A couple of weeks ago I was doing my thing on Twitter when I stumbled upon Ron Tannenbaum’s amazing, in-depth destruction of Donald Trump’s bullshit foundation. It was absolutely brilliant journalism dialed down to 140-character increments, and it’s an exhibition of why Rob has long been one of the best around.
Unfortunately, Rob is also one of the best around … who was allegedly fired from Rolling Stone for mocking a member of Maroon 5. Which is weird and quirky and funky, but adds to this amazing Quaz.
One can follow Rob on Twitter here, and read his stuff, well, everywhere.
Rob Tannenbaum, you are the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Rob, you recently had an absolutely riveting Twitter stream, where you went into great detail on Donald Trump’s (and, really, the Trump Foundation’s) “charitable” donations—and the apparent bullshit behind them. You’re not a political reporter, and you’re not a financial expert. So what inspired this—and what shocked you?
ROB TANNENBAUM: I know at least a little bit about how foundations work, because I’m on the board of one, and I’d read a huge amount of innuendo about the Clinton Foundation, most of it about conflicts which, to be honest, seemed unavoidable to me for a wealthy and famous person running a massive charitable foundation. I’d filed a story in the middle of the afternoon, and I had a few hours until my four year old son came back from a playdate, so when I saw yet another tweet about Hillary, I started to wonder about the Trump Foundation, which had, to that point, been ignored by journalists.
Every foundation has to file an annual 990-PF — it’s like a tax return, and it lists all contributions for the year, plus income and assets, among other things. The first thing that shocked me was the size: the Trump Foundation has assets of about $1.3 million, which is no bigger than the foundation where I work. For a self-professed billionaire, that’s a tiny and ungenerous foundation. (By comparison, the Clinton Foundation recently had assets of about $247 million.)
As I looked through Trump Foundation’s 990s, I started live-tweeting it, more or less. I had no idea how much dubious behavior I’d quickly find. I won’t recreate the whole tweetstorm (the first one is here, if anyone wants to see it), or fully A/B the Clinton and Trump foundations, but no one who examines both and has an open mind could ever think they’re comparable; the Clintons run a genuine foundation, and Trump runs a foundation that mainly benefits himself and a few cronies.
David Farenthold at the Washington Post has been investigating the Trump Foundation, and he’s outlined its illegal activities, which I won’t duplicate. But from my perspective as a foundation director (and as a human being), what Trump does with his foundation is vile, and contradicts the essence of charity. Most foundations use their wealth to help the needy. The Trump foundation uses other people’s money to help the wealthy. A man who steals from a charity would steal from anyone.
J.P.: You seem genuinely frustrated with the way the media is covering Donald Trump thus far. Why? And what should the press be doing differently?
R.T.: Someone will write a fascinating and depressing book about how the media covered this election. But here are a few key factors.
Hillary Clinton has been in the public eye since 1978, when her husband was elected governor of Arkansas. She’s the most investigated politician in U.S. history, and she’s repeatedly been exonerated. Trump, on the other hand, has been taken seriously by reporters only in the last few months. He’s been famous for a long time, but the media thought he was an amusing and harmless buffoon (despite evidence to the contrary — most notably, his public demand that New York impose the death penalty on five black and Hispanic teenagers who’d been accused, falsely, it turned out), of raping a white female investment banker). When Trump declared he was running for president in the summer of 2015, reporters didn’t think he’d get very far, so they didn’t vet his history and ideas the way they vetted Cruz or Romney. In the last few weeks, that’s changed, and a few newspapers have even adjusted their coverage by using the word “lie” to describe Trump’s claims, rather than neutral and dishonest euphemisms like “equivocation.”
The Right Wing has been yelling MEDIA BIAS for years, which makes journalists reluctant to write or say anything that might seem biased. They’ve successfully cowed much of the media, and both dictated and limited the scope of coverage — meanwhile, Fox News, the most flagrantly biased of any media, operates under the cloak of “balanced and fair.” The Right Wing is masterful at disinformation campaigns like this, creating a fog about ideas like “bias” or even “racism.” (Shout out to the “you’re the real racist” tweeters and commenters, who equated “racism” with “talking about race.” Yeah, no, actually, you’re the real racists. You don’t get to change the meaning of “racism.”) Also, Peter Thiel contributed to a chilling of aggressive coverage when he sued Gawker and caused it to shut down. In addition, most editors are cautious people who fear controversy and corrections (and, these days, being fired), so they insist that reporters work while handcuffed — they have to moderate or dilute their knowledge and observations. I like Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, but her tweets have so much more punch than the pieces she files for the New York Times.
