Bad Advice for Rolling Stone

Jim-Morrison1 Jim Morrison

Why the heck is Rolling Stone writing a cover story about Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Short answer: to make money.

On its face it's a self-defeating tactic, since their controversial cover, portraying Tsarvaev as a glamorous figure in a shot compared by some to famous pictures of Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, has managed to get the issue boycotted by CVS, Walgreens, and several other major retailers. Somehow I think Rolling Stone will muddle through, though. One of the benefits of doing something massively controversial is that a lot of people will pay attention to you, write about you, and link back to you. (Like this post.)

So instead of talking about the cover story, which is due to get ample attention on its own, I wanted to look at Rolling Stone's defense of it:

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.

This is going to sound like bad advice, but Rolling Stone: no one reads you for "serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day." They read you because they like rock and roll, and they like being cool.

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I don't think Janet Reitman's cover story is a hack piece. In fact, it's very thorough and I found it fascinating. I just think it's an unnecessary piece in a magazine that's supposedly about music.

Art and politics and world affairs overlap. Sometimes a lot. And that's good -- in the first place, it's impossible for art to be viewpoint-neutral, and in the second place I think art can teach us about the world around us and our perception of it and the values we hold within it, in ways that a news story or an op-ed can't. So I understand why a music magazine would occasionally wade into those issues, where they overlap with the music scene.

images (3) Dzhokar Tsarnaev

But the Boston bombings weren't even remotely about rock'n'roll. Even Charles Manson (who was covered in another controversial Rolling Stone cover story, to which this week's story is often compared) had connections to the music scene and pop culture that would make his story a fit for the rock magazine. But Tsarnaev? That seems desperate.

The same image was used on the front page of The New York Times in earlier coverage of Tsarnaev's arrest. Some readers are asking why there isn't more outrage about that. Maybe, in part, it's because when you appear on the front page of The New York Times it's because you're news, but in general when you appear on the cover of Rolling Stone it's because you're cool.

Rolling Stone basically makes the case that Tsarnaev was a pretty cool guy until the tragic confluence of circumstances that led him to start killing people. They're not saying he's cool for killing people. But they are flattering readers, telling them they're cool for caring about current events, which is another reason Rolling Stone did a story on Tsarnaev. Because part of today's rock culture is about earning coolness through how much you know about current affairs and how trendy your opinions on them are.

It's great that people realize how important it is to understand current affairs. I don't want to discourage that. But isn't there a place I can just read about Willie Nelson getting messed up in a tour bus, without also having to form an opinion on Chechnya? Hey, my position as a contributor here at PJ Lifestyle is proof that I'm okay with mixing politics and culture, but PJ Media is also known to all its readers as a source for politics. Even when you come here for culture and arts commentary, chances are you're doing it because you want the PJM perspective on those topics. The politics flows into the "cool" stuff...when appropriate. I also quite happily write politically neutral arts commentary here (and elsewhere) on a regular basis because sometimes I just want to enjoy a movie or a book or a song without it being a statement.

Rolling Stone is the inverse. Rolling Stone is known primarily to its readers as a source for awesome music stories and coolness, but up there in the header of their website between "Music" and "Movies & TV" is "Politics." There, coolness flows into the politics -- politics are determined by what's cool. Current affairs worth paying attention to are determined by what seems coolest. Opinions on right and wrong, justice and crime, are influenced by coolness.

I don't object to the story. I'm wary of the story appearing in Rolling Stone, on the cover. Because that says "pay attention to this because it's cool," instead of "pay attention to this because it's important." And when you're trying to learn about something to be cool, you're probably also trying to learn the cool point of view to express about it, instead of making up your own mind.

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What's Your Opinion? Join the Debate Here: Should Rolling Stone Have Put Boston Bomber on its Cover?