The Cancellation of Jann Wenner

Ill-conceived remarks about race and gender in New York Times interview flush away 55-year career

Jann Wenner has now been defenestrated from the last of the many institutions he founded. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame has done the unthinkable in removing Wenner from its board, for the sin of telling David Marchese at the New York Times that he had included only white, male rock stars in his new book of interviews with seven “Masters” because Black and female artists weren’t as “articulate” and not in his “zeitgeist.”

It’s always worth listening to the audio version of different Times stories on its amazing new NYTAudio app. But in this case, particularly so, and not just to hear the heartbreaking moment at 18:45 where a 55-year career of excellence flushes down the toilet. Other key moments merit careful scholarship, as well.

At 12:20, Wenner seems to predict his own cancellation. Marchese is giving Jann a little bit of a hard time—a respectful and deferential hard time, as befits a former Rolling Stone staffer talking to the godlike former boss of the whole enterprise, but a hard time nonetheless. He sees the practice of allowing Mick Jagger and Bono to edit their interviews after the fact as contrary to the principles of journalism.

Wenner says, “I see a stake out there, with piles of shrubs and bushes underneath it; they’re getting ready to do a bonfire and tie someone to the stake.”

That turns out not to be the issue that gets Wenner canceled. It’s the race and gender stuff, as it mostly always is.

I cannot help sympathize a bit with Wenner, who at 77 is crashing from one embarrassing setback to the next as he completes his farewell tour.

This is an old guy who’s lived one of the most impactful and meaningful lives of any American media mogul in history. To head out the door with the ignominy of a Roger Ailes is a shocking setback for a fellow who has essentially begged the public for five decades to see him as a liberal force for good.

At the same time, cancel culture is so out of control, so given to Robespierre like policing of purity, that one can make a case that anyone who supported these cultural tyrants essentially deserves his comeuppance.

Jann Wenner touring an exhibit of photos by Annie Leibovitz at Wexner Center Galleries at Ohio State University, Nov. 9, 2012. (Photo: Kevin Fitzsimons)

Wenner is a fascinating case. He bravely lived his truth and came out of the closet in 1995 after decades of friendship marriage. One can imagine how refreshing it is to be a rich guy finally able to say it as he sees it. But the mob won’t allow him the freedom he thought he’d earned. The sin of being a wealthy white guy is original. You cannot undo it with donations to Clinton and Gore or by supporting legalized marijuana.

This is the culture in which we live. One particularly stupid observation—and let’s be clear, Wenner is just ultra-wrong on the facts here, as women and Black artists have contributed massively to our understanding of rock music—erases 50 years of strict adherence to liberal doctrine.

At 18:33, there’s another sad moment. Marchese is grilling him – again, gently but appropriately — about the fiasco of the false University of Virginia story, in which Rolling Stone ludicrously covered a gang rape that had supposedly occurred in front of a dozen witnesses.

Wenner concedes the hoax and correctly observes that when someone is determined to defraud a news organization, especially about a sensitive topic, it’s hard to defend against it. Yes, Rolling Stone should have been more skeptical, as I detailed in my own reporting at the time, and in my review of Wenner’s autobiography. But he points out that the bigger issue of how campuses treat rape is a worthy journalism subject, even though they had blown the key story at the center of this one.

“We could have been tighter, but I can’t pull out the Hari Kari knife for that.” As Marchese turns the conversation, Wenner interrupts him. “Am I let off the hook for this, David? Am I forgiven?” It’s brutal. He tries to play it off as a joke, but it’s pretty damn clear how much Wenner values his reputation among fellow journalists.

And that’s when the interview takes its career-ruining turn. It’s heartbreaking to hear. The moment Marchese says the book has seven interviews and it’s seven white guys, you know that Wenner is not going to survive intact. He just can’t. Our current society is not set up for nuance, forgiveness, or even penalties other than death. Wenner has got to go.

As Wenner struggles to formulate a response, a helicopter flies so close to his window you could barely hear him. It’s hard not to think back to the Vietnam War when everyone cool throughout the known world regarded Wenner as a hero for his publication’s skepticism toward orthodoxy. That’s no longer a trait we value.

Wenner’s remarks were regrettable. “None of them are articulate enough on an intellectual level.” OMG, what an obnoxious, stupid, and wrong thing to say. I would way rather read a conversation with Patti Smith, Curtis Mayfield, RZA, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, Cher, Debbie Harry, Isaac Hayes, Jay-Z, Jimmy Cliff, Ice Cube, Merry Clayton, any of the Shirelles, Kanye West or even Doris Duke than yet another instance of Billionaire Bruce polishing his workingman bona fides.

But does that erase every bit of good Jann Wenner’s accomplished over an exemplary 50+ year career? Not in my mind. But I’m the last guy anyone is going to let set the rules for this kind of thing.

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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of Sea of Reeds Media. He is the former editor in chief of the New York Observer and also founded Green Magazine and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

7 thoughts on “The Cancellation of Jann Wenner

  • September 17, 2023 at 6:31 pm

    Mr. Kurson,

    I have a flash for you: blacks are always mindful of the inherent male (and female) notion of white intellectual supremacy. You can’t help it. We are never fooled. We survive America ever mindful of that fact.

    Unabashed Jann forgot it’s not cool for other than MAGA folk, to say what you all believe, out loud.

    • September 18, 2023 at 5:28 am

      There has been no “cancellation” of Jann Wenner. “Cancellation,” inasmuch as it actually even exists, is when the public collectively declares someone persona non grata for some perceived transgressions.

