Magazine Cover Ethics: The Cute Terrorist and The Rolling Stone Boycott

tsarnaev-rolling-stone-feature

Is it just my flawed impression, or are Americans increasingly less supportive of free speech, free thought, and artistic expression? If so, that is a worrisome development for our democracy and its culture, and if so, yes, I believe the willingness of our government and its leaders to maneuver around the Bill of Rights in “ends justify the means” conduct has fueled the trend.

Now Rolling Stone is the target. The Sixties magazine icon had the nerve to place Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaevon its latest edition’s cover, looking like a male model, and, we hear, the families of the victims are outraged and their communities prefer their sensibilities over liberty. Jumping on the bandwagon, retailers have decided to make all publications afraid to challenge its readers by announcing that they won’t sell the issue in Boston, and there are hints of an advertiser boycott.

Unfair, un-American, dangerous and silly.

What is Rolling Stone’s supposed offense? Publishing a cover that inflames the raw emotions of the victims of a tragedy is the charge. Once again, the sensitivities of the few are supposed to restrict communications to the many. No. We should not have to censor our speech and expression out of terror that someone, somewhere, will be upset by what we express. The magazine felt it had to justify its editorial decision, but it did not. A profile of a young American terrorist is legitimate journalism, and the fact that he can look like a Tiger Beat heartthrob makes vivid points: monsters don’t always look like monsters, and the Boston bomber could be the boy next door.

Another offense is supposedly the irresponsible message the cover and feature story sends. “If they want to become famous, kill somebody,” Northeastern University criminologist Jack Levin told MyFoxBoston.com. Wow…you have to be a criminologist to detect that fact of life, do you? This isn’t an irresponsible message; this is true; everybody knows it, and has for a long, long time. I don’t recall anyone boycotting Stephen Sondheim musicals or Barbra Streisand for singing his songs in the wake of his show “Assassins,” which was about how, hmmmm, if you want to become famous, kill the President. That’s true too. Time and Life were never boycotted for putting Lee Harvey Oswald on the cover, and everyone in the United States was a victim of his crime.

Rolling Stone has done nothing wrong, but its critics and boycotters are doing something terribly wrong. They are assisting in the slow-motion strangling of freedom of expression, speech and the press.

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Sources: Fox, CBS Boston, Rolling Stone,

73 thoughts on “Magazine Cover Ethics: The Cute Terrorist and The Rolling Stone Boycott

  1. The article is here http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/jahars-world-20130717
    It’s exactly what I expected, which is a story heavy on speculation and light on new information, unless you count various quotes from people who knew the guy way-back-when, quotes that appear to be heavily massaged. If you have a lurid interest in an individual terrorist’s life journey, you’ll be satisfied.

    As the fracas with the Rolling Stone cover was precisely “civilly organized and conducted actions by private citizens using only the assets they lawfully control,” this advances the cause of banning magazines exactly no steps.

    What this has to do with neighborhood watches I can’t imagine.

    • Thanks Gregg, I wasn’t angling to shame anyone for reading the article, just curious despite my decision not to read it.

      I agree with you about not advancing a cause of banning magazines; I see this controversy, involving objections to content of one issue of one magazine, as a case of protest that is being criticized as attempted “censorship” when it is not. While I can agree that boycotts can be tools for bullies, I do not agree that all boycotting is bullying; I believe that in some cases, boycotting can be an ethical response to bullying. I see a difference between protesting content and trying to dictate content. A boycott as a simple protest is not bullying, a boycott intending to dictate, can be. The article is done; it’s out; speech has happened, so it’s too late to dictate, anyway. Protesting the speech is ethical, and counts as just more speech; consequences, real and potential (or imagined), do not make the protesting unethical.

      My comment about neighborhood watches was only connected with the RS article controversy in my stream of consciousness about mob-sourced “justice.” I do not think that individuals who refuse to read an objectionable article and who attempt to dissuade others from reading or proliferating it are necessarily either mob-sourcers or threats to justice.

  2. It may be true that “Rolling Stone” had a constitutional right to put this creature on the cover of their magazine, despite the fact that it amounts to a promotion of the murder of innocents in the process. But there is also the concept that a editorial should act responsibly for the public it allegedly serves. Let them publish their garbage. I don’t have to read it, of course. Neither do any outlets have to buy and carry it. A number didn’t. No accounable one should have. All this magazine did was affirm that they are the purveyors of insanity and cultural atrocity that they’ve always been.

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