The Impact of the National Affairs Desk at Rolling Stone
by Joshua M. Patton
On a Thursday afternoon in May of 2011 a graying Jann S. Wenner, Editor, Publisher and Co-Founder of Rolling Stone, takes a seat on a stage in the Detroit Athletic Club before over a dozen tables of advertising and marketing folks eating $35-a-plate ($45 for non-members) lunches. The host of the event is a man named Nat Ives, a writer for Ad Age, and he begins the interview with a question meant to understand how Wenner saw his magazine’s potential when he started it at the age of 21 with music critic Ralph Gleason. Wenner shifts uncomfortably in his chair, and says that it started from a “love of rock and roll music.” He continues to say that along with a love of the music itself, he also believed in the ideals and philosophy within in the music; he believed that it would “shape our generation and ultimately shape the world.”
Wenner was born in January of 1946, a part of the largest generation of Americans – the baby-boomers. They went on to be the richest and most-educated generation as well, and what Wenner and Gleason wanted to do was capture the story of this generation through their coverage of the music, politics, and culture. Interestingly, this former-hippie is appearing at an event that, according to the press release on the Ad Craft website, has the dress code, “Business casual, no denim allowed.” As the talk continues, Wenner states that the magazine still follows this original edict.
To say that Rolling Stone’s music coverage is reflective of the music business at large is fair. Originally a rock and roll magazine the content adapted as musical tastes changed from rock to disco to the weird genres of the 1980s to the emergence of hip-hop. The magazine also began to review film and television and a long-running gossip section called “Random Notes,” that currently features tabloid-style photographs of celebrities. In issue 1143, published November 10, 2011 this section features: Bono and Bill Clinton shaking hands, Robert Plant and David Allman backstage, Paul McCartney getting married again, President and Michelle Obama with Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson’s children, and Katy Perry and Chris Martin in costumes. No truly gripping image in the lot of them, the “Random Notes” section should be called, “Lovely People at Fancy Parties.”
Wenner began his career in journalism as a stringer for NBC radio and as a writer for Ramparts, a magazine that specialized in muckraking for mostly liberal causes. Wenner knew the importance of journalism, and he wanted his magazine to turn an investigative eye on the issues important to his readers. In January of 1970, a massive fourteen-page story ran in Rolling Stone detailing the concert festival at Altamont Speedway in California where the Hells’ Angels were providing security. During a set by The Rolling Stones, a riot broke out resulting in four deaths, three accidental and one a homicide – an 18 year-old man named Meredith Hunter who was stabbed by a Hells’ Angel after drawing a revolver.
A freelance writer named Dr. Hunter S. Thompson wrote to Wenner and said, “Your Altamont coverage comes close to being the best journalism I can remember reading – by anybody.” Thompson had recently published Hell’s Angels, a book about the year he spent living with the outlaw motorcycle gang until he was beaten badly for trying to stop one of the angels from beating his wife and dog. Wenner was a fan of the book and sent back an open-ended invitation for Thompson to write for Rolling Stone. It was an invitation Thompson eventually took and that changed everything for the magazine.
The Godfather of Gonzo
Hunter S. Thompson was born in Kentucky in 1937 and “was shot out of the womb angry,” according to his first wife Sandy Thompson in the book Gonzo – an oral biography of Thompson’s life. He killed himself in 2005, still filled with that same anger. His career as a journalist began when he was assigned to the base newspaper at Eglin Air Force Base. Unlike many of the military newspapers of the World War II-era, the journalists for this paper did not have the freedom to report the news as they saw fit. The last straw was when Thompson wrote a fictional story about a riot among the enlisted men in which they got drunk, fought superior officers, and assaulted women. He sent the story to the AP and UPI and so his career in the Air Force ended, unceremoniously. His commanding officer, Colonel W.S. Evans wrote in his personnel report, “[T]his Airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy or personal advice and guidance.” He was banned from writing for the base paper or his second gig at The Playground News, a local rag in Fort Walton Beach, Florida until he was discharged.
