Is Rolling Stone Turning Tabloid Trash?

Once heralded as the pinnacle of music journalism, Rolling Stone appears to have become little more than a tabloid rag. Within the past year, Rolling Stone has published two high-profile stories where interviewees have claimed that their words were taken out of context in order to support a sensationalist narrative pedaled by the publication. In turn, it’s potentially cast a shadow on the magazine’s credibility.

Rolling Stone’s Taylor Hawkins Hack Piece

In May 2022, Rolling Stone published a piece on the last days of Foo Fighters drummer, Taylor Hawkins, who had passed away in late March. Quotes used in the article from some of Hawkins’ friends and fellow musicians alluded that he had been unhappy in the band and was suffering from severe stage fright.

Reading the story myself, I got the impression that this piece wasn’t telling the entire story. Red flag numero uno, it mentioned that the Foo Fighters and Taylor Hawkins’ family had declined to comment. Lo and behold, the day after the article went to press, musicians Chad Smith and Matt Cameron made public statements that their words were taken out of context and spun into a misleading narrative.
In a post that’s since been removed from Instagram, Smith said:
“I was asked by Rolling Stone to share some memories of our time together, which I thought was going to be the loving tribute he deserved. Instead, the story they wrote was sensationalized and misleading, and had I known I never would have agreed to participate. I apologize to his family and musical friends for any pain this may have caused. I miss Taylor every day.”
Cameron shared a similar sentiment (in a post that has also been removed from Instagram), noting that:

“When I agreed to take part in the Rolling Stone article about Taylor, I assumed it would be a celebration of his life and work. My quotes were taken out of context and shaped into a narrative I had never intended. Taylor was a dear friend, and a next level artist. I miss him. I have only the deepest love and respect for Taylor, Dave and the Foo Fighters families. I am truly sorry to have taken part in this interview and I apologize that my participation may have caused harm to those for whom I have only the deepest respect and admiration.”

It’s a low blow to capitalize on a tragic death in the name of clickbait. It’s even lower to take interviewees quotes out of context, giving them one more thing to contend with instead of allowing the man’s family and friends to heal and remember a loved one.

Rolling Stone Maligns Manson

The Taylor Hawkins piece was not the first time that Rolling Stone has come under fire from interviewees for taking words out of context or boiling lengthy interviews down to a single sound bite. In November 2021, the magazine ran an “investigative” piece, interviewing key players about allegations of abuse levied against Marilyn Manson.

Among others who have personally known or worked with him, two long-time Manson collaborators, Tim Skold and Rob Holliday, were approached by the publication. Both mentioned that lengthy statements given to Rolling Stone were pared back to a single sentence. Rather than paint a multi-faceted portrait of Manson and the complex situation, the article seemed to proffer a lopsided character assassination.

Holliday stated that:
“Rolling Stone magazine got in touch with me personally and I gave a long full statement about my experience and my time with the band and Manson as a touring band member and my time with him individually. They threw one sentence in that awful biased attempt at journalism! They did the same with Skold and many other colleagues and ex-girlfriends who have all spoke out on his behalf. Statements stating the opposite of what this lynch mob article is all about. Manson and his publicist have my full statement to use in any legal process.”

Outside the margins of the publication, the story of Marilyn Manson and his cadre of accusers is still unfolding. In May 2022, Manson’s former personal assistant Ashley Walters saw her case dismissed on the grounds that she “pleaded too few facts and too late to keep this case in court.” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Stern concluded that “nine to 10 years passed until the filing of the action, far beyond the two-year limitations periods of her claims.”

Meanwhile, the case of Brian “Marilyn Manson” Warner vs. Evan Rachel Wood and Ashley “Ilma” Gore continues to rage in the court of public opinion. Whether people will have the opportunity to see it play out on a stage as big as the one given to Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard remains to be seen. However, these days, a public trial may be the only way people have the opportunity to draw their own conclusions based on presentation of facts, body language, and cross-examination without the benefit of media bias.

