On the Cover of the Rolling Stone
In the early 1970s, alternative media voices brought the counterculture inside the establishment--and changed mainstream journalism
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Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta, on their famous trip to Las Vegas in the spring of 1971. Photo credit: Cashman Photo Enterprises, Inc./Wikimedia Commons.
In early November 1971, hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults across the United States ran to the mailbox, or the newsstand, for the new issue of Rolling Stone. A biweekly publication printed tabloid-style on newsprint, publisher Jann Wenner’s hybrid magazine/newspaper was devoted to reporting on what was really happening in America: the burgeoning rock n’ roll scene, what remained of the 1960s counterculture, and the disintegration of politics.
But Rolling Stone was also one of many publications founded in the 1960s that opened new doors for writing and reporting stories. In a journalism world still mostly governed by pre-counterculture rules—objectivity, never printing the word “homosexual,” and showing deference to American politicians pursuing an illegal war in Vietnam— Rolling Stone provided political reporting from the perspective of people who consciously broke the rules. Those people were young, they were rock n’ roll fans, and they were sick of the older generation’s bullshit.
And the writers? They were left-wing journalists. Some of them were older, had worked for mainstream outlets, but had never been given a seat at the establishment table. Others were in those seats but sick of being controlled by editors and publishers who didn’t understand that something big was happening out there in America—and that the old rules of political media no longer spoke to a generation in full rebellion.
To be featured in Rolling Stone as a musician or a journalist was to be instantly relevant to young people who, when President Richard Nixon lectured them that “We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another,” responded that it would be perfectly fine to keep shouting until the Vietnam war was over.
Rolling Stone epitomized the effort to force the mainstream media to change and give way to change. And it was cool. As a wacky band called Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show sang in their 1973 hit single, there was no high, sexual thrill or commercial success that equaled “the thrill that’ll gitcha when you get your picture/On the cover of the Rollin’ Stone.”
Rolling Stone understood that “politics” was more than a bunch of abstract transactions in Washington that didn’t seem to change anything. This may be why the November 11, 1971 cover did not feature a band or a political figure but a burst of crazy. A red, white, and blue image of a crazed motorcycle rider with ruby-red eyes careened across the page. Drawn by English psychedelic cartoonist Ralph Steadman, the headline for the issue’s top story, written by a mysterious character named Raoul Duke, was nestled over the hog’s front wheel: “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Below the wheel were headlines advertising stories about the Beach Boys’ career crash and burn, The Band, Federico Fellini’s latest film, and a report on the Texas chapter of Young Americans for Freedom.
But the phrase “fear and loathing” pretty much said it all about Nixon’s America (or “Amerikkka,” as some in the counterculture would have it.) Readers who flipped immediately to the story encountered an opening sentence unlike any that had ever been printed in a major national publication. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” Duke began the tale.
Two men commissioned by “a fancy New York sporting magazine ”were driving to Las Vegas in a rented Chevy convertible. Suddenly, the “professional journalist” at the wheel hallucinated a flock of bats dive-bombing the car and began to scream incoherently at the lawyer riding shotgun. “It was almost noon, and we still had more than 100 miles to go,” Duke wrote. “They would be tough miles. Very soon, I knew, we would both be completely twisted.”
“Raoul Duke” was, of course, a nom de plume for Hunter S. Thompson, famous for having embedded himself in a violent motorcycle gang to write his best-selling Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1966). Thompson, along with so-called New Journalists like Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, and Frances Fitzgerald, used a more personal voice that met a moment of social upheaval square on, challenging the media establishment to get off its high horse and explain what was really going on in America.
Thompson called his method and process “gonzo journalism:” it was real reporting but the opposite of establishment journalism that prized rationality and its insider relationship with political elites. Gonzo centered an often irrational narrator, an outsider who refused objectivity and fact, moving instinctively towards a fragmented story and conveying a deeper, felt “truth” about national chaos to the reader. The gonzo journalist—“straddling the line between journalism and fiction writing,” as interviewers Douglas Brinkley and Terry McDonnell put it—produced a gripping story through hyperbole, satire, and dark humor that captured the contemporary zeitgeist.
