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Cover War: Rolling Stone's Problem (Updated Again)

By Rich Heldenfels Published: July 17, 2013

Rolling Stone magazine has put accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, prompting outrage that the magazine glamorized a horrrible person and even made him look like Jim Morrison. CVS has said it will not sell the issue.  There is also an online petition about it here.

The magazine has issued a statement which I have posted below, and you can see the magazine's story here.

The problem here is not putting Tsarnaev on a magazine cover. Bad people of all kinds make news, and are so showcased. And the line on the Rolling Stone cover does not suggest an endorsement of Tsarnaev, in fact calling him a monster.Nor is the image itself a problem; any parallel to the Morrison cover is a stretch, and in the history of Rolling Stone many rock stars have had cover presentations that were exceedingly glamorous and provocative, unlike the more straightforward image here.

The problem is that this is Rolling Stone. Yes, it has put bad guys and grim images on the cover before, notably Ralph Steadman's work, including one of Richard Nixon in 1973. But as I scrolled through a bunch of Rolling Stone covers over the years, which you can view online, it was clear once again that a Rolling Stone cover was meant to be an endorsement, with legends like Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and various Beatles shown again and again, not to mention an array of movie and TV stars in key points in their careers. (The Big Three of the original "Beverly Hills 90210" made the cover, for instance, and my cover-browsing also came across Denzel Washington and Winona Ryder.) The cover implied status; it indicated cool -- even if the story with it was less than kindly.

Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show underscored the cover-as-endorsement with its 1973 song "The Cover of 'Rolling Stone' " ("Gonna send five copies to my mother ...") . The Top 10 hit actually got the band on the magazine's cover.

So, while there has been plenty of serious reporting and political commentary in Rolling Stone over the years, the cover was, is, not only an argument for cultural significance but an implicit endorsement of the signifier. So the Tsarnaev cover was a bad idea because of the context in which it placed its subject. And no line of text can balance that.

Rolling Stone's statement: Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.

Malcolm X Abram and I have also discussed the cover in our online video chat for the week. I expect to post that later.

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