Runaway general: Rolling Stone's political tune

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010; 11:16 AM

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 the seemingly intractable war.

"I'm stunned," Wenner says, an hour after Obama announced the firing. "That is pretty major stuff." But he says 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 executive 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 says 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 says 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 failed to 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.

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