jerry Brown in the spring of that year.)

Wenner, in his transparent solipsism, was more infatuated about the idea of Clinton than the man himself; he famously remarked that the election of a fellow boomer meant that his generation was now running the country. His first question to Clinton in a '93 interview was, "Are you having fun?"

The combination of a slumping economy-especially brutal to the publishing industry; Rolling Stone, according to MediaWeek, will end 2001 down 21 percent in ad pages compared to 2000-and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have forced Wenner and his editors to inject some serious content into their fluffy mix of celebrity worship, adulation of ancient pop icons and half-hearted attempts to cover the music and unique quirks of kids who aren't yet 30.


So in the Dec. 6 issue, there was a long piece by Al Gore-apologist Eric Boehlert, who complained that in the 2000 campaign his favored candidate was the victim of "lazy reporting" and "pack journalism," the result of which helped elect George W. Bush. I have no quarrel with Boehlert's partisan article, although it's almost impossible to argue that the elite media-The New York Times, Washington Post, the major tv networks, Time and Newsweek-gave a Bush a free ride. But that's not the point: Boehlert's well-written story, which stops at Election Day, has no relevance in the fall of 2001. It's filler, and doesn't even have the excuse of being a book excerpt.

Also included are softball articles about Dan Rather's take on Afghanistan and an examination of Muslim-Americans living in Dearborn, MI. This isn't the sort of journalism that gave Rolling Stone its well-deserved reputation 30 years ago of invigorating a tired craft; the magazine is playing catch-up on politics in a feeble effort to appear more vital in this suddenly sober environment.


But war or no war, Wenner still has priorities. In the same edition, apparently unable to badger one of his hack reviewers into rhapsodizing over Mick Jagger's dreadful solo album Goddess in the Doorway, the editor-in-chief performed the task himself. Jagger's recording has been almost unanimously panned-and is selling very few copies-but Jann's a friend and so he awards Goddess five stars, which in RS's ratings system means it's a "classic."

Here's a particularly choice passage: "[Jagger's] gains in maturity have taken no toll on [his] inner rock & roller. The Street Fighting Man can still swagger at the top of his-or anybody else's-game. Goddess in the Doorway resembles the Stones' best albums in that it's a varied yet cohesive collection of ballads, hard rockers and one country song. But on his own, he is free to cast off the blues-rock anchor that both defines and (at times) confines the Stones. Jagger heads into edgy, danceable modern-rock territory with the throbbing electronic groove of 'Gun' and the snarling, whip-crack assault of 'Everybody Getting High.'"


My New York Press colleague John Strausbaugh, whose recent Rock Til You Drop savages both Rolling Stone and the Rolling Stones, said of the release, a typical reaction, "This record is so bad Lenny Kravitz is the best thing on it." Far too charitable, in my opinion, but John's got a Christian streak.

On Dec. 4, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article about the difficulty Rolling Stone's publisher, Rob Gregory, had in selling ads for this very issue, "People of the Year." Reporter Matthew Rose describes how Gregory's once-glamorous job, which included "hang[ing] out with rock stars and sports stars at Manhattan parties," has changed to flying economy-class and desperately trying to lure reluctant clients who just aren't buying. This is how the publisher's October meeting with Ford Motor Co. went, in which he was angling for a three-page insertion: "Ford had other ideas. It wanted publicity for a music tour promoting the Ford Focus [with no paid advertising], and complained that Rolling Stone hadn't given it enough coverage... Being asked for favorable coverage is just one of the indignities facing publications, such as Rolling Stone, that pride themselves on editorial independence."

Editorial independence? That's a phrase that simply isn't in Wenner's vocabulary, as any number of former RS writers will happily attest to, and the Jagger review amply demonstrates.


Frankly, although I subscribe to Rolling Stone, it's not for the sub-par music and film reviews. It's a habit, I guess, one that's hard to break when a year's subscription can be had for less than $20. Nostalgia too: I remember buying the magazine's second issue in '67, as a 12-year-old, when I took the LIRR from Huntington by myself for the first time, to go to Greenwich Village. Back then, no periodical could touch Rolling Stone for the cool quotient; in 1970, the arrival of this rock "bible" and startup National Lampoon in the mailbox took immediate precedence over my reading regimen of Kafka, Fitzgerald, Rimbaud, Richard Brautigan, J.D. Salinger and Camus. Today, RS is a flip-through read, not unlike Entertainment Weekly or Esquire, with the very occasional article-P.J. O'Rourke six or seven years ago, William Greider more recently-that can hold my interest.

