Like so many media outlets native to the print realm, Rolling Stone has experienced hard times over the last decade-plus while transitioning to the digital world, and also trying to evolve beyond their original baby boomer readership. Rolling Stone is still one of the most recognized media brands in music and culture, but what it’s being recognized for is evolving as the outlet continues its rabid search for growth and profitability.
After years of running in the red, having to shrink the original size and frequency of their print issues, and being sold by founder Jann Wenner to Penske Media in 2017, the periodical finally began turning a profit again in 2019 according to the company, owing some, if not much of that success to coverage of the Trump presidency, which created a boon for many news outlets across the board.
But that boon ended with the Trump Administration, and instead of focusing on the long-form and thoughtful content that Rolling Stone was once known for, industry-leading reporting from journalists such as Matt Taibbi, and a clearly left-leaning perspective on life and politics, but one that agnostic readers could still participate in, Rolling Stone has become one of the worst actors in all of media for seeding the internet with click bait stories, participating in recreational outrage, publishing outright false reports, and attempting to prop up their dying business model by roiling the culture war, and pitting us all against each other.
As bad as Rolling Stone has become over the last few years as they chased rage journalism to profitability and became the leading outlet blurring the lines between journalism and paid for/product placement content, many readers have taken notice that over the last couple of months, the media outlet has somehow found a way to ratchet up the rage an additional notch. And it’s not just a coincidence or an internal change in strategy. It’s directly tied to the hiring of the outlet’s new editor-in-chief, Noah Shachtman, who previously was the editor-in-chief at The Daily Beast.
After taking the reigns in July and presiding over some of the worst lapses in journalistic integrity for Rolling Stone or any other outlet in the last few months, Noah Shachtman recently went on a media charm offensive to explain his new strategy for the legacy media outlet. In a feature in The Washington Post, Shachtman said his approach to journalism will be “more immediate, more visceral.” In an interview with Media Masters, he said his approach will be “faster, louder, harder.”
But not only do these philosophies run counter to all recognized tenets of responsible journalism, they have already resulted in multiple high profile cases of false reporting and fictitious narratives. Ultimately, this strategy is fueling the raging polarization and contentiousness found throughout the online realm that’s pouring into real life more and more. Consumers are significantly more engaged with online media like Rolling Stone, wanting to remain informed about the latest outrage cycle. And consumers are also equally more miserable. Like so many media outlets, Rolling Stone‘s new profit strategy is at the expense of the sanctity of media, the sanity of our society, and the shared American experience.
Just take Noah Shachtman’s promise of being “more immediate, more visceral.” Posting news “immediately” comes at the expense of important fact checking steps, secondary source confirmation, and the vetting of sources. The word “visceral” is literally defined as, “relating to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect.” Instead of turning to outlets like Rolling Stone to make sense of the complex issues readers face in the post-pandemic reality, the outlet is often confounding the issues with fierce and hurried content that has at times been factually incorrect, but forgiven both internally at Rolling Stone, and externally by many in the public because the outlet was considered to be on the righteous side of an issue.
For example, there was the September 3rd story from Rolling Stone titled, “Gunshot Victims Left Waiting as Horse Dewormer Overdoses Overwhelm Oklahoma Hospitals, Doctor Says,” with the photo of masked individuals waiting in a line in coats, even though it was supposed to be about an incident that occurred in Oklahoma in the summer.
Not only was the story widely debunked and patently false, it was implausible to begin with. But as the Washington Post said in their deconstruction of the incident, the story was just “too good to check.”
On numerous occasions, Rolling Stone was also part of the false media claim that high profile podcaster Joe Rogan took horse dewormer when he was diagnosed with COVID-19. Though there was never any truth to the matter (Rogan received an off-label prescription for the human version of Ivermectin that has been prescribed billions of times worldwide), it was a juicy, clickbait headline, and “too good to check.”
This new Rolling Stone strategy hit close to home in country music when the website falsely claimed that Morgan Wallen failed to meet his commitment of donating $500,000 to black charities after he was caught using the N-word on camera. Rolling Stone reported Wallen had only donated $165,000 of the promised amount, but both Saving Country Music and USA Today were able to independently verify that Morgan Wallen had indeed donated $400,000 to various charities, with the final $100,000 earmarked for distribution before the end of the year.
In these instances, the reporting from Rolling Stone did not strike at the heart of support for Morgan Wallen, or the anti-vaxx community as the outlet hoped. It handed these communities victories. And ironically, instead of taking down the false stories, Rolling Stone used the need to offer corrections to the false reporting to re-promote the content on social media, making even more money off of their journalistic malfeasance, while the stories from more credible outlets correcting the record never receive similar traction to the original false headlines. It’s the falsification of the facts that directly results in the propulsive nature of the story cycles.
