In Defense of ‘Rolling Stone’: Controversial Magazine Covers Aren’t Something New

Posted July 18, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

With all the rage being tossed at Rolling Stone over their Jafar cover photo, a very sensitive America is also proving to have a bad case of memory loss

What an overly sensitive cry-baby country Modern America has become.

Okay, the knee-jerk reaction to seeing Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the front cover of Rolling Stone forthcoming August  issue was to be expected. This is Jann Wenner‘s bi-monthly baby, one that has turned rock stars into planets. And the country is still grieving and lamenting from this heartbreaking tragedy. Actually they’re still getting over the tragic events of the last twelve months (i.e, Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre, Newtown, CT grade school massacre). But if you thought the edgy liberal-tinted magazine of RS was going to sit in silence on cover a subject that is just as intoxicating as it is disturbing, you were sadly mistaken. And for months they have been digging deep into the pathos of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – the one known simply as Jahar.

In a recent op-ed at Slate, Mark Joseph Stern cited the hypocrisy of the angry public and right-wing media: “Never mind that the picture itself once appeared on the front page of the New York Times; when Rolling Stone uses it, they’re “tasteless,” “trashy,” and “exploitative.”

Of course the condemnation on RS went viral. The anger flooded their Facebook page similar to the Paula Deen booster club that went postal on The Home Depot, Target and Walmart Facebook pages after her money-making distribution deals were canned. In fact, it was almost the same. Comments like “go f**k yourself Rolling Stone” and “I’m canceling my subscription” to the ever-favorite one (“I was going to get a subscription, but I changed my mind”) were so plentiful, you would’ve thought that a hacker had reeked havoc on their servers. Rolling Stone probably knew this was all coming their way, especially since their front pages are usually glued with sex symbols, rock stars, darling favorites and sometimes the troubled ones. But deep inside their printed issues, which most of the complainers have failed to discover, lean towards liberal thought. And even though music lovers may be most interested in David Fricke‘s views on new album releases, the two-page photo spread showcasing the regular singers-gone-bad regimen, those fancy scratch-and-sniff cologne ads or even Peter Travers‘s views on the hit parade of recent motion pictures, there’s actually a large preponderance of stories that are dedicated to social issues, economic crises, politics, civil injustice, gay rights, sports and so much more.

In my defense of Rolling Stone, I wrote that these so-called subscribers who are ticked off by the “controversial” cover must have mistaken RS as being Teen Beat. But in all fairness, RS deserves a bit more grace. This same picture of this curly haired terrorists was used on news programs all across the country. There was no anger used in those instances, but RS is crucified for doing the same thing. Seems overtly hypocritical…or just a very bad and tacky attack coming from the mind of Bill O’Reilly.

Sadly, it seems those who have been living in the Internet age, those whom get their news via an app or through a Twitter feed may have a very bad memory of the cover stories and features done by TIME and Newsweek. Okay, the argument may be made that those publications often focus on world news and the events that surround them; Rolling Stone focuses on celebrity, fame and music. But as previously stated, RS is more than just a mag about music. And the cover story written by Janet Reitman, which many failed to read due to their premature bias, was designed to give the reader insight into the dangerous world of terrorism that’s being nursed on our own soil. The actual cover story title on the front of the issue actually reads: “The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.” Not sure what planet you’re from, but that title in itself doesn’t seem like a complimentary pat on the back.

Sadly, Rolling Stone is now being stoned for doing what they’ve been doing for the last couple of years: smart, unnerving journalism. That’s what Slate called this particular episode. And other journalists are saying the same. USA Today wrote: “Don’t stone ‘Rolling Stone’ over Boston bomber cover. The also defended the Stone. CNN’s The Cycle and part-time music journalist Toure’ also defended the mag by saying that he understood the “journalistic” impulse to “explore the roots of evil.” He went on to add that we should “explore the person who’s still alive whose life went so horribly wrong, and understand — try to understand why that happened.”

Not every one shares in those beliefs. A recent poll conducted by NBC’s Today Show pointed out that 90% of the voters thought the cover went too far. The pharmaceutical chain CVS is even withdrawing their decision to sell the magazine.

But I guess these covers were more appropriate.










Remember the Unabomber? Not as cute as Jafar, but just as deadly and dangerous.











Maybe a look at the Unabomber as a cute kid will change your mind about him.











The OKC bomber Theodore Kaczynski doesn’t look like Dylan or Springsteen. Thankfully, he didn’t record the Gap Band’s “You Drpped a Bomb on Me.” (Okay, ending the sarcasm now.)










Remember Timothy McVeigh? He was the OKC bomber who killed 168 people and injured 600. Ironically, he also served in the Gulf War. Ahh. I’m sure all of this was before your time.










If you don’t know who this guy is, you probably need to catch up on your South Park re-runs.










He’s not a rock star and definitely not a member of Hall & Oates, but he certainly was a “maneater.”










Columbine killers get cover story treatment.










Looks familiar?










As I was explaining earlier to a friend of mine, the 1970 RS cover of Charles Manson looks like a little bit like Jesus. Ironic.











But this is the one cover that draws the most ire.










But yet the NYT gets away with their front paper’s coverage on Jahar? And they even used the same photo.


Haven’t we learned that we should not judge a book by its cover. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best in his “I Have a Dream” speech that we should all aspire to “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Today, the majority of the biased screamers are unfairly judging RS by its skin while also failing to read the content on the very inside.


The editors of Rolling Stone wrote the following statement  in response to the negative feedback from readers (and Facebook followers):

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.” 

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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