He worked abroad for a time, writing for an English newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico and freelancing for papers back in the states. Thompson had dreams of following the footsteps of his idols, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and wrote a novel while working in Puerto Rico (eventually published in 1998 as The Rum Diary), and the journalism was merely a means to an end. Eventually he moved to San Francisco in the late sixties and became very caught up in the culture there. He “embedded” himself in the Hells Angels and published a best-seller about the outlaw motorcycle gang.
While writing and revising the Hells Angels book, Thompson felt a calling to write his next project about the death of the “American Dream.” In a letter to Carey McWilliams of The Nation written in 1966, Thompson talks of his editors “pushing me toward some kind of non-fiction book on the Right-Wing,” but what really intrigued Thompson was how California – and its turn towards conservatism – reflected a “destruction of California [that] is a logical climax to the Westward Movement.” Thompson saw the movement of the country in a more conservative direction with respect to the fallout from race riots, drug laws, and a lack of concern for the environment as troubling. “For 100 years,” he writes to McWilliams, “the bunglers and rapists had an escape valve; they could always move west to something new. But now they have come to the end, and they have to live with whatever they can make of it.”
In January of 1970, Thompson was finishing what he believed was a failure of an article for Scanlan’s Monthly, a magazine edited by Wenner’s former Ramparts editor, Warren Hinckle. He covered the Kentucky Derby for the magazine and knew what he was attempting was experimental, but he was afraid he missed the mark. In a letter to Hinckle, Thompson writes, “The [article] should work. It’s one of the best ideas in the history of journalism. But thus far the focus is missing – or maybe it just seems that way to me; perhaps something missing in my own focus.” But when “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” was published in the fourth issue of Scanlan’s in June of 1970, it was received very well and Thompson even wrote to his agent about selling it as a film.
This piece represented the first true incarnation of Gonzo Journalism, the style that Thompson would practice for the rest of his career. Douglas Brinkley, Thompson’s biographer, says in Gonzo that the term was in fact coined by Thompson’s friend from the 1968 presidential campaign Bill Cardoso, a columnist for the Boston Globe Magazine. According to Brinkley, while rooming with Cardoso in New Hampshire, Thompson repeatedly played a recording of an instrumental song by James Booker called “Gonzo.” It so annoyed Cardoso that he began to call Thompson “the ‘Gonzo’ man,” and later when Cardoso read the Derby piece, he called it “pure Gonzo journalism.” The Booker song is an up-tempo, high-energy number and it is possible that the improvisational nature of jazz and the improvisational nature of Thompson’s prose, connected in Cardoso’s mind in some way. Or perhaps Cardoso was merely teasing his friend. Either way, Thompson liked the way Gonzo felt.
Fear and Loathing
Thompson published two articles for Rolling Stone before the publication of Thompson’s signature piece, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” which was later published as a book and made into a film starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. But before the Gonzo masterpiece, Thompson published an article detailing what would be his failed run for sheriff in Aspen, CO. Wenner thought it was perfect, because he wanted to encourage the youth to get involved, since 18 year-olds had only recently won the right to vote. Thompson ran on the “Freak Power” ticket; a political party that was somewhere between libertarian and the hippies. The article was well-received even though Thompson lost the election.
The second article was about the killing of Ruben Salazar, a Los Angeles Times correspondent and broadcaster for KMEX-TV, that was ruled accidental but looked like murder to some in the “Brown power” movement of Mexican-Americans in the late 1960s. Oscar Zeta Acosta was an author and an attorney and he and Thompson became fast friends. Thompson covered politics with a fervor that began after the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. During the riots, Thompson was gassed and beaten with a nightstick. In his second volume of collected letters, Fear and Loathing in America, Thompson writes about this night by creating his alter-ego, Raoul Duke, and inserting him as a character in the story. Not overly political, Thompson was changed that day. He writes, “I didn’t even agree with these people [the protestors] – but if the choice was them or those across the street [Mayor Daley’s thugs], I knew which side I was on….” It was Raoul Duke that Thompson would turn to again, to tell the tale of his and Acosta’s fateful trip to Las Vegas.