If Thompson embedded himself with motorcycle gangs and Las Vegas conventioneers, other writers embedded in political campaigns. Between 1961 and 1973, journalist and historian Theodore H. White wrote his Making of the President series, taking readers behind the scenes of national political campaigns to explain why elections turned out the way they did, something that mere reporting never could. As White later reflected, the idea was a simple one: to write about a campaign as if it were a novel. Before conceiving of the series during John F. Kennedy’s campaign, White had suffered, as he later wrote in his memoir In Search of History: A Personal Adventure (1978), “from the exasperation of most reporters – the exasperation of being pinned to facts when the facts cannot tell the story.”
And all reporters knew there was another story because they and their editors sifted out most of what went on behind the scenes of a presidential campaign. In 1968, former Philadelphia Inquirer political reporter Joe McGinnis quit his job to tell another story: how an advertising agency and a young media man named Roger Ailes persuaded American voters that there was a “new” Richard Nixon—and that they should vote for him. Riffing off White’s title, McGinnis expressed the counterculture’s disdain for commercialism and fakery by calling his book The Selling of the President 1968.
These books would also boot Thompson into political reporting. In 1972, Rolling Stone put him on George McGovern’s campaign, where he banged out stream-of-consciousness dispatches about one of the most disastrous candidacies of the 20th century. He was the man for the moment, reporting in-depth encounters in the hotel bar rather than policy positions. By 1970, young people and seasoned reporters were cynical about policies, and politics. The United States government regularly lied to justify its continuing presence in Vietnam. Before the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, only reporting by alternative media outlets—I.F. Stone’s Weekly, The Nation, New York’s Village Voice, Clay Felker’s New York Magazine, and Rolling Stone—acknowledged and uncovered these lies.
As media historian Matthew Pressman has written, mainstream journalists were also discontented with the status quo. They saw what their alternative media colleagues could do. And as it turns out, even before the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate investigation put major newspapers at odds with the Nixon administration, outlets like the New York Times began rethinking what newspaper journalism could learn from alternative media outlets. In the spring of 1970, managing editor A.M. Rosenthal published a public statement aimed mostly at his own reporters. The paper would change its editorial policy, Rosenthal announced, pursuing both objective reporting and interpretative articles. On September 21, 1970, the opinion page was born—a development that Rosenthal’s colleague, editorial page editor John B. Oakes, had agitated for since 1961—but it was also the beginning of a long, slow turn to the critical reporting that we have today.
Readers were eager for reporters to criticize politicians openly. They wanted to see topics traditionally seen as “soft” news covered in the paper with the same seriousness that electoral politics received. Furthermore, the liberation movements that had cohered in the wake of the civil rights movement, primarily the women’s, Black, and gay liberation movements, also pushed editors and journalists, not just to diversify their hiring but to recognize that their readers were evolving in their tastes and needs.
Not coincidentally, Rosenthal made his announcement a few weeks after the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a new kind of political story: a blockbuster long-form essay about the women’s liberation movement written by Village Voice reporter Susan Brownmiller. “Women’s liberation is hot stuff this season, in media terms, and no wonder,” Brownmiller wrote. And it was political news, from a political movement that believed it was on the cusp of massive social change. Two years after the movement was born, there was such enthusiasm for a feminist revolution that women around the country often could not locate a consciousness-raising group that that room for them.
New York Times readers learned things about women that couldn’t have been printed a year earlier: many of these mostly middle-class white women talked frankly about sex, something a newspaper nicknamed “The Grey Lady” wasn’t used to. Brownmiller’s mention of a now-iconic essay by theorist Ann Koedt, “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” may, in fact, have been the first time a version of the words “vagina,” “orgasm,” “clitoris,” and “penis,” were printed in the paper. As importantly, like Thompson, Brownmiller had the authority and deep knowledge to write about these radical changes because she was living them.
Although Hunter S. Thompson and Susan Brownmiller are rarely – never? – mentioned in the same sentence, the rise of both path-breaking authors as national political writers at almost the same time was no accident. A cultural revolution was underway and driving a transformation in political reporting. Journalists nurtured in and emboldened by the alternative press—not to mention the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll of the 1960s counterculture—were the only writers who were qualified to bring it to the main stage.
Because they weren’t objective at all: and that’s what it took to get to the truth.
Correction: Thanks to a reader, I have edited this post to clarify that the op-ed page of the New York Times was the brainchild of John B. Oakes, not A.M. Rosenthal.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
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