In the end, Jann Wenner was always going to sell Rolling Stone. The current timing is certainly unprompted and a bit of a surprise — Wenner, along with his son Gus, the president and chief operating officer of Wenner Media, announced this week the magazine is now open for bids — but there had been indications in recent years that the once groundbreaking magazine would soon be top edited by someone other than Wenner.
Wenner has passed on opportunities to sell Rolling Stone in the past, including an offer of $500 million that he turned down two decades ago. But in 2017, the timing was too good to pass up. This year is the 50th anniversary of Rolling Stone‘s founding, and not only is the occasion being marked with an HBO documentary co-directed by Alex Gibney, Knopf is publishing the first major Wenner biography this fall, written by Joe Hagan. (Full disclosure: I fact-checked the book.)
“I started in Woodbury and then my parents divorced and we moved to Syosset, next door. They separated when I was in sixth grade, got back together, then separated again between eight and ninth grade, I think. Everyone in my neighborhood, they’d start out living in a big house and then their parents would divorce and they would move to a condo a mile away. The condos were filled with all the divorced families. I found a poem recently that I wrote when I was 15, called ‘Divorce.’ I wrote it when I was a dishwasher at a comedy club on the weekends. It’s so funny but it’s so sad. It predicts my entire life.”
Many people say the 1960s ended at Altamont, when the Hell’s Angels fatally stabbed an eighteen year-old black man named Meredith Hunter during a huge, Woodstock-like music festival. The Rolling Stones were playing “Under My Thumb” during the murder, just feet away. In Slate, Jack Hamilton writes about the album the Rolling Stones recorded after Altamont, Sticky Fingers, and why many people consider it one of rock’s greatest:
The Stones may have failed to meet expectations, but they did so in the band’s greatest fashion: defiantly and beautifully. Sticky Fingers was a misdirection, in hindsight the only livable option for a band outrunning its own Mephistophelean hype. The album’s cover—a close-up of a tight-jeaned crotch with a working zipper, designed by Andy Warhol—appeared to offer entry into a world of leering male sexual prowess, but instead offered entry into a world of something more honest and more interesting: male vulnerability. Written and recorded in the long wake of Jagger’s breakup with Marianne Faithfull and the early years of Richards’ torrid relationship with Anita Pallenberg, Sticky Fingers was a relationship record, an album about affection, pain, desire, loss, about loving people you’ve hurt and people who’ve hurt you.
Columbia University’s School of Journalism has released its report investigating what went wrong with Rolling Stone’s story of a rape at UVA, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Among its conclusions:
Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems. “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things,” Dana said. “We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, said, “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”
Yet better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors. The checking department should have been more assertive about questioning editorial decisions that the story’s checker justifiably doubted. Dana said he was not told of reporting holes like the failure to contact the three friends or the decision to use misleading attributions to obscure that fact.
Stronger policy and clearer staff understanding in at least three areas might have changed the final outcome:
Pseudonyms. Dana, Woods and McPherson said using pseudonyms at Rolling Stone is a “case by case” issue that requires no special convening or review. Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this case was a crutch – it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them. If its editors believe pseudonyms are an indispensable tool for its forms of narrative writing, the magazine should consider using them much more rarely and only after robust discussion about alternatives, with dissent encouraged.
Checking Derogatory Information. Erdely and Woods made the fateful agreement not to check with the three friends. If the fact-checking department had understood that such a practice was unacceptable, the outcome would almost certainly have changed.
Confronting Subjects With Details. When Erdely sought “comment,” she missed the opportunity to hear challenging, detailed rebuttals from Phi Kappa Psi before publication. The fact-checker relied only on Erdely’s communications with the fraternity and did not independently confirm with Phi Kappa Psi the account Rolling Stone intended to publish about Jackie’s assault. If both the reporter and checker had understood that by policy they should routinely share specific, derogatory details with the subjects of their reporting, Rolling Stone might have veered in a different direction.
An interview with ‘Game of Thrones’ author George R.R. Martin:
You’ve talked before about the original glimpse of the story you had for what became A Song of Ice and Fire: a spontaneous vision in your mind of a boy witnessing a beheading, then finding direwolves in the snow. That’s an interesting genesis.