Sports Illustrated had contracted Thompson to cover the 1971 Mint 400 motorcycle race in Las Vegas, Nevada. Thompson was in California working on the Salazar story at the time, so he brought Acosta with him to Vegas. Thompson thought they could talk outside of the frenzied climate of Los Angeles about race and Thompson’s old idea about the death of the American Dream. When the week was over, Thompson turned into Sports Illustrated, not a short article about the race, but the first half of a novel. Sports Illustrated passed on it, but Wenner – who had seen the first ten pages – wanted not only that piece, but to send Thompson back to Vegas for a second story.
Charles Perry was the first copy chief for Rolling Stone. In Thompson’s biography, he acknowledge that the magazine “had been journalistic” in how it spoke about LSD, but the prevailing voice of that issue was Timothy Leary, for whom it was an almost religious experience. “Hunter,” Perry says, “was writing about the fact that sometimes when you’re on acid, you’re just totally fucked up. It was a breath of fresh air.” The story was dense and complex, but on some level it was that “Death of the American Dream,” piece that Thompson had been longing to write. In it, Thompson spoke of the same sort of energy that Wenner had called upon in Detroit over forty years later; that same hope in their generation that inspired the creation of Rolling Stone, and Thompson declared that dream dead. He writes about what it was like at the beginning, the potential for change that he and the others in San Francisco in the sixties knew was inevitable, but never materialized. “We had all the momentum;” he writes, “We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . . So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas, and look West, and with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” The Vegas piece was perhaps less about the death of the American dream, and more about the death of Thompson’s dream for America.
Along with the editorial staff, Wenner was elated at the material Thompson turned in. It resulted in a promotion of sorts. On the masthead of the issue in which “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” was first published, Thompson is listed under “Sports.” In the next issue, which featured part two, Thompson is now listed under “National Affairs.” Wenner had the perfect assignment for him to follow up the Vegas piece; Thompson was going to Washington, D.C.
The Golden Age of the National Affairs Desk.
Thompson ensconced himself in Washington in November of 1971. The plan had been originally for him to cover the 1972 Presidential campaign, but the plan went awry when Thompson was not awarded White House press credentials. “My application…was rejected out-of-hand. I wouldn’t need them, they said. Because Rolling Stone is a ‘music magazine,’ and there is not much music in the White House these days,” Thompson writes in the book that was born from this campaign, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in ’72. He was not daunted. He compared it to being banned from the Playboy Club, “There are definite advantages to having your name on the Ugly List in places like that.” What he meant was that this freed him from the conventions of political reporting at that time.
His assistant, Timothy Crouse, was a young up-and-coming writer at Rolling Stone who had been sent along to mainly keep an eye on Thompson, but also file stories. Crouse, in the film version of Gonzo, after acknowledging that he was there to help Thompson says, “What I felt from him, from the very beginning, was a sense of protection. We became a very good team, that way.” Crouse filed a number of stories from the campaign trail that year, but his most successful article looked at the journalists themselves. “The Boys on the Bus,” was published as a feature in the magazine and then expanded into a book published in 1973 that was one of the first books to examine the press themselves. He coined the term, “pack journalism,” which is as he describes it, journalists “trapped on the same bus or plane, [who] ate, drank, gambled, and compared notes with the same bunch of colleagues week after week.”
This description could easily be applied to the journalists of any of the wars since the civil war, but the difference came with the company kept. Rather than soldiers – even rear-echelon troops – the journalists were following political candidates in much different circumstances. Instead of running from explosions the journalists were running to speeches, where they already knew what was going to be said. Crouse realized pretty early on that that story he was there to tell was about the reporters themselves.
Yet, when it came to Thompson, Crouse said, “Hunter wanted no part of them.” Thompson himself writes, “Unlike most other correspondents, I could afford to burn all my bridges behind me -- because I was only there for a year, and the last thing I cared about was establishing long-term connections on Capitol Hill.” All Thompson cared about were the realities and the mechanics of a national presidential campaign and writing about it “as close to the bone as [he] could get, and to hell with the consequences.”