      First, Jann Wenner is not a figure enough in the public’s consciousness to be subject to cancellation, certainly not when he is effectively retired.

      Setting that aside, you frame his sin as “being a rich white guy,” which is, of course, absurd. The vast, vast majority of powerful figures in this country are rich white men; someone needs to tell 90% of the government and business world they’ve apparently been “canceled” if that gets you canceled. You, yourself, are a rich white guy, with a few, shall we say, legal hiccups in your past, and you are able to publish an article on a major platform less than a day after this story breaks. It appears, despite your concerns, that rich white guys are doing just fine.

      Nevertheless, despite his sin being described as rich, old, whiteness, you also correctly point out that the issue here is he said some dumb, racist, misogynist things in an interview. He has since apologized (poorly) for those comments, but let’s be honest about it: the core issue here is that that the contributions of anyone other than white men to music has been largely ignored, and that issue is one that has dogged Wenner and his 2 largest institutional relationships, Rolling Stone and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for decades.

      Jann Wenner said dumb, racist, sexist things in an interview. He said those things because he was asked about dumb, sexist, racist things he said in his book. He wrote those things in his book because he believes those things, as evidenced by Rolling Stone being 15 years late in caring about hip hop music, and never giving nearly as much respect to the Black artists who fathered rock and roll as they gave to the white artists that inherited (and/or stole) it.

      Who cares? As Wenner himself points out, had he cared about the perception of him, he could have included those artists in his book for PR appearance purposes. (His absurd belief that there were no worthy artists, as you rightly point out, is absurd on its face. “Oh, darn it, there were a couple smart enough Black guys but they’re dead.”) Does the hall of fame care? Well they certainly care about the perception; if they actually cared about the racism their own history would be vastly different.

      Is it fair? The extent of this “cancellation” appears to be his being kicked from the board of the hall of fame. Should they be disallowed from doing so? Your only argument seems to be that he deserves credit for years of “adherence to liberal orthodoxy,” whatever that means. But to answer the question: no, racism and sexism are not in any way canceled out or excused for believing one’s own political beliefs or making political donations, and certainly not when said politics are still mostly made up of the same rich white men who caused and whined about the problem.

      And to respond to the most bizarre implication in your article: no, his being gay does not matter either.

      In summary, cancellation, generally speaking, is not a real thing, at least not nearly as much as the whining rich white men facing accountability now or worried about facing it in the future would have you believe. However, if they really want to be 100% sure of avoiding the possibility, not being racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise a piece of crap is always an option on the table.

      • September 18, 2023 at 7:15 am

        Jason, when reading this tirade, it is far from clear that you have picked up a copy of the magazine you attack so viciously in this post at some point in the last few decades. Far from “never giving nearly as much respect to the Black artists who fathered rock and roll as they gave to the white artists,” Rolling Stone gave most of the top slots in its “200 Best Singers of All Time” to musicians of color, and the two greatest of all time, in this list, as Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. Sam Cooke, Billy Holliday, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, and Al Green also make the top 10, way ahead of those white artists who, according to your incoherent rant, are shown favoritism by Rolling Stone and the industry in general.

        But who cares about facts anymore when you have a politically correct ax to grind. No one will call you out for such scurrilous and ignorant comments.

  • September 18, 2023 at 2:24 am

    The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was not canceling Jann Wenner. Wenner was fired for cause.

    I guarantee that one of the R&RHOF’s goals is to remain relevant, no easy feat with a genre who’s heyday is long past. Wenner’s throwback comment deeply undercut that stance. Implicit discrimination by a board member is a dagger in the heart of that enterprise.

    Wenner was too clear about his thinking to remain.

  • September 18, 2023 at 9:22 am

    I’m Jann Wenner’s age and read Rolling Stone in real time in the 60’s and 70’s. I knew then he wasn’t giving Janis Joplin or Joni Mitchell a fair shake while idolizing Clapton ant the whole white guy rocker genre( which I liked too). I also loved the soul music of the time.

    Now we know why – despite his enormous talent as a publisher and journalistic visionary – he was always another white guy who thought his personal taste was superior – and he liked guys like him.

    Not crying tears for him overmuch. He hurt young artists he could have helped because of his prejudices. That is the real story – not just that a damned good interviewer got him to say the quiet part out loud.

  • September 19, 2023 at 7:24 am

    There are two separate issue here.

    The first one is the simple fact that Jann Wenner, unfortunantly, does not rate female and black artists that highly at all. That may be purely a generational thing. He came up at a time when to many, it seemed fine to like who you liked and if they were all male and white, then so be it. It simply wasn’t questioned to the degree that it is now. And when pressed, Wenner could not clearly or coherently articulate an answer to a question that he (doing an interview to promote a boomer rock and roll book, not an interview to argue the validity of the merits for a run for political office) was not prepared and perhaps not capable of giving any answer other than a stupid one.

    The second issue is that he was clearly set up. Marchese knew that when asked the question regarding female or Black artists, Wenner would stumble and fail. In fact, I would bet that when Wenner was writing his book, he was simply thinking about making a book about his heroes and raking in some cash from it. He was not thinking about inclusivity and “centering marginalized voices”. If Wenner really feels that female or black artists are inferior, I am sure that this was well known in the music industry and that it was known to Marchese as well. And so Marchese here, went for the low hanging fruit, and sure enough, plucked it from the tree with ease.

    Well, as for Wenner, well, another boomer bites the dust. If you’re a boomer (or gen exer, cause, lets face it, the twitter mob thinks you’re a boomer too) watch your back. Keep your doors closed, your email off, and your mouth shut, cause they are coming for you.


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