An alternative to the mainstream: the coverage of the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign in the magazine Rolling Stone
Une alternative au mainstream: la campagne présidentielle de 1972 dans la revue Rolling Stone
The paper analyzes the coverage of the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign in the magazine Rolling Stone. It explores the positioning of the magazine on the alternative-mainstream media spectrum, as well as in the realm of the counter and popular culture. The paper argues that Rolling Stone’s coverage of the 1972 campaign served as an alternative to the mainstream offerings of the era both content-wise and form-wise. It concludes that Rolling Stone’s pivotal decision to get involved into covering political issues back in the 1970s reflects a growing rapprochement between the entertainment industry and politics in the United States.
Keywords: Rolling Stone; U.S. presidential election; the 1972 campaign; gonzo journalism; politics and entertainment.
Cet article porte sur la couverture de la campagne présidentielle américaine de 1972 dans la revue Rolling Stone. Il analyse le positionnement de la revue sur le spectre des médias traditionnels et « alternatifs », ainsi que dans le domaine de la contre-culture et de la culture populaire. L'article montre que la couverture de la campagne présidentielle de 1972 par Rolling Stone a servi comme alternative aux offres traditionnelles de l'époque, à la fois du point de vue de la forme et du contenu. Il conclut que la décision de Rolling Stone de s'engager dans la couverture des problèmes politiques dans les années 1970 reflète un rapprochement croissant entre l'industrie du divertissement et les élections présidentielles aux États-Unis.
Mots clés : Rolling Stone; la campagne présidentielle américaine de 1972; le journalisme gonzo; la politisation de l’industrie du divertissement américain.
Doctorante en science politique
Institut d’études politiques de Paris
An alternative to the mainstream: the coverage of the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign in the magazine Rolling Stone
Contemporary society is a “society of the spectacle” (Debord, 2014: 12). The spectacle is not a mere collection of images, but a sum of interpersonal social relations mediated by images. In a “society of the spectacle”, all existing media can be virtually divided into the “alternative” and “mainstream” ones. The “mainstream” media products are ubiquitous. Due to the growing concentration of media ownership, fewer voices can be heard within the “mainstream” media landscape (Luhmann, 2002). Under such conditions, “alternative” media counterbalance the “mainstream” media monolith. They are decidedly different from the “mainstream” offerings (Atton, 2002). At the same time, the notions of “alternative” and “mainstream” are quite contingent: they are not fixed and are subject to various interpretations (Bailey et al., 2008). This means that the same publication can be classified as “mainstream” or “alternative” within a particular cultural, political and economic context, by a specific group of people and at certain times. A media outlet can, in turn, shift its market positioning by moving from the “alternative” media niche to the “mainstream” one and vice versa.
The U.S. media market is constantly on the move. It has witnessed the emergence of new types of media, ranging from the print press, radio, television to the Internet-based websites and social media. It has also experienced huge ownership transformations, which have led to the recent amalgamation of the U.S. media market, the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a small number of big media corporations, as well as the establishment of multinational media conglomerates (Herman and Chomsky, 1988). Irrespective of how the U.S. media market has been developing over time, all American media have always been virtually divided into the “alternative” and “mainstream” media. “Mainstream” media have created the dominant news discourse in American society. “Alternative” media have tried to diversify the established news feed by presenting counterbalancing arguments and voicing distinct opinions.
The magazine Rolling Stone has been present on the U.S. media market for more than half a century. Its history is a story about music, journalism, and raging commercial success of the American baby-boom generation. On the one hand, the magazine has prevailed on the U.S. media market due to wise entrepreneurship, dedicated staff and high consumer demand. On the other hand, its triumph could not be possible “without acidheads, anarchists, commune dwellers, social lepers and parentless long-hairs who loved sex, drugs and rock and roll” (Anson, 1981: xv). Although its main focus has always been music, Rolling Stone has covered a lot of other topics. The U.S. presidential election is the most salient, non-entertainment issue that the magazine has been extensively writing about since 1972. The paper seeks to investigate Rolling Stone’s very first U.S. presidential campaign coverage. It argues that Rolling Stone’s coverage of the 1972 campaign represents an “alternative” to the “mainstream” offerings of that era both content-wise and form-wise.