Thompson achieved that goal. He spent the majority of his time on the trail following the McGovern campaign. George McGovern and Thompson became unlikely friends (or at least “unlikely” until Thompson befriend Jimmy Carter), thus this became the focus of Thompson’s later campaign work. Frank Mankiewicz, a McGovern campaign strategist, is oft-quoted saying that Thompson’s book “is the most accurate and least factual account of that campaign.”
Thompson started a rumor in his column that Edmund Muskie, who was known for being stiff and monotone on the stump, was addicted to a Brazilian drug known as Ibogaine, which is known to cause zombie-like side effects. It was a flash of Gonzo in a pan of very dry journalism, and it caught. Some of the wire-service reporters picked up the rumor and ran it as legitimate allegation. Crouse writes, that in his later articles “Hunter telegraphed his punches by writing, ‘My God, why do I write crazy stuff like this?’ at the end of each hoax.” George McGovern, who lost the election to the incumbent Richard Nixon, has said that he acknowledges the role that his favorable coverage in Rolling Stone helped him win the Democratic nomination. It was as if the very aspects of McGovern’s campaign that Thompson liked were what made him unelectable.
Both Thompson and Crouse covered his campaign in the beginning, when McGovern was virtually written-off by the “pack.” Thompson quotes the press corps as saying, “He’d be a fine president, but of course he can’t win.” McGovern, like many before and after, called for a new kind of politics. His platform was immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, amnesty for those who evaded their military service, cutting the defense budget and equal rights for women and minorities. Thompson called what McGovern stood for “painful truth,” and because he dared to tell the truth in what was supposed to be a finely-tuned bullshit machine, “He is mocked, vilified, ignored, and abandoned as a hopeless loser.”
Arguably, this sort of thing is still ingrained in the process – one only needs to look at the late-2007, early-2008 coverage of the 2008 McCain campaign to see that the media oftentimes will dismiss a veritable winner. But this exposure of the press corps and the politicians as lax and corrupt was relatively unheard of at the time. After Nixon handily won reelection, Thompson wrote, “America...just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable." He felt that maybe the country didn’t deserve a savior. The last politician Thompson really believed in was Robert F. Kennedy.
After the election, the magazine sent Thompson to cover the George Foreman and Muhammed Ali fight in Zaire. It was a massive failure. Thompson wanted to watch the fight with the dictator of Zaire, Mobutu, according to Normal Mailer. Ralph Steadman – the illustrator who worked with Thompson since the Kentucky Derby piece – said that Thompson didn’t go to the fight, but swam in the pool at their hotel. It was his first major failure for Rolling Stone, no story was written. Another failure was the plan for Thompson to go to Vietnam. When he arrived, there was chaos in the streets and all American journalists were fleeing the country. According to Thompson, but denied by Wenner, Rolling Stone had killed the story and he was left in Saigon without insurance or additional financial support. Thompson and Wenner’s relationship suffered for this, with Thompson perceiving it as a slight and Wenner as just business, with no hard feelings.
The idea was floated that Thompson would do another campaign book and that Rolling Stone would run the articles and co-publish the book with Random House. Thompson, angered at the past two failures and blaming the magazine, corresponded with other outlets, including Gordon Lish at Esquire, because he “wasn’t sure how he was going to handle this campaign.” Thompson’s vitriolic persona and exploits on the campaign trail virtually ruined his ability to cover a campaign. He was a celebrity, if not with the supporters of whichever candidate he was covering, at least with the press corps.
