Let’s Talk About This Rolling Stone Cover

The country has dealt with its share of sensitive issues this week that are far more complicated than Rolling Stone‘s controversial decision to put Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover looking all kinds of rock-star dreamy. But while I can’t begin to parse all the implications of the George Zimmerman acquittal over the weekend — though yes, on the whole, I suppose it’s good we’re having a national discussion about race, however uncomfortable — I do know a bit about journalism, magazine sales, and pop culture. My first instinct in this, and almost any, case is to defend the magazine’s journalistic right to cover important issues and put them front and center, but I have to say there were better options here.

Rolling Stone is crazy if it wants us to believe it doesn’t know its own history. Remember that great scene in Almost Famous when the band finds out they’re going to be on the cover, and they break out into a spontaneous version of Dr. Hook’s song “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”?

Of course the magazine reserves the right to put news on its cover — serious news coverage is also a part of its storied history, and a part that should make Rolling Stone proud. I love that they’ve never given that up — some young folks do still read the Rolling Stone, and giving them political analysis and intense reporting alongside the Justin Bieber interviews and reviews of Imagine Dragons elevates the whole enterprise. Matt Taibbi, in particular, is brilliant at what he does, and he should continue to do it as long as possible. (He’s written many of the magazine’s political analyses, though he didn’t write the Tsarnaev story.) I salute any publication pursuing serious reporting these days, and the Tsarnaev story lives up to that. Should it be on the cover? Sure, why not, and how else but with a photo of the man in question.

That was the Rolling Stone spin on it, of course. The magazine released a statement: “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 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.”

Totally legit. One wonders, however, whether there were minor adjustments the magazine could have made to the cover design to bow to sensitivity. Rolling Stone, as noted above, is different from Time, for instance, and its impact is different when it pictures a suspected terrorist on its cover. I have some simple ideas: One would be to use Tsarnev’s mug shot, rather than a casual shot that makes him look like he’s posing for his Rolling Stone cover, given that he is a rather striking young man. This really does look tailor-made to post on the walls of those girls we’ve heard have formed a little Tsarnev crush-cult. Maybe some cover language could have at least helped: a hint in the headline at the fact that he does have a kind-of Jim Morrison mystique would have at least shown some self-awareness (though I doubt that alone would assuage bombing victims, it would provide a sort of explanation). I also wonder about the possibility of some graphic treatment like Time magazine’s famous X over Osama Bin Laden’s face. I don’t know what that graphic treatment would be, but that’s another option.

Several retailers, including CVS and Kmart, have banned sales of the issue over the controversy. That, I think, is a shame, since the story itself is a great work of journalism that deserves to be read.

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