Literary 'Rolling Stone' sells out to male titillation
USA Today, Date TK, 2002
by Samuel G. Freedman
In the early days of September 1973, as I began my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, I indulged in another rite of passage. I walked the mile from my dorm to what I had been assured by some worldly sophomore was Madison's hippest record store and bought my first copy of Rolling Stone.
The cover of that issue, No. 143, carried an illustration of Sam Ervin, the North Carolina senator who was then chairing the committee investigating Watergate, and several entire pages inside were devoted to transcripts from recent hearings. There was an article by Timothy Crouse, soon to arrive with his own book, The Boys on the Bus, about such Watergate reporters as Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Seymour Hersh. David Harris, the draft-resister, journalist and husband of Joan Baez, wrote about vigilante violence against Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers Union.
And even if much of the music in that issue proved utterly ephemeral -- Helen Reddy, Cat Stevens, Grand Funk Railroad -- the critics included such soon-to-be luminaries as Robert Palmer, Jim Miller and Stephen Holden. On the film page, American Graffiti was reviewed by Bruce Springsteen's future manager, Jon Landau.
I cannot claim to have remembered all of these details. Recalling the cover art and approximate date of the issue, I searched it out the other day on microfilm in a university library. I went there, not coincidentally, just after I had purchased my first copy of a periodical called FHM -- ''For Him Magazine.'' The clerk, quite thoughtfully, put it in a plain brown paper bag.
Perhaps he thought I would be embarrassed to be seen carrying a magazine full of nearly naked women with a cover headline reading, ''Supreme Sex! Master the Bedroom's Toughest Maneuver!'' The truth is, though, that I'm as susceptible as any post-puberty male to the enticements of shapely flesh in skimpy lingerie; it's why I keep paying for my wife's subscription to Vogue.
What did shame me, though, was the fact that this magazine contained virtually nothing except cleavage, bedroom eyes and hands-down crotches. What passed for content was a profile of Ozzy Osbourne's son, a guide to sexual threesomes and the account of a purported Palestinian scheme to bomb the New York subway. (Funny that I don't recall having read about that one in The New York Times or the Daily News.)
What connected my shopping trip and my microfilm session was the tragedy of what has happened to Rolling Stone. Jann Wenner, the founder, owner and true genius of Rolling Stone, recently pushed out its longtime editor, Robert Love, who had been a brilliant steward of its tradition of journalistic excellence. Then, he appointed one Ed Needham, the editor in chief of FHM, as Love's successor.
It would have been tragic for Rolling Stone specifically and American journalism in general had some outside corporation or rapacious mogul swept in, bought out the owner Wenner and trashed the magazine. I'm old enough to remember the New York Post as a crusading city newspaper before Rupert Murdoch took over and imposed an editorial style of hysteria and innuendo.
But the idea that Wenner has willingly imperiled Rolling Stone's greatness seems a self-inflicted wound without parallel.
Like most other magazines and virtually all newspapers, Rolling Stone is a private enterprise that must make a profit to succeed, and its balance sheet tells of a 10% drop in newsstand sales and a nearly 25% decline in advertising pages during the past several years.
Yet Rolling Stone retains a paid circulation of 1.25 million, and the greatest publications in the United States -- The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly -- recognize themselves as public trusts, not merely commercial enterprises.
Almost from the moment Wenner created Rolling Stone in San Francisco in 1967, he presented it as more than some mere start-up, some fanzine. He saw it -- and people of my age read it -- as a compact with our generation. It attracted us with serious, trenchant coverage of rock 'n' roll and then introduced us to extraordinary narrative writing on political and social issues.
How could one even count the number of high school and college students who first encountered Tom Wolfe, Jan Morris and Hunter S. Thompson in Rolling Stone? In the 1990s, the magazine was the home base for William Greider and P.J. O'Rourke, the platform for such emerging stars as Mike Sager and John Colapinto.
For me, the fate of Rolling Stone touches not only professional, but also personal chords. A dozen years after I first read it, I started to write for it, ultimately doing about 10 lengthy articles.
When I spent thousands of words describing the bleak future for a blue-collar teenager or discussing the futility of the drug war with two leading black intellectuals, I knew that I was benefiting from Wenner's personal commitment to high-quality journalism, and I was profoundly grateful for it. At the same time, I suppose I have to admit to being part of Wenner's dilemma.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, passing the age of 40 and barely following new bands, I let my subscription lapse. Still, often enough I would hear about some amazing article -- Rian Malan on AIDS in Africa, for instance -- and buy the issue. And, yet again, I would appreciate Rolling Stone for publishing vital work and vibrant writers at a time so many other magazines were stooping to movie-star profiles and true-crime titillation.
Now, one of the most worthless trends in magazine journalism -- the rise of the so-called ''laddie'' magazines such as Maxim -- has been handed the living legacy that is Rolling Stone. So what if FHM's American edition is the fastest-growing magazine in the USA, with a circulation topping 1 million? It's the oldest story in the world that stupidity sells.
The question is why intelligence sold out. I have read Wenner's explanations about the need for ''new ideas and new vision'' and his invocation of Bob Dylan's lyric, ''He not busy being born is busy dying.'' Still, actions trump words.
After I looked at that 1973 issue of Rolling Stone on microfilm, I scanned a reel of back issues from 1977. I found what I was looking for in the edition dated July 14. Gail Sheehy had written an article about Murdoch's purchase of New York magazine, ending its editorial heyday under Clay Felker. The headline on the article, which surely Wenner had approved, read: ''A Fistful of Dollars.''