Rolling Stone's McChrystal interview shows the magazine's nonmusical side

What started out as a profile of the Afghan war's U.S. Commander may now cost General Stanley McChrystal his job. Rolling Stone's editor explains the genesis of the article and the stroke of luck that stranded his reporter with McChrystal. (June 23)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010

In the summer of 2008, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner ended an interview with Barack Obama -- whose campaign he financially supported -- by saying, "Good luck. We are following you daily with great hope and admiration."

This week, the magazine that endorsed Obama plunged his administration into crisis mode, publishing sharply disparaging comments by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his aides about the president and other White House officials. Beyond costing McChrystal his job on Wednesday, the article highlighted the grinding frustration among those prosecuting America's seemingly intractable war.

"I'm stunned," Wenner said, an hour after Obama announced the firing. "That is pretty major stuff." But he said the New York-based magazine's role should come as no surprise: "Our specialty for years has been long-form journalism, deep reporting and politics. I've had a strong passion about having a say in national policy."

Eric Bates, Rolling Stone's editor, concedes that "there's still this lingering sense that you're a music magazine and what are you doing over in Afghanistan? I call it the 'of all places' syndrome." But he said that view is changing after the biweekly magazine's stinging stories on such topics as the BP oil spill and the Wall Street bailout.

There has been grumbling that McChrystal must have assumed he was off the record with reporter Michael Hastings, a former correspondent for Newsweek and freelancer for The Washington Post, and that in one case an aide to the general was quoted while drinking.

But Bates says that "this isn't an instance where someone makes an off-the-cuff remark and the reporters put down their tape recorders. This took place over the course of weeks. They were working, they were in their war room."

Hastings said from Afghanistan that he has the remarks -- ranging from McChrystal's distaste at receiving an e-mail from envoy Richard Holbrooke to an aide's reference to Vice President Biden as "bite me" -- on tape or in detailed notes.

Rolling Stone initially did not put its story online until late Tuesday morning, enabling Politico and to draw traffic by posting actual pages from an article that hadn't yet hit newsstands, a move that Bates called unfair and inappropriate. The rival sites took the piece down after Bates complained.

To be sure, the 1.5-million circulation magazine is primarily known for such recent cover subjects as Jay-Z, Mick Jagger, Black Eyed Peas and Eric Clapton. (The average reader is 30 years old.) In fact, the cover of the current issue is devoted not to "The Runaway General" but to Lady Gaga, wielding a pair of automatic weapons attached to her bra.

Matt Taibbi, whose angry, profanity-laced pieces follow in the footsteps of Hunter Thompson, says perceptions have changed since he joined the magazine six years ago. "I'd call up some bank and their PR guy would do a double take and say, 'Why are we hearing from you?' But I hear that less and less now."

Taibbi says he lost friends in the administration after a December piece headlined "Obama's Big Sellout," in which he questioned whether the president is "the vacillating, ineffectual servant of banking interests." In March, just before the health care bill passed, Taibbi wrote that Obama "did everything wrong," along with "his team of two-faced creeps like Rahm Emanuel. . . . willing to sell out every inch of the body politic to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries."

These were surely more surprising pieces for the magazine than Sean Wilentz's 2006 cover story on George W. Bush, titled "The Worst President in History?" Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg once wrote that "Rolling Stone has essentially become the house organ of the Democratic National Committee." So it's worth noting that the magazine -- which Wenner says has a "mission" to promote "social justice" -- is assailing Obama from the left.

Wenner says he is "disappointed" by much of Obama's White House record and "disturbed that some pattern is emerging. It's naive to think you're going to change American policy by compromising on a lot of stuff." He says Interior Secretary Ken Salazar should have been fired over the BP debacle and that the administration's financial regulation bill "gets weaker and weaker" over time.

Wenner says he is still "rooting" for Obama but hasn't been invited to the White House: "I'm not part of the gentleman's club."

The same could be said of many Rolling Stone writers, including Hastings, who wrote a 2008 book about his fiance being killed by a car bomb while both were in Iraq. He got the story on McChrystal that no one else did -- or would -- by spending a month essentially embedded with the general and his staff.

The 43-year-old magazine can rightfully claim a history of outsider journalism, going back to Thompson's drug- and alcohol-fueled binges. Timothy Crouse's observations of reporters on the 1972 presidential campaign became the classic book "Boys on the Bus." Tom Wolfe's articles on NASA's original seven astronauts led to the 1979 book "The Right Stuff." Evan Wright was embedded with a Marine unit during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and his stories became a book and then the HBO miniseries "Generation Kill."

The coverage can be overheated and politically loaded, but it is not restrained. "They give you an enormous amount of space to address any topic I want, and there's no editorial interference in terms of political viewpoint, and I can use any language I want," says Taibbi.

Bates sees Rolling Stone going back to its roots. "In the last 10 years," he says, "the magazine has returned to form and made it a point to go after abuses of power."

Wenner offers a simple explanation: "We're not a public company, afraid of whatever the implications of that may be. We're independent. I own it."

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