I. Origins of the magazine
The Rolling Stone magazine was launched in San Francisco in 1967 by a twenty-one-year-old Berkeley dropout Jann Wenner. Before starting up the magazine, Wenner managed to gain some professional experience that would have an enormous impact on Rolling Stone’s future positioning within the U.S. media landscape. Wenner’s early career was based on three distinct pillars: his indirect involvement into the Free Speech Movement that took place during the 1964-65 academic year at Berkeley, his personal acquaintance with the music critic Ralph Gleason, and his brief journalistic career at The Daily Californian, the Berkeley campus paper.
Joining any protest movement of the era did not meet Wenner’s professional expectations (Draper, 1990: 44). That is why he never participated in the Free Speech Movement in Northern California whose aim was to convince the Berkeley administration to allow on-campus political activities and acknowledge the students’ right to free speech and academic freedom. Instead of creating news, Wenner reported it for the NBC radio affiliate. With a press badge, he “could forever be the gadfly, never commit himself or take a stance on anything” (Draper, 1990: 44). At the same time, Wenner wanted to be associated with the Free Speech Movement, because it looked trendy, and almost everyone, including his most intimate friends, participated in it. So, not to fall behind the protesting mass, he accompanied one of the articles he wrote about the Free Speech Movement with a photograph of himself standing behind the podium in a trench coat with a microphone in hand while addressing a massive rally together with Mario Savio, one of the Movement’s leaders. As one of the Movement’s participants pointed out, “Jann Wenner had absolutely no political beliefs whatsoever. He was always a paparazzo in his heart. But Jann was motivated when none of us were. He had focus” (Draper, 1990: 45).
When Wenner made friends with Ralph Gleason, the latter had already been an influential American rock, jazz and pop music critic. In fact, Gleason was the first journalist who initiated regular coverage of rock, jazz and pop music in the U.S. media, reviewing rock, folk, pop and jazz concerts with the same attention as was given to classical music. According to some music critics, “Gleason was old enough to be Jann’s father, but the two had something very much in common: an abiding love for rock and roll” (Draper, 1990: 46). Wenner and Gleason attended folk and rock festivals, shared the same music tastes and had similar views on how music issues should be covered in press. Wenner became a frequent visitor to the Gleason household. Although they had similar music values, visually “they cut a strange couple”: Gleason was a “figure of studied elegance, graying and bespectacled”, whereas Wenner was a “floppy-haired, acid-dropping happy puppy of a young man” (Draper, 1990: 47). Gleason would remain Rolling Stone’s founding editor and one of its main contributors until his death in 1975.
In February 1966, Wenner (under the pseudonym Mr. Jones) was hired by the Berkeley campus paper The Daily Californian to write weekly music columns. In these columns, he wrote about the latest rock music trends, quoted Bob Dylan and the Beatles, suggested the rock concerts worth visiting and discussed the American counterculture of the 1960s. As Wenner’s colleagues noticed, “far more than Gleason or any other Bay Area reporter, Jann subjected the psychedelic scene to enthusiastic community” (Draper, 1990: 48). Indeed, he “was the Man on the Scene, the most reliable music information source around” (Draper, 1990: 48). Wenner’s early journalistic experience is important for two reasons. On the one hand, it shows that the creator of Rolling Stone was not a newcomer to the field of journalism. When launching the magazine, Wenner was familiar with the tastes and demands of his prospective readership. On the other hand, as a student, Wenner extensively wrote about the cultural trends of the 1960s (Guinness, 1994). This explains why Rolling Stone would later be recognized as one of the most reliable sources of information about this landmark decade of cultural, political and economic transformation in the U.S.
Having scraped together $7,500 from his family and friends to start up a new business in San Francisco, Wenner launched Rolling Stone on November 9, 1967. Ever since, it has been produced uninterruptedly every two weeks. Originally, Wenner planned to name his magazine The Electric Newspaper. However, Ralph Gleason “suggested the title of a Muddy Waters song, taken from an old proverb, and in turn borrowed for the name of a famous song and the name of a famous band. Rolling Stone” (Draper, 1990: 61). Such a title choice suggests that Rolling Stone’s creators wanted their magazine to be implicitly associated with American rock music and the 1960s countercultural trends. Due to the fact that “rolling stone(s)” was a quite widely used label bearing particular connotations back then, the audience could easily guess which special features the next cultural product referring to this label could contain. In other words, the choice of such a title implicitly characterized the magazine’s “alternative” media positioning and cultural focus. In future, Rolling Stone would keep its “alternative” media focus for many years, until it would eventually reject it in the late 1980s by entering the “mainstream” media niche. This abrupt change occurred because of Wenner’s decision to keep the youth as the main target audience of the magazine (Nobile, 1981: 16). The 1960s youth were not young anymore and gave up reading Rolling Stone by switching to more serious media. At the same time, the 1980s youth did not know much about the 1960s countercultural trends. Instead, their main interest lay in popular culture. For this reason, starting from the late 1980s, Rolling Stone was no longer the magazine that it had been before, and neither were the people who had read it several decades ago (Anson, 1981: xvii).
