Opinionated editor breaks all the rules Rolling Stone's Will Dana defends magazine's biased appeal

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Author: Aylie Baker

It is not often that one gets the chance to hear one of journalism’s key figures speak on the nature of news media today – let alone ask him his favorite band or whether his movie collection includes the film Almost Famous. This past Thursday, Sept. 21, however, a hoard of students and faculty crowded into room 216 in McCardell Bicenteniall Hall to do just that, and boy did Will Dana deliver.

As managing editor of Rolling Stone magazine, Dana ’85 helps orchestrate one of the world’s most acclaimed and widely-read news sources. Rolling Stone is in all capacities, an “iconic magazine, [one which] defined both a generation and a genre,” said Sue Halpern, author and English scholar in residence, of the magazine in her introduction. But, she continued, while it has always been a haven for music aficionados, what has made the magazine’s legacy so enduring is its “dual personality.” In addition to providing in-depth coverage of the music industry, the magazine also “writes about things that matter,” and while often “political, it is not dogmatic.”

Indeed, in a field in which good reporting is arguably meant to be free of opinion, Rolling Stone has maintained its rebellious edge – brazenly refusing to adhere to classical reporting standards. In continuing to cultivate a rapidly diminishing style of investigative reporting, the magazine has in many ways been a harbinger in spotlighting today’s most pressing global matters. Rather than skirting around controversial issues – take global warming and the war in Iraq for example – the magazine actively seeks them out, said Helpern. As Dana asserted, Rolling Stone is constantly looking to “sound the alarm.”

It is the criticism which the publication has received for such pointed, so called “biased” coverage that Dana chose to address in his lecture. In his talk, “The Myth of Fair and Balanced: A Defense of Biased Reporting,” Dana expounded upon the mania inherent in today’s news. He particularly focused on the blind obedience with which journalists “worship the grail of objectivity.” Some of his literary contemporaries “are so afraid of being crucified [by upper management],” he explained, “that they will play twister to hide their bias.” In deliberately disguising their opinion, their message often becomes more convoluted, giving way to a deep mistrust of the media by the people who are consuming it. “If the New York Times would just present itself as pro-war,” insisted Dana, “that would just be much more honest.”

Amidst a sea of this murky, supposedly more objective journalism, Dana argues that poignancy of opinion is much more honest and forthcoming than classic reporting. “I want to do stuff that’s biased.” For “bias,” maintains Dana, “does not mean unbalanced.” If anything. it sets the bar higher for Rolling Stones’ writers. They have to exercise extreme depth of analysis and reporting in writing their stories. In fact, confided Dana, his all-time favorite stories are those which deliberately framed extremely controversial issues in a manner which was both emotive and unabashedly honest.

Take Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, for example: What began as a two-part expose on the historical and cultural rise of fast food in the United States has since become a best-selling book – Fast Food Nation – and is in the process of being turned into a feature film. Generating the most mail of any article written by the magazine during the 1990s, Schlosser’s initial piece achieved such feats not by remaining neutral, but rather by taking a bold, radical stance. With a subtitle like “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal,” Schlosser knew the piece he was writing would be very alluring but at the same time potentially very volatile. Hence the exhaustive research. This was modern muckraking at its finest – if Rolling Stone was to feature such a controversial topic, its validity was never to be in question. Indeed, with an estimated 8-10 million readers per issue, Dana asserts that by printing pieces like Schlosser’s, the magazine yields considerable power. “We can become the seed pod for great things.”

Thus, while he acknowledged the importance of giving thought to both sides of an issue, ultimately “we’ll write what we believe,” insisted Dana. According to him there is no point in taking a hard stance on an issue which the staff finds morally incongruous – “It’s like when Rod Stewart made a disco record,” he quipped, “It just sounds wrong.”

A 1985 graduate of Middlebury College, Dana began writing with Harper’s right out of college and has soared through the journalism ranks, joining Rolling Stone in 1996. While at Rolling Stone he has since moved from senior editor to managing editor.

Dana’s lecture was presented as part of the “Meet the Press” lecture series which is coordinated by author and English Scholar in Residence Sue Halpern and is sponsored by the Middlebury College English Department and Atwater Commons.

The series, which aims to bring leaders in news media – including “reporters, editors, critics, photojournalists, bloggers and editorialists” – to Middlebury, has been a great success since its inception three and a half years ago. “It’s really a misnomer to call it a lecture series,” remarked Halpern, who explained that the short speech followed by a longer, more interactive discussion is meant to eliminate the “distance between the speaker and the audience.” NPR’s Congressional Correspondent, David Welna, is scheduled to speak in October for the next event in the lecture series.