You Can’t Always Blame the Writer

In many cases, even when a story smacks of bias, you can’t necessarily fault the writers. In some instances, that responsibility lies with the editor and whomever has the final say in what goes to print. In some instances, what the writer submits to the editor versus the published draft looks very different.

As a former music writer myself, I’ve experienced this first-hand. I’ve had reviews or album ratings altered by editors because it didn’t jive with their mandate for the publication. While I was only writing reviews or thought-pieces — not reporting news — it still stung to see that what I’d originally written was slightly altered.

Similarly, other friends and acquaintances in the journalistic field have also shared their woes of seeing their original story changed significantly, or having a critical piece of information in a story buried far beneath the lede. Mostly because it doesn’t suit the mission statement of the editor — or the stakeholders of a particular publication and a narrative they were upholding.

The Decline of Journalism: My Editorial Take

There’s a big difference between “journalism” and “editorial.” Sadly, most of what passes as journalism today is just editorial dressed up in a cheap, plastic “Facts!” costume with a shitty molded mask secured by a flimsy elastic. (If you grew up in the ’70s or ’80s, you know what I’m talking about. You could sweat out half your body weight in those damn things.)

While both Rolling Stone pieces on Taylor Hawkins and Marilyn Manson felt designed to court controversy and clickbait for revenue purposes, this approach to journalism isn’t new. Tabloid journalism principles trickling into mainstream news reporting have become common in recent years.

With such inventions as 24-7 news networks, targeted algorithms, and an overarching desire of even local news stations to make money, news reporting has changed a lot in the past few decades. The days of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow-style journalism are gone. Infotainment has taken its place.

While people crave the feeling of being informed, they don’t always want to slog through information presented in a dry, overly academic manner. Coupled with the convenience factor and rapid flow of information that we’re conditioned to expect in the digital era, the people want a story and they want it NOW, damnit! In order to keep up and stay profitable, publications and media outlets often find themselves in a race to break the story fastest — sometimes, without having all the facts.

Often, a story posted online will have a notation that it’s been updated with new facts as of a particular date and time. However, everything lives forever on the internet. You can easily screenshot a particular iteration of a news item and later point to it as evidence, even after a story has been amended. This creates conflict around what is the real story.

That said, you rarely see publicized follow-ups or retractions when key points of a story emerge after the original news broke. Because the media-consuming public is hungry for the newest news, yesterday’s news gets shoved further down the page — or off the page altogether. People without a personal stake in a particular headline are less apt to look for follow-ups or developments because greater emphasis is placed on the news du jour.

Keep it moving, sister! Next!

Taken as stand-alone items, news stories provide a fixation point for the public to talk about. But when yesterday’s news and today’s news are presented side-by-side, you have a much bigger, more complex picture of society and how intertwined even seemingly disparate issues may be.

A Lack of Trust in the Fourth Estate

Previously, newscasters would give you the facts and it was up to you to formulate your own opinion. However, with news outlets competing for viewership and advertising revenue, it’s all about who can spin a story in the most entertaining way and cater to audience bias.

Some outlets court conservatives. Others lure in liberals. The news and how its presented has become a point of division among the American media-consuming public. Rather than inviting rational discourse, it’s all about who can be the most outrageous or who can incite the most outrage from viewers.

Tune into any 24-hour news network and you’ll be confronted with a bunch of talking heads giving their two-cents on a current story. Listen to how they talk about these stories. You rarely hear commentators speak at an even, level cadence. Instead, everyone is hyped up like they did a Studio 54-sized pile of blow before taking their seat at the roundtable. Because, when you hear excited voices, it gets you all riled up in return.

To take an inflammatory approach here, the media-consuming public is addicted. But we’re not addicted to the relentless pursuit of information. Nope. We’re addicted to outrage. And that constant craving for outrage minus any constructive solutions to solving problems is a vicious cycle. Media outlets continue to profit from stories that leverage sensationalism to drum up clicks and readership, trading the trust of the people in exchange for revenue.


Image by bluebudgie from Pixabay

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