II. Rolling Stone as a magazine about the U.S. 1960s countercultural youth
In the American popular imagination, the 1960s are remembered as a time of widespread social unrest and political upheaval (Braunstein and Doyle, 2002). The torchbearer of this fervent and idealized period was the emergent youth culture that actively rebelled against the social norms of the 1950s. The U.S. 1960s countercultural youth has brought three new issues to the foreground of American politics: the free speech movement, the anti-war movement, and the civil rights movement (Austin and Willard, 1998: 187-204). However politically savvy and active in the socio-political movements the youth was at that time, their cultural ideals relied upon two principles (Gitlin, 1993: 81). Firstly, all young people were supposed to change the world, irrespective of their political preferences. Secondly, they believed that only oppositional forces were capable of driving progress in society. Moreover, the 1960s countercultural youth regarded the Democratic Party as a key supporter of their initiatives and aspirations and associated the Republican Party, in turn, with the conservative, outdated socio-cultural norms of the 1950s. The Democrats’ endorsement of the 1960s youth protest movements explains why the young people of that era were their most loyal electorate (Shea and Green, 2007: Section II). Rolling Stone was not an exception either: it positioned itself as a magazine writing about the U.S. 1960s countercultural issues whose main target audience were young people. From an ideological point of view, Rolling Stone has been pro-Democratic from its creation onwards and remains so even today. As The New York Times has recently noted, Rolling Stone has always been “a bastion of liberal ideology” and “a required stop for Democratic presidential candidates” (Ember, 2017).
The decision to cover politics in Rolling Stone was not imminent. Initially, Rolling Stone was a magazine exclusively about rock music. The readers trusted Rolling Stone’s rock-and-roll coverage because the magazine managed to understand exactly how important this new music genre and the respective cultural milieu really were. If other American rock and roll magazines either trivialized rock and roll (e.g. Ramparts), put it on high with the utterances of Plato and Aristotle (e.g. Crawdaddy!), or ignored it (the mainstream press), Rolling Stone simply wrote about it. A truly revolutionary idea that stands behind Wenner’s magazine is that Rolling Stone did not define or deify rock and roll, but covered it. Rolling Stone’s journalists interviewed rock stars as seriously and comprehensively as the Time reporters interviewed American top-ranked politicians or businessmen. Rolling Stone made rock music worthy of analysis and rock stars notable news figures (McMillian, 2011). At the end of 1969, the magazine was recognized as the most authoritative rock and roll magazine in the U.S.A. It became a generation’s trustworthy and blunt voice. For example, the “mainstream” journalists named them “hippies”, whereas Richard Nixon called them “bums” (Draper, 1990: 6).
Witnessing the success of the rock music coverage, Wenner decided to gradually expand the thematic scope of his magazine. As the 1960s countercultural youth was Rolling Stone’s main readership at that moment, Wenner began covering some broader issues that were of general interest to his potential readers. These issues included, among others, hippie lifestyle, sexual revolutions, environmentalism, gay rights, free speech, anti-war and anti-nuclear rhetoric. At the same time, Rolling Stone never wrote about feminism and was reluctant to write about race. Such a selective approach to the choice of topics to be covered in the magazine demonstrates that Rolling Stone balanced towards its consumers’ preferences, instead of defending the ideals of the 1960s social protest movements. Despite its adherence to the “alternative” media niche, Rolling Stone never was an “underground” media outlet. The magazine never existed outside the media market: it never rejected financial contributions or advertisement placements, and it extensively cooperated with the well-established music recording companies to promote specific rock musicians and their songs on its pages (Strausbaugh, 2001: 133). Wenner monitored the thematic preferences of Rolling Stone’s readers and selected only the issues that were on high demand among his target audience. Thus, with the aim to further enlarge its circulation and generate more commercial profit, Rolling Stone initiated the extensive coverage of the 1972 U.S. presidential election.