It was the summer of 1991. I was still involved in Hollywood. My agent was trying to get me meetings to pitch my ideas, but I didn’t have anything to do in May and June. It had been years since I wrote a novel. I had an idea for a science-fiction novel called Avalon. I started work on it and it was going pretty good, when suddenly it just came to me, this scene, from what would ultimately be the first chapter of A Game of Thrones. It’s from Bran’s viewpoint; they see a man beheaded and they find some direwolf pups in the snow. It just came to me so strongly and vividly that I knew I had to write it. I sat down to write, and in, like, three days it just came right out of me, almost in the form you’ve read.
I was completely unprepared for the response to “Jahar’s World,” which was published in mid-July as a Rolling Stone cover story. The piece tells the story of accused Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev, a hip-hop loving, hoodie-wearing, pot smoking 20-year-old from Cambridge, Mass., who is accused of committing the worst act of terrorism on US soil since 9/11. As a character, Jahar was hugely compelling: utterly likable, extremely “normal,” the kid who could have been your dorm mate, or your high school crush, or the stoner down the hall—which he was, to many people. He was also, apparently, capable of murder. I was fascinated by this dichotomy, the absolute normalcy and absolute monstrousness within a single human being, and spent several months exploring it. My editors also explored it in the choice of that issue’s cover image: an undoctored self-portrait of a gorgeous young man accused of committing an absolutely abhorrent crime. I think we all hoped the story would be read and talked about, which is what every magazine writer and editor wants.
What happened was this: Within minutes of my piece being published and posted online, Twitter exploded, followed by a deluge of hate mail sent to the magazine and to me, directly, by people who were furious we had given Tsarnaev that kind of attention. I was attacked for not caring about victims—even though I, myself, lived through the 9/11 attack on New York City, where I live and where a high school friend of mine died in one of those towers. I received hundreds of emails attacking not my journalism, but me, as a human being. On Twitter, one person said I deserved to be raped and killed because of this story, and someone else took it upon himself to hunt down and then post my cell phone number, which resulted in a few dozen scary texts and anonymous calls. I received death threats against myself, and even against my dog. One person wrote me several days in a row saying that he hoped that I, and my entire family, would be killed in a terrorist attack.
For the record, I believe that Rolling Stone did not, as we were accused, “glamorize” a terrorist. We did a very serious story about one, and by putting his face on the cover, we challenged our readers to look him in the face. This was not, as many believed, an air-brushed or otherwise touched up photograph. It was the raw selfie. The photo invited the reader to look at this kid, in all of his beauty, frankly, and when they did that, it made a lot of people extremely uncomfortable, and to be honest, I thought that was great. I thought our cover was fantastic and did exactly what great covers are supposed to do, which is to make people think, read, and discuss. But the outrage it caused was so over-the-top, it not only took me completely by surprise, but made me think very hard about what has happened to our country in the twelve years since 9/11.
Because of this story, Rolling Stone was actually banned—boycotted—by chain stores like Wal-Mart, across the country. They did this on “principle.” What principle? That “knowing our enemies” is somehow wrong? That one of the biggest stories of the year does not belong on a magazine cover simply because the subject, a so-called “bad guy,” is also handsome? Or is it that by covering him at all, giving his story some form of meaning, we were being un-American?
Since 2001, American journalism has been consumed with so-called “War on Terror” coverage, and yet, with a few notable exceptions, much of it hasn’t bothered to examine just who these supposed terrorists are. Why is that? Because we don’t really care? Or, because we might discover, as I did, that the terrorists are not what we expect? It really worries me that as a country we have not only “othered” the so-called terrorists, we’ve refused to grant them humanity. And I think what my story, and our cover, proved is that in some cases, these amorphous “bad guys” look and act, and in many cases are, just like the rest of us. That Jahar Tsanaraev was, by every single account, a very average boy who did a very terrible thing, is not something to reject or be afraid of. It’s something to learn from. That is why we write about the terrorists, it’s why these stories matter.
When I went back into my Kindle and my Twitter and Tumblr and email and all the other places where I noted or saved especially noteworthy stories from the past year, I found that many of them fell into certain categories. And so, here they are. (There are more than five stories, just because.)