Thompson wanted to win and in 1974, he was trailing Edward Kennedy, thinking that he was a logical choice to win a nomination for President. Kennedy was attending a “Law Day,” conference at the University of Georgia and Thompson was the only national journalist there. Then-Governor Jimmy Carter took the podium and delivered what Thompson called, “a king-hell bastard of a speech. By the time it was over, it had rung every bell in the room.” Carter stood before a roomful of judges and talked about corruption and inequality in the judicial system. He called them out for being elitist and quoted his “close friend” and a “great poet” Bob Dylan. Thompson was enthralled. Crouse said that after his disillusionment with the results of the 1972 election, this affection for Carter was Thompson “giving politics one more chance.”
Thompson and Rolling Stone endorsed Jimmy Carter early and, this time, their guy won. Yet, the campaign book never materialized, the deal fell through. Thompson was furious and cut ties with the magazine for ten years. Wenner never took his name off of the masthead and still doesn’t officially acknowledge Thompson’s separation from the magazine. “He took some dumb writing assignments.” Wenner says in Gonzo, “I was unwilling to offer him or accept second-rate work, so if there was an easy-money gig or some goof-off, he’d do it elsewhere.” At this point, renowned writers, such as Tom Wolfe, were publishing in the pages of the magazine. Also, in 1975, Ralph Gleason died, leaving Wenner alone at the helm.
Foreign Affairs Desk & Return to Impactful Journalism
Thompson was like no other, and no other has emerged at the magazine to replace him, especially as a character. Rolling Stone’s dedication to investigative and literary journalism hasn’t really wavered, although the magazine did go through some dark editorial years. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, American satirist P.J. O’Rourke was named to the Foreign Affairs Desk. Like Thompson he was libertarian in his views of personal freedom, especially with regard to intoxication and drug use, but O’Rourke often agreed more with conservative viewpoints. He spent much of the nineties ravaging Clinton in much the same way that Thompson would skewer Nixon, more polite but no less silly. Also, Thompson was writing for the magazine again – much less frequently and his 92 campaign book was more copies of letters and faxes than actual copy.
In 1992, a man who went solely by the name Toure (his last name is rumored to be “Neblett,” but this remains unconfirmed) dropped out of college and became an intern at the magazine. Toure was born on March 20, 1971 – right about the time Hunter S. Thompson was covering the Mint 400 in Las Vegas – and he grew up in Boston, a very segregated city. When he began at the magazine, he was caught up in the new phenomenon of hip-hop. Even after he was let go by the magazine, they still allowed him to write movie and music reviews. Eventually, he moved into features and while most of his work has been of the celebrity profile variety, his perspective was invaluable considering how much the hip-hop culture took over mainstream America, much in the way Rock and Roll had when the magazine was founded.
The nineties were a weird time for the magazine. With the guy the Rolling Stone endorsed in office again, there was not much to rail against politically. In an interview conducted by O’Rourke published in November of 1996 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson says of the 1990s, “They are just brazen with rules. Rules are worshipped….” It wasn’t until President George W. Bush took office and the country was again at war that the magazine began to amp things up at the National Affairs Desk.
In the 2000 election, Rolling Stone David Foster Wallace, fiction wunderkind who had proven himself quite capable in the world of literary nonfiction as well, was tapped to cover the McCain campaign. McCain tried, in 2000, to be one of those politicians that Thompson revered, the type of politician who told “painful truth.” In the essay, a monstrous essay that sprawls over a dozen pages with no pictures, Wallace builds on the foundation built by the furor of Thompson and the cynicism in O’Rourke, and asks if Americans are “so cynical that he doesn't have some good old corny American hope way down deep in his heart, lying dormant like a spinster's ardor, not dead but just waiting for the right guy to give it to?” Like Thompson, Wallace committed suicide.
Evan Wright began his writing career writing reviews of pornography for Hustler and also wrote a column of erotic letters. After writing about his experiences with the world of pornography in mainstream outlets, Wright became a reporter of subcultures. He wrote about anarchists, neo-nazis, female fighters, skaters, and criminals. He did a four-part series after being embedded with an Army unit in Afghanistan. The title of the first part, “Not Much War, but Plenty of Hell,” caught on in the military community as an apt description of their surroundings.