III. What did Rolling Stone write about the 1972 presidential campaign?
In late 1971, Rolling Stone’s board organized a staff meeting at the Esalen Institute in California (a non-profit center that promotes alternative humanistic education) to discuss the possibility of covering the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign (Whitmer, 1993: 187). Since the magazine had not reported on the U.S. presidential election in any significant depth before, many staff members were reluctant to devote the resources necessary to offer the full-scale coverage of a nationwide election. Ultimately, Rolling Stone decided to invest both money and human resources in the presidential campaign coverage, because, as Wenner noted then, “politics […] will be the rock and roll of the Seventies” (Anson, 1981: 186). Most probably, Wenner came to such a conclusion under the influence of Elvis Presley’s visit to the White House on December 21, 1970, which marked the historic moment when “culture and politics collided” (CNN, 2015). Why did Rolling Stone decide to cover U.S. presidential election? We suggest that the ratification of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on July 1, 1971, ultimately turned the magazine’s decision in favor of the presidential campaign coverage. This amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 years old (May and Frase, 1973). As the youth was Rolling Stone’s key readership, Wenner assumed that the topic of presidential election might be interesting for the ones who were supposed to participate in the U.S. presidential election as voters for the first time in their lives. With this in mind, the magazine aimed to serve as a first-hand source of information about the 1972 presidential campaign for the “countercultural” and “against-the-mainstream” part of this new young American electorate.
Like any U.S. presidential campaign, the 1972 campaign was covered in various U.S. media. The print press and television were the prevailing media channels through which the information was transmitted to the public (Perry, 1973). Television used film to cover the campaign. Film required developing and editing. It greatly limited television reporters, who had to “go everywhere chained to a human ball and chain, which consisted of a cameraman, a sound man, a lighting man, and sometimes a producer as well” (Crouse, 1976: 153). After shooting their stories, television reporters had to find a nearby television studio to edit the film and transmit it to New York (Kendall, 2000: 162). According to Rick Stearns, who was a deputy campaign manager for George McGovern, the expense and the onerous process of moving media equipment had a direct effect on the nature of the 1972 presidential campaign media coverage. He claimed that television reporters preferred to “start in the East and move slowly across the country to the West and then fly it all back to New York from Los Angeles” so that the natural progression of primaries “would run from New Hampshire out to Wisconsin to Nebraska to Oregon and finally down to California and back to New York” (May and Fraser, 1973: 97). In addition, television had a heavy interpretive role in the 1972 campaign (Asher, 1997). It manipulated the viewers’ political preferences in a variety of ways. For example, a CBS news commentator Eric Severeid interpreted the New Hampshire and Florida Democratic primaries results in the following way: “In New Hampshire, Muskie won but lost, while McGovern lost but won; in Florida, Muskie lost but lost, McGovern lost but lost, Humphrey lost but won, and Wallace won but won” (Kendall, 2000: 162). This particular case demonstrates that the television reporter did not announce the strictly numerical results of the primaries, but rather played with the words. Despite the growing popularity of television, the print press still mattered. Americans trusted the print press coverage more than television. They treated the print press as a traditional medium and television as a new and not yet explored medium. Print reporters were still at the top of the media hierarchy. They did not take seriously anyone “whose daily output lasted for two minutes” (Crouse, 1976: 151). The mainstream U.S. press was very influential during the 1972 campaign. Once a story hit The New York Times or The Washington Post, it was seen as certified news and could not be ignored (Hess, 1974). The “alternative” press was not extensively writing on the issue of presidential campaign. The majority of the “alternative” press at that time was more concerned with the “underground” political issues, which were either radical in nature or oppositional to the values of the existing American political establishment (McMillian, 2011). Consequently, Rolling Stone did not experience much of competition within the “alternative” media niche, when writing about the 1972 campaign.
Rolling Stone’s 1972 presidential campaign coverage was provided by two reporters: Hunter S. Thompson and Timothy Crouse. Thompson had become a contributing author to Rolling Stone in 1970. He gained most of his fame with the “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” collection of articles that Rolling Stone published in installments in 1971. In Thompson’s words, he decided to cover the 1972 campaign for Rolling Stone, because he wanted to “learn as much as possible about the mechanics and realities” of a presidential campaign, and he intended to write about it in the same way he would write about anything else, “as close to the bone” as he could get, and “to hell with the consequences” (Thompson, 2012: 4). Crouse had been writing music columns for Rolling Stone since 1971. In comparison to Thompson, Crouse’s contribution to the campaign coverage was quite modest because of the disagreements with Wenner, who wanted a more prominent and visible journalist to do most of the reporting with the purpose of drawing the readers’ attention to a new issue covered in the magazine. By and large, Thompson and Crouse's coverage of the 1972 campaign aimed at showing that Rolling Stone’s reporters saw their work as distinct from the political reporting done by the “mainstream” media of the era. The magazine’s “alternative” reporting on the campaign centered around two pillars.
