The controversial Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal didn’t just expose poor judgment on the part of the U.S. military’s key leader in Afghanistan. It also illustrates one of the most persistent shortcomings of American corporate journalism.
It’s no surprise that a protracted and fruitless military conflict has produced backbiting at the highest levels. That’s the expected result of a flawed policy. But it is — or should be — curious that Michael Hastings’s piece appeared in a rock magazine whose cover photograph features a G-strung Lady Gaga with automatic rifles jutting out of her brassiere.
Anyone in the Pentagon press corps could have written Hastings’ story. So why did it appear in Rolling Stone?
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First, let’s give Rolling Stone its due; it’s not an ordinary music magazine. Before launching it in 1967, Jann Wenner and Ralph Gleason worked at Ramparts magazine, the legendary San Francisco muckraker that ran high-impact investigative stories on Vietnam and the CIA. Despite its healthy circulation, Ramparts lost money and closed its doors for good in 1975. Then as now, no “business model” (i.e., reliable advertising base) existed for political magazines, left or right.
Wenner focused instead on music and the counterculture, but he also hired Hunter S. Thompson as his national affairs correspondent. One result was Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, praised as the least factual and most accurate account of that year’s presidential race.
In 2009, Rolling Stone revived the Gonzo tradition by running Matt Taibbi’s critical profile of Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street firm with close ties to the Treasury Department. This was another example of an RS irregular scooping beat writers on a huge story. Taibbi’s piece drew heat, but most of his critics begrudgingly conceded that his main point was correct.
Hastings has likewise taken criticism from the Pentagon press corps. Lara Logan, CBS’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources this weekend to cast aspersions on his methods, to defend the Pentagon beat writers, and to lament the article’s effect on General McChrystal’s career. “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has,” she claimed (as if critical reporting isn’t exactly the service journalists are supposed to provide). Responding to Hastings’ point that beat writers wrote glowingly about McChrystal to ensure future access to him, Logan labeled that view “insulting and arrogant.”
If Logan’s resentment is unseemly, her line of attack is revealing. She readily conceded that beat writers can’t file stories that embarrass their sources — even if the stakes are life and death for thousands of Afghans and American soldiers. But that’s exactly the problem with Big Media — and the reason a rock magazine can produce the most consequential political journalism in America today. Rolling Stone doesn’t need the Pentagon, Wall Street or rich liberal patrons to stay alive. It has the music industry.
This isn’t a perfect arrangement. Hunter Thompson complained privately about writing for a magazine preoccupied with what the Jackson Five had for breakfast. But given the state of journalism today, we’re lucky to have a magazine that knows how to apply the old Ramparts formula. Adam Hochschild, another Ramparts alumnus and co-founder of Mother Jones, put it this way: “Find an expose that major newspapers are afraid to touch, publish it with a big enough splash so they can’t afford to ignore it and then publicize it in a way that plays the press off against each other.”
Is Rolling Stone the best we can do? Absolutely not. We can have a healthier media ecology, especially if we agree that political journalism is what economists call a “public good,” like defense, infrastructure or law enforcement. We don’t ask the army to show a profit; we know we need defense, so we make sure we have it. But when it comes to political journalism, we let profitability decide what lives and dies.
Although market values may seem natural or even inevitable, there are better ways to keep the lifeblood of American democracy flowing freely. As Robert McChesney and John Nichols show in their book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, other industrial democracies offer public subsidies to their news outlets without hampering their editorial independence. If we matched those subsidies on a per capita basis, expenditures would come to $30 billion annually, not the $400 million we currently spend. In the 19th century, the U.S. government subsidized newspapers at roughly that same level, adjusted for inflation and population. Much of that subsidy came in the form of free newspaper delivery through the U.S. Postal Service — not exactly a Soviet-style headlock on a free press.
We will always have news. The question is, will we have journalism? As newsrooms empty out, we should appreciate a survivor like Rolling Stone — and question the business-as-usual media coverage of U.S. occupations.
Peter Richardson’s book about Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, is due out in paperback this September.