One of the best true crime pieces of the past year was that David Grann lawyer-in-Guatemala story, but everyone has already said that, so I am going to go with Robert Kolker’s “A Serial Killer in Common,” which is the devastating, horrifying story about the Long Island serial killer and the families of the women who were killed. Also, it’s not exactly true crime in the traditional sense of the term, but Kathy Dobie’s GQ story, “The Girl from Trails End,” about the 11-year-old girl in Texas who was gang-raped, repeatedly, was another really excellent crime-related story. Also, I would like someone to write a longer story about Aaron Bassler, the guy who killed two people in California and then went on the run in Mendocino County for a month before he was killed by police.
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW
I didn’t make a “trend piece” category because, ugh, but two stories from the past year that I thought really captured Our Moment were Molly Lambert’s “In Which We Teach You How to Be a Woman in a Boys’ Club” and Caroline Bankoff’s “On GChat”. Molly’s piece was so, so smart, and very true, and had lots of good advice, including to only apologize if you truly fucked up, and then only apologize once. Also, this part: “The only men who are turned off by ambition and success are men that are insecure about their own talents and success or lack thereof. You don’t really want to know those guys anyway, because they suck and they will constantly attempt to undermine you, and even if you are secure enough in yourself not to care it’s still really fucking annoying.” And technically, I first encountered Caroline’s piece at a reading in 2010, but since it wasn’t published for public consumption until 2011 (on Thought Catalog) I am counting it. It is a wonderful encapsulation of the ways technology has changed the ways that we interact with each other.
The Ask a Dude column in the Hairpin is the best advice column ever to exist in the world, if you are a woman in your 20s or 30s who is trying to navigate THIS THING CALLED LIFE, which, yes! It was really hard to pick a favorite, because they are all cocktails of good, which is how I once heard an editor at the magazine I work for describe a story. But I think perhaps “Questionably Tattooed Manchildren and Uses for Old Jars” is one of the Dude’s best, because it offers advice like this to a woman who is worried she is a drunken slut: “If all was right, there’d be a country & western singer named Tammy with a hit named ‘A Whiskey Dick or Two,’ but here we are, in a world where a woman calls herself a slut for sleeping with a number of partners that she’s not ashamed of and then apologizes for it to feminists. I don’t think I even understand where that puts us. Somewhere not good, I believe.”
THE CELEBRITY PROFILE
A bunch of people who’ve submitted these Longreads things have said that they deliberately didn’t put any of their friends on their lists, but I am going to break that non-rule because fuck it, my friends are good writers! Take, for example, this profile of Channing Tatum—“The Full Tatum”—that Jessica Pressler wrote for GQ. It is a really good celebrity profile. It is even a narrative, which most celebrity profiles are not, they are just, like, “It is 87 degrees in Los Angeles and Kim Kardashian is lying on a chaise longue by the pool at the Chateau Marmont, her white string bikini showing off her perfectly tanned, perfectly toned, perfectly I-survived-Kris-Humphries body, and she is very deliberately not eating the house salad that she so carefully ordered—’No olives, two tablespoons of walnuts and the dressing on the side’—20 minutes before,” and you’re like, TELL ME SOMETHING I DON’T KNOW. (That lede could also work with Denise Richards/Charlie Sheen, or Demi Moore/Ashton Kutcher, or Katie Holmes/Tom Cruise in 3 years. It’s all yours!) My other favorite celebrity profile from the past year was Lizzie Widdicombe’s “You Belong With Me,” a profile of Taylor Swift. She had so many great little details in there, including that Taylor’s father Scott wears tasseled loafers.
THE PERSONAL ESSAY
Pressler snaked me by choosing John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Peyton’s Place,” which is this amazing piece about living in the house where they filmed One Tree Hill, so I am going to choose this weird, wonderful three-part thing that Clancy Martin wrote for the Paris Review about trying to get to New York to see Christian Marclay’s The Clock exhibit. It contains this paragraph:
“It’s starting to rain, I’m ten miles from home and I already recognize how eccentric, how unstable, how woebegone, how doomed this plan is; the roar of the highway is an echo of my sure failure, and I’m thinking about the trucker who’s too wise to take the little baby in Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” when I hear, incredibly, like a promise from God—there will be many of these in the next twenty-four hours, but I don’t know it yet—the elongated throaty syllables of Lou Reed coming from an amiable-looking white truck with wide mirrors coming off its nose and bumpers that give it a kind of Disney Cars effect. In the movie, the trucks are always the good guys. And, better still, a middle-aged black man with a potbelly is pumping diesel into it, listening to one of the most white-boy songs of all time.”