After much fruitless soul-searching Rolling Stone magazine last month announced it had a change of heart and would not after all run advertisements for the New International Version of the Bible. Kent Brownridge, general manager of Wenner Media, told USA Today, “We are not in the business of publishing advertising for religious messages.” This news wouldn’t have surprised anyone back in the '70s when Rolling Stone was still a counter-culture, drug-booster zine, but today’s RS is about as edgy as an overripe watermelon, and has become little more than a clone of the dozen or so other men’s magazines (Blender, Vibe, Maxim, FHM) that ostensibly cover rock music. Evidently editor and publisher Jann Wenner had dark and disturbing visions of some twenty-something slacker opening his magazine and rather than a reassuring condom or Planned Parenthood advertisement finding an ad for a Bible. Horrors!
The offending ad features a thoughtful young lad and a caption that reads: “In a world of almost endless media noise and political spin, you wonder where you can find real truth. Well, now there’s a source that’s accurate, clear and reliable. It’s the TNIV — Today’s New International Version of the Bible. It’s written in today’s language, for today’s times — and it makes more sense than ever.”
Racy stuff, though I doubt it was the reference in the first line to “spin” — Rolling Stone’s major competitor — that caused the ad to be pulled. Nor the suggestion that you cannot find “accurate, clear and reliable” truth in the media. (Yes, RS does occasionally run political essays or the type of gonzo journalism it made famous, but at nothing like the frequency it did in the '70s and '80s.) Rather, Wenner’s decision was simply a matter of bottom-line economics parading as progressive principles. More to the point is that a number of the ads in Rolling Stone hawk booze, smokes, and condoms, and these advertisers may feel uneasy beside an ad for the Bible. Understandably so.
In my hippie youth Rolling Stone was the authentic voice of the counter-culture, a way cool mag with the look and feel of an underground tabloid. Wenner and company were famous for their weird poetry, interviews with youth culture icons, and long, drug-addled reportage by Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke. Then in the eighties, like pretty much everyone else, RS cut its hair and put on a Jerry Garcia tie, moved to New York, and went slick. Wenner began running an annual “hot issue” featuring voluptuous, buff Lisa Bonets, alongside preppy fashion pages. This disturbing trend reached its climax in 2002, when Wenner hired British laddie magazine editor Ed Needham to cut out the long literary journalism and up the percentage of half-naked celebrities (Needham left in 2002, replaced by a trio of deputy managing editors). Naturally long-time readers accused Wenner of selling out, including the Los Angeles Times which wrote: “Shove over, you middle-aged boys, with your Bics burning at Bruce Springsteen concerts, your thinning hair, your love of 6,000-word dispatches from Tom Wolfe and other gonzo authors. It’s not about you anymore.” Wenner, however, was too busy launching new projects like the superfluous US and Men’s Journal to notice or care.
Today’s more commercial Rolling Stone, with its 1.2 million readers, would seem a good fit for TNIV’s ad campaign. Its readers today, far from being whacked-out hippies, are fairly typical teenagers and young adults: confused, searching. Indeed, TNIV’s Doug Lockhart, executive vice president of marketing, called Rolling Stone the perfect vehicle for TNIV. “But,” he added, “this does underscore the challenges we’re facing.” It is a challenge familiar to religious institutions trying to get airtime or ad space in national publications. Just last December, NBC and CBS refused to run the United Church of Christ’s “God Is Still Speaking” commercials, evidently because of what the Church believes Jehovah to be saying. The UCC, one of Christendom’s more progressive and inclusive denominations, not only believes that God is still speaking, but that he sounds rather like Gore Vidal. Contrary to the Rolling Stone debacle, the Christians this time were seen as too progressive for the networks’ target market.
The media has traditionally been first in line to shield free expression rights; it is certainly in its best interest to promote free speech to the utmost limits of the tolerable, in particular a magazine like Rolling Stone that has historically pushed those limits. Obviously the media has a right to reject advertisements its readership will find offensive, but refusing to run an ad for the Bible or a commercial for an inclusive church speaks of a cowardice and hypocrisy that is becoming way too common in today’s media, and is scarcely the sort of quality you want to foster in an independent media. Apparently MTV.com and the satiric newspaper The Onion agree. Both are running the Bible ad.