There’s a lot more, but it only gets more depressing. I need a nap and a few butter cookies.
J.P.: You Tweeted something that cracked me up: “A few years ago, I pissed off One Direction fans. They were more reasonable and had better spelling than Trump fans.” A. Why did you piss off 1D fans? And what sort of shit have you been getting from the idiots?
R.T.: I pissed off One Direction fans because I gave them a lukewarm review in Rolling Stone. A few of them tracked me down on Twitter — I give them credit; it showed initiative — and told me I was “jelly.” Which, shit, I am! Those dudes are handsome, rich, and getting laid like mad. I’m a journalist.
Trump supporters never actually address the issue I’ve raised — and to be fair, foundation law is an arcane topic most people aren’t able to discuss — so there’s lots of stuff about Benghazi, or the Clinton Foundation, or they call her Killary. A few times, I’ve been called a fag, which is one of the few words they can spell correctly. I’d like to settle the 2016 presidential race by holding a spelling bee between Clinton supporters and Trump supporters. Winners get the White House. Losers have to repeat sixth grade.
J.P.: I have a theory. It’s not original, but it’s sorta divisive. Namely, the coverage of this election has sucked because the majority of experienced political journalists have been laid off and replaced by 22-year-olds afraid to ask real questions and ignorant of the tricks of the reporting trade. Thoughts?
R.T.: This was originally part of my answer to your second question. As you know, Jeff, the media is in severe financial distress, and Trump has benefited from that, too. Newsrooms has been gutted, via ongoing waves of staff reductions. Often, the first people fired are middle-aged reporters, who by virtue of their experience, know how to report and doggedly investigate something. Increasingly, publications are turning to 26 year old reporters, who are cheaper to hire. Nothing against 26 year old reporters — I was one once — but they’re not as experienced or savvy, and because they’re often asked to write six blog posts a day, they don’t have the time to thoroughly investigate Trump’s finances.
Like most large institutions, newspapers and magazines move slowly, especially when it’s time to adapt, and I worry that these adjustments have come too late. The press should have been calling out Trump’s lies, dishonesty, and conflicts of interest since he declared for president.
J.P.: You’re the author of, “I Want My MTV,” a highly regarded book about the music video revolution of the 1980s. And I wonder—was the music video a good thing for music, or the beginning of the end? What I mean is, did it bring forth such an emphasis on appearance and mojo that lyrics, content, skill no longer matter so much?
R.T.: You mean, did music videos ruin the golden age of rock n’ roll, the eras of the Monkees and Herman’s Hermits, Tony Orlando and REO Speedwagon?
I know, I know: that was snarky. I hate the bromide that the ‘60s was rock’s unparalleled golden age, and the ‘80s was disco and pop trash. Without rehashing the case against rockism, it’s a stupid theory.
Since rock n’ roll began, lyrics, content, and skill have been optional. That’s true in every decade. And it’s a myth that MTV boosted the popularity only of suave dudes and foxy babes. Phil Collins, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, Heart — none of them fit the mold of sexualized rock stars. On top of which, I’m pro-sexualization. The MTV-liked-only-sexy-stars argument, in addition to being incorrect, always seemed prudish to me.
For me, it’s never been either/or. I love Madonna, and I love Jimi Hendrix. Hell, I love Britney Spears, and I love La Monte Young. And you know who else made music videos? The Beatles. Made quite a few of them, and also posed for thousands of photos, as did Bob Dylan.
J.P.: You Tweeted a bit about Donald Trump’s appearance on Jimmy Fallon, but I’d like to get your take on this. There are many who say, “He’s an entertainer, not a political reporter.” And others who say, “You just gleefully rubbed the head of a racist xenophobic fascist.” What says you? Do entertainers/comedians have a responsibility?
