End of an era?

Posted: Jun 21, 2002 12:00 AM
And now, a few words in memory of 34 1/2-year-old Rolling Stone magazine. Don't get me wrong. Jann Wenner's brainchild hasn't folded, but it is going to be revamped with an eye toward attracting short attention-span-afflicted readers. That's bad news. You may wish to charge Rolling Stone with being no more than a countercultural rag, a pied piper leading teens into drug-taking and radical-left politics. You may wish to joke that its readers have always had short attention spans. You may have a partial point in each regard. Nonetheless, there's good reason to lament RS's coming dumbing-down: It apparently will end the magazine's tradition of publishing a great deal of high-quality long-form reporting. According to David Carr of the New York Times, Wenner "believes that today's young reader has little patience for long articles." Wenner himself says, "There is so much media [sic] around. Back when Rolling Stone was publishing these 7,000-word stories, there was no CNN, no Internet. And now you can travel instantaneously around the globe, and you don't need these long stories to get up to speed." What a crock. Cable television and the Web are ideal for rapidly delivering the basics of the news. Rolling Stone, a biweekly, could step back and shape a story, and its best reporting provided detail and context, presented with flair. The magazine didn't homer every time at bat, of course, but its slugging average was all-star caliber. The first extraordinary RS piece I remember centered on Evel Knievel's September 1974 jump over the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. The parachute in Knievel's vehicle deployed prematurely, spoiling the jump. Moreover, Gerald Ford had pardoned Richard Nixon a few hours earlier, more than slightly overshadowing it in terms of newsworthiness. In the end, the article, which captured splendidly both the hype and the backstage goings-on, may have been the most lasting result of the whole non-event. What's sad, in retrospect, is that it was written by Joe Eszterhas, later the trashmeister behind "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls." Talk about squandered talent. Other Rolling Stone gems that stand out for me are David Black's remarkably detailed mid-'80s effort on the early years of AIDS, and, a few years ago, Rian Malan's fascinating history of the famous South African song known in this country as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Straight reporting wasn't all RS offered. It serialized Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and gave the wonderful P.J. O'Rourke a forum. No, it wasn't on the level of the New Yorker, but RS was far, far more than hippies playing with typewriters. Rolling Stone has slipped a bit recently, devoting too much space to ephemera like Britney Spears, but it's still been worth a look. That probably won't be true much longer. Wenner has chosen Ed Needham as RS's managing editor. Needham joins RS from FHM, one of those new raunchy, young-men-oriented magazines (Maxim is another), which are sort of a cross between Esquire and Playboy, but less intelligent. Needham told the Times, "All the great media adventures of the 20th century have been visual. Television, movies, the Internet, they're all visual mediums [sic], and I don't think people have time to sit down and read." And no time to read, of course, usually means no time to think. Attitude often substitutes for thinking, and "Well Hung at Dawn," a column in the online version of Rolling Stone, certainly yields plenty of 'tude. The "WHAD" in front of me consists of two guys tossing out observations on topics from the Stanley Cup playoffs to Natalie Portman. It's very hipper-than-thou-to-the-point-of-annoyance, as you might expect -- and outrageous in its comments related to President Bush and the war on terrorism. At a late-May press conference for Bush and French president Jacques Chirac, NBC reporter David Gregory addressed Chirac in French, with Bush then wisecracking sarcastically about Gregory's language skills. Apropos of that incident, "WHAD" spews, "On behalf of NBC's David Gregory, here's three intercontinental words for our half-wit 'president' --
Nique ta mere! " If you know French -- or if you've read Christopher Caldwell's May 6 Weekly Standard piece on French anti-Semitism -- you know how ugly those words are. Caldwell reports that "Nique ta mere les juifs" -- "F--- your mother, Jews" -- is "commonplace" graffiti in France. In the current climate, to use even part of that phrase to malign anyone, especially the leader in our battle with violent intolerance, is beyond offensive. If such a tone seeps into Rolling Stone itself, that, obviously, would be worse than a mere dumbing-down of a formerly fine publication. It would represent its moral collapse.