A direct attack on the “mainstream” media is the first pillar of Rolling Stone’s 1972 campaign coverage. Thompson and Crouse criticized “pack” (i.e. mainstream) journalism for its uniformity of news coverage and lack of original thought and initiative. In issue 119 (October 12, 1972), Crouse suggested that during presidential campaigns the independent newsgathering function of reporters was replaced with a communal reliance on official sources and conventional wisdom. He claimed that “mainstream” political reporters generally followed one candidate for the entire election cycle. According to Crouse, all “mainstream” stories came “from the same handout, the same pool report, or the same speech by the candidate”, and the “pack” dynamic insured that almost all reporters were about to “take the same approach to the story” (Crouse, 1972d: 48). Thompson, in contrast, did not directly use the term “pack journalism”, but he implicitly meant it, when he described “what a downer it was” to return from reporting trips and try to catch up with the political coverage in major U.S. newspapers. In issue 103 (March 2, 1972) in particular, Thompson wrote that “the [Washington] Post will have a story about Muskie making a speech in Iowa. The [Washington] Star will say the same thing, and the [Wall Street] Journal will say nothing at all” (Thompson, 1972f: 12).
One of the brightest examples of the attack on “pack” journalism was given by both Crouse and Thompson, when they covered the Democratic Party Convention that took place on July 10-13, 1972, in Florida and was to announce who would become the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party in the upcoming election. The Democratic campaign was very tense: a lot of candidates (including George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace, Edmund Muskie, Henry Jackson, and Shirley Chisholm) participated in the primaries, and it was not clear who would win the nomination. In issue 115 (August 17, 1972), Thompson claimed that “less than a dozen of the five thousand media sleuths accredited to the convention knew exactly what was happening, at the time” (Thompson, 1972e: 35). In the same issue, Thompson quoted the words of McGovern’s strategist Rick Stearns, who admitted that The New York Times reporter Johnny Apple wanted to file a story about the victorious vote for McGovern, but editor Abe Rosenthal refused to run the story, because legendary CBS reporter Walter Cronkite had already reported that the vote was a major defeat for McGovern. Thus, a regular reporter of The New York Times was overruled by his editor due to the fact that his version of events about the Democratic Convention in Florida contradicted the one provided by an even more high-profile CBS presenter.
In issue 119 (October 12, 1972), Crouse suggested that “pack” journalism was a condition that caused much of American political journalism to be “shallow, obvious, pointless and boring beyond description” (Crouse, 1972d: 48-49). In his opinion, the “pack” mentality stopped reporters from looking for interesting and revealing information about the candidates and encouraged them to match their reporting with one another. Thompson shared Crouse’s opinion and claimed that “mainstream” reporting had an element of self-censorship. In issue 108 (May 11, 1972), when discussing Muskie’s failing primary campaign, he stated that “in recent weeks the truth has been so painful that some journalists have gone out of their way to give the poor bastards a break and not flay them in print any more than absolutely necessary” (Thompson, 1972c: 32). Crouse and Thompson believed that “pack” journalism was a dangerous practice that diminished the value of political reporting. They assumed that their status outside of the “mainstream” media would protect them from the “pack” mentality.
The presentation of the “out-of-the-mainstream” news about the presidential campaign is the second pillar of Rolling Stone’s 1972 campaign coverage. The 1972 election is famous for the landslide victory (96.7% to 3.2% in electoral vote) of Republican candidate Richard Nixon who ran for re-election. As political journalist Theodore White famously noted, “the outcome of the election was never in doubt” (White, 2010: 218). Despite high probability of Nixon’s success, Rolling Stone, nevertheless, did not endorse this presidential nominee, because the magazine did not share any of the Republican political values. In fact, Rolling Stone covered the Republican Party campaign only twice – in issues 104 (March 16, 1972) and 118 (September 28, 1972) – reporting on the beginning and the end of the campaign. Although the magazine had a clear pro-Democratic bias, Rolling Stone’s reporters were not neutral in reporting on all Democratic presidential candidates. Instead, they endorsed one specific candidate: George McGovern. In issue 99 (January 6, 1972), Thompson wrote: “George McGovern, the only candidate in either party worth voting for is hung in a frustration limbo created mainly by the gross cynicism of the Washington Press Corps” (Thompson, 1972g: 6). The support for McGovern’s candidacy continued in Thompson’s account of the New Hampshire Democratic primary. In issue 103 (March 2, 1972), he stated that “career pols and press wizards say that he simply lacks charisma, but that’s a cheap and simplistic idea that is more an insult to the electorate than to McGovern...” (Thompson, 1972f: 8). Crouse echoed his colleague. When writing about the New Hampshire Democratic primary in issue 104 (March 16, 1972), he characterized McGovern as “a man of conscience”, who opposed the Vietnam War in the Senate and opened his campaign finance books to the public (Crouse, 1972c: 11).