But Wenner set a new benchmark for his own idiocy with an editorial in the Dec. 27 issue-"The Road to War and the Road to Peace"-that was so riddled with hypocrisy it made his buddy Bill Clinton seem like Honest Abe.

Here's the gist of Wenner's simplistic take on the war: "If we go to war on the premise of such grandiose and naive slogans as 'the fight to eradicate evil,' we will understand little. Fuzzy ideology, instead of a clear and honest depiction of our interests and commitments and role in the world, will not rally our citizens for long but will only avoid a necessary debate. A 'crusade against evildoers' is not a satisfying justification, not in the short run and certainly not for the long haul."

The conflict, according to Wenner, is all about oil and this country's dependence on the Mideast to provide it. He justifiably slams the corrupt regime of Saudi Arabia, but then lapses into automatic-pilot talking points about how to solve our energy problem. Conservation, of course, and no ANWR-drilling, and a program of "fuel-efficiency standards." Does this mean Wenner's willing to give up his gas-guzzling private planes, boats and fleet of automobiles?

He doesn't say.

It's easy for multimillionaire Jann to self-righteously ramble about the futility of chasing religious extremists, but as usual he's out of sync with most Americans: Osama bin Laden's head on a spear will cause a celebration that'll make the jubilance over Richard Nixon's resignation look like a sherry party at Yale.

Wenner then waxes new age and preaches about the importance of giving American students "a broad international perspective." He takes a sensible quote from Lynne Cheney and twists its meaning. Cheney said: "If there were one aspect of schooling from kindergarten through college to which I would give added emphasis today, it would be American history." Cheney also "disagreed with assertions that children need to learn about world cultures now more than ever."


Wenner rebuts: "Of course, our history is important, but that statement must be seen for what it really is: a veiled call for 'America First' isolationism." This is absurd: Lynne and Dick Cheney, the vice president and former defense secretary, can hardly be called isolationists. That's Pat Buchanan territory, which the Bush administration has roundly repudiated, even if it's tarred with the heinous sin of wanting to scrap the ABM treaty and saying no thanks to the feel-good Kyoto global-warming scam. As for the significance of American history, anyone who doesn't believe that kids ought to study the Civil War, say, more thoroughly than mating rituals in Kenya is a victim of recurring acid flashbacks.

An editorial like this can't ignore the economic stimulus bill that's languishing in Congress right now. Wenner distorts the facts to gin up his sophomoric manifesto, railing against a bill passed by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives that has no chance of success. He writes: "The greed is outrageous. Almost eighty-five percent of the GOP package goes to corporate and business tax cuts and to upper-income taxpayers; the rest to low-to-moderate-income earners and the unemployed. The so-called Economic Stimulus Bill passed by the House Republicans is a scandal, and under the current circumstances of recession and high unemployment, it is an obscenity."

Aside from wondering whether Wenner would personally refuse those tax cuts, and maybe donate the money to the workers he's laid off from his company, you have to factor in his personal politics. I don't agree with the House bill either-like Bush, I'm in favor of accelerating the decrease in marginal tax rates, which is fair, although not as smart as a flat tax-and of course lobbyists influenced GOP lawmakers. Just as their counterparts do business with Democrats. That's the norm in Washington, DC. But the rap that Republicans are just paying back campaign contributors is simplistic: Wenner, like other entertainment chieftains, is just out of sorts because his benefactors don't control the White House now. No more Hollywood shindigs with Clinton; long, soulful nights at Elaine's and the Waldorf are perks from the past.

I'll leave you with this gem: "The complex truth is that to truly win the war abroad, we must first win the war at home. We can only win over the hearts and minds of the Islamic world if we open our own hearts and minds to the Islamic world and the wide world around us and create an appropriate place for America in it... If our media tame their ravenous hunger for triviality and devote themselves to educating and informing their audience of citizens, that will be a victory."

I'd wager that most Americans are more concerned about their own safety than opening their "hearts and minds" to the Islamic world.

Finally, this editorial lambasting "triviality" in the media is ludicrous coming from Wenner, whose Dec. 6 issue of Rolling Stone featured a cleavage-spilling photo of Britney Spears on its cover.

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2001, Russ Smith