The Rapid Downfall of Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner Was Years in the Making

From a Washington Post story by Paul Farhi and Will Sommer headlined “The rapid downfall of Jann Wenner was years in the making”:

Jann Wenner spent 55 years building his legacy as a media entrepreneur, godfather of New Journalism and tastemaker for the baby boomer generation.

It took a single interview for him to throw a good deal of it away.

Just days after Wenner was quoted in a New York Times interview describing female and Black artists as insufficiently “articulate” to make his list of rock’s greatest figures, the co-founder of Rolling Stone has been denounced by not one but two of the institutions he helped create.

On Saturday, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which Wenner helped form in 1983, forced him off its governing board. But the deeper cut may have come from the leadership of Rolling Stone, where his own son took steps to distance himself from the 77-year-old Wenner’s sentiments.

“While I love him deeply, I do not agree with the comments he made and understand why they are so upsetting and hurtful,” Gus Wenner, the magazine’s chief executive, wrote Sunday in an email to staff, which was shared with The Washington Post. “I want to be clear, his statements as reported do not represent my beliefs, or the values, practices, and mission of Rolling Stone.”

In the Times interview, published Friday, Jann Wenner seemed to dismiss female and Black artists, musing that they were not among the great “philosophers of rock” and reserving that platitude for the seven White male artists he interviewed in a new book.

In comments that drew slightly less attention, Wenner also asserted that an infamous 2014 Rolling Stone article — which was retracted after it was determined that the purported college gang rape at the center of the story never happened — was otherwise factually “bulletproof,” despite a multimillion-dollar defamation judgment against it.

Among the least surprised by the comments — for which Wenner later said he apologized “wholeheartedly” — was biographer Joe Hagan, author of 2017’s acclaimed “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine.”

“The thing about Jann, the thing that made him successful but also is his Achilles’ heel, is that he’s a narcissist who lacks self-awareness,” said Hagan, a writer for Vanity Fair, in an interview. “This is how he talks inside the bubble he lives in. He receives a lot of affirmation for it, and he thinks it’s okay.”

Hagan compared Wenner’s mind-set, if not his politics, to Donald Trump’s, another 77-year baby boomer known to speak without much regard for accuracy or self-reflection.

Wenner no longer runs Rolling Stone, which was acquired by Penske Media Corporation in a series of transactions between 2017 and 2019.

Yet the reaction to Wenner’s comments crystallized criticisms that have periodically swirled around him and the magazine for decades. Rolling Stone long promoted rock’s male superstars — and personal Wenner favorites — such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger over newer artists and genres such as grunge, metal, R&B and hip-hop.

Bono and U2, for example, appeared on Rolling Stone’s cover 24 times between 1985 and 2018, or once every 16½ months, though not at all since Wenner stepped down as editorial director in 2019. Critics suggested the reason was twofold: Wenner favored his friends and knew who sold magazines.

The notion that Rolling Stone tended to give more favorable reviews to artists whose record companies bought ads in the magazine was highlighted in 1996, when Wenner spiked a negative review of the latest Hootie & the Blowfish album and subbed in a more favorable one. A reporter for the New York Observer asked Jim DeRogatis, the writer of the spiked review, whether Wenner was a fan of the band. DeRogatis responded that Wenner “is a fan of any band that sells 8 million records.”

Wenner fired him the day the comment was published.

During its 1970s heyday, the magazine developed a “boys’ club” reputation, with just one female writer on its masthead — Robin Green, who stayed only three years before becoming a TV writer and later wrote a memoir of her time there, titled “The Only Girl.” Rock critic Ellen Willis refused to write for Rolling Stone, telling Wenner’s co-founding editor that the magazine “habitually refers to women as chicks and treats us as chicks.”

There’s no denying Wenner’s achievements as a businessman and a media visionary. After dropping out of the University of California at Berkeley, he started Rolling Stone in 1967 alongside his mentor, San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph Gleason, with a $7,500 loan from his in-laws. The magazine struggled until Wenner landed an interview in 1970 with one of his idols, John Lennon — one of Rolling Stone’s first cover subjects — that helped propel Rolling Stone to national prominence, and eventually to prosperity. Wenner shaped its coverage of music, politics and popular culture, investing it with a youthful zeal and counterculture attitude. His timing was spectacular: Rolling Stone hit its stride just as its boomer audience was settling into careers and consumerism.

The magazine’s feature reporting helped spark a stylish and subjective subgenre known as New Journalism: the drug-addled ramblings of “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson; the political reporting of Timothy Crouse (“The Boys on the Bus”); and later the acerbic travelogues of P.J. O’Rourke. Wenner launched the career of filmmaker Cameron Crowe (whose “Almost Famous” fictionalized his stint as a teenage rock journalist); encouraged Tom Wolfe’s transformation to best-selling novelist by serializing his debut effort, “The Bonfire of the Vanities”; and gave a young photographer named Annie Leibovitz her start shooting celebrities.

At his entrepreneurial peak in the 1990s, Wenner was the master of a mini-magazine empire consisting of Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal and Us Weekly.

But Hagan said Wenner’s comment about Rolling Stone’s 2014 story about the University of Virginia was particularly telling. “His ego won’t let him believe that he’s done anything wrong,” he said.

“A Rape on Campus” was easily one of the most notorious journalistic faceplants of the past quarter-century. The central event in the story — a young woman’s description of a horrific sexual assault by seven men at a fraternity on campus — turned out to be unsupported by any evidence. As revealed shortly after the article’s publication, writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors at Rolling Stone never contacted any of the fraternity brothers accused by a woman identified only as “Jackie.” The magazine’s journalists also never interviewed a group of friends the article described as indifferent to Jackie’s distress immediately after she told them about the alleged assault.

A post-mortem review by a Columbia journalism school panel in 2015 authorized by Wenner and Rolling Stone concluded that the magazine published the story despite the lack of corroboration for Jackie’s account.

“The Rolling Stone article was far from ‘bulletproof,’” Sheila Coronel, who led the Columbia investigation, told The Post this week. “As our investigation found, the story suffered from failures in reporting, editing, editorial supervision, and fact-checking. The error could have been avoided at various points of the process, including at the point when the author failed to fully get the side of the fraternity where the alleged assault was supposed to have taken place.”

An associate U-Va. dean, Nicole Eramo, sued the magazine and Erdely, claiming the article “falsely attributed” statements to her, such as that she had called university “the rape school.” Eramo won a $3 million jury verdict, but later settled for an undisclosed amount after Rolling Stone moved to appeal. The magazine also settled lawsuits from fraternity members.

Despite the rebuke over his comments, Wenner’s legacy is secure, said Samir Husni, the founder of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi.

“Rolling Stone is much bigger and more important than Jann Wenner,” Husni said on Monday, comparing the publication to Ms. magazine and Playboy for its cultural impact. “No one outside of media circles know who Jann Wenner is. But they know what Rolling Stone is.”

Paul Farhi has been a media reporter at The Washington Post since 2010. Prior to that, he was a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter.

Will Sommer is a media reporter for the Style section, specializing in covering conservative media and conspiracy theories. He’s the author of “Trust the Plan: The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America,” a book covering the QAnon movement.

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