I’m not the first person to say that ever since 2000 — when Jon Stewart and the Daily Show began to focus witheringly on the election recount — comedians have supplanted reporters as effective political commentators. Maybe discussions of complex political and economic issues land harder when they’re disguised as satire; either way, Samantha Bee will have more of an effect on the election than Ross Douthat.
But it’s also clear that comedians have been political since long before 2000. I don’t mean the obvious antecedents — Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, George Carlin — but also Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny, my man Mel Brooks, and Charlie Chaplin, who was doing Jon Stewart almost 100 years ago when he portrayed a World War I grunt in Shoulder Arms.
Journalists like to say they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Comedians like to say they speak truth to power. Both are very similar ideas. When presented the chance, Fallon comforted the comfortable. I was disappointed. For what it’s worth, Stephen Colbert sided with Fallon.
J.P.: You were a Rolling Stone staffer. You are no longer a Rolling Stone staffer. What happened?
R.T.: Short version: Jann Wenner fired me. About two years ago, I did a Q&A with Adam Levine, in which I asked him to apologize for “Moves Like Jagger.” (He did.) I’d been warned that Levine is “a guy Jann cares about,” and was told I should ask him some serious questions about his music and his acting career. I guess I didn’t; after Jann read the interview, he complained to my editors that he “didn’t learn anything” from it. So they fired me, six months into a one-year contract they offered because — wait for it! — they loved my Q&As.
There’s a longer version of it, but even my wife won’t sit still for the whole thing.
J.P.: What’s your journalistic path? As in, how did this happen? Why? When did you first get the bug?
R.T.: I don’t recommend my path to anyone. I didn’t take journalism classes. I didn’t write for a school paper. I didn’t get a job as an intern and then work my way up. I never wanted to be a writer. Some days, I still don’t.
I majored in English and wanted to waste some time before I inevitably went to law school, so I put my facility in writing term papers to good use, and wrote articles for the (now-defunct) Providence Eagle, at $20 an article — until they stopped paying me, and I had to take them to small claims court. That was a valuable early lesson in maintaining a lawyer’s diligence even if you have a career in the arts.
From there, I wrote for the Eagle’s crosstown competitor, the NewPaper, for $25 an article. A 25 percent raise! Then a few regional New England publications, then Musician magazine, and I started writing for Rolling Stone when I was 23. It worked out pretty well, for an accident.
The only part of the story I think applies to other people is that I started my career in Providence, where the rent was low. If I’d moved to Manhattan, I’d have worked as an assistant somewhere, and would’ve had a long tutelage before I had much of a chance to write. Low overhead is an ideal way to begin a career in the arts, and that might be impossible now if you begin your career in New York or Los Angeles.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
R.T.: I’m lousy at best and worst questions — best album, worst interview, favorite live band, worst breakfast cereal — probably because I have a patchy memory and am indecisive as well.
Early in my career, I interviewed John Cage and Brian Eno together, in the same room. They’d never met before, and they never met again. I pitched the idea, an editor said yes, and to my shock, Cage and I were traveling in the same week to London, where Eno lived. It was probably a one in 500 shot, in terms of scheduling. I’ve had a lot of other great experiences, been sent to great places, and talked to great people, but simultaneously interviewing two musicians I revere was uniquely great.
I also have a sideline in comedy ghostwriting. Most of my work is anonymous, which means I can’t take credit for it, but I did contribute enough to John Leguizamo’s one-man Broadway show “Sexaholix” that he gave me a small credit <https://smdb.me/m203486>. It was nominated for a Tony, and lost, but shit — it was nominated for a Tony! I helped do that!
The lowest moment, hmm. “Answering this survey” would be the obvious answer, but it’s a cheap joke. Unless you laughed.