When the US announced it was going into Iraq, Wright embedded with the First Recon Marines, the unit that would be the “Tip of the Spear,” into Iraq. The series of three articles also gave way to a book, Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War. Along with the long title, Wright matches his predecessors by producing a piece of war reporting that is centered on his experiences and comes out feeling all the more true because of it. HBO turned this book into a miniseries that featured Rudy Reyes playing himself. He was a sniper in the Marine Corps and is now a fitness instructor, actor, and spokesperson for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He says that Wright “is as much my brother as the others I was there with.” He captured the reality of the war and the humanity of those who waged it.
Modern Days at the National Affairs Desk
Currently at the magazine, there are a number of National Affairs correspondents making great contributions to the magazine. Another journalist that has focused on mostly military-themed issues is Mark Boal. Although not listed on the masthead, Boal has contributed to the magazine since 2000. An article of his about the murder of a veteran named Richard Hastings was used as the basis for the Paul Haggis movie In the Valley of Elah and Boal also wrote the screenplay for The Hurt Locker based on his experiences writing about the military. In April of 2011, Boal published an article called “The Kill Team,” about a group of soldiers in Afghanistan that murdered Afghan civilians and took body parts as war trophies. The ringleader, Calvin Gibbs, was later found guilty of war crimes and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Another story with military implications came from a newer member of the National Affairs Desk, Michael Hastings. He worked for Newsweek and GQ and spent a considerable amount of time covering the Iraq War. Hastings was engaged to a National Democratic Institute employee named Andrea Parhamovich. Her convoy was attacked and she was killed, prompting Hastings to write I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story. When on assignment for Rolling Stone, his first assignment, he was shadowing General Stanley McChrystal. A volcano erupted in Iceland and all air traffic was canceled, thus Hastings was granted extended and exceptional access to the General and his aides. In the article, the General and his staff make disparaging remarks about the war, elected officials, and other generals. The travel delay allowed Hastings’s subjects to fall into a false sense of security and he followed the teachings of Thompson, there was no off-the-record.
Before the issue hit newsstands, the contents of the article leaked to print and cable news. They picked up the story. Eventually, Rolling Stone put the article up on its website, since it was dominating the news cycle. McChrystal apologized and apologized to a litany of people. Eventually he was summoned to see the President and when he left, he’d been dismissed as the commander of American forces in Afghanistan. Many on cable news decried the magazine, Hastings, and ultimately President Obama, and canonized McChrystal as the last bastion of dissent in the totalitarian war-state that America had become.
Still, no character like Hunter S. Thompson has emerged from the ranks of writers at Rolling Stone. While the magazine has published many fine works of journalism since, it has lacked that passion in its pages. There has been no one writer that has had the fury, verbal weaponry, and aversion to bullshit that Thompson brought to the magazine. The only one that really comes close is Matt Taibbi.
Taibbi, son of NBC reporter Mike Taibbi, expatriated to Russia in 1992 after graduating from college. He worked at The Moscow Times and dreamed of starting his own paper. He met Mark Ames, an editor for a magazine called Living Here about living in Russia, and they went on to publish The eXile, a Gonzo newspaper. They often caused controversy and made enemies, but they kept advertisers and sold papers. Taibbi had been gone from the US for ten years, so when 9/11 happened he “couldn’t quite relate to what was going on back home.” In Smells Like Dead Elephants, he explains, “In Russia, and in particular in Moscow, terrorist bombings were sort of a regular event.” Taibbi himself had been close to two massive explosions. In an effort to push the envelope, the cover of the eXile the next day depicted a businessman bending his secretary over a desk, her looking out the window and seeing a plane, and the headline “Oh my God, It’s so big!” The paper lost every advertiser they had and Taibbi was out of a job.
He moved back to the US in 2002 and founded a newspaper in Buffalo, The Beast, a kind of eXile-in-upstate New York. However, this paper did not last very long. Taibbi writes in the Introduction to his 2004 campaign book Spanking the Donkey that his difficulty came from his inability to write about America the way he had written about Russia, as a detached outsider. He writes, “There was simply no possibility of covering American politics from the point-of-view of my own constituency, which was the worst and most loathsome of all: I was an upper-class white child of privilege.” Writing for both Rolling Stone and the New York Press, Taibbi covered the campaign with a simple plan, “refuse to be lied to.”