Besides McGovern, other Democratic candidates did not receive Rolling Stone’s favorable treatment during the 1972 Democratic campaign. Hubert Humphrey, for example, was presented as an extremely negative candidate. In issue 106 (April 13, 1972), Thompson described him as a “treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler who should be put in a goddamn bottle and sent out with the Japanese Current” (Thompson, 1972d: 14). Another Democratic candidate, Edmund Muskie, was heavily criticized by Rolling Stone as well. In issue 101 (February 3, 1972), Thompson claimed that Muskie was “a bonehead who steals his best lines from Nixon” (Thompson, 1972h: 10). Crouse also shared a low opinion of Muskie. In issue 104 (March 16, 1972), he wrote that “nothing about Muskie explains, in one flash, why people should vote for him... Like Nixon in ‘68, Muskie lacks any real reason for running” (Crouse, 1972c: 11). Humphrey and Muskie’s competitor within the Democratic Party, George Wallace, was presented in Rolling Stone in a slightly more positive way. Thompson and Crouse expressed a certain respect for Wallace, but drastically disagreed with his political platform. At the Wisconsin Democratic primary, Thompson praised Wallace’s ability to speak vividly. In issue 107 (April 27, 1972), he wrote: “I had a sense that the bastard had somehow levitated himself and was hovering over us... Anybody who doubts the Wallace appeal should go out and catch his act sometime” (Thompson, 1972i: 12). Nevertheless, Rolling Stone’s overall tone around Wallace’s candidacy remained rather negative. It is important to highlight that the magazine did not report on all Democratic candidates. For example, it absolutely ignored the female Democrats who also participated in the campaign, like Shirley Chisholm (the first Afro-American woman to run for the presidential nomination) and Patsy Mink (the first Asian-American woman to run for the presidential nomination).
Why did Rolling Stone endorse George McGovern and either criticize or ignore other Democratic nominees? Rolling Stone’s early enthusiasm for McGovern combined with “a profound distaste for the dominant current of political analysis” (Hemauer, 1998) reflected the desire of the magazine to be a mouthpiece of the New Left – an anti-establishment protest movement of the countercultural youth (Gosse, 2005). The movement thought to implement a broad range of reforms on issues such as gay rights, abortion, gender and race equality, and looser drugs control. Since many of Rolling Stone’s readers were huge supporters of the New Left ideology, the magazine had to look for the candidate who was closest to it (Atkin, 1995: 185). Rolling Stone purposefully presented McGovern as a New Left candidate, because its readership with a countercultural background would have unlikely accepted a fully “mainstream” presidential nominee. However, McGovern never belonged to the New Left movement, mainly because the movement was against the current U.S. political establishment, and McGovern was part of that established political system. Nevertheless, his political platform had some things in common with the movement’s political tasks and ideals, which made him different from other Democratic candidates. For example, he favored the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, supported race and gender equality, and spoke for lesser penalties for light drugs. There were three constituencies that had “especial saliency” at the 1972 election – blacks, “women of the fevered brow”, and the left-wing youth movement. McGovern was the only candidate who “favored them all” (Tyrrell, 2011: 74). In issue 113 (July 20, 1972), Thompson summarized McGovern's win in the New York Democratic primary by saying that “McGovern’s people kicked out the jams. They stomped every hack, ward-heeler and old-line party boss from Buffalo to Brooklyn” (Thompson, 1972b: 22). The accidental liaison between McGovern and the New Left protest movement intentionally created by Rolling Stone’s reporters demonstrates the unwillingness of the magazine to move out of the conventional U.S. political system. On the contrary, it shows the magazine’s aptitude to incorporate some “system-friendly” external elements to the existing American political establishment. In such a way, Rolling Stone should not be regarded as an “alternative” to the 1970s media politics that promoted synergy between mass media and political elites (Oswald, 2009: 385), but rather as one of “alternatives” within it.