In March 2009, Blender magazine folded — that hurt, and still does, to be honest. I’d worked there since 2002, just after it started, and it quickly caused waves by being funny, fearless, and comprehensive, which other music magazines weren’t. Advertising Age named it “Launch of the Year,” and in 2005, the Chicago Tribune named us the best magazine in America. Not the best music magazine, but the best magazine — i.e., better than the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, Gourmet, Texas Monthly, etc. Blender was characterized as dumb by people who were themselves not very smart, but smart people understood what we were doing, including Bob Christgau, who in his 2009 eulogy for the magazine called it “bright and original,” as well as “intelligent and irreverent and lots of laughs.” (He also noted that the reviews section I ran “was vastly more sharp and varied” than the ones at the competing magazines. If I were more humble, I wouldn’t mention this.)
Blender was a great magazine brought down by the financial crisis, which is the worst possible way to lose.
J.P.: I feel like every journalist has a money story; something truly insane that happened in the course of a career. Rob, what’s your money story?
R.T.: No exaggeration: I’ve been thinking about this for five days and don’t have an answer. (Update: seven days.) (Still later: eleven days.)
I know I have stories I’ve dined out on — like when Jay Z insisted we go to a Nets game in his Bentley before our interview, and we made a bet he eventually lost, then sent me $1,000 cash in a Def Jam envelope to pay off — but I think they’re more oral stories than written stories. So let’s go with this, which is pertinent because of the recent New York Times reporting on Donald Trump’s avowed “locker-room talk.”
When I was in my 20s, I freelanced for the New York Post. In my defense, I was broke and the Post was not yet fully a propaganda bugle for the worst impulses of the right wing. One of my assignments was to review a Joan Jett concert, which I did. In the course of the show, she played a bunch of covers, one of which was the Rolling Stones’ “Starfucker.”
Writing the review, I was puzzled about how to proceed: I didn’t know the Post’s copy policy on FUCK. At some publications, they allow f___ or f*** or f@#$, and at others, you can’t even hint at it. The Post had never sent me a style sheet, so I decided I’d write out “Starfucker” and let their copy department apply the house policy.
The next day, I picked up a copy of the Post, read my review, and there it was, an F-word, printed in full. Wow, I thought to myself, the Post prints the word fuck. How progressive of them!
But they don’t, as I quickly learned when my assignment editor called. “You are in big trouble,” she said. I explained why I’d used the word, and asked her why no one had changed it prior to publication. “We’re looking into that,” she said.
A while later, she called back and told me I was no longer in trouble. When they looked into it, they discovered that after I filed the review, no one — no editor, no copy editor, probably not even an intern — had read it. They’d printed it exactly as I wrote it, without so much as looking at it.
That’s the story of how I became, I think but don’t know for sure, the first writer to get the word fuck into a daily newspaper. The Post later fired me, but it was for something else entirely.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ROB TANNENBAUM:
• Rob, I’m sitting at a coffee shop and this guy at another table is yelling to his friends, and he won’t shut the fuck up. Can I throw large objects at his skull?: Sure, but lace your shoes first.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Daryl Hall, John Oates, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Anne Lennox, Dave Stewart, Matthew Nelson, Gunnar Nelson, Huey Lewis, The News, Fernando Valenzuela, Steve Yeager, chocolate chip muffins: Oddly, you’ve placed them in the exact order I’d have chosen.
• One question you would ask Shannon Hoon were he here right now?: Why are you in my apartment and why aren’t you wearing pants?
• Who would make a better president, Donald Trump or Sarah Palin?: In that scenario, I think I’d dissolve the government and take my chances with anarchy.
• Three memories from your first kiss: 1) We were on a date at a carnival in the parking lot of the high school I’d just begun attending. 2) She wanted to take a walk in the woods, and I didn’t understand why. 3) Her parents sent her to boarding school soon after that.
• You wrote for Blender—which no longer exists. Five adjectives to describe the magazine: Dead dead dead dead defunct.
• What’s something you absolutely suck at?: Writing, if you ask Jann Wenner.
• I think it’s obnoxious bullshit that Toure guys by one name. Tell me why I’m right or wrong: I discussed this with Bjork, Christo, Basia, Adele, Enya, Sia, Reba, Pelé, and Morrissey, and they’re okay with it. Sting disagreed.
• My daughter wants Snapchat. She’s 13, and we’ve refused. Should we give in?: Yes. And tell me her screen name.
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Peter Gabriel? How long does it go?: It ends in about 20 seconds. Peter uses his sledgehammer.