Unfortunately for Taibbi, everyone lies in politics. When unable to break through the pageantry within the Kerry campaign, he takes a more Gonzo approach. He wears costumes such as a gorilla suit or Viking hat at campaign press stops. He drops acid at a debate. He writes a four-part series called “Wimblehack” in which he and the editors of the New York Press would determine which journalist was the biggest hack in the 2004 campaign (Elisabeth Bumiller of The New York Times “won”). In issue 1143 of Rolling Stone, Taibbi profiles Texas Governor Rick Perry in an article titled, “The Best Little Whore in Texas.” In the piece, Taibbi pulls no punches. He describes Perry as, “a human price tag.” He identifies other 2011 Republican Primary candidates as well, Michele Bachmann is called “a goggle-eyed megachurch Joan of Arc;” Herman Cain is “a half-bright pizza salesman.” Yet, Taibbi follows the money and is able to connect a number of Perry initiatives in Texas to companies that both donated money to Perry’s campaign and benefited from his policies.
After covering politics for two elections (soon to be three) for the magazine, Taibbi’s anger is stunted, dulled. While covering the campaign, the pack was discussing why gas prices were so high. More accurately, they were cracking jokes about the reasons the public were being given for the price increase. Taibbi asked if any of them knew the reason why it was happening. They didn’t, so Taibbi asked, “Doesn’t that make us all frauds?” The question compelled him and his research led to “The Great American Bubble Machine,” published in July of 2009. Since then Taibbi has published 17 features and a book, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That is Breaking America focused on Wall Street and the financial crisis. Taibbi opens the article by saying, “The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood-funnel into anything that smells like money.”
While this has notes of Gonzo, the author does not take the forefront in these pieces like he has in others, specifically those on the campaign trail. Taibbi’s rage is so pure and the facts so dense and complicated, that he must maintain a tight-focus on the subject at-hand. He succeeds, and he does so by peppering the dense jargon with eviscerating descriptions of the characters and their alleged crimes. He exposed a foreclosure court in Florida that made judgments which forced people from their homes, even when the lawyer for the mortgage companies didn’t have the proper paperwork. He detailed how the Securities and Exchange Commission buries investigations and destroys files, all done legally even though it goes against common sense. He covered the fight Wall Street lobbyists had against the Dodd-Frank bill that sought to rein in the money-orgy that Taibbi artfully describes.
Unlike Boal’s or Hastings’s articles, Taibbi’s work hasn’t had much impact on the players in his stories. No one he has written about has been fired, gone to jail, or was further vilified in the press, but that isn’t always what is important when it comes to journalism. Taibbi’s work on the financial crisis explains these topics in detail that is often lost in other outlets and in a way that allows a villain to be called a villain. Taibbi doesn’t need objectivity and neither does America. Another of Thompson’s theories of journalism was that objectivity was unnecessary and ultimately damaging, that something important would be missed. In the film version of Gonzo, he says, “It was the built-in blind spots of the objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place.” And the story of Wall Street is not yet finished. Unlike Ida Tarbell, Taibbi is writing this history of the crisis as-it-happens. It is quite possible the most important work Taibbi will do on this story has yet to be published.
While journalism may seem like a herd of giant dinosaurs walking along in a desert dropping dead of thirst, Rolling Stone is a place that will continue to tell some of the story that Wenner hoped to document back in 1967. The magazine has fought to stay marketable. Free sites (Rolling Stone’s website uses the subscription model), blogs, and other short-attention-span media is dominating the culture. Yet, their continued commitment to long-form storytelling about important issues, Rolling Stone – the upstart, hippie, drug rag from the sixties – has become a place where journalism has kept its edge. Res Ipsa Loquitor.