IV. How did Rolling Stone report about the 1972 presidential campaign?
Alongside with understanding what Rolling Stone wrote about the 1972 campaign, it is necessary to consider how the magazine did it. Opposed to the traditional norms of “mainstream” journalism (also known as “pack’” journalism), Thompson and Crouse presented their campaign coverage in the style of “gonzo” journalism (Dunn, 2007: 36). “Gonzo” style draws upon fictional techniques to describe non-fictional situations. It regards a reporter's subjective, hands-on experience in the event to be covered as central to the coverage. In addition, “gonzo” journalism privileges participation over observation and style over substance. It favors the use of stylistic devices, such as hyperbole, exaggeration, profanity, extended first-person narrative, and satire. It also allows the incorporation of snatches of dialogue, transcripts, and unfinished notes in the text of reportage (Wolfe, 1973). In Thompson’s words, he himself could afford “gonzo” journalism because, unlike most other mainstream reporters, he was on the campaign trail only for a year, and the last thing he “cared about was establishing long-term connections on Capitol Hill” (Thompson, 2012: 17-18). In his report on the Nebraska and Ohio Democratic primaries, which Rolling Stone published in issue 110 (June 8, 1972), Thompson repeated the word “I” 150 times. Crouse, in turn, when writing about the New Hampshire Democratic primary in issue 104 (March 16, 1972), repeated the word “I” 61 times. These examples clearly demonstrate that Rolling Stone’s reporters were not passive observers of the campaign, but they took an active part in it. For them it was important not only to report on the event, but also to express their own opinion and show their political engagement.
Furthermore, Rolling Stone’s “gonzo” reporting incorporated a number of “external” elements, such as third-person quotations, parts of dialogues, back thoughts, personal notes, and citations. For instance, in the above-mentioned report on the Nebraska and Ohio Democratic primaries, Thompson cited the lyrics of “The Hound and the Whore” chorus song, which he heard at the Hilton hotel where the event took place. After citing the lyrics of the song, Thompson added that it was “a very frightening song under any circumstances – but especially frightening if you happen to be a politician running for very high stakes and you know the people singing that song are not on your side” (Thompson, 1972a: 36). In the same report, Thompson referred to Robert Kennedy’s quote (“My next job – after getting my brother elected President of the United States – will be the political destruction of Hubert Humphrey”) and Senator Abraham Ribicoff’s quote (“I predict regretfully that you in California will see one of the dirtiest campaigns in the history of this state – and you have had some of the dirtiest”) without explaining them at all (Thompson, 1972a: 37). The quotes appeared in the middle of the text and did not contextually refer to any sentence or fit any passage of Thompson’s article. In fact, Thompson’s account of the Nebraska and Ohio Democratic primaries was not just an article or a report, but it was a mixture of a coherent text, direct speech, and personal notes. At some point, Thompson interrupted his report claiming that “we were forced to switch the narrative into the straight Gonzo mode. The rest of the Ohio section comes straight out of the notebook, for good or ill” (Thompson, 1972a: 38). This change in the narrative style was quite logical: Thompson switched his notes to change the topic from the Nebraska Democratic primary to the one held in Ohio. By and large, Rolling Stone’s 1972 campaign coverage was the first application in practice of “gonzo” journalism for the purposes of political reporting. Before Thompson and Crouse, nobody had covered U.S. presidential election or any other political issue in such a stylistic form, which allows us to characterize Rolling Stone’s reporters as trailblazers of “alternative” political writing.
While introducing the principles of “gonzo” journalism in their 1972 campaign coverage, Rolling Stone’s reporters also managed to highlight the shortcomings of some typical journalistic fallacies of the era, such as, primarily, objectivity (Perry, 1973). In issue 101 (February 3, 1972), Thompson argued against the very possibility of journalistic objectivity, claiming that the only thing he ever saw that “came close to Objective Journalism was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado … So much for Objective Journalism” (Thompson, 1972h: 10). Apart from rejecting objectivity in their own reporting, Thompson and Crouse demonstrated that journalistic objectivity was a rare practice in journalism in general. In issue 115 (August 17, 1972), when reporting on how Humphrey was preparing to bow out of the Democratic race, Crouse noticed that the “press did not actually hate Humphrey, it was more that they felt sorry for him, and since they don’t like to feel sorry for anyone, they wished that he would go away” (Crouse, 1972a: 40). Looking back at the final days of the Democratic campaign, Crouse claimed in issue 123 (December 7, 1972) that “the traveling reporters, who like all cynical people were also deeply sentimental, felt terrible for the McG[overn] staffers whom they had come to love” (Crouse, 1972b: 24). On the whole, Rolling Stone’s reporters denied the principle of journalistic objectivity and did not hide their personal sympathy or apathy for certain presidential candidates. In this respect, Thompson and Crouse were “alternative” to the “mainstream” media outlets that pretended to follow the norms of journalistic objectivity.
