It’s almost impressive how easily Jann Wenner expedited his own downfall. Hardly 24 hours after The New York Times published an interview in which he argued that female and Black artists “didn’t articulate” at the “intellectual level” of their white male peers, the Rolling Stone founder was booted off the board of directors for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – which he also co-founded. Does that demotion absolve Wenner’s alleged decades of manipulative, abusive, and just creepy workplace behavior? No, but there was relief in watching that 15 minutes of infamy pan out, relishing a rare near-consensus among fellow media folks: This guy sucks.
But leave it to Spin founder Bob Guccione Jr. to give a dissenting opinion. On Wednesday, he published an op-ed titled “Free Speech: In Defense of Jann Wenner,” pointing to the First Amendment to justify Wenner’s “empirically wrong” omission of Black and female artists from his new book of interviews, The Masters. Guccione acknowledges that the whole thing is fucked up, but he’s not as “horrified” and “sickened” by his buddy’s blatant xenophobia as he is by the backlash to “a sentiment that is not politically correct” — which is rich, coming from a guy with his own history of impudent behavior.
Guccione posits that the public’s reaction to the Times piece was blown “way out of proportion” because, hey, at least Wenner’s “not raping school children.” He laments that “the people who most shriekingly bleat about white privilege are themselves invariably privileged and usually white,” without considering that it’s usually the white and privileged folks like him who even get a chance to speak. And he accuses “phony liberals” of wanting to “punish” Wenner, conveniently reducing the issue at hand to those few prejudicial quotes in the Times interview, stripped of their broader context and implications.
No one needs to defend Jann Wenner because Jann Wenner has been consistently defended for over half a century. He’s plenty aware of his own influence within music history and how his bias has shaped it. His personal taste has informed Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 500 Albums of All Time and the majority of Rock Hall inductees. He admitted to the Times that, despite its pretty absolutist title, the selection of seven white men featured in The Masters was determined by his “personal interest” in them, and all but one interview included in the book was previously published in Rolling Stone – is that not a glaring admission that the magazine and Rock Hall are just as subjective?
In his op-ed, Guccione cites the Constitution, which guarantees that the US government can’t penalize someone for communicating their beliefs. Nowhere does it state that other citizens aren’t allowed to call you out when your beliefs are discriminatory. Misappropriation of the First Amendment aside, Wenner is technically free to say any self-incriminating “opinion” he wants, but he has also built an entire career out of cementing those opinions into the larger rock ‘n’ roll canon – opinions that have irreparably sidelined marginalized communities for decades. And when he packages those beliefs in phrases like “Best of All Time,” “Hall of Fame,” and “The Masters,” he’s urging everybody else to concede. How can speech be “free” if it comes at the expense of silencing others, as Wenner has covertly done since Rolling Stone’s inception? What, in good conscience, is to be defended in that? And what’s the point in being able to say whatever you want if you won’t also use it as an opportunity to really listen?
But, then again, I’m just a woman – I’m not the best at articulating intelligently.
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