Wick Communications

On the cover of the Rolling Stone

In Photography on 25 Jul 2013 at 11:40 am


Wanna see my picture on the cover
Wanna buy five copies for my mother…
Wanna see my smilin’ face
On the cover of the Rollin’ Stone…

— Shel Silverstein

So, are you boycotting Rolling Stone today?

As you may have heard, editors at the great guardian of pop music culture created a stir when they put Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover. Did they ever.

Critics lambasted the magazine because they said the cover gave Tsarnaev rock star status. They said it glamorized terrible, evil actions and was insensitive to the victims, their families, first responders and others. They accused the magazine of “prettying up” a terrorist. Some large chain stores refused to sell the magazine as a result. A recent (and unscientific) poll suggests most Americans found the cover inappropriate. Boston’s mayor and the governor of Massachusetts complained bitterly about it.

There but for the grace of god go you and I, my fellow newspaper people. …

Since when is printing photos of bad guys akin to glamorizing their actions? Newspapers and magazines have published photos of Bin Laden, Hitler and every other stone-cold killer since the beginning of our industry. What makes this particular photo any more egregious in the minds of so many than, for example, the fact that the New York Times printed the exact same photo above the fold shortly after the bombings?

I think the terrific reporter Matt Taibbi made a terrifically eloquent and logical (and understated) defense of the cover. (His story is here … perhaps more telling are the wildly hateful comments that are below it.) He notes that most of the people complaining about the cover aren’t regular readers and don’t understand that the magazine has a storied tradition of newswriting. He points out that most of those appalled by the story haven’t, in fact, read the story. Perhaps they missed the coverlines that went with the story: “How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by his Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.” They simply think of Rolling Stone as an arbiter or popular taste, therefore, if you are on the cover you have been endorsed.

I suspect this caught editors off guard. I doubt they knew they were jumping into a hornet’s nest by printing a photo that had been widely circulated before. Would they have gone another route if they had known? Would you opt not to print a photo if you knew it would be controversial?

Of course, that’s a loaded question. Some photos are needlessly upsetting. Some might glamorize bad guys. There is a good reason why most of us would never run a photo of a bloody body in the road. There are ways to tell that story without the gore. Our training and sense of humanity leads us to that understanding.

The trouble comes when mob rule becomes a kind of prior restraint, when we let threats of boycott and worse have a chilling effect on our journalism. If editors are threatened simply because they assert their First Amendment rights to tell important stories, then the terrorists have surely won.



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