All in all, Rolling Stone’s coverage of the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign was an “alternative” to the “mainstream” offerings of the era. In terms of the contents of reporting, the magazine attacked “pack” journalism, which was a typical reporting style of the 1970s “mainstream” press, and provided news about the campaign under a specific angle – through endorsing one particular candidate, George McGovern. In terms of the form of reporting, Rolling Stone’s campaign coverage denied the principle of journalistic objectivity and introduced the “gonzo” journalistic style as another way to report on the U.S. presidential election. Although providing “alternative” campaign coverage, Rolling Stone did not mean to subvert either the U.S. political system or the American media market. Instead, it associated itself with liberal political values as expressed through the ideological platform of the Democratic Party.
The main reason why Rolling Stone decided to try its hand in writing about the election was the desire to attract more readership and make more profit. Indeed, the coverage of the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign marked the first commercial success for Rolling Stone. In 1973, the magazine began to make profit. In 1974, its annual circulation reached 325,000 copies, 80% of its readers being younger than 25 years old (Vaughn, 2008: 456). In contrast, out of the 40,000 copies printed as issue 1 in November 1967, 34,000 were returned unsold (Draper, 1990: 70), whereas the annual circulation of the magazine in 1968 equaled 6,000 copies, skyrocketing to 100,000 in 1969 (Draper, 1990: 94). In 1980, eight years after the introduction of the topic of presidential election to the magazine, Rolling Stone reached a 700,000 plus circulation (out of which 440,000 issues were sold through subscription and 290,000 at the newsstand). The magazine liberated itself from external debts. Its annual sales reached $22 million. In 1989, Rolling Stone’s parent company Straight Arrow Publishers Inc. was worth about $250 million, which was over 30,000 times its original value (Draper, 1990: 6). In 2016, Rolling Stone’s annual total intra-American circulation amounted to 1,459,154 copies, out of which 95% (or 1,385,800 copies) were sold through subscription and only 5% (or 73,354 copies) at the newsstand. A full-page four-color advertisement was worth $233,270, whereas advertisements placed on the second cover were worth $291,590 each. The median age of the magazine’s readership was 35 years old. Its race and gender composition, however, was not balanced: males prevailed over females in the proportion of 62% to 38%, and Whites (74%) dominated over other ethnic groups, such as Blacks (15%), Hispanics (15%), and Asians (2%) (Alliance for Audited Media). Rolling Stone’s most recent commercial success would never have been possible without its very first profit generated through the coverage of the 1972 campaign.
Last but not least, Rolling Stone’s coverage of the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign gave the magazine a unique opportunity to establish a permanent link with the U.S. political realm. It also put an end to Rolling Stone’s reputation of a media outlet providing media coverage exclusively about rock music. Taking a strategic decision to write about the presidential election enabled Rolling Stone to “trick-or-treat” its rather narrow cultural focus to the national fame and wide recognition, which explains why the magazine could not remain an “alternative” to the “mainstream” for a long time. Rolling Stone’s involvement in writing about the 1972 U.S. presidential election analyzed in this paper reflects a growing rapprochement between American entertainment industry and U.S. politics since the second half of the twentieth century. On the one hand, it confirms the tendency that the distinction between news and entertainment media gradually diminishes: both type of media “spin political reality into fantasy and melodrama, at the expense of facts” (Jackson, 2009: 2). On the other hand, it demonstrates a possibility that entertainment media may influence people’s political beliefs and simultaneously derive “star status” of some high-profile politician from his or her participation in the entertainment industry, thus creating hybrid cultural-political identities in the era of “critical transculturalism” (Kraidy, 2005: 148).
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Elena Sidorova, "An alternative to the mainstream: the coverage of the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign in the magazine Rolling Stone", RITA [en ligne], n°11 : juillet 2018, mis en ligne le 16 juillet 2018. Disponible en ligne : http://revue-rita.com/dossier-11/an-alternative-to-the-mainstream-the-coverage-of-the-1972-u-s-presidential-campaign-in-the-magazine-rolling-stone-elena-sidorova.html