“Faster, louder, harder” as Noah Shachtman has promised rarely translates to “better” or “more effective.” Posting shoddy news stories saddled with inconsistencies or sometimes outright nonfactual reporting is not helping to fight off whatever formidable adversaries Rolling Stone is attempting to undermine, it is fueling the opposition’s insistence that all media is corrupt and untrustworthy, since in the case of some, if not many of Rolling Stone‘s most recently articles, it is a correct accusation. The outlet is validating the cries of “fake news.”
Also significant to Noah Shachtman’s new strategy for Rolling Stone is to basically find some celebrity or cultural figure to take down each day to win a place “in the zeitgeist” as Shachtman characterized in The Washington Post feature on him, leveraging celebrity and outrage for extra clicks. Sometimes these takedowns are warranted, and noble. During Shachtman’s short tenure, there have been a few instances where Rolling Stone has unearthed important stories. Other times the reporting is clearly embellished, and counter-productive. To win the zeitgeist each day, someone has to go down. Basically, it’s an institutionalized version of cancel culture pinned to daily traffic goals and quarterly revenue numbers.
Not only have Morgan Wallen, Travis Tritt, and Eric Clapton been part of Rolling Stone‘s daily takedown cycle using either embellished or falsified information, but Lindsey Buckingham, Jay Z, and others have been the subjects of embellished Rolling Stone attempted takedowns that seem to be more about capturing “the zeitgeist” of a given day’s news cycle as opposed to delivering valuable or relevant information.
Meanwhile, Rolling Stone‘s traditional role in the media environment as a music outlet is getting squeezed from the incessant march of culture war rage reporting. Some of the subjects of its articles might be musicians, but their occupation is only the excuse to speak upon them since they’re in the public spotlight, and can generate attention. It’s like a politically and culturally-oriented version of The National Enquirer—searching for dirt, and embellishing it with sensational headlines specifically crafted to go viral.
In the Noah Shachtman feature in The Washington Post, he does make the important and correct point that most of music reporting these days “tends to be either fawning and borderline embarrassing, or pure gossip.” But instead of criticizing musical artists or their works on the merit of the art like legacy Rolling Stone critics used to do, Rolling Stone is solely criticizing musicians for the political stances they do or do not take. Rolling Stone has become like the hall monitors of political thought, while then turning around and still posting the “fawning and borderline embarrassing” puff pieces for performers for additional clicks.
Meanwhile, Penske Media, and Rolling Stone‘s president and CEO Gus Wenner seem to be perfectly okay with this new strategy, forgiving Noah Shachtman for the flubs in the Ivermectin and Morgan Wallen reporting. “One conversation we had before Noah took the job was whether I’d be prepared to back tough reporting when the inevitable complaints came,” Gus Wenner told The Washington Post. Apparently, he is.
The unfortunate truth is that much of media today is practicing Noah Shachtman’s and Rolling Stone‘s “faster, louder, harder” strategy, and on both sides of the cultural divide and political spectrum. Shachtman is just the only one saying the quiet part out loud. But the deeper problem relevant to music is that Rolling Stone is a significant player in the music space, and their headlong search for profits and a renewed role in the cultural zeitgeist has real world implications on the music community it covers.
Whenever the outlet chooses to participate in recreational outrage—whether it’s over Carrie Underwood liking a tweet, Jason Aldean’s wife posting something on Instagram, or when Rolling Stone mischaracterized the words of an elected official which resulted in the effort to erect a statue of Dolly Parton being undercut—it has effects on the country music community, and music at large, turning fans on artists, turning artists on each other, and making fans choose sides.
We’ve also seen this strategy trickle down to the outlet’s subdomain Rolling Stone Country, who once promised to stay on the sidelines of political topics, while now politics is the primary subject matter of the majority of the outlet’s stories, and directly influences which artists receive coverage.
We can only expect Noah Shachtman’s “faster, louder, harder” strategy to become more pronounced and institutionalized as he settles into his position at Rolling Stone, and for the rage coverage to increase and become even more visceral. To Noah Shachtman and Rolling Stone, it doesn’t matter if the music community they’re tasked to cover ends up in shambles. What matters is the clicks. And unless responsible journalists and a weary public stand up against the type of sensationalized and nonfactual journalism Rolling Stone is publishing at an alarming frequency, we’ll have much bigger issues than some fake news stories, and the outrage they sow.