Rethinking Rolling Stone’s Boston Bomber Cover and the Way We Discuss Ideas in America

Rolling Stone Cover on My Desk

My copy of the now infamous Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Rolling Stone cover photo has been on my desk for a week.  Living in Maine, it got to me days after it initially hit news stands, so by the time I pulled it from my mailbox, this country was in a full throttle yelling match over the ethics of placing this nineteen-year-old terrorist on the cover.

Facebook was riddled with riotous posts damning the music magazine.

Twitter was hashtagged to its binary gills with anti-Rolling Stone Tweets.

I even engaged in this discussion, having not read the article or actually held a copy of the magazine in my own hands.

Here’s a comment I wrote supporting a friend who posted a scathing assessment of the Rolling Stone cover: “Yeah, the Rolling Stone cover makes this guy look like an iconic rock star.”

Here I was engaging in a public discussion forum without having directly engaged with the copy of the magazine.  Most people I spoke with who were angry — I mean, really, really angry — also hadn’t read the article.

After a day of social media uproar and madness, I began to wonder if the way we were discussing this cover was truly American.  I mean, I didn’t read one post where someone directly quoted the article.  Nor did any of the caustic remarks dig far under the surface of the topic.

140 character comments can be dangerously sexy and titillating.  Facebook posts can be pithy, whittled, and pointed.  But rarely have I seen these forums inspire authentic discussions.

Instead of broadening the discussion on issues, the internet and specialized news organizations hinder discussion.

Rolling Stone CoverBy the time my copy of the Rolling Stone cover landed on my desk, I felt like I needed a shower to wash off the flimsy, thin discussions I’d engaged with.  I felt intellectually dirty.

During the three or four days this country was fully engaged in damning Rolling Stone magazine and anyone who might say the cover wasn’t a mistake, a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America kept floating through my head: “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”

He wrote this in 1835, and in a lot of ways, it’s applicable to the United States of 2013.

If you read the article, you know that Rolling Stone in no way glamorizes Dzhokhar.  There’s a quote from the nineteen-year-old’s wrestling coach that sums up the article for me: “I knew this kid, and he was a pretty good kid.  And, apparently, he was a monster.”

The article is a profile piece examining how this kid had fooled so many people who were close to him.  After reading the article, the cover is frightening and powerful and appropriate.  He doesn’t look like a young Dylan or Jim Morrison.  He looks like bin Laden or Timothy McVeigh.

For me, saying the cover was a mistake without reading the article or fully engaging with the edition of the magazine is fantastically sloppy thinking.  If you still think it’s a mistake after reading the article, then godspeed.  What I yearn for — what this country should yearn for — is the full discussion of ideas in an informed manner.

Isn’t that the most American thing we can do?

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  1. Well said Dave. I have been wrestling with the same thought myself. Do we demonize every magazine that puts Osama bin Laden on the cover?

  2. Thanks for this piece, Dave. I heard an interesting comment on the radio: most of us forget that Rolling Stone isn’t just about music, Playboy isn’t just about smut and so on. In some ways, they’re like Harper’s in a black leather jacket. People who bother to disagree with fashionable, misinformed thought are just as important as the initiating article. Kudos.

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